Beneath the surface
Edition 60 (Autumn 2012)
When you submerse yourself in Africa’s underwater cosmos, don’t forget about the lesser-known and slightly-subtler marvels around you. In the background of those impressive whale shark photos, will you detect some other wonders? By Helen Hobin.
True colours
Edition 57: Winter 2011/12
We humans – being furless, flesh-toned apes – are hardly the most colourful representatives of Africa’s animal kingdom. But we are at least blessed with excellent colour vision, so are well placed to appreciate the kaleidoscopic variety on display elsewhere. The myriad hues that make up this rich natural palette are produced in a surprising variety of ways. By Mike Unwin.
The whole tooth
Edition 54: Spring 2011
If you’re reading this in a dentist’s waiting room, you might want to look away now: teeth can be a sensitive subject for humans of delicate dentition. Many African animals, however, have evolved more robust gnashers and use them for a whole range of functions – all without the benefits of flossing. By Mike Unwin.
Tall tails

Edition 52: Autumn 2010

What’s the point of a tail, you might wonder? After all, we humans seem to manage perfectly well without one. But this extra appendage does a vital job for most animals, from propulsion (crocodile) and counterbalance (cheetah) to seduction (widowbird) and signposting (warthog). In fact, a brief glance at some of Africa’s more notable exponents of tail power might just leave you wondering what you’re missing.
By Mike Unwin.

Gone fishing

Edition 47: Summer 2009

Fish seems like the ideal diet: succulent slabs of protein in apparently inexhaustible abundance. But catching this slippery prey takes skill, technique and the right gear – as any long-suffering angler will tell you. Africa’s birds have risen to the piscivore challenge with ingenuity and flair. Forget the one that got away; they’re too busy downing the one that didn’t. By Mike Unwin.

Friends for life

Edition 46: Spring 2009

Survival of the fittest means every species for itself. Nature has no time, you’d think, for one creature to lend another a helping hand. Yet a surprising number of species do just that – just so long as they get something in return. Cooperative arrangements of this kind are known as ‘mutualism’. Indeed some species have become so mutually dependent that neither can live without the other. By Mike Unwin.

Loud and proud

Edition 45: Winter 2008/9

Can you describe the sound of the African bush? Cliché demands such timeless classics as the majestic roar of the lion or haunting cry of the fish eagle. But just close your eyes and listen. Behind the greatest hits is a chorus of clicks, grunts, yelps, barks and whistles – all of them meaning something to somebody. Mike Unwin zeroes in on a few of Africa’s more notable noisemakers.

Country cousins

Edition 44: Autumn 2008

In the chic world of the modern safari, the baboon (Genus: Papio) is not an obvious candidate for anyone’s must-see list. He’s just too common, in every sense of the word. But there is more to his familiar scruffy appearance and sometimes alarming antics than meets the casual eye.

Sense and sensitivity

Edition 43: Summer 2008

African animals have evolved a battery of sensory adaptations with which to negotiate their surroundings. Some have refined the familiar five senses to impressive extremes; others have developed unique tricks of their own – sixth senses, if you like – that take perception to some surprising new levels. By Mike Unwin.

Deposit accounts

Edition 42: Spring 2008

Dung, droppings, faeces, excreta: whatever your euphemism of choice, there’s no escaping the fact that animals produce plenty of the stuff. However, while hunting and other feeding behaviour makes prime time viewing, what comes out the other end tends to be swept – as it were – under the carpet. And yet animal poo is a fascinating and illuminating subject, as any tracker will tell you. Not only can it reveal an animal’s identity and whereabouts, it also offers an insight into its lifestyle and is pivotal to the health of its habitat. By Mike Unwin

