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

Feb 6

East Africa is a stunning region of the African continent. Marked by wonders such as the Serengeti, Mount Kilimanjaro and the Rift Valley, this area is renowned for its high concentration of widlife.

After the new BBC series ‘Africa’ took viewers to the savanna for its second episode, ARKive Geographic chose to highlight the United Republic of Tanzania this month to follow suit and showcase a nation with endless savannas to explore, along with some unique wildlife that you may be less familiar with!

Armoured Arborist

The three-cusped pangolin is an arboreal mammal that is well adapted to life in the trees, with its prehensile tail and clawed feet. This nocturnal creature is active at night searching for food, primarily consisting of ants and termites. It feasts on these critters using its incredibly long tongue which can extend to around 25 centimetres! Pangolins typically defend themselves from predators by curling into a tight ball, creating effective armor with their sharp scales. They can be found in the forests of Tanzania and Kenya in East Africa, as well as some nations in western and southern Africa.

Swimming Spelunker

The Tanganyika blackfin belongs to the Cichlidae family of freshwater fish which are adapted to a wide range of ecological niches. This has resulted in the evolution of a huge diversity of species that live in close proximity. Like many cichlids, this species occurs in a number of different colour forms, including black, light grey and yellow.  This attractive fish occupies rocky regions along the shoreline in the southern parts of Lake Tanganyika governed by Tanzania and Zambia.

Fleet Flapjack

With its unusually thin, flat shell, the pancake tortoise is more agile than other tortoise species. Since this tortoise could easily be torn apart by predators with its softer shell, it must rely on its speed and flexibility to escape from dangerous situations. This rare reptile is found in rocky habitats, also known as kopjes, in Kenya and Tanzania. It is classified as a Vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List due to habitat destruction and over-harvesting for trade.

 Spicy Islander

Kirk’s red colobus is a leaf-eating monkey found only on Zanzibar, part of an archipelago formerly known as the Spice Islands off the coast of Tanzania. This primate is named after Sir John Kirk, the British Resident to Zanzibar who first identified the species. This attractive monkey has a dark red to black coat with a paler underside and distinctive pink lips and nose. Now Endangered as a result of high rates of deforestation, it is believed that fewer than 1,500 individuals exist in the wild.

Damsel in Distress

The Amani flatwing is a damselfly aptly named for its behaviour of spreading its wings out flat when resting. These little beauties begin their life as aquatic larvae and pass through a series of developmental stages as they grow. Depending on the species, this larval period can last from three months up to ten years! Currently known only from the Amani Sigi Forest of the East Usambara Mountains in Tanzania, the Amani flatwing is classified as Critically Endangered due to destruction and degradation of its habitat.

 Carrion Commander

Rueppell’s griffon is a large African vulture that feeds solely on carrion and the bone fragments of dead animals. These sky captians spend much of their day gliding on thermal wind currents, flying with slow, powerful wing beats and looking for food from above. Griffons have frequent squabbles with one another over food, with grunting and hissing often a part of their aggression. This amazing bird is listed as Endangered, and occurs in a number of protected areas throughout its range, including the Serengeti National Park, a World Heritage Site and an important feeding area for the griffon.

Do you have a favorite savanna species to share with us? Find us on Twitter or Facebook!

Maggie Graham, ARKive Program Assistant, Wildscreen USA

Jan 16

Here in the ARKive office we can’t wait for the next installment of the new BBC series ‘Africa’, which kicked off earlier this month and is currently airing in the UK. Presented by Wildscreen patron Sir David Attenborough, the first chapter focused on the Kalahari desert in Africa’s southwest corner.

Having been inspired by this incredible first episode, we thought we would feature Botswana in ARKive Geographic this month, a land-locked nation with nearly 85% of its area falling within the Kalahari. Of course, Botswana also boasts the stunning Okavango Delta which supplies water to this region year-round, meaning that Botswana is teeming with a wonderful array of wildlife!

Creative Canine

African wild dog photo

The African wild dog, also known as the painted hunting dog, may appeal to many artists, as it illustrates nature’s sense of creativity. Their coats resemble an abstract painting from an art gallery, and no two dogs have the same pattern. These dogs hunt in packs, and are capable of taking down a wildebeest weighing up to 250 kg.  Another unique fact is that females can have litters of up to 10 pups, the largest litter size of any dog species. The African wild dog is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, with potentially viable populations currently found in Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Wattled Wader

Wattled crane photo

One of six crane species in Africa, the wattled crane is not only the largest but also the rarest,  with the largest populations occurring in Botswana and Zambia. Appropriately named for the wattles that hang below their chin, a crane’s wattle signals aggression when elongated, and feeling threatened when it is retracted. These non-migrating birds are rather quiet unless they need to use their resounding bugle call!

