Cute and Cuddly. Mostly.

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!


A pretty bat.

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.

A less pretty bat.

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.

Don’t worry. We went to the bathroom before coming to bed. You guys go ahead and eat.

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’m going to kill you. I’m going to eat you, too. But first I’m going to kill you.

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.

Don’t worry kids. we’ll be there in three minutes. Most of us.

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.

Elephant shrews.

Back off, twinkletoes! I’m a weal shwew! I weally am!

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.

The Afrotheria. When you see them together like this, the family resemblance is uncanny.

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.

An elephant shrew mock-charge. In a real charge, they flatten their ears. If you see that, turn and run- it’s the only way you’ll come out alive.

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.

Golden Moles.

Look me in the eyes and tell me you don’t love me.

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.

My eyes! Look deep into my eyes! Look me in the eyes and tell me you don’t love me!

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.

My eyes! Look into…….. Oh, bugger this! I give up!

Mole rats.

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.

Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango.
Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very fright’ning me.
(Galileo.) Galileo. (Galileo.) Galileo, Galileo figaro

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.

Bushveld gerbils.

The most dangerous animal on the page.

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.

Just give me half a second- I quickly want to finish up these seeds here. Then I’m coming over to wipe out a third of the people in Europe!

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.

66 thoughts on “Cute and Cuddly. Mostly.

  1. Laura Hedgecock says:

    Very interesting….

  2. Leslie Jo says:

    Hi! Thank you so much for visiting and liking my blog. I loved this post. I laughed as I learned more about furry little creatures than I ever knew before. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts. Thanks again!

  3. […] For me, if not you. Because I can’t carry on writing about the ecosystem of the Lowveld without doing the […]

  4. Leo says:

    I find animals fascinating and you have quite a few there. I have been photographing the bats around here at night. I came across a Caracul by accident while photographing the Fur Seals at Robberg Beach and a Honey Badger while exploring the bush round the farm.

  5. Dusti Becker says:

    Hey, turning 40 is nothing to feel old about – that’s prime. Your humor is delightful. Please keep posting!

  6. Michael D says:
    Love this very interesting read
    Check out mine

  7. jackcurtis says:

    Fascinating, and fun matching up with our New Mexico equivalents, some of which also hand out plague without charging for the service. I’ll look for Part Two with pleasure…

  8. stillstrange says:

    That poor Mole Rat with no eyes or ears. How funny to old him. He must not be very aggressive to humans. I’m glad your back. Your posts are very humorous and informative. Keep em coming.

  9. markgelbart says:

    If you want to see a shrew, get a cat.

    Your cat will bring you one every one in a while.

    • 23thorns says:

      yup. Our cat used to leave them under my bed when I was small, chewed up but still half alive. It added a whole new dimension to that whole “monsters under the bed” thing.

  10. Art Brûlant says:

    Another great article. Thanks! I can identify with your shrew encounter.

  11. I had no idea that shrews were so aggressive. I suppose I should have assumed that as I have taken more Shakespeare classes in my life than any one human should, but they always appeared so small and docile, it never occurred to me that they were badasses.

    As far as rats go, I addressed the topic in a blog post ( called “Don’t Be Such A Ratcist.” We used to have pet rats and they’re actually wonderful pets, but society reacts in interesting ways to unconventional pets. Great post. Curious about what’s coming in Part II!

  12. Vicky says:

    You liked my shrew-based working-from-home blog today. Which led me to you. Which led me to my new-found knowledge about the shrew, and why they need taming. I’m now shuddering at how close I came to being eaten by a shrew. I thank you, and will continue reading 🙂

    PS, I hope your son is doing well!

  13. I was a late developer, for me life began at 41, or at least the week I turned 41. Contrary to some readers, believe me it gets better. I’ve had 20 years of better now, so I know.

    As for cute and mostly cuddly… I’ll stick with Lixo, my cat, he’s cute and cuddly.


    • 23thorns says:

      I like getting older, myself. And I have spent the last forty years carefully preserving my body by not running anywhere, so I don’t even have to worry about my knees going.

  14. rohan7things says:

    Thanks for liking my post and bringing my attention to your blog! Really interesting stuff 🙂 Though I’m glad I found you blog now that you’re done with spiders, they scare me…alot O_o


  15. Entertaining, educational and humorous all in one!

  16. […] based discussion with Normal for Norfolk about how whoever gave us this particular plague (possibly started by Gerbils: The Bringers of Death) needs major revenge rained down upon […]

  17. David Kidane says:

    Nice i am knew to this blog but i like the posts i am seeing so far. I hope that you don’t slow even in middle age. Keep them coming!

  18. narf77 says:

    Hilarious, informative and entirely engaging…we forgive you your lack of posts, your 40ness and I hope your son feels better soon. Great to see your quality posts back again…now I have something entertaining to amuse me over my first morning cup of tea 🙂

  19. In case you’re not aware of it, there was a B-movie “The Killer Shrews” made in the 1950s, in which Dobermans dressed up in lumpy wigs played the part of giant shrews attacking the usual crew of bad actors. It is still available, and the Mystery Science 3000 version of it is even more hilarious. They don’t do any caravanning in the movie though.

    • 23thorns says:

      They were saving that for the sequel “Killer Shrews II; Caravan of Destruction”, but they had to call it off when the dobermans turned on their trainer. There are some things a self-respecting Doberman just will not do!