Bird’s eye view (Edition 40)
The city centre at ground level, all traffic and concrete, seems an unpromising location for wildlife watching. But look up and you’ll find the skies stage a constant fly-past of birds.
Lounge lizard (Edition 40)
A deadly predator lurks inside your hotel bedroom. Concealed by cryptic camouflage it creeps ever closer, inching improbably across vertical surfaces, until with a lightning dash and sickening crunch it seizes its unsuspecting prey in vice-like jaws.
Sugar trap (Edition 40)
Conservationists, quite rightly, will generally tell you that no good comes of planting alien species. But the ornamental flowering plants that supplement native species in many African cities are a boon for nectar-loving wildlife in areas that would otherwise offer little.
A howling success (Edition 40)
The spotted hyena is surely the most versatile of Africa’s large predators; while some individuals scavenge from lions and pull down wildebeest on the savannah, others scavenge from dustbins and pull down stray dogs on the city streets.
Trees company (Edition 40)
In many African cities, from Accra and Abidjan to Entebbe and Dar es Salaam, straw-coloured fruit bats crowd into their daytime roosts.
Crocodile young (Edition 39)
Crocodiles may be the most ancient of reptiles, but they are also the only ones that show any inclination for childcare. A female Nile crocodile tends her nest mound for over two months, until telltale squeaking sounds reveal that the eggs are ready to hatch.
Infant ostriches (Edition 39)
Ostriches don’t do things by halves. Not only are they the world’s largest birds, but they also rear the bird world’s biggest broods. It is not unusual to see more than 50 youngsters clustered around the huge feet of two doting parents.
Baboon politics (Edition 39)
A designer baby is a must-have accessory for low-ranking male baboons – even when it’s not their own. Unlike females, which inherit their status in the hierarchy from their mother, males must leave their natal troop at about four years of age and try to find acceptance elsewhere.
Scorpions (Edition 39)
Scorpions, contrary to their generally malevolent image, make exceptionally caring mothers. They are unusual among arthropods in that they bear live young.
Nursery mouth (Edition 39)
Some African fish have a novel way of protecting their eggs and young from predators: they swallow them. At least that’s how it appears.
Pretending (Edition 38)
For humans, pretending you are something that you’re not can either win you an Oscar or a jail term, depending on the circumstances.
Breaking the shape (Edition 38)
The markings of many animals also help break up their telltale contours. Zebra stripes (pictured) are an obvious example, but even more subtle markings also work well.
Playing with shadows (Edition 38)
Many species have evolved to use the play of light and shadows to reduce or eliminate their relief (their three-dimensional appearance). This camouflage technique is often more important than colour alone, as most animals see only in a limited range of colours anyway.
Blending in (Edition 38)
Colour is a simple first step to blending in, and many creatures are painted marvellously from their background’s palette. Hence lions are savannah-tawny, while fennec foxes are desert-yellow.
Elephant shrew (Edition 37)
Elephant shrews bear little resemblance to elephants, except for their long, mobile snouts. But then neither do they have much in common with shrews. Scientists have separated these furry little creatures from shrews and other insectivores into an unrelated and uniquely African order, the Macroscelidea.
Rhinocerous beetle (Edition 37)
Rhinoceros beetles (Dynastinae) get their name from the striking curved horns sported by the males of larger species. Although these animals hardly bear comparison with real rhinos, they are nonetheless pretty impressive as far as insects go.
Leopard tortoise (Edition 37)
The leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis) is the largest and most widespread of Africa’s land tortoises. It gets its name from the spotted pattern on its carapace, rather than any leopard-like stealth or elegance. Adults average 8–12kg in weight, and may exceptionally exceed 35kg.
Buffalo weaver (Edition 37)
Buffalo weavers (sub-family Bubalornithinae) are seed-eating birds of the weaver group that have little in common with their grumpy bovine namesakes except, perhaps, their sociable behaviour and – in two species – their black colouration.
You may see evidence of his handiwork on termite mounds, but you are unlikely to see the aardvark (earth pig/ant eater) unless you're up very
African Army Ants
Amassed on a broad front, they sweep mercilessly forward. No obstacle stops them and gaps are bridged by climbing over the locked bodies of fellow soldiers. The attack is
Neuroptera myrmeleontoidea
Pause whilst walking across a patch of soft sand-and look. The surface may be indented with one or more perfectly rounded,
Naked mole rat
Heterocephalus glaber
Found on sun-baked savannahs of East Africa, a queen rules a multitude of miners in huge underground colonies.
The Gelada Baboon (Edition 35)
With his five (or more) attentive females, and half his waking day spent filling his stomach, you could be forgiven for thinking he really has it made. He’s rather dishy too, with his fine, almost-human face and spectacular hair-do, a wild, silky mane of leonine magnificence. He is Theropithecus gelada‐ the gelada baboon.
Black heron (Edition 35)
Has the black heron lost its head? Actually it has developed a unique way of foraging.
Honey badger
Edition 34: Spring 2006

