Feb 11

In the past few weeks, we’ve looked at Africa’s Top Ten Iconic Animals, as well as its ‘Big Five and Little Five’. But what about some of the continent’s equally fascinating but slightly less famous inhabitants?

Here at ARKive we thought it was time to give some more enigmatic African animals a chance at stardom. Join us as we explore some of Africa’s weird and wonderful lesser-known creatures!

Potto

Photo of potto

The potto is an unusual nocturnal primate found across the tropical forest belt of western, central and eastern Africa. This thick-furred, tree-dwelling species climbs with slow, deliberate movements, aided by its powerful grasp and highly mobile wrist and ankle joints. The potto has a bony ‘shield’ on the back of its neck which is covered in a layer of thick fur and highly sensitive skin. Although the exact function of this shield is debated, it may provide protection against predators or play a role in social behaviour.

Bongo

Photo of juvenile female eastern bongo

A particularly striking mammal, the bongo is the largest and most colourful of all African forest antelope. Its rich chestnut-red coat and conspicuous white stripes make the bongo instantly recognisable, and its long, spiralling horns can reach up to about a metre in length. A shy and reclusive forest species, the bongo is found from West Africa to the Central African Republic and Sudan, and also has a small, isolated population in Kenya.

Secretarybird

Photo of secretarybird

A large and distinctive bird of prey, the secretarybird spends much of its time stalking across open ground on foot, earning it the title of ‘Africa’s marching eagle’. When it finds prey, it typically crushes it underfoot or repeatedly kicks it with its long, powerful legs before swallowing it whole. The secretarybird supposedly gets its name from its resemblance to an old-fashioned secretary, as its long, black crest resembles quill pens tucked behind the ears. Alternatively, its name may come from a French corruption of Arabic words meaning ‘hunter-bird’.

Goliath frog

Photo of goliath frog in habitat

As its name suggests, the goliath frog is the largest frog in the world, reaching lengths of 32 centimetres and weights of over 3 kilograms. Unlike most other frogs and toads, the goliath frog does not have a vocal sac and therefore does not use calls to attract a mate. This species inhabits fast-flowing rainforest rivers and cascades in Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon, where it is sadly under threat from deforestation, hunting for food and collection for the pet trade.

Ground pangolin

Photo of ground pangolin walking

The bizarre-looking ground pangolin belongs to an unusual group of armour-plated mammals which have a protective layer of overlapping scales covering the upper surface of the head, body and tail. When threatened, the ground pangolin may roll into a ball, protecting its more vulnerable underside and belly. Pangolins have strong claws for digging and for tearing apart ant and termite nests, and a long tongue for lapping up their prey.

African burrowing python

Photo of African burrowing python in defensive posture

The African burrowing python is a shy and elusive African snake which lives underground and hunts the nestlings of small mammals. The head, body and tail of this snake are more or less uniform in diameter, and its head so closely resembles the tail that it can be hard to tell which end of the snake is which. When threatened, the African burrowing python defends itself by rolling into a ball with its head protected in the centre of its coils, or it may lift the tail and move it around, distracting predators away from its vulnerable head region.

Black-footed cat

Photo of black-footed cat

A lesser-known relative of the more famous lion and leopard, the black-footed cat is Africa’s smallest wild cat and one of the smallest cat species in the world. Found in steppe and savanna habitats in southern Africa, this tiny predator is named for the black soles of its feet. The black-footed cat is a rare and secretive species which hunts at night, feeding on a variety of small mammals, birds, insects and reptiles. It may even sometimes kill prey up to twice its own weight.

Golden-rumped elephant-shrew

Photo of golden-rumped elephant-shrew twitching snout

Despite its name, the golden-rumped elephant-shrew is not closely related to shrews, instead bellowing to an ancient group of African mammals that also includes elephants, hyraxes and golden moles. This strange-looking species uses its long, flexible nose to search for insects and other invertebrates in leaf litter on the forest floor. If confronted by a predator, the golden-rumped elephant-shrew may alert the predator to the fact it has been spotted by loudly slapping its tail on the ground. Pairs of golden-rumped elephant-shrews are known to mate for life.

African harrier-hawk

Photo of African harrier-hawk landing

The African harrier-hawk is a relatively large but lightweight bird of prey with a small head and a patch of naked yellow skin on the face, which flushes red when the bird is excited. This species is unusual in its habit of actively searching for prey in trees, nests, among rock faces, or underneath objects on the ground. It can often be seen running up, clambering about in or even hanging from trees as it searches for food, and is able to use its remarkably flexible legs and feet to reach into nests, holes and crevices and extract prey.

Sagalla caecilian

Photo of Sagalla caecilian

Despite its earthworm-like appearance, the Sagalla caecilian is in fact a legless amphibian. This peculiar species is known only from a small area on Sagalla Hill in Kenya, where it spends its entire life underground. Uniquely among vertebrates, caecilians have a pair of retractable sensory tentacles on the head which, along with an acute sense of smell, may help these amphibians to locate their prey. The Sagalla caecilian lays its eggs in an underground chamber, and like related species it is likely to show an extraordinary form of parental care in which the hatchlings feed on the outer layer of the female’s skin.

 

This is just a small selection of Africa’s fascinating but lesser-known creatures. You can find out more about African wildlife by viewing photos, videos and fact-files of African species on ARKive.

Which other overlooked African species do you think deserve their moment in the spotlight?

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

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