SA Animal Profile – Eland and the mystery of the clicking

The eland, Tragelaphus oryx, is an intriguing animal, though of course to me, every animal is intriguing. The largest antelope in southern Africa, it seems that they’re often dismissed in favour of more elusive or prettier animals. With a large bovine-like torso and tan to grey colouration, it could be said that they aren’t the most beautiful of the antelopes out here. However, if you delve a little deeper, you’ll find that they are an impressive animal full of surprises.

The first thing that struck me when I came across eland on the reserve was their size. In truth, it shouldn’t have, I had already known they were the largest antelope in the region and having already met kudu, another large species, I should’ve been mentally prepared. Yet it was still a revelation. A large male (known as a bull) can reach 1.7m at his shoulder, with a female (a cow) only slightly shorter at 1.5m. Bearing in mind that doesn’t account for a lifted head or their horns, and that I’m only 1.5m high myself, I was a little taken aback – even though I sitting in the back of a pickup at the time.

Unlike most of the other local antelope such as impala, waterbuck and kudu, both sexes have horns which are relatively straight but twist round. According to an article in Wild magazine; the horns of a female are longer, more widely set and thinner than the male’s. Whilst the adults are rarely predated due to their size, their offspring is vulnerable and the horns provide a weapon for parental protection.

The background reading for this profile produced a fact that I had come across before. The eland has a very fast walking pace, too fast for a human to keep up. In addition, their trot at 22km/hr can be maintained for many hours, both useful for covering ground rapidly. This is attributed to their “lifestyle” of nomadity, rather than defending territories, where they move according to the feeding resources available.

Another movement executed by the eland, unexpected but reasonable, is their jumping. Imagine an individual if you will, the large cumbersome torso and a weight of between 460kg (cow) – 700/840kg (male average/maximum). Then imagine a wall next to it, 2m high – that’s 30cm higher than a male, half a metre higher than a female. And finally, imagine that eland jumping over said wall. From a standing position. An impressive feat. Compare that to another source of background reading which says they can actually jump 3m from a standing start.

Can you imagine this eland leaping 2-3m?  Photo by Hayley Muir

Can you imagine this eland leaping 2-3m?
Photo by Hayley Muir

The last exciting fact I’ll mention, though the eland has many more interesting features, is something of a mystery. Listen out next time you’re in the bush, and you might hear an odd clicking sound, like two bits of wood tapped together. One line of thought is that the clicking is caused by the hooves when the two halves clap against each other whilst moving. Another, which I think is the most believed, is that a tendon snaps when slipping over the animal’s knee joint. It may be that this clicking allows them to stay together easier, and one study suggests that it is used in hierarchy and dominance by the eland bulls. Either way, it’s quite useful for me when I’m in the thicker bush as it tells me when there are eland nearby.

Eland at the waterhole  (photo by Hayley Muir)

Eland at the waterhole
(photo by Hayley Muir)

Naturally, I’ve not covered every aspect of the eland’s morphology, ecology or behaviour, that could be excessive. Instead, I’ve chosen those which I found particularly interesting. Hopefully, what I’ve covered will persuade you to not underestimate this docile-looking species, and appreciating them for their unique characteristics. Perhaps you will join me in discovering that they have their own type of beauty.

SA Animal Profile – The Dwarf Mongoose (an introduction)

If you’ve been reading my blog posts, you will hopefully have noticed that the common thread, or my current raison d’être, is a particularly lovely species, the Dwarf Mongoose (Helogale parvula). Similar looking to a mustelid, such as the UK weasel or stoat, this small (hence the name) animal is one of a range of mongoose species, and is found in the southern savanna and parts of the south west of the African continent. In the Limpopo Province of South Africa (where I’m located), they are a fairly common animal.

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Dwarf mongoose (Helogale parvula)

The dwarf mongoose is beautiful creature – slim, glossy-coated and fascinating. A highly sociable animal, they live in groups consisting of a dominant alpha pair, their offspring and other subordinate adults. The dominant male and female are the only ones to breed, producing an average litter size of three pups. All adults contribute to the care of the offspring – babysitting, warming and transporting them. Additionally, other females may lactate to feed the pups, despite not breeding themselves.

Each group has a territory, which may overlap between adjacent groups and cause hostility. If two packs do meet, the smaller group usually avoids the larger one. Within the range of their territory, the mongoose have a network of sleeping burrows, day refuges and latrines. The former are normally termite mounds, although trees are also used.

A standard day for a dwarf mongoose starts quite casually. Upon getting up from the sleeping burrow, the group usually spend some time sunbathing and grooming. The amount of time can vary from group to group, and from day to day. When they’re ready, they leave the sleeping burrow for a day of foraging.

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Mutual grooming at a refuge

The diet of a dwarf mongoose typically consists of insects such as grasshoppers, beetles, and larvae, though small vertebrates may also be taken. Foraging occurs in grass, through leaf litter and around logs and trees. As they often need to dig for food, dwarf mongoose are vulnerable to predators including birds of prey, jackals and snakes. While an individual will often pause foraging to scan for predators, they cannot be vigilant during the actual digging process. One mongoose may act as a sentinel, where it sits in a prominent position such as on a rock or log and will alarm call if a threat appears. A sentinel is posted for about 40% of foraging time.

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Sentinal mongoose on a rock

The end of the day is reverse to the beginning. The dwarf mongoose will return to their sleeping burrow at some point in the few hours of sunset (it can be two hours before, or less than half hour before), either the same burrow as the morning or a different one within their territory. They normally spend some time sunbathing and grooming before heading down to sleep.

There are many aspects of their behaviour that I haven’t covered, but this has been only a general overview and introduction to the dwarf mongoose species.