Thursday, July 29, 2010

Gangly games

When you were a child, did you ever play Red light/green light?

It's one of those backyard games where everybody lines up, except for 'it' who stands, back turned, at the far end of the yard. The players try to creep up and touch 'it' without being seen to move. 'It' can swing round at any time, and if he/she spots someone moving, that person must go back to the starting line.

Well, I've been playing Red light/green light for several days.
And I'm always 'it'.

No, I haven't suddenly developed a passion for amusing small children; in fact, my playmates are considerably bigger than I am.

It all started when Bugbears decided to sleep for several nights at a termite mound located on an open, grassy knoll. With the chilly nights, the mongooses like to start their day slowly, lounging around the mound for several hours, soaking up the sun, grooming and playing. As a result, I've been spending quite a lot of time lounging around there too.

Now, open hilltops are the favoured haunt of mother giraffes; it's easier to spot someone sneaking up on your calf. But when you munch leaves, open grasslands are a bit of a bummer, so giraffe Mums deposit their young in a crèche - tended by just one or two adults – before stepping out for a bite to eat. One such crèche, of up to six gangly calves, has been whiling away its time near Bugbears' mound.

When I first arrive in the morning, and sit down to observe Bugbears, all the giraffes watch me from a distance. Within moments, the adults return to nibbling treetops, but the youngsters keep staring intently. Every time I glance back at them, they're all lined up gawking. Although they're always standing perfectly still, legs splayed out and necks very erect - clearly poised for flight - they're appreciably closer than the last time I looked. This goes on for around 20 minutes, and as they silently creep closer and closer, I begin to feel unnerved. They could be teleporting for all I know; I can almost hear the Twilight Zone music.
Eventually, when they're only about 8 metres (25 ft) away from me, someone suddenly loses their nerve and they all whirl around and galumph away. Of course, this loss of courage is marked by an immense crashing and thundering, which makes both me and the mongooses jump in fright.
Once the young giraffes have recovered their composure (and I'm sure they're all giggling in a silent giraffey way), the whole game starts over again.

Three of the culprits.

I try to be tolerant. I figure giraffe calves deserve a certain amount of leeway: growing into a 4.5 metre stilt-walker isn't easy. By the time these guys reach adulthood, they'll have had to grow an immense heart (weighing 11 kilos, and measuring 0.6 m long) just to get blood up to their brain. And their gushingly high blood pressure (twice that of the most cholesterol-clogged human) is a constant peril; their brain only avoids damage by hiding behind a special bed of capillaries that diffuses the spurting flow. On top of this, giraffes need to grow lungs eight times bigger than our own, just to get a breath of fresh air. If we tried to use a two metre long windpipe, our lungs would draw in and exhale the same stale air, over and over, until we asphyxiated.

Dad checking his charges. The lower legs of giraffes have extremely tight skin to prevent fluids pooling at their ankles, and the blood vessels are deeply internal so minor wounds don't result in high-pressure blood spurting everywhere.

Apart from these logistical hassles, giraffes (like most of us) have inherited all sorts of design flaws from their forebears. Take their laryngeal nerve, which runs from the brain to the larynx (a distance of a couple of inches). In mammals, this nerve casually loops through the blood vessels near the heart before heading to the larynx. While this is a tenable route in 'normal' animals (including the giraffe's squat ancestors) when you add neck-extensions, it becomes absurd. The giraffe's laryngeal nerve zips two metres down its neck, loops around the heart and then zooms all the way back up again to the larynx. No wonder giraffes don't say much.

After an hour or so of Red light/green light, the little giraffes at Bugbears grow weary and wander off to lie down in a cluster in the long grass. They usually sit with their necks erect and their horn-topped faces just showing above the grass. Giraffes are the only animal to get their horns in the womb. No, your concern for Mum is misplaced; the horns are made of cartilage and lie flattened against the calf's skull until after it's born. It's the newborn you should be sympathising with: mother giraffes stand up to drop their calves. Literally drop. Can you imagine a ruder introduction to the world than plummeting two metres to the ground? It's enough to make anyone's horns stand on end.