  20. Fascinating…I was told years ago that cats didn’t eat shrews because they were toxic, but now I know it’s because the cats are too feardy (as we say hereabouts) to take them on.
    We are surrounded by voles. And an unseen-except-for-the-burrow-entrances colony on the banks of the stream running through our garden, that my husband chooses to think of as ‘extra large voles’. (ssh… r*ts)
    I turned 42 this week and my birthday present appears to be arthritis in my right hand. And I’ve lost my sense of smell this year, which is no bad thing really, when sharing a house with teenage boys. When I turned 40, my friend John (a whole 6 months older) said ‘Happy 40th. Knees go first’. I said ‘yeah, yeah’ then 2 months later when I bent over to pick something off the floor, my left knee collapsed in agonising style. Nice. Happy birthday.

    • 23thorns says:

      Happy birthday to you, too. I like your husband already. Next time you go out for dinner, you can stop him every now and then to point out all the “huge dwarves”in the restaurant.

  21. creativedoll says:

    I just have to say that some of your picture comments made me laugh out loud… ‘look me in the eyes’… haha! By the way, the shrews looks cute.

  22. iago80 says:

    Great blog! I like your style – informative and witty.

  23. Joell says:

    Hey there! Thanks for the visit and like over at my blog! I enjoyed your post, except I find bat #2 really creepy and I might not be able to sleep tonight. And the moles, well, also creepy! The whole “no eyes” thing… But all of it very interesting! I am 3 years past forty and can heartily identify with the woes of aging! Alas, we press on! Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

  24. psychofab says:

    My sister has pet gerbils. I’ll have to start calling them the Bringers of Death.

  25. kalabalu says:

    tribute to the fluffy softness with tail and a nose, up and away, running or line up got it all. Great post. captured them and didn’t kill any, which was good.

  26. theh2obaby says:

    Excellent post! And playing to my new-found love of Afrotheria is only semi trippy, since I’m here because you liked my post on Tanzania (asante!). #6 must be a hyrax ~ look at those furry elephant toes. But beginning with bats? I have always •loved• bats. Their stats you give are impressive. Now, you’ve set yourself quite a bar for part 2.

  27. I so enjoy reading your posts! 40? – pshaw . . .still a youngster. I’ve heard that women are like fine wine . . .we get better with age. Not sure if that applies to men, tho.

  28. Ed says:

    Fascinating post and superb pics…Love the Queen reference, I was thinking of the Taming of the Shrew for most of the post, the rest just drove me batty…..:-)))))

    • 23thorns says:

      Shakespeare was wrong. Shrews cannot be tamed. If you forgot to feed even the meekest of shrews for 2 hours, the coroner would have a rather nasty cleanup job on his hands.

  29. I just lost my shit over the Queen mole rats. This whole post is amazing – I feel like I just got a biology injection.

  30. javaj240 says:

    Very savvy of you, disappearing for weeks and then writing killer gerbils and naked mole rats. Because we missed you, you know we’ll eat it up (much like the shrews to the termites). Thanks.

    • 23thorns says:

      How dare you suggest I would be so coarse as to write about naked mole rats. Our mole rats are fully clothed. The naked ones are from Kenya. Unmannered brutes!

  31. lylekrahn says:

    All the best with that business of adjusting to 40. At my age it seems like even the young men are getting old.

  32. James Corner says:

    I read an article the other day that stated that because people stay younger for longer nowadays, you’re not considered middle-aged until you’re forty five. So congratulations, you’re a young man again!

  33. Nylabluesmum says:

    How cool are all these critters?? I love Gerbils….well the thought of the…now knowing the carried Bubonic Plague has cooled me down considerably…..I’ll stick to cats….
    P.S.: Happy Birthday!!! 40 is NOT THAT bad….wiat til 50…then it all goes to H*LL in a handbag!!!! LOL.

  34. kelloggs77 says:

    Very cool. And you shouldn’t apologize for not blogging in a while. It’s not like we’re paying to read you. You gotta live life in the real world sometimes. Happy 40th, and I hope your son is doing well.

  35. And I thought you were watching the cricket! 😉 Happy birthday too. Hope the big four oh is good to you.
    AS for your afrotheria, they seem to be related (in weirdness at least) to our marsupials. Gotta love the weird and wonderful mammalia of our world.

  36. Julia Kovach says:

    Wow! Incredible photographs! And great information! Nicely done! xoJulia

  37. myoilpaints says:

    Welcome back. I thoroughly enjoy the humour that slips through everywhere. Hate to tell you that forty is a bit young to get you out of trouble…

  38. opreach says:

    Well done! And very well written. I will have to come back for part 2!!

  39. Marcia says:

    Ooooh, ooooh! Jumping up and down and waving hand in the air! Number Six is a dassie, Number Six is a dassie!!! I know this because 23 told me so about sixty-leven posts ago! See. I was paying attention.

    LOVE this post, 23. You’ve outdone yourself with this plethora of animal cuties (and not so cuties). I’m proud of you. Your other loyal fans will be proud of you. Heck, even Freddie Mercury would be proud of you!

    Congratulations on surviving turning 40. It only gets better from here. (Okay, that’s a dirty lie, but the truth is far too painful to share with you at your tender age.)

    Hope your son is doing well, and I can’t wait for Part 2!

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