The Small Five – Small but powerful
Who is Africa’s Small Five?
Everyone has heard about the Big Five, so it was only a matter of time that the Small Five would come out to steal the limelight.
While the term ‘Big Five’ was given to the most dangerous African animals to hunt, during colonialist times, the little five are five small African animals that share part of their name with the Big 5 (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard).
The term was introduced by conservationists who wanted to draw attention to the smaller creatures in the bush and stress that they are just as important to the ecosystem.
The Small 5 were named after the Big 5 animals due to a shared behaviour or a physical resemblance.
It is easy to see why this beetle is called the Rhino beetle.
This is probably the most aptly named of all the small fives. Some people also call it unicorn beetle.
Indeed, their head does look like a small rhino. They bear a sizable horn-like projection on and around their head, and just like rhinos they use these to fight off competitors (male behaviour only) or for digging up food (herbivorous).
Worldwide, there are more than 300 species of Rhinoceros Beetle, around 60 of which are found in Southern Africa.
They are found worldwide in various shapes and sizes (sometimes up to 15 cm in length!). They look quite scary but are absolutely harmless for humans.
They can be seen on bush walks although they prefer to move at night to avoid predators.
These insects are herbivorous. Their diet is surprisingly varied and can include nectar, rotting fruit, bark, sap and vegetable matter.
Rhino Beetles use their horns to dig for food in the undergrowth or rotting wood.The male Rhino Beetle uses its horn to fight other males over territory and for the right of mating with a female.
They are extremely strong and can lift things 30 times or more their own weight, while an elephant can only carry 25% of its own weight.
They shouldn’t be confused with dung beetles (those we sometimes see rolling big poop balls), although both belong to the Scarabaeidae family.
When disturbed, rhino beetles produce hissing squeaks. These are not vocal noises though. Instead, they are produced when the beetle rubs their abdomen and wing covers together.
Antlions are insects of the order Neuroptera. Their name refers to the predatory behaviour of their larva, fierce as a lion.
In fact, when they are in their larval stage, they are fearsome looking beasts about 1.5 cm long with hairy, obese bodies and sharp sickle-shaped jaws.
They dig pits into the ground where they trap ants and other small insects.
How do Antlions Make their Traps?
The ant lion traps are easy to recognize. If you see a funnel-shaped pit (about 2-5 cm deep) with a small hole at the bottom, you are probably looking at an ant lion trap.
Ant lion larvae dig the pit by using their abdomen as a plow, then use their heads as a shovel to get all loose particles out of the way.When it completes the pit, the ant lion buries itself so only its jaws project out of the tiny hole in the bottom of the pit.
When a small insect comes across the pit and ventures to the edge of it, it will slip to the bottom.
The ant lion will then take this opportunity to seize its prey with its jaws, just like an ambushing lion. The meal is consumed by sucking out the contents of the prey and its empty skin is flicked outside the pit.
The ant-lion larva cannot walk forwards. It relies on backing down into the sand at the bottom of its trap. This has an interesting implication for its anatomy. It does not have an anus at the back end of its body, which would get filled with sand as it reverses.
As it does not eat solid material at all, just sucks liquid from its victims, and it does not need to excrete solid material. It sheds waste matter with its skin each time it sheds a skin as it grows.
This ant-lion larva can remain in its larval stage for up to three years. It can survive for months at a time without food and live for several years.
In a later stage the ant lion larvae make a sand and silk cocoon where it will transform into a mature ant lion that looks a little like a dragonfly with an 8 cm wingspan.
Mature ant lions do not eat, so the larva needs to eat enough to get through adult life.
An elephant shrew is a tiny, insect-eating mammal, widely distributed in the arid lowlands, savannah grasslands and forests of southern Africa. There are up to 20 species, varying in colour, shape and size.
Elephant shrews were given their name due to their flexible snout, resembling the trunk of an elephant. They are closely related to manatees, aardvarks, and elephants. Pretty insane fact when you realize that an elephant shrew can fit in the palm of your hand.
Their little “trunks” are quite flexible and can be twisted to sniff out insects which they then flick into their mouths using their tongues. Though they cannot use them like an elephant’s trunk, they are extremely sensitive to smells and pheromones.
They use their long nose as well as their large ears to detect any predators and prey including insects, spiders and worms.
Their keen sense of smell comes in very handy for marking their “highways” with a scent produced by a gland under their tail.
In fact, a number of elephant shrews will make a series of cleared highways through the undergrowth and spend most of their days foraging and patrolling, looking for insects.
And keeping the path clean and debris-free to give the elephant shew a quick and clear escape route from predators like lizards, snakes and birds of prey.
They are not very sociable. They form monogamous pairs but do not necessarily forage together or care for each other. It is believed they are only paired up for reproduction purposes.
The leopard tortoise is the fourth largest tortoise in the world. You can find leopard tortoises in almost any habitat in Eastern and Southern Africa, but the best time to search for them is just after the rains when they become active.
Leopard Tortoises are named after their striking markings, which roughly resemble the rosette spots of a leopard on their exceedingly hard upper shell (called the carapace).
Their domed carapace tends to become darker and blotchier with age.
They are herbivorous and graze on dry grass but also eat succulent and fruit. (Occasionally they gnaw on bones for calcium.)
During dry spells, tortoises aestivate in a sheltered place and wait for the rain to return.
The individual panels or scales of the shell are called scutes.
Scutes grow according to seasons and therefore one can determine the age of a tortoise by counting the ridges (in the same way as one counts rings in a tree trunk to determine the age of a tree).
The base of the shell is called the plastron and its shape distinguishes the sexes – the male has a concave plastron to accommodate the female’s shell during mating, while the female has a flat plastron.
Males are smaller than females. Also, female carapaces are rounder and higher domed.
An adult can reach 46 cm in height and weigh approximately 18 kg, although typically they are much smaller.
As with most tortoise species Leopard Tortoises are able to draw their head, tail, and legs into their shell for protection.
The Leopard Tortoise is the only member of the tortoise family, however, that can raise its head, and this is because they do not have a nuchal shield, the protective scute above the neck. This means that the Leopard Tortoise is therefore the only one of its kind that is able to swim.
The Red-billed Buffalo weaver is easily distinguished by its robust red bill and white wing patches.
The Red-billed Buffalo weavers got their name from their habit of following herds of buffalo to feed on the insects stirred up by their hooves. Some even call them buffalo birds.
There are only two species: red-billed or white-billed buffalo weavers.
They are common throughout Southern Africa, and you’re likely to see (and hear) them on your bush walks and game drives.
They live on a diet of seeds, fruit, and small insects. The red-billed buffalo weaver is even known to prey on scorpions.
They are sociable birds with a wide range of easily identifiable calls. They live together in noisy colonies, weaving seemingly unstructured communal nests from small sticks, thorns, and dry grass, with several entrances. Internally the mass of the twigs is divided into separate compartments creating multiple egg chambers.
Egg Laying starts in September and ends in March with the females laying two to four eggs each and incubation lasts 14 days. The fledglings leave the nests when they are between 20 and 23 days old.
The males are usually polygamous, each controlling one to eight nests and up to about three females. One of the most interesting facts about this bird is that they have a phalloid organ – basically a false penis which both sexes have, the males’ version is however longer.
The big five may get all the attention, but if you go on a safari in South Africa, don’t forget about the little five.
Each species is amazing in its own way.