Jan 8
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ARKive’s Top Ten Iconic African Animals

The world’s second largest continent, Africa is home to a spectacular array of wildlife and landscapes. Its outstanding diversity is spread across deserts and savannas, forests and swamps, and some of the most iconic species on earth are found there. With the launch of BBC One’s new Africa series, we thought we would explore some the most popular African species on ARKive.

1. Meerkat

Meerkats are one of the most popular African animals, due to their highly sociable and charismatic nature. Meerkat groups are usually made up of around 50 individuals, including a dominant pair and ‘helpers’ of both sexes. Meerkats demonstrate an extraordinary division of labour: when out hunting, one or more individuals keep lookout to protect the rest of the group from predators, and when young are born, non-breeding adults take turns to ‘babysit’ while the rest are out foraging.

Photo of a meerkat family group

2. Blue wildebeest

Thousands flock to Africa’s National Parks every year to see the famous blue wildebeest migration. Forming some of the largest migratory herds of all antelope species, wildebeest rely on short grass and water to survive, so must migrate between seasonal grazing sites throughout the year. Wildebeest are well known in Africa as the ‘spare-parts animal’, as they are said to look as though they are made up of several different animal parts.

Photo of blue wildebeest jumping into river during migration

3. Shoebill

The shoebill is a baffling species with a distinctively prehistoric appearance. While it shares many similarities with storks, pelicans and herons, it remains a unique species with many characteristics setting it apart from any other African bird. The shoebill resides in some of the most inaccessible wetland habitats in Africa. Usually feeding at night, it hunts by ambush, standing stock-still until its prey is near, and then snatching it from the water with its sharp, hooked beak.

Shoebill photo

4. Hippopotamus

The hippopotamus is a surprisingly speedy animal, both underwater and on land, despite the fact that a male hippopotamus can weigh as much as 3,200 kg. This, coupled with its aggressive nature, makes it one of the most dangerous African animals. Its semi-aquatic lifestyle earned the hippopotamus its name, which means ‘river horse’. Once widespread across sub-Saharan Africa, the hippopotamus is now mainly found in the East African countries, particularly Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique.

Hippopotamus photo

5. Giraffe

There are nine types of giraffe living in Africa, six of which may be genetically distinct subspecies, and the different types can be distinguished by their spot patterns. The Latin camelopardalis means ‘camel marked like leopard’, and the giraffe’s brown blotches help to camouflage it in the shade patterns created by the trees it feeds on. Giraffes are surprisingly hard to see among the trees for this reason; however, out on the plains they can be seen in their full glory. Despite its extremely long neck, the giraffe actually has the same number of neck vertebrae as most mammals, including humans.

Photo of giraffe's necking

6. Ostrich

This flightless bird is the fastest running bird in the world, reaching speeds of up to 70 km per hour. To add to this, it is also the heaviest of all living birds and has the biggest eyes of all land animals. The ostrich is an instantly recognisable bird with a long bare neck, soft smooth plumage, and prehistoric-looking feet with just two toes. The male ostrich produces a booming call which is said to sound like the roar of a lion. Ostriches are found across the majority of the African continent, and have also been introduced to southern Australia.

Photo of ostrich running

7. Plains zebra

Clearly related to horses, the plains zebra is another of Africa’s most iconic animals. Its most characteristic feature is the pattern of black and white stripes all across its body. There are many theories as to the purpose of the conspicuous black and white stripes, but one likely explanation may be a social one, with the stripes being thought to encourage group structure and grooming behaviour. Zebras are the most abundant of all Africa’s grazers, and are preyed upon by several of Africa’s large predators, such as lions and hyenas.

Group of plain's zebra

8. Eastern gorilla

Gorillas are the largest of the living apes, and have now been recognised as two separate species – the eastern and western gorillas. Eastern gorillas are found in Rwanda,Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), although one subspecies is solely restricted to eastern DRC. There are two subspecies: the mountain gorilla, occurring at altitudes between 1,160 and 4,100 metres, and the eastern lowland gorilla, which is found between 600 and 2,900 metres above sea level. Each family group of eastern gorillas is led by a dominant silverback male, and groups can sometimes be made up of more than 50 individuals.

 Eastern gorilla portrait

9. Nile crocodile

The Nile crocodile is a formidable African predator, and one of the largest of all crocodilians. To enable it to lie low in the water and ambush prey, its eyes, ears and nostrils are located on the top of the head. A valve at the back of the throat stops water from entering when the crocodile grabs prey in its jaws and holds it underwater. The Nile crocodile is capable of taking prey as large as buffalo, zebras, wildebeest and other antelopes, which it drags into the water, but the female can also be surprisingly gentle, carrying her newly hatched young to water in her mouth.

Photo of Nile crocodile

10. African rock python

As Africa’s largest snake, the ill-tempered African rock python is not to be reckoned with. It is a non-venomous snake, killing its prey by coiling around it and squeezing tighter with each breath the victim takes, until its prey dies by cardiac arrest. The African rock python can feed on animals as large as crocodiles, and is found across most of sub-Saharan Africa.

African rock python photo

These are but a few of the most well-known and fascinating animals that Africa has to offer. Over the next few weeks we’ll introduce you to some lesser-known species, as well as ‘the big five’, ‘the little five’ and more…watch this space!

Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author

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