Refuelling stop. Like all ruminants, giraffes have a four-chambered stomach for breaking down vegetation, but when a giraffe calf suckles it stimulates the opening of a special groove within its stomach which shunts the milk past the rumen (fermentation vat) so it's digested immediately.

I must admit that very young giraffe calves - although undoubtedly cute - give me the creeps. They remind me of plesiosaurs or strange sea monsters because their necks move with complete snake-like flexibility. A giraffe's neck is made up of only seven vertebrae (like yours), but (unlike yours) each one is linked to the next via a ball and socket joint (similar to your shoulder joint). This allows movement in almost every direction (like your arm). Although this wondrous flexibility isn't especially noticeable in adult giraffes, whose neck vertebrae are almost a foot long, in stumpy-necked calves it's utterly alarming!

Maybe tomorrow Bugbears will decide to sleep in a different termite mound, and the giraffe creche will have to find someone else to play with.

 Recent research on captive giraffes has found that the species uses infrasound (very low frequency) calls that are entirely inaudible to humans.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The dry season

This is me trying to walk quietly at my study site.

Rattle... scuff... rustle, rustle... crackle...
This is a passing mongoose.

Ah, the dry season. It's like being lost in a watercolour painting: everything is muted cream, fawn or gold.
With no rain since May, the corkwood and marula trees have now lost their leaves, and the smaller shrubs are busily shedding. This profligate loss of foliage has turned my world into wall-to-wall, crispy leaves. The mongooses have to burrow beneath this crunchy layer to hunt for food. Like a cartoon mouse under a carpet, they create moving eruptions of leaves as they pursue bugs 'below leaf', and then pop back up into the daylight crowned with leaf fragments. I get nervous that I'll inadvertently step on someone who's resting under cover.

The autumnal colours of a red bushwillow (Combretum apiculatum). Humour me, OK. This is the nearest I get to 'Fall'.

The colourful senescence of a blue thorn (Acacia erubescens), the most hated plant in the lowveld (well, in my study site at least). It has wicked black-tipped thorns (indestructible) and yellow papery bark that peels off (probably as a result of the caustic verbal abuse heaped upon it by those unfortunate enough to brush it).

As the dry season progresses, my popularity at the study site grows. And not just with the mongooses.

This morning, when I placed a small bowl of water at the foot of Ecthelion's termite mound (bribery's a vital part of maintaining good relations with one's study subjects), I was beleaguered by a twittering cloud of locals.
With no access to standing water for about eight months of the year, the resident fauna is adapted to scrounging sufficient moisture from its victuals. But just because the locals can survive without drinking, it doesn't mean they don't like a drink.

Happy hour at Halcyon.

While Ecthelion crowded around the water, the waxbills and fire-finches gathered in the surrounding bushes, chirping for all they were worth. The moment the mongooses turned their backs, the birds fluttered down en masse, to jostle at the bowl's rim. Generally, adult mongooses ignore these thirsty interlopers, even though they'll prey on birds unable to fly. But juvenile mongooses are another story.
Moxa, the youngest member of Ecthelion, was in top form today. Every time he glimpsed the waxbills and fire-finches crowded around the water bowl, he'd hurtle into their midst, leaping up to half a metre in the air and plummeting down among them. With a great whirring and clatter of wings, the birds fled, simply resuming their perches above the bowl and leaving Moxa to crouch fiercely by the dish (like a runner awaiting the starter's gun), glaring up at them with alarming intensity. I haven't figured out whether this activity – popular with all mongoose pups - is a game or a serious attempt at predation (it's never successful). However, Moxa certainly seemed peeved at the audacity of mere prey items, and I secretly sympathised with him. The birds don't just filch a sip of water, they can't resist taking a bath as well, wantonly splashing water everywhere and - to my neurotic mind – transmitting their 'bird germs' (avian TB, psittacosis??) to my mongooses.

