If the rangers mistakenly identify a bird or something else, or mix up a scientific name when out in the field, the worst that will likely happen is a good-natured ribbing from the rest of the team. The ranger can quickly correct him- or herself, and if they really don’t know the answer, get back to camp and look it up. There aren’t really consequences to the mistake.
If you happen to be a newborn impala however, mistaking an adult male for your mother can mean the difference between life and death.
There are literally hundreds of impala lambs dotted about the reserve at the moment, and although the first few that were seen were more than enough reason to hit the brakes on the Land Rover, the fact that they are everywhere now means we aren’t stopping to view every single lamb. Driving around in the south-east a couple of days ago however, we noticed a rather odd pairing in the form of an adult ram with a small lamb next to him, which certainly necessitated a closer investigation.
At first we thought that the lamb’s mother must be somewhere hidden behind a bush nearby, but when we stopped to take some pictures, the lamb walked over to the ram and attempted to suckle from it. That was when we realised the young impala really was getting it wrong.
It immediately brought to mind one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons:
Imprinting is the process by which young animals acquire behavioural characteristics from their parents. The period immediately after birth is apparently most critical, as this is when the young of many species imprint on their biological mothers. Zebra foals stick right up against their mothers, apparently being forced to learn the shoulder pattern of her stripes so they can identify her in future, and impala ewes remove themselves from herds to give birth alone; partly so that the birth is hidden from the eyes of predators, but I imagine also partly so that the mother and lamb have a chance to form the bond that will be so critical to the young one’s survival.
The lamb needs to know who to follow when a predator is spotted, and importantly who to nurse from. If it imprints on the wrong individual, its chances of survival are slim.
In the incident in question, I don’t think it was as serious as all that. There was a herd of impalas not too far away containing numerous lambs and their mothers, and most likely the lamb had just been temporarily separated. Young lambs start to aggregate into creches after a couple of weeks, and the one we saw had probably just run in the wrong direction when the herd got spooked. It would then have simply gravitated towards the closest thing that resembled its mother.
The male it tried to suckle from was clearly having none of it though:
The bond between the mother and lamb works both ways; it is almost certain that the mother would be looking for her lamb, calling it with soft grunts. We drove off so as to give the lamb a chance to rejoin the herd, and although it was still trailing along behind the male, he was heading back towards the group of females that most likely contained the mother impala, so at least in this case, we’re confident the story had a happy ending.