Halloween is celebrated by most of the world in the form of scary costumes, Jack-o’-lanterns, trick-or-treating and, if you’re brave enough, watching horror films. However out in the bush Halloween is just another day where survival instincts are relied on by prey, and precision, coordination and senses are heightened in predators.
As popular as the Big 5 are for safari-goers, what would be more appropriate for Halloween would be the Ugly Five. Although we can argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that the word ‘ugly’ could be replaced with something less harsh, there is no doubt that these animals are some of the most peculiar looking creatures. If there were ever to be a safari-themed horror film, these animals would probably make the cast without much of an audition. Despite often being maligned for their physical appearance, it is not a case of unlucky genetics that made them look the way they are. Quite the opposite in fact. All these species have evolved to be the most effective versions of themselves through natural design.
Without further ado, here are some animals with these so-called ‘ugly’ traits:
Vultures make it onto this list due to their scavenging behaviour and their looming presence around kills. And they can’t exactly be described as beautiful. They are often portrayed as harbingers of death (which is relatively accurate but should not be seen as sinister) and are frequently seen in dead trees. James Tyrrell recently shed some light on this in his blog: Why are Vultures always in Dead Trees?
‘For many people, the presence of a vulture is reminiscent to that of a crow. It signifies death or something that is about to die. Quite contrary to this, I believe it indicates life. “The circle of life” has become a cliched saying in many fields, yet it is highly pertinent in ours; without the death of certain animals, new life would be impossible, and in many ways, vultures are the embodiment of that. We should treasure these astonishing birds. We should educate the world about how much nature needs them.’ Read more by Werner Breedt in his blog: Vultures The Misunderstood Janitors.
The marabou stork sports a hairless, pink head, long skinny legs and drooping throat pouch. It’s no wonder that the French word marabou translates to ‘ugly, misshapen old man’. However unfortunate these features are, this stork is always fascinating to view walking through the Sand River. Their legs appear white in colour due to them urinating on them to regulate their body temperature, potentially another reason they have made it onto this list.
These birds fill a niche unoccupied by any other stork; their bare heads and necks are an adaption for feeding in deep carcasses. The pouch just under their beaks is not a crop but is actually a gular air sac functioning as a thermo-regulator. “Although these are not the most attractive of the storks, they play a hugely important ecological role in this natural system and are in fact listed as Threatened globally and Near Threatened in Southern Africa.” states Josephine Benecke in her blog: A Look at Life From a Stork’s Perspective.
I’m not sure how these little guys made it onto the Ugly 5 as I find them very quaint and love seeing their aerial-like tails scuttling through the grass (giving rise to their nick-name ‘the satellites of the bush’). Nevertheless, their wire-like hair, bristles and facial warts combine into a package that one can often only imagine a mother could love.
Their facial ‘warts’ are actually made up of think skin and cartilage to form protective pads for fighting other warthogs. Their mane hairs are useful in making the animal appear bigger to predators when erected. Thick white whiskers found on the sides of the piglets’ faces are actually a clever form of mimicry, appearing like adult tusks to predators. Their eyes are set high on their heads, assisting warthogs in keeping a lookout for predators even when feeding on short grass with their heads down. These animals are clearly suited for the environment they live in and you can’t deny that as piglets they may even be deemed as cute.
Hyenas are often portrayed as villains in books and films due to their kleptomaniac tendencies. The Lion King didn’t do them any favours, and in it these animals are seen as evil scavenger; in African folklore it is believed that hyenas represent witches in disguise. Despite having previously also shared these misconceptions, I have grown very fond of these creatures while working at Londolozi and I truly find them fascinating. If ever you’ve had the chance to see their adorable cubs emerging from a den, then you’d completely agree with me.
“In nature, every animal has its own niche it fits into. Whilst they do join vultures and form part of nature’s clean-up crew, cowardly scavengers they most certainly are not. Hyenas are in perfect harmony within the ecosystem we have all come to love on safari. They have an important symbiotic relationship with many animals. Diseases would be prevalent if hyenas didn’t exist as they will consume and digest dead carcasses, cleaning up the environment.” Read more in Hyenas: A Different Perspective blog by Alex Jordan.
A bit like the story of Frankenstein’s monster, a wildebeest has been said to appear as though it has been assembled from a variety of animals. With bovine horns and a mane and tail like a horse, one could see how the wildebeest shares many of its features with a wide array of other animals.
Wildebeest are perfectly designed to accommodate their migratory behaviour. Their shoulders are positioned high on their bodies creating a slanted back, allowing them to canter for long distances with minimal energy expenditure. The calves of wildebeest are the most developed antelope at birth (they can stand within a few minutes), also supposedly to fit into their migratory lifestyle. They also ensure the continuum of grasslands by trampling other plant species and in turn are assisting many other species. These animals are truly remarkable.
The Ugly 5 are some of the most fascinating to view at Londolozi. Their seemingly bizarre physical features lend themselves to survival and are perfectly adapted to the environment they live in. Africa simply wouldn’t be Africa without these beautifully diverse creatures.