My views on the relative intelligence levels of the various animals out here oscillate wildly. I’ve seen lions execute a perfect strategic ambush that had to have involved forethought, yet I’ve also seen them perform acts that are so imbecilic, they could have resulted in the deaths or at least serious injury of a number of individuals, without there having been any potential benefit.
Yet it’s impala that I’ve been wondering about lately. Given the rut that we’ve been spectating over the past few weeks, they’ve obviously been high up on everybody’s viewing lists, but as far as intelligence goes, I doubt whether anyone has been ranking them very highly. Quite the opposite in fact, given how little attention the males pay to their surroundings while vying for the attention of females, and how many have fallen prey to the large predators of Londolozi.
Yet while watching two males tussling this morning, I couldn’t help but wonder if they knew just what they were doing, and knew how to alleviate a certain amount of risk.
We’ve discussed the alarm calls of the various prey species before, and impalas feature prominently amongst the herbivores that tell us when a predator has been sighted. Leopards in particular, who rely largely on camouflage and the element of surprise to catch their prey, know the game is up when impalas see them and start sounding the alarm.
This was highlighted by a recent sighting of the Tamboti female, who we found as a direct result of the alarm calls of an impala herd. The leopard was walking along in typical fashion after being seen; tail held high, curled up over her back. Knowing she now had no chance of catching anything, she simply melted away into the bush.
Not 15 minutes later, we came across two fighting impala rams. Fairly regularly, between 10-second bouts of clashing horns, they would stop, stand erect, and sound an alarm. Not the rutting call that male impalas give at this time of year that can be confused with an alarm call, but the actual, proper, seen-a-leopard alarm snort. This of course attracted our attention, but each time the impalas had alarmed, they would then resume their head-butting efforts, so if there was a leopard there, they were being pretty blasé about it.
I’ve seen this behaviour many, many times before though, and I’ve wondered, as I did now, whether or not these impala are onto something.
By stopping and giving off what is to all intents and purposes a real alarm, do the males make any would-be predator think that it’s been spotted? An alarm call is certainly enough to make a stalking cat drop flat into the long grass. Maybe it’s not enough to make it give up the hunt entirely, but it certainly causes a delay in proceedings.
Over the aeons, with so many male impala being preyed upon during the rut, have they evolved a system of crying wolf, specifically to ward off the wolf?
I don’t know. Perhaps those barks are just snorts of defiance at each other.
But it is quite a nice thought that one or two males may have just survived to try and breed another day simply by shouting the impala equivalent of “I’ve seen you”, and having the stalking leopard think it’s actually been seen, and move off.