A guest recently asked me an interesting question regarding porcupines; “how do they mate?”. A great question, considering the positioning of the quills (see image below). I found my reference book’s answer quite amusing: “Very carefully”.
So they do mate in the conventional manner, the quills not seeming to pose any obstruction. Interestingly enough, along with dolphins, pygmy chimps and humans, porcupines are known to mate for reasons other than just breeding (enjoyment). It is thought that this non-reproductive mating ritual strengthens the monogamous bonds this rodent forms with its partner.
The quills – which are essentially modified hairs – are an excellent defence. When threatened the porcupine begins stamping its feet like a teenager at a trance-party, causing the non-hollow quills to shake and rattle against one another, creating a loud rattling noise which usually deters predators, even lions and leopards. The quills cannot be shot out as is commonly believed, but rather are jabbed into the predator as the porcupine lunges backwards toward it.
The porcupine is tough, but the Honey Badger may be the toughest animal about, and as some of you may have heard on the famous YouTube clip, he really doesn’t care. There are many, many clips online of the fights this brawling badger seems to get itself into. Be they with lions, hyenas, jackals or leopards, this fearless little mammal will defend itself so vigorously that most of the time the predators end up leaving it alone.
The genus name Mellivora literally means honey eater, and along with its common name, honey badger, one can infer that this animal is a big honey fan. It will tear into a bee hive, taking thousands of stings in the process, to get its sweet fix. If you didn’t think it was hardcore enough, the badger hunts and kills extremely venomous snakes, sometimes being bitten in the process. It is known to sleep off the effects of the venom only to wake and then finish off the meal! How the badger manages to survive this injection of venom is the fascinating part and perhaps needs to be covered in another post. But in short, like the mongoose, the honey badger has developed resistance by altering its chemical receptors, essentially blocking the toxins of the snake venom.
Yes, we are moving in order of rare sightings on Londolozi.
Pangolins, with their scaly exterior, look like armadillos but are more closely related to sloths and anteaters.
Their plated shell, like a porcupine’s quills, is made up of keratin and is so hard that when they roll up into a ball in defence, the jaws of lions or even hyenas cannot penetrate it. This usually turns into what might seem like a soccer game, ending with the predator losing interest eventually. Amazingly, when a young pangolin is threatened in the presence of the parent, it will be scooped up by the guardian and encased in this impenetrable “ball”.
We come now to the final and least often seen: the Aardvark (directly translated from Afrikaans as earth-pig, although no relation to the pig). Hiding out during the day in excavated holes made in termite mounds or in destroyed ant nests where they may have been feeding, they are very seldom encountered. In fact some of the most experienced trackers at Londolozi, when asked if they had ever seen one, confidently replied “YES… dead and hoisted into a tree by a leopard“.
In that long proboscis it harbours an impressive 12 inch (30 cm) adhesive tongue that it uses to lick up an estimated 50 000 insects (mostly ants and termites) every night. It is also this unusual proboscis that has generated the theory that the African elephant may be the aardvark’s closet relative. In a study comparing amino acids of the aardvark – a genetic oddity as it is the only member of its order – to species from 15 other mammalian orders, it was found that its closest relatives are not only the African elephant, but also hyraxes (dassies) and sea cows (all of these families belong to a general group of primitive ungulates called uranotherians)
What is crazy is that these rarely seen nocturnal animals, like the pangolin and aardvark, are around everyday, just hidden underground.
Just to see even one would be a dream, but given that some rangers here have taken 5 years to see their first pangolin (some have still never) and Aardvarks are about as common as unicorns, I may never get my chance…!