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The Little Five

You are here: Wildlife Details The Little Five

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Posted by  Simba Tuesday, 25 July 2006 13:22

The Little Five

The Little Five

Information kindly provided by

Behind the stones, hidden in the grass, and high on an Acacia branch live the Serengeti's Little Five. They may not be the charismatic mega-fauna that the Big Five are, but for the connoisseur of wildlife or the connoisseur who wants an alternative safari, the ant lion and the RHINO beetle are a fascinating alternative, as well as ELEPHANT shrew and BUFFALO weaver or the LEOPARD tortoise.


The grazers are lined up and plodding slowly on, migrating back toward higher food and pleasant pastures. One of the masses, distracted for just a moment, steps into a sloping hole. The animal pushes back, trying to regain its footing, but the slope gives way under its weight. It holds on with another leg and pushes again, succeeding only in sliding now into the conical hole beside it. It raises its head in alarm and tries to walk out of the hole, the sand slipping and sliding all around it. Suddenly, behind it at the bottom two long hairy legs protrude. The hapless animal now runs forward up the slope and is covered by a violent shower of sand landing on and in front of it. It is running for all it is worth, legs pumping, and the creature behind it scooping up great clouds of sand and throwing them up the slope so that they slide down on top of the victim. As the grazer reaches the bottom of the slippery slope, the pace of things picks up; legs are pumping up and down, frantically trying to escape, while the sand becomes a fountain of earth directed up the slope.

It is at the bottom, running with everything it has, when a hooked, hairy arm reaches out, grabs it and drags it flailing into the bottom of the hole. The ant sinks below the sand and the struggle is over.

I have been lying on my stomach in a sandy corner of a dirt road in the dawn hours finding out just how the ant lion catches its six-legged prey. Ant lions are specialized insects that dig a conical hole about an inch and a half across into sandy soil and then hide in the sand at the bottom. By blowing on the sand, the ant lion is exposed. The ant lion stage of this insect's life is actually a larvae that looks a bit like a beetle, but with large mandibles and a small head. The adult that will later emerge is a flying insect that looks like small dragonfly.

When unsuspecting ants stumble into the sandy cone, or are dropped in by me, they run and slide on the sandy cone's sides. The ant lion feels the vibrations of the running prey and emerges to throw sand above and in front of the ant. As the sand slides down the slope, so does the ant, eventually to be grabbed and dragged inside the lair of the fearsome "Simba of the Sand".

Rhino or Dung Beetle

Across the Serengeti travels a curious animal. Standing on its head and rolling a ball behind it, the dung beetle is working hard for its children and the ecology of Serengeti. Beetles are the most diverse and successful group of animals on the planet, with over 400,000 known species. They occupy a myriad of niches, including herbivores, carnivores, parasites, and detritivores like dung beetles. Dung beetles are one of the most important animals in the Serengeti, because of their particular love of dung. There are millions of animals in the Serengeti, each one eating, each one running about and all of them producing dung. Without dung beetles, the Serengeti would quickly become unlivable.

Adult dung beetles spend their days buzzing about in the Serengeti following grazing animals and looking for nice fresh dung. When they see some, they land and burrow into it, building a ball of dung and soil. The beetle then turns, stands on its head, and rolls the ball away using its back legs. After traveling a distance from a meter to a hundred meters, the beetle finds a suitable patch of soil, digs a tunnel, rolls the dung ball down and lays an egg on the dung. Then the adult emerges, fills in the hole and flies away to repeat the cycle. These amazing creatures roll away up to 75 percent of the dung dropped in Serengeti. When soil researchers dug pits on the Serengeti plains, they found 15-20% of the soil was made up of buried dung balls. The huge amounts of dung and soil moved by these creatures serves to fertilize the soil, loosen the soil, and open up areas on the surface for grass to grow.