Kalahari Kitten

Black-footed cat photo

The black-footed cat may look cuddly, but it is actually quite a formidable hunter. Despite being the smallest wild cat species in Africa, this nocturnal stalker is able to consume prey up to twice its own weight. This rare species is found in savannah habitats in the Kalahari and Karoo deserts, and is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, primarily due to poisoning and traps set out for other animals.

Bleeding Beauty

Bleedwood tree photo

The beautiful bleedwood tree is a tropical deciduous tree found in southern Africa, including the arid bushveld regions of Botswana. Its sweetly-scented, orange-yellow flowers bloom in spring and autumn. Its large leaves are up to 40 centimeters long, and its trunk varies in color from light brown to copper. The dark red, sticky sap from which the tree gets its name is used as a dye and has medicinal properties.

Sabred Sandman

Gemsbok photo

The gemsbok is a striking animal, with black and white facial markings and long saber-like horns. These heavy-bodied antelopes can be found in the semi-arid and arid grasslands, bushlands, sandy plains and dunes of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Incredibly, gemsbok can go much of the year without drinking any water, and as depicted by the photo, males establish territories and mating rights to females by fighting with their horns.

Do you have a Kalahari wildlife experience you would like to share with us? Find us on Twitter and Facebook!

Maggie Graham, ARKive Program Assistant, Wildscreen USA

Jan 14

Although the term ‘The Big Five’ is commonly used today by African Safari Tour operators for marketing purposes, it actually has a much darker origin. The phrase was first coined by hunters, who considered these five large African mammals to be the most difficult to hunt, due to their ferocity and the danger involved in tracking and killing them. Today however, ‘The Big Five’ are among the most popular and well studied of all African animals.

African elephant

As the largest terrestrial mammal in the world, the African elephant is also one of the most charismatic. This emotive creature has a highly complex social structure that is perhaps what makes the elephant such a favourite among us. Each closely related family group of females and calves is led by an old ‘matriarch’ female, and male elephants leave the group at puberty, forming less tight-knit alliances with other males. Interestingly, there seems to be some scientific truth behind the expression ‘elephants never forget’. Studies have revealed that the dominant female is able to build a ‘social memory’, enabling her to recognise ‘friends’. Despite their seemingly gentle nature, elephants can be extremely aggressive and dangerous when threatened.

African elephant photo

African elephants fighting

Black rhinoceros

The Critically Endangered black rhinoceros is distinguished from the African white rhinoceros by its characteristic pointed, prehensile upper lip. It is known for its inquisitive yet aggressive nature towards humans and other animals. Twice as heavy as an African buffalo, the black rhinoceros should not be mistaken as a slow animal. It is surprisingly fast on its feet, reaching speeds of up to 31 miles per hour, and is able to make sharp turns whilst running full pelt. In spite of all this, new camera technology has revealed a softer side to the black rhinoceros, which appears to show that they meet at night in order to ‘socialise’.

Photo of male black rhinoceros charging

Male black rhinoceros charging

African buffalo

The iconic African or Cape buffalo has a menacing appearance, with its brownish black coat and magnificently curved horns that can be used defensively to great effect. Alongside the hippopotamus, the African buffalo is considered to be Africa’s most dangerous animal, known to attack and even kill humans and other animals without provocation. Given their vegetarian status, this inclination highlights their extremely aggressive nature. Female bonds are strong within a buffalo herd, and if one is attacked by a predator, it will be staunchly defended by the rest of the herd. Having seen a lioness held hostage up a tree for hours by a herd of buffalo, I can vouch for the loyalty of herds!

Buffalo standing guard over a lioness in a tree © Kaz Armour

Buffalo standing guard over a lioness in a tree © Kaz Armour

Lion

Lions are the most social of all cats, living in groups of related females who often reproduce at the same time and suckle each others cubs. In many cultures the lion has become known as the ‘King of the Beasts’ due to its ferocious temperament and regal presence. Also one of the largest of the ‘big cats’, the muscular lion has powerful jaws and is able to hunt animals that are many times its own size. Male lions compete for access to females, and will commonly kill any cubs already present after taking over a pride. This behaviour is exhibited to increase the reproductive potential of the male in a short period of time.