Blue waxbills (Uraeginthus angolensis) wetting their whistle. By the end of the dry season, clouds of these little guys accompany me while I search for the mongooses, waiting impatiently to thieve the mongooses' water.

 Of course birds aren't the only thirsty locals. This morning a rough-scaled plated lizard (who resides at this particular termite mound) cautiously joined the fray. Even when sharing a home, he and the mongooses ignore one another; an act of great forbearance on the lizard's part, considering that the juvenile mongooses like to pounce on him in play. The only time his equanimity falters is when they gnaw on his legs; then he whisks around with unexpected agility to lash at them with his tail (much to their excited delight).

Rough-scaled plated lizards (Gerrhosaurus major) won't indulge in drinking games. They're omnivores and during the winter dry season they like to make a meal of fresh mongoose faeces (arrgh! I'm trying to document the size of mongoose latrines!).

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Avian chimera?

When I was a child, one of my most treasured possessions - second only to my collection of plastic model animals - was an encyclopaedia of vertebrate animals (OK, I was a pathetic kid). I'd spend hours studying the entries, from aardwolf to zorilla, and hungering for all the wonderful creatures that lived where I didn't.
My enthusiasm was largely restricted to fur-covered beasts, but there was one exception. One image, of a bird, kept catching my attention. It didn't look like a bird. It was a small fluffy creature clothed in soft greys, with a fuzzy crest and long tail. It was dangling underneath a tree branch and flaunting a tummy as smooth and round as a well-fed kitten's. My book said it was a mousebird (a name that seemed as strange as sphinx or griffin), and it belonged to an ancient order found only in Africa.

Haunted by this image, I was determined, when I finally made it to Africa (the Mecca of mammal-devotees), to find a mousebird and see whether the photo in my childhood 'bible' had lied.
What I found surpassed my expectations: mousebirds don't just look strange, they're delightfully weird.

Unlike other birds, a mousebird's feathers don't grow in orderly tracts (lines), they sprout out recklessly all over the body, giving the bird a furry look. This photo, of a local speckled mousebird (Colius striatus), was borrowed from here.

Even as I write this, a small flock of red-faced mousebirds is whistling from the bushes outside my window. I still feel a thrill on seeing them. Although demure in cinnamon and grey, this species sports a scarlet Zorro mask and a pencil tail. But what's really cool about mousebirds is the way they scurry through the branches. When feeding, they dangle beneath the branch with legs splayed sideways, hang upside down from grappling-hook toes or use their bill to haul themselves up to higher branches. They can do these weird, un-birdlike things because their legs are set unusually far forward and they've got two reversible toes (that is, they can swivel to point either forward or backward; not that they can be worn inside-out).

Among their other strange habits, mousebirds seduce their lovers with a bouncing courtship dance in which they bob up and down so vigorously their feet leave the perch. Photo by Martin Heigan.

But if you look closely at what these little birds are doing, as they scamper about the bushes, you're in for a shock. They're harvesting leaves! Their beaks have a sharp cutting edge (called a tomium) specially designed for cutting up veggies. Although they also like to feast on fruit, flowers and buds, at suppertime, young leaves is their dish of choice.
Not shocked?
Then tell me, how many small birds have you seen munching leaves??
There's a good reason for this (no, not poor observation skills). Leaves are dismally low in calories (ask any dieter) and folivores (leaf-eaters) must eat loads if they're to get the energy they need; a problem when it comes to getting airborne. What's worse, leaves are mighty difficult to digest. The only way to break down the cellulose is by fermentation with the help of gut-dwelling microorganisms; and these little guys work sloooowly.

Of the world's six mousebird species (all of whom call Africa home), two hang out around here. This is the red-faced mousebird (Urocolius indicus). Photo borrowed from here.

