Article 04. Interesting Mammals found in and round Rooiels

One cannot miss the baboons in Rooiels, but we have many other small mammals in Rooiels.

Ian Milne investigates.

Zorrilla (African striped Polecat)
A zorilla , or African striped polecat, was captured by our camera in the leopard cave. Although widespread in most of sub-Saharan Africa, this small member of the family Mustelidae, cousin of the honey badger or ratel and our Cape clawless otters, is almost exclusively nocturnal and solitary and seldom seen. The Afrikaans name “stinkmuishond”, although not accurate as it is not a mongoose (muishond), is very descriptive, as one thing that it can do very well is produce a stink. When threatened it excretes a foul-smelling liquid from its anal glands. I know from handling one when working in the Johannesburg Zoo that it is extremely difficult to get rid of the smell. In combination with an impressive display of standing tall and fluffing up its hair, this has been known to discourage even a brown hyena (Rowe- owe 1997). The name “zorilla” is from the Spanish “zorro”, meaning fox. Those familiar with stories of the Robin Hood type character Zorro will see the likeness in the black facemask. Smaller than our “small grey mongoose” we often see around Rooiels, their diet consists of insects, spiders, scorpions, small mammals (mostly mice) and young birds and eggs. Very little is known about what the diet would look like in the coastal fynbos, but I imagine that, in addition to the items mentioned, they would also take crabs and frogs.


Pic: Anthony Bannister

Honey Badger or Ratel
Another member of the family Mustelidae and generally more well-known, is the honey badger. We have been lucky enough to have badgers show up on the cameras in the leopard caves, but they are seldom actually seen. Ratels are legendary for their strength and tenacity. While working in the Kruger, one of my colleagues witnessed a wrestling match between a ratel and a large python. This went on for over four hours before the ratel eventually triumphed. Ratels associate with the greater honey-guide (heuningvoëltjie) which will lead the badger to a beehive to tear open for honey. The bird is then rewarded with the remaining scraps of honeycomb. A friend and ex-colleague of mine who was studying brown hyenas in the Kgalagadi observed four spotted hyenas chase a badger into a tree. The badger subsequently fell out and landed amongst the hyenas. He reports that “there was instantly a foul smell” and the hyenas jumped back. “The badger then disappeared into the night.” It takes a powerful smell to put a hyena off a potential meal! Their diet consists of a wide variety of small animals, including mammals, insects and virtually anything else they can handle. They have even been known to steal small antelope kills from bigger carnivores. Legends abound regarding the toughness of ratels. Despite its small size, it is a fierce creature able to absorb a large amount of physical damage and to dish it out using its long claws. The infantry combat vehicle called Ratel is therefore well-named as its armament and mobility make it a formidable opponent.

Pic: Simon Gorta

Elephant Shrew

A cute and highly active member of the Rooiels community is the round-eared elephant shrew, in Afrikaans known as the rondeoorklaasneusmuis. About the size of the striped fieldmouse, elephant shrews are recognisable by their relatively longer hind legs and their habit f sitting up on the hind legs. The common name “elephant shrew” probably comes from the resemblance of the long ‘trunk’ to that of an elephant and the fact that they look like true shrews which are in fact a different family. Genetic studies have shown that they are more closely related to elephants than to shrews. Elephant shrews are mainly diurnal (active during the day) and move very fast in short bursts. We have one that we see often on our veranda and he (or she?) zooms around so fast that the dogs don’t seem to be able to focus. So next time you see a movement out of the corner of your eye, try to get a better look. I feel sure there are a lot more around than we think. The true shrews and elephant shrews are in the order insectivora, meaning that they are mainly insect eating. The elephant shrew species found here in Rooiels is the “round eared elephant shrew” (Macroscelides proboscideus). Their diet appears to be almost exclusively insects and includes ants and termites, although Mike Perin, who has studied them more than most, also records green plant matter, soft shoots and fruit as making up part of the diet. Rooielsers have reported seeing the little critters nibbling on young vegetable shoots.