African lions attacking a hippopotamus

African lions attacking a hippopotamus

Leopard

The graceful leopard is both majestic and elusive, its spots providing extremely effective camouflage in African habitats. Being skilled climbers, leopards will often drag their kill up into the trees to prevent it from being poached by scavengers. Leopards are powerful predators, with formidable jaws that dispatch and dismember prey with ease. They are equally able to hunt at night, with their long, sensitive whiskers enabling them to ‘feel’ their way in the darkness.

African leopard hunting

African leopard hunting

Africa’s ‘Little Five’

Whilst we talk about Africa’s most well known and ferocious animals, we mustn’t forget those smaller, but no less important. Did you know that for each of ‘the Big Five’ African animals, there is a ‘Little Five’ equivalent? These somewhat smaller, but equally impressive creatures include:

  • The rhinoceros beetle. The male has an impressive backward-curved horn on its head, hence its common name.
  • The rufous elephant shrew. These bouncing critters have kangaroo-like hind legs, allowing them to hop bipedally when moving fast.
  • The leopard tortoise. Named after its gold and black mottled shell, the leopard tortoise can live up to 50 years in captivity!
  • The buffalo weaver. These striking birds are most easily identified by their bright red rump and white head.
  • The ant lion. A winged larval insect, which digs conical shaped sand traps to catch small ants to feed on.
Rufous elephant shrew photo

Rufous elephant shrew

Watch out for our next Africa themed blog, which will explore the fascinating lesser-known African species the continent has to offer.

Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author

Jan 9

The African lion may be perilously close to extinction in some parts of Africa, according to a new report.

Photo of young male African lion with cub

The report, by conservation group LionAid, says that as few as 645 lions may now remain in the wild in western and central Africa, following a worrying decline in recent years. This decline has been mirrored across Africa, with estimates suggesting that only around 15,000 wild lions remain across the whole continent, compared to about 200,000 a few decades ago. This iconic species is now extinct in 25 African countries, and virtually extinct in another 10.

There has been a catastrophic decline in the populations of lions in Africa, and particularly west Africa,” said Dr Pieter Kat, LionAid Trustee. “These lions have been neglected for a very long time and do not have adequate protection programmes. They are in real danger of extinction.”

Lions under threat

The report follows a series of studies that have raised concern about the future of African lions. In one study, researchers found that about three-quarters of Africa’s savanna habitats had disappeared over the last fifty years, and used this information to estimate the number of remaining lions, which they put at around 32,000. LionAid suggests that the real number of lions left in the wild is actually far lower, although calculating the species’ exact population size is difficult.

Photo of African lionesses and cubs drinking at water hole

We put the figure… at around 25,000 lions, but whether you use these figures, the LionAid report or the Duke study, there is common agreement among everyone involved in conservation of African lions that the situation is extremely serious,” said Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation.

West African challenges

The LionAid report says that West Africa faces particular conservation challenges, due to a mixture of poverty, lack of political interest in conservation, and an underdeveloped wildlife tourism industry. In Nigeria, for example, the lion is declining fast, with only around 34 individuals remaining, down from 44 in 2009.

Even though the national parks in West Africa contain very distinct and very important fauna compared to eastern Africa, people tend to ignore that West Africa is a very special place,” said Dr Kat. “As a result the populations in West Africa are declining so quickly, as a biologist I would say that in a country like Nigeria, which has only 34 lions left, they are already extinct. It’s almost impossible to build up a population from such a small number.”

Photo of African lions on lookout

Trophies and culture

Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that it would look at whether lions should be legally protected under the Endangered Species Act, with U.S. trophy hunting being blamed as a factor in the lion’s decline. However, conservationists say that powerful pro-hunting lobbies are frustrating efforts to impose stricter regulations on the trade in this magnificent big cat.

According to Sarel van der Merwe, Chair of the African Lion Working Group, “In central to west Africa, lion numbers are too low to allow any means of negative impact on the populations and hunting should be prohibited, as should any form of killing, irrespective whether a few lions may be habitual livestock killers. Otherwise, we may well lose the lion as a species.”

Photo of two African lions

Lions are important in the culture of many African nations, and more still needs to be done to protect this iconic cat.

When you look at a lot of the African countries, what you see is that lions feature on their coats of arms, their flags, and are part of their culture, yet as a species they are not being protected,” said Dr Kat. “What Africans involved in conservation keep telling me is that we are letting a huge amount of African history and culture that is important in national heritage of African countries just slowly disappear.”

 

Read more on this story at The Guardian – West African lions on verge of extinction, report says.

Find out more about the work of LionAid.

View photos and videos of lions on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

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