So how do vegan mousebirds cope?
Firstly, they're seriously into energy-saving. At night the flock huddles tightly in a rugby scrum, which lets each bird save 40-50% on its overnight heating bills. And on chilly nights, or when food is scarce, mousebirds don't even try to stay warm; they cold-bloodedly sink into a torpor, letting their body temperature fall by 8-10 degrees C. Once the sun rises, they hang about basking, feathers fluffed out, until they're feeling their usual hot-blooded selves (41.5 C). This helps them get by on fewer calories.

And how does a small flighty bird cope with a huge bellyful of rotting leaves? By restricting their leaf-munching to the late afternoon. In this way, they've got all night to digest their burdensome meal, freed from the need to find their wings.

Speckled mousebirds stoking up their leaf-fermentation vats (i.e. warming their tummies in the sun). Photo by Martin Heigan.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Surprises, mischief and loss

After Saturday's poaching fiasco, I felt very apprehensive about venturing back into the bush.
I kept picturing myself stumbling upon wounded dogs or disembowelled wildlife. Or, worst of all, finding my mongooses mauled or missing.

My anxiety levels were on the rise (I hadn't been able to find Koppiekats or Ecthelion) when a large dog-like animal lumbered out of a bush at my feet. My heart sank. It's not unusual for poachers to leave a dog behind, and I've tried before (unsuccessfully) to help these pathetic, starving creatures. But my dread turned instantly to delight as I realised that it wasn't a dog at all; it was a civet.

I adore African civets. They're decked out in amazingly luxuriant fur, blotched garishly in black and white, and they look like huge soft toys. They usually only prowl about at night, so it's a rare privilege to glimpse one (I've written about them before here). This one quickly disappeared into the vegetation, but I felt I'd received a gift and continued my search for Ecthelion with a lighter heart.

African civets (Civettictis civetta) aren't fussy about what they munch, happily scoffing fruit and veggies, insects, snails and carrion. They also hunt vertebrates up to the size of new-born antelope (e.g. mongooses) and are one of the few creatures to dine on large millipedes (which exude toxins). Image borrowed from here.

Click here to see a photo on one pinching leftovers; I love his portly profile.

It wasn't long before I found Ecthelion or rather they found me. Firstly I glimpsed a small black shape hurrying toward me and then excited mongooses appeared everywhere, some calling (they use the same high-pitched squeak they give when looking for lost group members) and others clambering up on boulders to weave eagerly back and forth (the mongoose equivalent of waving).
Why was I getting all this attention? I don't radio-collar my study animals (see here for an explanation), so if I'm to find the three-inch-high critters (in their 40 ha home range), it's important that they want to be found. To ensure a warm welcome, I reward them each time I join the group with some boiled egg, a few mealworms or some water. So during the winter dry season, when bugs are scarce, they're often very pleased to see me.

Ecthelion all came bouncing around eagerly, and I crouched down to try to count them (counting swarms of mongooses features regularly in my nightmares). Was anyone missing? I was so busy peering at individuals trying to identify who was present, I didn't notice one of the youngsters, Thor, creeping toward my backpack. Flattened against the ground, he inched forward, closer and closer, and then leapt up to seize the plastic bag poking out of the side pocket of my pack. He raced off at full gallop, the plastic bag - containing a boiled egg - flapping wildly behind him.

Thor (EM038) plotting egg theft.

The pilfering of 'egg bags' is an occupational hazard when working with mongooses. The meerkats were master criminals; some even learnt how to open zippers. One meerkat pup perfected the technique of clambering up his victim's back, onto their head, and then launching himself into the air. He'd plummet down onto the hand holding the egg bag, fixing his teeth in the plastic as he passed and letting gravity carry him - and the bag - away (it worked every time). While the dwarf mongooses are comparatively unsophisticated larcenists, they do tend to drag their spoils off down a burrow, so I immediately rushed after Thor. Unfortunately, I left behind the mealworm container, open and unguarded beside my pack. Returning with the slightly chewed egg bag, I found Jen and Binky (named after Death's horse in the Terry Pratchett novels) madly excavating bran from the container and gorging themselves on worms.