Don't mess with me, honey

The honey badger’s reputation precedes it like, perhaps, that of no other African creature. Legend has it that it attacks other animals by biting the scrotum, so the victim bleeds to death. The South African army has named an armoured personnel carrier after it, and it entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most fearless animal. Yet honey badgers are only 30cm tall to the shoulder, so whence this reputation?
Hornbill family
Edition 34: Spring 2006

Domestic bliss

Women of chidbearing age can be relieved they are not of the hornbill family, as these birds take reproductive security to an extreme. After courtship and mating, the female retires to a hollow tree while her mate gathers dung and mud pellets from the forest floor, which he swallows. They are expelled as small pellets bonded by saliva and given to the female, who then seals herself inside the nest with this clay-like substance. 
The world's longest tongue
Edition 34: Spring 2006

Name: Morgan’s Madagascan sphinx moth Xanthopan morganii praedicta
Location: Madagascar
Size: a proboscis 30-35cm (12-14in) long ‐ the longest-known ‘tongue’ relative to body size
Shoebills on the Nile: Murchison Falls, Uganda
Edition 34: Spring 2006

Africa’s richly varied habitats and magnificent avifauna attract interested visitors from around the globe. In this series, Duncan Butchart profiles some of the continent’s most exciting birdwatching destinations.
Golden orb-web spider
Edition 33: Winter 2005/6

A short bush walk in many parts of Africa will soon lead you into the sticky snares of a golden orb-web ‐ or Nephila ‐ spider. These spiders, of which Africa has three species, construct the largest and strongest web of any of their kind. Golden in colour and roughly circular, it is strung between trees or bushes at a slightly inclined angle and secured using numerous trip lines. Perfect for catching large flying insects, the silk is so strong that it can even trap small birds. These can damage the web, so to deter them the spider leaves a visible warning line of insect husks.
Veggie Vulture
Edition 33: Winter 2005/6

The palm-nut vulture (Gypohierax angolensis), like the giant panda, is that strange oxymoron of nature: a vegetarian carnivore. This smallish vulture, thought by some authorities to be more closely related to the African fish eagle, eschews the pleasures of the flesh in favour of the tough nut of the raffia palm (Raphia australis). It plucks the fruit with its bill ‐ often hanging upside down in the process ‐ then, clutching the prize in its talons, tears off the husk and eats it.
Elephant shrew
Edition 33: Winter 2005/6

Out of Order
Elephant shrews, also known as sengis, are unique to Africa and are among the continent’s most ancient mammals. These furry little creatures have little in common with elephants, owing that part of their name simply to their long, mobile snouts. But then neither, it seems, do they bear much relation to shrews. In fact, their taxonomic status has proved something of a zoological hot potato.
Raptor-watching in the Southern Kalahari
Edition 33: Winter 2005/6

Africa’s magnificent avifauna attracts interested visitors from around the globe, from dedicated ‘twitchers’ to ecotourists who appreciate the full spectrum of nature and casual holidaymakers who can’t help but marvel at the more interesting or spectacular bird species. In this new series, Duncan Butchart profiles some of the continent’s most exciting birdwatching destinations.
Vegetable Ivory
Edition 32: Autumn 2005

A hard nut to crack!

Whether known as the real fan, makalani, vegetable ivory or ilala palm, one thing is indisputably true of this mighty tree: the iron-like shell of its nut is virtually impossible to crack.

The ilala reaches 25m, with fans of grey-green leaves resembling large spiky hands. Revelling in hot, dry conditions, it grows near riverbanks in acacia savannah and in coastal sand from Somalia to South Africa, as well as Madagascar. The brown, fibrous fruit, up to 6cm long, contains a hard white nut commonly called vegetable ivory, used locally for carving ‐ despite the nut’s steely shell. Fortunately, nature offers a solution.

