Working at Londolozi you inevitably get to spend some quality time with different animals. On one occasion while we were watching a female leopard stalk an unsuspecting scrub hare, I couldn’t help but notice how her body posture changed, but more so how her tail changed. This sparked a curiosity about how a tail can give humans insight into an animal’s behaviour. Due to us not having a mutual linguistic approach to communicate to leopards, we rely on their body movements to try and predict and understand their behaviour. After many drives I found myself, out of sheer curiosity, drawn to the changes in an animal’s tails. So here are my observations and tales about animals and their tails:
A leopard’s tail plays an important part in their balance in aiding them to climb trees and hunt. It provides us with more insight into their behaviour – for example, if the leopard is feeling uneasy in the presence of another leopard or hyena, the end of their tail wiggles (for lack of a better word). This may be followed by hissing and is a displacement behaviour alerting the ‘intruder’ to their discomfort. While walking through the long grass, a leopard’s tail can be seen curled upwards which, in the long grasses of the summer months, aids us in being able to see them from some distance.It also indicates that this leopard may be wandering in their territory and scent marking and not necessarily trying to remain undetected.
Lastly which is my favourite observation of a leopard’s tail is that when they are actively hunting. Something may have alerted them to a nearby prey or noise which makes them stop dead in their tracks, motionless. Then after a few seconds the very tip of their tail flickers purposefully from side to side in a fluid motion. It is like they are pensively deciding as to what their next move might be.
A wild dog’s tails are a fascinating part of their anatomy. While moving through an area on their morning mission to hunt they trot along with their paint-brush-like tail dangling behind them. However, as soon as they take off at great speed, this tail becomes erect and sticks out in line with their spine as they bound across the landscape. Once they have managed to successfully catch something their tails bend backwards and fan out in an umbrella type display while the animals feed frantically over the food.
The infamous warthog’s tail is hard not to note. Their tail stands erect as soon as the warthog is fleeing from any situation. This is caused by a muscular contraction which constrict involuntarily at the base of the warthog’s tail. While the warthog is foraging the tail hangs behind with the odd flicker to swot off any flies.
A zebra’s tail always catches my attention due to the constant movement of it – I can’t help but get distracted by it. This elongated tail with long hairs falls just short of the ground. The tail itself is moderately long and the hairs protruding outwards create an impressive fly swatter which they use constantly while grazing in open grasslands. An interesting observation of these tails is when there is actually no tail at all or a portion of it missing. Many people assume it to be the result of an altercation with a predator of some sort however, contrary to this it is in fact most often from other zebras. When fighting, the teeth of these animals are exposed as their lips roll back, each of them trying to kick and bite each other while on their hind legs. The tail is then left swaying from side to side and unfortunately finds its way into the jaws of the other competitor and is then bittern off.
The tail of a rhino is a great insight into their comfort level at any given time. It is however, interesting to note that the tail of a black and white rhino can be interpreted differently. A white rhino calf will walk ahead of its mother when fleeing however a black rhino calf will follow behind. This may be a factor as to why a black rhino’s tail is curled upwards when running away for the calf to then follow. However, when a black rhino is alarmed or aware of a threat their tail stretches straight in line with their back signalling their level of discomfort. While the white rhino curls its tail upwards which shows that they are alarmed at something. A rather subtle difference but interesting to note.
This time of year is an important part of the ebb and flow of this ecosystem as the impala rut and predators capitalise on these tired and distracted rams. Impalas rutting is something I quite simply enjoy to observe, not only the unusual guttural sounds and facial absurdity of sticking their tongue out while rumbling but I in it I find a constant reminder as to how these animals in their own family social structure compete tirelessly for mating rights. Largely when one sees impala they are grazing in open areas and tend to tactfully edge away from a vehicle ‘herding’ one another. With male impalas rutting they chase each other out of a territory while trying to herd females to stay in their area. This is followed by rumbles and with their mouths open and tongues thrown out in a rather comedic fashion. Their tail is then flared outwards with the outer white fringe erect creating a fan. The tail is also exposed when the impalas are running away from predators or showing off their impressive stotting to try and persuade predators otherwise due to their athletic ability.
Finally, an elephants tail. Not so much of an indication of behaviour other than it being outstretched when an elephant is running parallel to the ground, it is the movement or lack thereof that one can use to identify its behaviour and comfortability. When an elephant is happily feeding and comfortable with your presence its tail will swish from side to side. It’s thick tail hairs, although sparse, create an incredible ‘phishing’ sound as they as whisk through the air. A sound like a wind blowing through trees all created by a movement of their tail. However, when an elephant is concerned about a threat of some sort, their tail hangs motionless which is a signal that they are aware of something.
I hope next time you may take a second look at animals and their tails and the subtle clues they hold for us.