I’m going to start with a bit of an apology. I haven’t posted for ages. I wish I could say I’ve been away for a while, but I haven’t. I’ve been turning forty. And nursing my son through his first operation. In my defence, now that I am officially middle aged, I am allowed to slow down a little- my eyes are dim, my knees are bent, and my joints are hurting because it’s raining.
On to the blog. I thought I’d get back into blogging mode by doing something easy. Another Lowveld ecosystem blog. I had a bit of a dilemma, though. Now that I’m done with spiders and snakes and centipedes and such, I am finally free to move on to some animals that more people might find a little more appealing. But I am faced with a choice. Mammals or birds?
In the end, the choice was easy. There are about 500 species of bird in the Lowveld, and about 150 mammals. I am lazy. Mammals it is. Small mammals. Cute and cuddly, if you’re that way inclined (vermin if you’re not).
I have learned my lesson, and will split this one in two, or I’m going to lose interest even if you don’t. Stay with me- I’m keeping all the cool stuff for part two!
Bats are a tricky one, because you almost never see them the way you see other creatures. The vast majority of them hide away all day, and flit about in the dark all night. Everyone sees bats, all the time. We have squadrons of them flying around over our garden every evening. But very few people really know what they look like (they can be staggeringly ugly), or what they do. Which is a pity. Because they are taking over the world.
If I asked you to close your eyes and imagine 100 different mammals, I’d be willing to bet that you wouldn’t include any bats. But you should. You should include about 20 of them. Because 2 out of every ten mammal species on the planet is a bat. Thank god. Because without them, our world would grind to a halt.
First of all, the fruit eating bats are important pollinators of a huge number of plants. They’re not quite in the same league as bees, but without them, there would be no more bananas, no more mangoes, no more cashews, and no more giant cactuses in Clint Eastwood movies.
But the insect eaters are arguably more important. Sit up outside one warm summer’s evening and see how many bats you can count. Each one of those bats is eating up to 6000 insects a day. Even if they are hibernating for half the year, that’s well over a million insects a year, for every single bat. There is a single bridge in Austin, Texas, that is home to 1,5 million bats. That’s 1 642 500 000 000 insects. The largest natural bat colony makes that bridge look like a bit of a joke. It has forty million bats in it. That’s a lot of insects. Insects that would otherwise be eating our crops and passing on lovely diseases like malaria and yellow fever.
Our little patch of the Lowveld doesn’t have any caves. The bats live in holes in trees and under the eaves of houses.But there are millions of them. You only realise quite how many there are when the flying ants (actually dispersing termites) come out. Every now and then, by some hidden signal, the termites decide that it’s time to spread. Winged kings and queens pour out of the ground like smoke. And everything stops what they’re doing to come and eat them. I’ve seen huge eagles hopping around like thrushes, pecking them up as they land and warthogs down on their front knees, snuffling them up like ugly vacuum cleaners. Even lions get in on the act. And as the sun goes down, the bats come out, and form a huge, whirling, hungry cloud.
I’ve never seen a shrew down in the Lowveld, but they are there. And very busy. Shrews run hot. They need to eat a third of their body-weight every day, or they will starve. This makes them feel a little grumpy. There is a very good reason why people used to call ill-tempered women shrews. They are breathtakingly aggressive. They will cheerfully take on creatures bigger than themselves, and if they can’t find any food for more than two hours, they will eat each other.
I once tried to pick one up, because what could a creature the size of a thumb possibly do to hurt you. The shrew set about demonstrating precisely what it could do. There was blood. And screaming. I tried to throw it back down, but it had obviously not eaten for two hours, and had decided this was a fight it could win. It wouldn’t let go for love or money. Next time I come across a shrew, it will get right of way.
Despite being small and furry, shrews are not cute. They have small, black, pinprick eyes, and always look ready for a fight. It just so happens that they are. Some of them are even venomous. But they do have one redeeming feature. It’s called caravanning, and it justifies their existence.
Once a litter of babies reaches a certain size, they join their mother on her travels. One of them will grab a patch of fur on his mother’s rump, and the rest will do the same to their siblings, forming a tidy little line, and off they go. I’ve only seen this once, at my childhood home. It had been raining, and as I stepped outside, a family of shrews came chugging out from behind a flowerpot like an angry little train. It was so cute that I forgave the entire species for savaging me. I’m still leaving them alone though.
Happily, these are not shrews. It took the world of science quite a while to work out exactly what they are. And it turns out to be bizarre. They are called elephant shrews because they have long, mobile snouts like tiny trunks, and because whoever named them had obviously never seen a mouse before.
They aren’t mice either. They’re not even rodents. In a bizarre twist of fate, it turns out that they really are elephants. If you are interested in animals, you will know that animals are put into categories according to their relationships to each other. There are ungulates and carnivores, rodents and lagomorphs. And then, as evidence for the existence of a god with a twisted sense of humour, there are the Afrotheria.
