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Browsing: The wild guide

Coined in 1854, the term ‘Ethology’ refers to the study of the way in which an animal’s habits (its behaviour) are related to its structure and habitat. It is important to note that there is no such thing as typical behaviour, because the typical animal is a mythical beast! However, patterns can be observed, hypotheses devised and tested, and a working interpretation of what an animal is doing obtained. This data can then be extrapolated, to create an accepted ‘normal’ behavioural model for that species. Without doubt, every person who visits a game reserve hopes to spot an African lion…

As the festive season approaches, I am sure that many of you are looking forward to a holiday at the coast. In light of this I thought we would take a look at a few of the amazing creatures that inhabit the many tidal rock pools found along our 3000km coastline. “The sea… holds one in its net of wonder forever” – Jacques Cousteau One of the weird and wonderful life forms that are easy to spot in rock pools are sea anemones, with their gently waving tentacles. Although they resemble delicate flowers, anemones are actually primitive animals that are…

In last month’s article, we looked at the ingenious adaptations that enable the Gemsbok (Oryx gazella) to survive, and thrive, in its arid savanna home. This month I would like to explore a different type of survival stratagem, namely colour, which is employed by a wide variety of animals you are likely to see in the bush. And we are not talking only about ‘fifty shades of grey’, but also vibrant, bright, ‘out-there’ colours! Many predators search for their prey visually. As a result, numerous prey species have evolved special body colouration to reduce their chances of being eaten. For…

Mention the words ‘survival expert’ and the first name that comes to mind for most people is Bear Grylls or Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Whilst both men have demonstrated remarkable survival skills in extreme conditions, I would dare to suggest that the ultimate survivalists are found in nature. The dictionary defines survival as “the state or fact of continuing to live or exist, typically in spite of difficult circumstances or adverse conditions”.  As environments have changed over the millennia, animals and plants have had to adapt to challenging circumstances; and nowhere more so than in the arid savanna. The Kalahari, a…

In the next of our ‘often seen but largely under-appreciated’ group of animals, I would like to share with you something of the singularity and amazing environmental adaptation of ‘horses in striped pyjamas’.  So convinced was I as a child that zebras were indeed horses in striped pyjamas, that I recall asking my mother why they were allowed to stay in their pyjamas all day but I was not! To my five-year-old mind, this seemed grossly unfair. An answer, if there was one forthcoming, is lost in the mists of time, and the etiquette of attire for zebras and me…

Warthogs are African members of the pig family (Suidae), famous for their long, upcurved tusks and facial ‘warts’. The term wart is something of a misnomer, however, as these protuberances are actually thick pads designed to offer protection – mainly to the eyes – and most especially during sparring between males. Boars have three pairs, but sows have only two pairs, lacking the set situated on the sides of the jaw in males.   For much of the 20th century, it was widely thought that all extant warthogs belonged to the same variable species (Phacochoerus aethiopicus). However, in recent decades we have been…

This month, I would like to start a series of articles focusing on animals that are frequently overlooked because they are so often seen. Oxymoron? Indeed. True? In my opinion, definitely. Let me explain… With their shiny rust-coloured coats and long slender legs, Impala (Aepyceros melampus) are amongst the most graceful and beautiful of antelope − yet they are rarely given a second glance. The reason? Because they are ‘common’. Despite their obvious abundance, they are unique enough to be classified in a tribe of their own, the Aepycerotini; and are the only extant representative of the genus Aepyceros −…

Such a small word, and yet one which has had significant impact on scientific discoveries through the ages. Indeed, just such a question led to the discovery of the planet Neptune, before it was ever observed!  As bizarre as this may sound, it was unexpected changes in the orbit of Uranus that led astronomer Alexis Bouvard to ask why these fluctuations were occurring.  He hypothesised that they were due to the gravitational effects of an “as yet unknown planet”. In 1846, Urbain Le Verrier, (another astronomer) used mathematics rather than empirical observation to prove that the perturbations in Uranus’ orbit…

This month, I would like to take you on a journey ranging from several hundred million years ago to the present day. Although this may seem like a strangely ambitious and long safari, I promise it is one worth taking. Our safari begins in what is now the Karoo, but 265 million years ago when rivers were depositing sediment into a shrinking inland sea. As these rivers filled the basin with sediment, eventually giving rise to a group of rocks known as the Beaufort Group, they entombed the remains of the animals that lived around them. It is in within…

As humans seek ever more urgently for ways to go faster, operate more efficiently, and work with greater resourcefulness, we are slowly coming to realise that many of the problems we are grappling with have already been solved. Nature has billions of years of research and development invested in her designs, so it seems only logical that we (Homo sapiens), with a mere 200 000 years of knowledge and skill to our name, should look to her for direction. The discipline of biomimicry (from Greek bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning imitation) seeks to create solutions to human challenges by…

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