Once I'd regained a semblance of control, I was able to figure out that no one was missing from Ecthelion. The same transpired to be true of Koppiekats and Halcyon. Unfortunately, Bugbears was not so lucky. Melursus, a youngster born last Christmas, is AWOL and he almost certainly fell victim to the poachers' dogs. Thankfully no one else in the group appears to be injured, so it could have been much worse.

Melursus (BF034) at two months of age.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The killers return

I did NOT enjoy my time with the mongooses yesterday.

I arrived at the study site to find a stake-out.
Rangers and other reserve staff lined the road. Someone had heard dogs barking: the poachers were back.

Poaching using hunting dogs is popular here, and the pack of dogs kills any animal it comes across, including mongooses. (I wrote about the consequences of their last visit here.)

"They're in there", said a ranger I met on the road, waving his hand directly at Koppiekats' territory.
Arrgh! This reserve is 3,000 ha in size; 6,000 ha if you count the adjoining reserve (no fences in between). My habituated mongooses use a total of 200 ha. What are the odds of the poachers choosing my study site? Twice!

The reserve staff (which included giggling domestic workers, gardeners and anyone one else they could rope in) seemed to have Ecthelion's and Koppiekats' ranges surrounded, so I decided Halcyon was the choice of the day. Located about ¾ km beyond the stake-out, I figured it should be OK if I kept my eyes and ears open.

 Pleaides (KF005) watching for danger at Koppiekats.

About 20 minutes later, I was sitting watching the mongooses stretch and yawn in the early sun when I heard something large approaching through the bush. It didn't sound like any animal I was familiar with, and I spent a couple of minutes straining to identify the sounds: wildebeest... eland... zebra? As the noises drew closer I came to the unpleasant conclusion that if it was nothing I recognised, it had to be a person (I told you I was a hermit). Heart thumping, I was just edging toward the mongooses' termite mound (to get discretely out of sight) and fumbling with my cell phone (to notify the rangers), when a man clambered up the embankment about 20m away from me. It wasn't an employee of the reserve, and no one I recognised. Fingering the pepper spray in my pocket, I continued to reverse toward the mound. I figured that the moment he saw me, he'd head the other way fast, so it was with a shock of horror that I watched him catch sight of me and swing round to come over. I only had time for a couple of gulped breaths before I saw he was carrying a walkie-talkie (a cunning prop?... nah, poachers aren't that affluent). Yet I was still unable to calm my racing heart. It transpired that he was an employee on the neighbouring reserve who'd seen my arrival from the far hillside, where he and his fellows were tracking footprints. He'd come over to let me know that they were there, so I wouldn't panic if I saw them (too late!).

After his departure, I attempted to recover my composure. Watching small animals snoozing in the sun, combined with deep breathing, is most therapeutic so I was almost back to normal when the shooting started. A loud volley of shots rang out, followed by another; and another. It was coming from the direction of the stake-out and, although it was distant enough not to endanger me, I was unnerved, having no idea of what was going on. I figured that the rangers were probably doing the shooting (because poachers with guns shouldn't need dogs) or at least I hoped that was the case. Meanwhile the mongooses went into a complete panic. They're not afraid of gun fire, but every grey lourie within a 5 km radius cried out in alarm, and the mongooses take lourie alarms VERY seriously.

 Grey louries (Corythaixoides concolor) are now officially named grey go-away-birds after their loud calls. My mongooses take the warning to heart, fleeing to cover for 85% of lourie alarm calls, compared with 50% of tree squirrel alarms and 42% of hornbill alarms.
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

When the second round of shooting broke out, closer this time, I began to think that maybe I should just go home. I was sitting debating the pros and cons (scientific commitment versus personal safety) when the squirrels down by the creek erupted in a frenzy of alarms. A large black dog came loping past me. He was on a mission and took no notice of me or the wildly fleeing mongooses, but I began to suspect that this was not the place to be. The mongooses came to the same conclusion, deserting their sleeping mound to race off in the opposite direction to the dog. This made me even more anxious; they'd have been much safer just retreating back to bed. Still, there was nothing I could do to protect them, so I gave up and went home.