Ilala nuts are a delicacy for elephants. They swallow them whole, digest the flesh and excrete the seeds. This process cracks the hard outer shell and leaves the seed ready to germinate. The palm cunningly uses the elephant to carry its seed far from the mother plant and deposit it in a pile of nutritious manure.

Vegetable ivory carvings are sold throughout southern Africa, a beautiful alternative to elephant ivory made from a renewable (albeit slow-growing) resource. Just as the elephant is friend to the ilala palm, so the palm can help the elephant.

by Stephanie Debere
Bat-eared fox
Otocyon megalotis
A common misunderstanding many first-time visitors to Africa make when they see a Bat-eared fox scouring the ground is that he
Black-backed Jackal
Canis mesomelas

The Black-backed (or silver-backed) jackal must rank as one of the most intelligent, wary and cunning animals in
Black-faced Impala
Aepyceros melampus petersi

Imagine a larger and darker version of the graceful impala, with its shiny reddish coat and long slender legs. Now add a
Black Mamba
Edition 32: Autumn 2005

Africa's black death?

Black mambas have been described by one expert as “death incarnate”. Stories abound about them giving chase for miles, attacking on sight and killing roomfulls of people. It’s true that until the discovery of antivenins in the mid-’60s, black mamba bites were invariably fatal, but stories of unprovoked attack are exaggerated. Mambas are extremely shy, usually fleeing when near humans. It’s worth remembering, however, that their lethal design is peerless.

The world’s second-longest venomous snake (with an average length of 2.5-3m, although some reach 4.5m), and one of its fastest (reaching up to15mph for short bursts), black mambas are apex predators. Their fangs are the most forward-pointing of any snake, and are extremely long, enabling them to bite through birds’ feathers. An average bite yields 100-120mg of venom; the lethal dose for humans is 10-15mg. Death from a mamba bite can occur in fifteen minutes, though the average time is four hours. The venom blocks brain-to-muscle signals via the nervous system. Paralysis follows; victims suffocate when their respiratory muscles fail.

When agitated, black mambas raise their heads over a metre off the ground, spread a flat hood, shake their slender, coffin-shaped heads and open their mouths wide, revealing the menacing black interior which gives them their name (their scales aren’t black but dark olive, steel-grey or brown). They strike in quick multiple bites, then stalk their prey ‐ rats, mice, voles, squirrels, bushbabies and birds ‐ until paralysed, or hold onto smaller prey until dead. Flexible jaws allow them to eat the animal whole.

Of the four mamba species, the black is the most terrestrial, making permanent lairs in unused termite mounds, tree hollows, or rock crevices. They occur in low-altitude savannah, semi-arid bush, open woodlands and rocky outcrops from South Africa to Somalia. In springtime, males sniff out females, inspecting them with their tongues during protracted foreplay. Copulation lasts hours or even days. Several weeks later, the female finds a damp, warm nest and lays up to fifteen oval eggs, around five centimetres long, which she then leaves. After three months, the young hatch measuring 35-60cm. Captive black mambas live for twelve years, but wild specimens live shorter lives.

Lacking predators, the black mamba’s main threat is habitat destruction. But those who wouldn’t mourn the snakes’ disappearance should reconsider. Scientists are studying use of the venom as a painkiller and to aid blood coagulation. Africa’s poorly understood ‘black death’ could soon help promote life.

Candelabra Tree
Euphorbia ingens

It was Juba, King of Mauritania, who gave this cactus-like plant the name "Euphorbia", after
Cape Pangolin
Manis temminckii

The Cape pangolin is one of four species found in Africa. It is distributed throughout East Africa and from southern Angola, Zambia and
Caterpillar harvest
Edition 32:  Autumn 2005

If you’re seeking traditional southern African cuisine on your travels, you won’t get more authentic than mopane worms ‐ large caterpillars fried, boiled or dried, widely considered a delicacy.