It took the advent of genetics before anyone would get away with making such an outrageous claim, but this group is made up of some of the most different looking animals in the world. The only qualification for being part of the group is that you need to be a little silly. You may have to Google some of these, but the group is made up of elephant shrews, golden moles, tenrecs, dassies, aardvarks, dugongs, manatees, and elephants. Obviously. I have not entirely rejected the idea that a bunch of geneticists got together at an LSD-fuelled party and decided to see just what they could get people to believe.
Elephant shrews are entirely charming. I’ve never seen one out in the Lowveld, but I have seen them in the Karoo. They will barrel along well-worn paths at breakneck speed before stopping and looking around, all huge, limpid eyes and twitching, snuffling snout. And their snouts really are like tiny trunks; they can bend them 90 degrees. They get quite tame, too. The ones in the Karoo would come up and eat crumbs around our feet while we ate.
There is one more thing about them that is charming. They communicate by drumming their back feet on the ground. Most of them attract mates like this. Some of them signal aggression too. People should start doing this. Nightclubs and bars would be much more fun. We already try to do the mate attracting thing like this. What do you think dubstep is all about? But imagine how few fights would break out if the testosterone-fuelled Neanderthal who didn’t like the way you were looking at his girlfriend was jogging vigorously on the spot while asking if you wanted to step outside. Picture him; arms spread wide, head tilted to one side, muscle shirt bulging, legs pumping away like a man whose carpet was on fire: “Come at me, bro!” Jog, jog, jog, jog, jog.
And just like that we can get straight into another one of the Afrotheria. And yes, it’s a little silly. I’ve never seen one of these either, but then almost no-one has. They live underground, like true moles, but aren’t related to them. Since they hardly ever come up to the surface, they’ve decided to get rid of pointless appendages like ears and eyes, and do everything by touch and smell. This makes them look like something out of the Christmas edition of star trek- friendly but odd. They are basically just tiny little balls of fur with a nose at one end.
Like the shrews, they have an incredibly fast metabolism. But they have developed a handy little trick to cope with this. They have two speeds- frantic activity and deep, deep sleep. When they’re not rushing around looking for underground insects, they go into a state very much like hibernation, but for hours rather than for months.
The golden moles are not alone down there. They have company. Ugly, ugly company. Golden moles have short, powerful little arms to dig through the soil. Mole rats have taken a different approach. They eat their way through the ground. Given enough time, they can eat their way through concrete. Their huge front teeth are outside their mouths, so they don’t swallow any soil, which is handy, but doesn’t win them any beauty contests. Their eyes are about as useful as the golden moles’, but since they aren’t hidden by soft golden fur, they look more like grumpy, short sighted old men than Christmas aliens.
They are, despite their less than charming looks, fascinating creatures. They are rodents, but behave more like social insects. They live in groups of about fourteen or so. The oldest pair does all the breeding, while the youngsters do most of the work. As they get older, they slow down, and occasionally bring home a root or two while waiting for the older pair to die and give them a chance.
Unlike moles and golden moles, they are herbivores. Which is a problem. People who try to garden in mole-rat country wage a constant war against them, coming up with all sorts of plans to drive them out or wipe them out. Usually the mole rats win.
Rats and mice.
I’m going to chicken out here. There are lots of different rats and mice in the Lowveld. As I said at the start of this post, you hardly ever see them, let alone get to observe them. They, too, can be charming. There are tiny little striped mice, rats with prehensile tails that live up in trees, mice with spiky fur like proto-porcupines, and on and on and on. I’m already 2000 words in, so I’m just going to ignore them. As we do when we’re down there.
Gerbils look just like mice, except that they have huge back feet. They are a rather fetching tan colour, and unlike most rodents down in the bush, you sometimes do see them. Lots of them. Every few years, there’s a plague. You won’t see one for years, and then suddenly they’re everywhere. They dash across the road in front of the car. They take up residence in your cupboards. They eat the wiring in your car. They chew through the bottom of your dustbin. They scamper over your face while you’re sleeping.
And then a fun thing happens. A few months after the plague starts, you start to see owls. Lots of them. And genets. Lots of them. And African wildcats. Lots of them. And snakes, and raptors, and jackals. And then you stop seeing Gerbils. Sorted.
As a diverting aside, while reading up about plagues of gerbils, I learnt that they are a reservoir of the Bubonic plague. That’s right. The Black Death, which wiped out a third of the people in Europe. Scampering over my face, while I was sleeping. I’ll be back in a second- I’m just going to go and wash my hands. And my face.
That’s about it for part one. I hope you’ll join me for part two. That’s when they start getting bigger. Much bigger.