The secret lives of animals


The secret lives of animals

DEBORAH STEINMAIR relishes fascinating animal facts, such as the steenbok burying its poo — just like a cat.


WE loved Chappies wrappers in the days before Google and Wikipedia. Did you know? we would read to one another.

Humans have always been interested in trivia and in classification, grouping species by kind. The father of taxonomy was the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who published the book Systema Naturae of 1735. We still want to know who and what belongs where.

Did you know an aardvark is not a pig and doesn't fit in anywhere? It is a genus and species on its own, the sole representative of the order Tubulidentata, which means “tube-toothed." This animal looks like a composite, like a children's book where you can combine the upper and lower parts of different animals to create new ones. Its snout looks like a pig's, its ears like a hare's and its tail like a kangaroo's.

Things get messy

Taxonomy is quite messy and confusing. An elephant shrew is not related to an elephant or a shrew. Elephant shrews are also not rodents; they are related to moles and hedgehogs. Hedgehogs are not related to porcupines. Hares are not rodents but lagomorphs. They have two pairs of incisors in the upper jaw, one behind the other, while rodents have only one pair. Fireflies are neither worms nor flies; they are insects of the Lampyridae family. The males can fly, while the females resemble worms.

Have you ever wondered whether to call a male goat a bull or a ram and its female a cow or an ewe? It has to do with size. All goats smaller than a nyala are rams and ewes. But even though a female impala is a ewe, her offspring is not a lamb but a calf.

There are no vampire bats in South Africa. Bloodsucking bats are found only in Central and South America. There is a protein in their saliva that prevents blood from clotting while they drink it. The name of the protein? Draculin. If bats didn't hang upside down, they would struggle to take off. Now the question arises: how do they manage to poo upside down? Their faeces are dry and resemble small, dark rice grains. They simply fall to the ground without leaving mess behind.

The genitals of elephants are not always clearly visible, but you can determine their sex by their head shape. Male elephants have broad, rounded foreheads. Females have narrower and more pointed ones.

Certain stinky animals are sought after for various reasons, and the musk gland near a civet's anus was used in perfumes such as Chanel No. 5. Thankfully, this practice was discontinued in 1988. Civet coffee is highly sought after among connoisseurs. It is made from coffee beans found in the animal's droppings. It is believed digestive enzymes give the coffee a delicate, smooth taste and rich aroma.

Penis births

The hyena is a comical animal that, according to folklore, is hermaphroditic. However, it is a myth that has arisen because the female has an organ that resembles a penis. It is actually an enlarged, elongated clitoris, and what appear to be testes are swollen labia. What is interesting, though, is that the cub weighing up to 1.5kg is born through the penis-like clitoris. Poor hyena mother. Then there is the question of whether hyenas are related to dogs, as it may seem. No. They are closer relatives of cats: Feliformia, cat-like carnivores.

Some animals may resemble each other while being unrelated, like the striped hyena and aardwolf. Humans tend to anthropomorphise animals and admire certain characteristics, such as mating for life. In reality, they are monogamous, a trait most commonly seen among birds. When a mate dies, they will take a new partner until death parts them. There are South African mammals that are also monogamous, such as jackals and duikers; and klipspringers are almost connected at the hip.

Have you ever wondered how porcupines mate? Carefully, according to the joke. Yes, the female backs into the male tail-first. Porcupines are also monogamous and mating is not a rare event for them — they do it every day. It is necessary for the female to keep her ovaries active. However, this is pseudo-mating. Actual copulation occurs once a month when the female is in heat.

Ablution areas

The book's title refers to the steenbok that buries its droppings like a fastidious cat. They have specific toilet areas in their territory. Number one and number two always happen together.

Have you noticed that male warthogs (boars) have four warts under their eyes and females have only two?

Wild dogs communicate by sneezing. The number of sneezes the pack gives determines whether they will go hunting or not. Certain dogs' sneezes count more than others. Are wild dogs hyenas or dogs? Neither of the two, but they belong to the same family as dogs, jackals and wolves, namely Canidae. Wild dogs cannot be domesticated. They will not accept a human as their pack leader like dogs and wolves. Wild dogs cannot reproduce with wolves or dogs either.

Have you ever wondered if zebras are white with black stripes or vice versa? They are black with white stripes. They are born black, and the lighter areas develop later when melanin is deactivated.

Geese sometimes fly upside down. They rotate their necks so their heads remain upright. This is called “whiffling". They do it to quickly lose altitude in order to evade birds of prey or to hunt.

Green-backed herons catch fish using bait, like little anglers. Ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand. This myth was spread by Pliny the Elder, a Roman author from 23-79 AD.

I skimmed through the sections on snakes and spiders with only one eye. Crocodiles do shed tears, especially while eating. It has nothing to do with emotion but is probably due to the hissing and snorting sounds they make while feeding.

There are certain things I knew but have forgotten, like butterflies tasting with their feet.

Why do mosquitoes target our feet? Because they are more fragrant than the rest of the body. Mosquitoes are low flyers, and feet and ankles are on their radar.

There is also information about plants, such as certain baobab trees being up to 1,800 years old but  blooming for only one day. The flower appears in the afternoon, is pollinated by bats overnight, and falls off the next day.

Quinton Coetzee's new book, The Buck that Buries its Poo is like an endless Chappies wrapper with hundreds of fascinating facts about the animal world. It's the perfect companion on a slow safari drive in the winter.

Coetzee has been a zoo director, safari guide and TV presenter of programmes such as Aardwolf and 50/50. He has always been fascinated by bizarre, unexpected, unlikely and astounding phenomena. Here he shares juicy facts he has gathered.

You wouldn't want to sit next to me at the next meal — I'd endlessly bombard you with Quinton's animal trivia.

What, where and how much? The Buck that Buries its Poo by Quinton Coetzee was published by Jonathan Ball and costs R224 at Graffiti.

♦ VWB ♦

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