The worms feed on the mopane tree and are an important source of protein and income to many people. With wide, grey, segmented bodies 4-6cm long, they are the caterpillars of the large emperor moth. Adults lay a cluster of 50 to 200 eggs on twigs or leaves. After around ten days the caterpillars emerge. They grow for approximately six weeks, undergoing a staggering 4000-fold increase in body mass, before burrowing underground to form a pupa. One to six months later an adult moth emerges, which lives for only two to three days. It doesn’t feed; its sole purpose is to mate.

The mopane worm trade is threatened in places by over-harvesting, but some traditional leaders place embargos
on harvesting larvae at certain times to prevent the wasteful over-exploitation of small larvae, and to allow some mature ones to complete their lifecycle. Education programmes are also run in South Africa to teach sustainable harvesting. So there should be plenty of sautéed mopane worms on offer on your next trip to the region.
Platypleura rutherfordi

There are summer nights in the African bush when the "singing" of cicadas can be both deafening and unforgettable
Common egg-eater
Dasypeltis scabra

Ever tried swallowing an ostrich or dinosaur egg whole? Actually it's not that difficult. Unhinge and drop your lower jaw,
Crimson-breasted shrike
Laniarius atro-coccineus.

Crimson-breasted shrikes are resident in the arid savannah areas of northern South Africa, western Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.
Crowned Eagle
Stephanoaetus coronatus

It's the acute binocular vision, courtesy of two focal points in each eye, that enables the eagle to pinpoint prey from
The cycad order

Bush survival techniques among early Dutch settlers included making bread using flour extracted from the fibrous trunk of the Broodboom (bread tree).
Egyptian vulture
Neophron percnopterus

This comparatively small, old-world vulture was revered by the pharaohs as a symbol of parental love.

Meaning "fine bush", fynbos is a group of small, fine-leafed, low-growing and tough evergreen plants that once extended throughout Southern
Gemsbok / oryx
Oryx gazella

When the thermometer registers 42°C, most animals die. Yet the gemsbok plods steadily on through the unrelenting heat of the arid desert,
Glow Worm
The firefly family

Remember the pop song of the 1950s: "Glow little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Honey Guides

There are about fifteen different types of honey guide in sub-Saharan Africa. Although widespread, from Senegal across to Ethiopia and down into
Horned Adder
Bitis caudalis

Size: 30-35cm (max 50cm). A small adder with a blotchy colouration, which exhibits regional variations. A dead giveaway
Hydnora africana
If you detect the smell of carrion while walking in Namibia's desert, you may not have come across rotting meat but rather the curious root parasite Hydnora africana.
Jackson's Chameleon
"You won't believe this," a friend told me on returning from a drive in Nairobi National Park, "
Lake Tanganyika sardine
Limnothrissa middon

At night the fairyland flickering lights across the darkened waters of Lake Kariba pinpoint fishing rigs at work. Those rigs are the basis of
Lilacbreasted roller
Coracias caudata

Undoubtedly the most beautiful roller in Africa, its brilliant plumage and painted, elongated outer tail feather make it very distinctive.
Lucky Bean Tree
Erythrina species

It's the spectacular canopy of bright scarlet, red hot poker-like flowers of the otherwise barren Erythrina that catches the eye
Suricata suricata

According to some texts, suricate derives from sura and catjie, respectively "chief" and "kitten
Namib beetles
Tenebrionid family

Of the 200 plus different types of Tenebrionid (surface) beetle that live in Namibia, about twenty have adapted to life in the
Nile soft-shelled Turtle
Trionyx triunguis

Near the Valley of the Kings, at Luxor in Egypt, backed up against the stark cliffs of the Nile Valley, is the
Painted Reed Frog
Hyperolius marmoratus marmoratus

When looking at this photograph it is difficult to appreciate that the Painted Reed Frog is a tiny specimen, with adults barely reaching
Pel's Fishing owl
Scotopelia peli

You're lounging, cocktail in hand, watching the crimson rays of the sinking sun dance lightly across
Poisonous cardienolide plants
With their moisture and nutritional content, plants are often regarded as life-sustaining. Yet not all the green we see is edible: take a closer look at the
Praying mantis
Mantidae family