The rangers didn't manage to catch the poachers but they shot six dogs (more innocent victims). However, since there were at least twelve dogs in the pack (how much poaching do you need to do just to maintain twelve large dogs?), these animals are still rampaging in my mongooses' home ranges. I'm hoping the dogs will be too spooked by the shooting to indulge in much hunting, but who knows.
Once I got home, I found I really was quite stressed, so decided to take today off (it is Sunday after all). Tomorrow is soon enough to assess the casualties.

The reserve in which I work, on a more peaceful morning.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Noisy neighbours

This morning I was woken at 3 am by a heart-stopping bellow.

It was a hippo, standing at the garden fence, two metres from my bedroom window.

Hippos bellow at a volume of 115 decibels. A jack hammer at five metres has a volume of 100 decibels, and 107 decibels is the level at which you begin to feel pain. So this was a bit of a shock. Of course, at that hour any noise sounds unnaturally loud. I wondered sleepily whether to stagger out and measure the din with my nifty little decibel meter (which I use for playback experiments with the mongooses), but drowsiness overcame scientific curiosity.
I don't think the hippo intended it as a personal message, he was simply answering other hippos, near and far, who were also bellowing their hearts out. I've no idea why.

 A hippo's huge lower incisors and scimitar-like canines (bigger in males than females) are designed solely for fighting. When cropping grass, hippos use the hard inner linings of their lips, then grind up the spoils with their rear molars. Photo by Arno Meintjes.

Rude awakenings aside, I love living right next door to one of the world's last species of megafauna. I adore hearing them snuffle and snort, and grunt and chortle, throughout the day. At night, of course, I never know when a hippo is going to trundle by, leaving behind splashes of chaff-like faeces sprayed on prominent trees or shrubs. One evening I walked right into a hippo that was standing in the front yard. The dogs were madly barking, and I assumed it was at the resident porcupine, so I dashed out with an armful of root vegetables (see here for an explanation of this bizarre reaction). I wasn't using a flashlight so I didn't see the hippo (they are dark grey) until I was about one metre away. We both stared at one another for a moment and then I fled. They don't seem to eat root vegetables.

While the hippos around here always behave with the utmost courtesy, I've heard scary stories of them attacking people further upstream, where they cultivate mangos and tensions run high. You see, in the dry season the hippos venture into the orchards in pursuit of the lush grass, but they inadvertently break the trees so the orchardists shoot them. Consequently the hippos don't feel too fond of people. If you've ever wondered what it'd be like to be chased by an angry hippo, you can see some dramatic photos of it here (it's worth looking at all three shots).

The hippo's closest living relatives are the whales, but they no longer keep in touch. Whales and hippos have their own order, called – wait for it - Whippomorpha (who is responsible for these names??) 

When I first came to Africa, hippos were the species I found most shocking and delightful. You see rivers and lakes look pretty much the same the world over (the usual bog standard plants and ubiquitous waterfowl), so when you're driving over a bridge on the highway and glance down, you're subconsciously expecting to see a duck or an egret, or maybe even a kingfisher. The sight of a massive great mammal lolling in the water is an utter shock. After six years living in the low veld, I think I've become used to them because when I travel overseas I find myself staring disconsolately at waterways, feeling bereft.

I have to admit that I initially assumed hippos to be slow, lethargic animals, fully preoccupied with their own watery concerns. I couldn't have been more wrong. Take a stroll down to the river bank and every eye is on you; constantly. Hippos are very astute and immensely interested in any comings and goings on land. For example, about a month ago I was defrosting my freezer (which sits in a roofed area outside) and I accidentally dropped a large bag of dog bones (that's bones for dogs, not bones of dogs; contrary to the signs, I'm not a psychopathic killer). The bones made a stupendous clatter hitting the concrete floor, which set the hippos bellowing, their calls relaying - animal to animal - both up and down river. 'Oh dear', I thought, feeling strangely embarrassed by the cacophony I'd caused, 'they won't be grazing around here tonight.' Half an hour later, as soon as it got dark, three huge hippos appeared at my back fence, peering in to find out what all the noise was about.