Some dung beetles are generalists, while some others are specialists on different types of dung. Thus, there are wildebeest dung beetles, elephant dung beetles, and some that will use any type of dung. Not much is known about the dung beetles in Serengeti other than measurements of their dung-removal. One person who did research on them found over a hundred species in a single morning of collecting. You can tell a beetle from other insects because of its "Elytra", which are a specialized front pair of wings. These wings are hard and are folded back over the body as protection for the body and the flying wings underneath.

Elephant Shrew and Buffalo Weaver

Elephant Shrew

They may have the same name, but the African elephant and the elephant shrew could not be more different. The elephant is huge, weighing up to 6000 kg and lives for 50-60 years. The elephant shrew lives for only one year and weighs only 50g. This group of shrews has an extended pointed face, ending in a long, flexible nose; giving them their name. Elephant shrews, unlike rats and mice do not dig burrows. They, instead, clear tracks or raceways in the riverine or thicket floor litter, with well hidden observation points at the ends. Like many shrews, they eat insects, and depending on the species will find them on the top of fallen leaves and grass, or by flipping over leaves to find what is underneath.

Elephant shrews find their food during the day and are vulnerable to birds of prey and snakes as a result. To protect themselves, elephant shrews maintain a small territory which they defend from all other shrews of the same sex, and they learn that territory very well. When threatened, they will bounce very quickly on their back legs along one of their pathways and into a hidden safe spot. Unlike rats, elephant shrews do not produce many babies. Average gestation for their litters is two months, followed by only a single month until the offspring is fully adult and able to breed itself. The average female will have only two, sometimes three litters in her single, fast paced year of life.

Buffalo Weaver

The male buffalo weaver, like the full-sized Cape Buffalo, can be very particular about its personal space. Among the bushes and the long grass, keep an active ear open for their warning call of "skwieeeeeeeer". The white-headed buffalo weaver males call alone from tree tops, at their circular grassy nests or while out and about looking for insects.

Both sexes of this bird have a white head and chest, orange leading-edges on their wings and their rump, white wing flashes, all on a black-background bird. They often nest in colonies, sometimes for several years, so the old and new grass nests make the tree look old and decrepit with age. The most common place to see this bird is as a flash flying up from dense grass to a tree above. Despite its interesting name, buffalo weavers have nothing to do with full-sized buffalo.

Leopard Tortoise

We have been sitting, legs dangling from the open door of our Landrover for about an hour, watching a spectacular leopard chase. The action has been unbelievable, the speeds unheard of, the combatants now exhausted. Before us is the mating chase of two leopard tortoises. The male, about half the size of the female and looking a bit tired is lying in the sunlight and warming up. The female is about a meter ahead and is munching on some yellow flowers.

Leopard tortoises are a common site in Serengeti crossing roads and feeding on bits of green vegetation. They are characteristically highly domed and tan in color with distinctive leopard-like spots.

If the male can catch this female and manage to hold on as she charges away through the bushes, they will mate and she will gestate for a few weeks. She will then dig a hole about a foot across, deposit 6-15 eggs, and cover the hole with soil. Breeding goes on all year, with a peak in the rainy season, and a brood of eggs buried about once a month. After 10-15 months of incubation, the young tortoises will emerge and go immediately into hiding. Only after 3-5 years when they are large enough to escape being crushed by lions and hyenas, the young tortoises will come out into the open.

Leopard tortoises eat green grass and herbs, and will occasionally chew on bones or hyena feces to get calcium for their shells. With their strong defenses, they have almost no predators other than humans and bush fires. These tortoises can live up to 75 years in captivity and can reach 30 inches in length or more in Serengeti National Park.

If you see a leopard tortoise on the road, stop and help it across. Tortoises are killed each year by inattentive drivers. If you pick one up, notice the ticks holding on to the edges of the plates that match the leopard-print exactly. You can tell if your tortoise is a boy or a girl by looking at the belly. If it is flat, then it is a female. If it is cupped, then it is a male; because boys and girls have to meet each other somehow.


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