The ancient Greeks named this arthropod mantis-the prophet-because of its habit of holding its two front legs folded as if in
Sausage Tree
Kigelia africana

In East Africa the Arabic name for this tree translates as "father of kitbags", whilst in South Africa'
Savannah Citadel

Travel the plains and savannah grasslands of East and Central Africa and you'll see them. Given a builder-to-building size
Scorpionida family

Swingers from the seventies will know you can't get no satisfaction by rolling stones the wrong way. You have to rock the
Secretary Bird
Sagittarius serpentarius

With lanky yellow-pink legs thrusting out from black "plus fours", he stalks silently, head bobbing to
Simien wolf
Canis simensis

Simien fox, Ethiopian wolf, Abyssinian jackal and red dog are all descriptive names given to this apparently rarest of the world's
Sociable Weavers
In Namibia temperatures can range between 15°C (62 °F) at night and the mid-40s°C (110°F) during the day. To cope with this, one creature
Spotted Hyaena
Crocuta crocuta

Frederick Courtney Selous, the pioneer and hunter, described it as "the most mournful and weird sound in nature"
Striped polecat
Ictonyx striatius.

No, it's not an horror movie, or a zoo ape. It's certainly not a zebra - orang utang
The Butterflies of Kakum Natio
Visitor surveys in Kakum National Park, some 30km north of Cape Coast in Ghana, show that butterflies are one of its main attractions. Indeed, pretty, colourful butterflies
The Carmine Bee-eater
Merops nubicus and Merops nubicoides.

Once paired, they pick a spot and start digging, sweeping the dirt out with their feet. The tunnel slants
The Centipede

He could come wriggling into your lodge at night, or you might see him below one of the lights around the camp. About 8cm
The Cheetah
Acinonyx jubatus

The million-year-old fossilised remains of a cheetah specimen have been found near Bulawayo (Zimbabwe). Once, though no longer
The Chongololo

After the first rains have moistened the soil the "chongololo" emerges. Behind a pair of probing antennae, a
The Desert Date
Balanites aegyptiaca

In dry country a familiar, but not very beautiful, savannah tree is always green, even in the worst drought. It'
The Dugong
Sirenia family

What have Homer's Odysseus; the singing Orpheus; the Ark of the Covenant; a famed Cheapside tavern; Keats and Havelock
The Dung Beetle
Scarabaeinae (Coprinae)

One of the most fascinating sights in the bush is that of a dung beetle hard at work rolling his hard-earned
The Hamerkop
Scopus umbretta

The Hamerkop is called the lightning bird because in some parts of Africa, there is a legend that if the bird lands on your
The Hyrax
Procavia capensis

Is a rock rabbit a rabbit? Or a hyrax a cony? How about "dassie", a word coined
The Hyrax
Procavia capensis

Is a rock rabbit a rabbit? Or a hyrax a cony? How about "dassie", a word coined
The Impala
Aepyceros melampus

Rather unkind perhaps but like the goat the impala copes with rather harsh conditions and is commonly found over much of eastern and southern Africa
The Klipspringer
Oreotragus Oreatragus

Weight: males about 22 lbs, females 29 lbs.

Height: 1 ft 6 ins - 1 ft 10
The Marula Tree
Sclerocarya birrea

Ever seen that film where elephants eat the fallen fruit of the Marula tree, then stagger about and fall down drunk? Somewhat exaggerated
The Mopane
Colophospermum mopane.

Next time you're told "go eat worms" ask for the caterpillar of the Gonimbrasia belina moth.
The Naked Mole-rat
Heterocephalus glaber

Not even the most ardent nature-lover could call the Naked Mole-rat beautiful, let alone attractive. It's just
The Ostrich
Struthio camelus

The Wakamba gazed upon the white glaciers and black rocks of the hill, likened it to an ostrich and therefore named it Kiinya.
The Puff Adder
Bitis avietans

Don a pair of open sandals and take a walk through the African bush, or along a warm tar road at night and you
The Shovel-snouted lizard
Aporosaura anchietae

The shovel-snouted lizard is a remarkable sand-diving denizen of the dunes in Namibia's moist coastal desert. When foraging
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