Relaxing in the bath all day doesn't just help you escape from the heat, bugs and predators, it lets you take the weight off your feet. And when you're hippo-sized (up to 3000 kg) buoyancy is a real energy saver. In water, a hippo's pulse drops from 60 to 20 beats per minute and its breathing slows from 7-10 breaths per minute to less than one. Now that's what I call winding down! Photo by Louise Meintjes.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Aromatic antelope

I've committed a dreadful crime.
I didn't mean to. It was accidental.

It happened after the return of my errant water supply. I was so bewitched by the miracle of water-on-tap that I succumbed to a cleaning urge (always a bad idea). And now I think I've seriously blighted the breeding prospects of an innocent bystander. He's probably out there right now negotiating divorce proceedings.

After washing the dishes and scouring the kitchen, I thought I'd tackle the cats' litter tray (my, this is a gripping story). I carted two-litres of soggy clay and unpleasant chunky bits outside and - as usual - tossed it into the dense undergrowth beyond my back garden wall. Unfortunately, the vegetation was inhabited. As the reeking litter rained down, a very startled grey duiker shot out of the bushes. He stared at me a moment, nostrils distended, before leaping away in jinking flight.

Now being showered with a kilogram of used cat litter mightn't seem that bad (it's not life-threatening, after all). But you aren't a duiker (I assume). Duikers are knee-high antelope that creep about in thick vegetation. And scent is their all-important mode of communication.

Grey (or common) duikers (Sylvicapra grimmia) are a veritable treasure trove of scent glands. They've got them between their toes, in their groin and in slits beneath their eyes. These 'preorbital' glands consist of three different secretory layers which ooze a sticky, black concoction. Photo by A Meintjes.

Duikers live in monogamous pairs, and they smear their smelly secretions on trees and bushes to mark out their territory. But, more importantly, aromatherapy is a vital part of duiker courtship. During the final stages of foreplay, the couple presses their preorbital glands together, first on one side and then the other, which releases a heady rush of scent. So what's going to happen when my victim rocks up to the marital shrubbery reeking of cat pee? Grey duikers breed all year round (unlike the other antelope species here) so I'm hoping his spouse is already in the family way, and my vile misdemeanour won't diminish duiker numbers.

 Male grey duikers (who wear the horns) come at a run if their offspring utter distress bleats. He and his spouse will not only attack small predators, they'll butt large male baboons and three-metre-long pythons. Photo by A Meintjes.

So how did yesterday's calamity happen? One or two duikers often skulk in the undergrowth below my back garden, nibbling on flowers and seeds, sniffing out fallen fruits and snacking on carefully selected leaves. They like to poke about beneath the trees when the vervet monkeys are foraging above, retrieving any goodies that the monkeys let fall. I'm always amazed to see my dogs (who chase anything that moves) just sitting calmly watching the duikers walk past. The little antelopes adopt a strange erratic gait: they take half a tentative step, freeze for a second with hoof upraised, complete the step, freeze again, and so on. You've probably seen footage of chameleons moving in just this way. These broken, jerky movements don't seem to trigger the dogs' 'chase' instinct, and I've vowed, that if I'm ever confronted by a large carnivore, I'll give it a try.

Duikers also have another trick, which was the cause of yesterday's accident. If a duiker thinks it hasn't been spotted, it sinks gently down to the ground, in one fluid movement reminiscent of a curtseying courtier. Regardless of how often I see this, I'm always shocked; one just doesn't expect a small, flighty animal to lie down in the face of danger. I can't stop myself wondering if they're closet narcoleptics. So yesterday's duiker was actually lying in the vegetation at my feet, cryptically waiting to be showered with cat excrement.


Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth? Don't be fooled. Grey duikers happily munch carrion, and stalk and kill birds and mice. Photo by A Meintjes

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