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The Small Five

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Most people come to Africa expecting or hoping to see The Big Five – elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino. I used to wonder who got to make this list and why they left out the giraffe? The hippopotamus? But apparently the list was generated in the bad, old days when wealthy European aristocrats made their way into Darkest Africa to hunt the species which were known to be the most fierce, elusive, difficult and dangerous animals to hunt for on foot.

It was considered a feat by trophy hunters to bring them (or their remains) home. These days the phrase “Big Five” has come to represent the most sought-after safari sightings; namely, the lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhino. rhino.

But there is another list, The Small (or Little) Five, in a way a send-up of the Big Five list, but none the less charming and interesting for that. The term was introduced by conservationists who wanted to draw attention to the smaller creatures in the bush and stress that they are just as important to the ecosystem. The names of the Little Five relate to their Big Five counterparts. They are the Ant Lion, Buffalo Weaver , Elephant Shrew, Leopard Tortoise and Rhinoceros Beetle.

1. Ant-lion  

ant lion 4

There are more than 2,000 ant-lion species found all over the world. When fully grown, ant-lions are winged insects that resemble dragonflies or damselflies, with an 8 cm wing span.

ant-lion adult
Adult ant-lion

But when they are in their larval stage, they are fearsome looking beasts about 1.5 cm long with hairy, obese bodies and sharp sickle-shaped jaws.

ant lion 2

Ant-lion larvae are found generally in arid, sandy areas. They are capable, savage predators, capable of subduing prey much larger than themselves. . Many species dig funnel-shaped sand traps using their round bodies as a plough and their heads to flick the grains of sand upward and out of the way. The traps are about two centimeters deep, situated in dry, sunny spots – particularly on south-facing slopes – and the ant-lion waits at the bottom of the funnel covered in sand so that only the head is protruding.  

Their victims are usually ants, who stray into the funnel and then have trouble escaping up the shifting sands of the funnel walls. The ant-lion bombards the insect struggling to escape with grains of sand to keep it sliding towards the bottom of the hole. This is where it is grabbed by the ant lion larva. The prey is pulled under the sand to have its juices sucked out through sharp, hypodermic pincers. The dry husk of a corpse is then catapulted out of the funnel.

ant-lion, diagram of funnel trap
Diagram of funnel trap

The ant-lion larva cannot walk forwards. It relies on backing down into the sand at the bottom of its trap. This has an interesting implication for its anatomy. It does not have an anus at the back end of its body, which would get filled with sand as it reverses. It does not eat solid material at all, just sucks liquid from its victims, and it does not need to excrete solid material. It sheds waste matter with its skin each time it sheds a skin as it grows.

This ant-lion larva can remain in its larval stage for up to three years. It can survive for months at a time without food and live for several years., “This Ant-lion is a Devious, Cold-Blooded Killer”

2. Red-billed Buffalo Weaver (Bubalornis niger)

Red-billed buffalo weaver
Red-billed buffalo weaver

These birds tend to live in dry savannahs and sparse woodlands. The “buffalo” part of their name derives from the habit of following the African buffalo, feeding on disturbed insects. They are the largest of the weaver species, and grow up to 24 centimeters in length and can weigh about 80 grams.

They live on a diet of seeds, fruit and small insects. The red-billed buffalo weaver is even known to prey on scorpions.

Buffalo weavers' nest
Buffalo weavers’ nest

They are sociable birds with a wide range of easily identifiable calls. They live together in noisy colonies, weaving seemingly unstructured communal nests from small sticks, thorns and dry grass, with several entrances. Internally the mass of the twigs is divided into separate compartments creating multiple egg chambers.

Egg Laying starts in September and ends in March with the females laying two to four eggs each and incubation lasts 14 days. The fledglings leave the nests when they are between 20 and 23 days old.

The males are usually polygamous, each controlling one to eight nests and up to about three females. One of the most interesting facts about this bird is that they have a phalloid organ – basically a false penis which both sexes have, the males’ version is however longer.

Red-billed buffalo weaver 2

Predators of red-billed buffalo weavers include snakes, baboons and large birds of prey. Buffalo Weaver’s nest

3. Elephant Shrew (Elephantulus)

Elephant shrew 1

An elephant shrew is a tiny, insect-eating mammal, widely distributed in the arid lowlands, savannah grasslands and forests of southern Africa.  There are up to 20 species, varying in colour, shape and size.

The elephant shrew gets its name from its elongated nose, thought to resemble an elephant’s trunk. Their little “trunks” are quite flexible and can be twisted to sniff out insects which they then flick into their mouths using their tongues. Though they cannot use them like an elephant’s trunk, they are extremely sensitive to smells and pheromones. They use their long nose as well as their large ears to detect any predators and prey.

Their keen sense of smell comes in very handy for marking their “highways” with a scent produced by a gland under their tail. A number of elephant shrews will make a series of cleared highways through the undergrowth and spend most of their days foraging and patrolling, looking for insects and keeping the path clean and debris-free to give the elephant shew a quick and clear escape route from predators like lizards, snakes and birds of prey.

Elephant shrew 3

These animals get the “shrew” part of their name from the shrews they resemble but scientists have recently discovered that the elephant shrew is not a true shrew, and is in fact distantly related to its elephant namesake, Despite their lack of size, they are, in fact, distantly related to aardvarks, manatees, hyraxes, and even elephants, Their common name “sengi”, is used in place of “elephant-shrew” by many biologists to try and separate their actual scientific classification from that of the true shrews.

They weigh about 60 gms and are about 260 mm long and have relatively long legs which give them the ability to hop efficiently – reportedly up to 3 feet in a single bound (which is why an alternative name for them is the jumping shrew). An elephant shrew is also the fastest small mammal on earth (small defined as “smaller than 500 gms”) and has been recorded to reach speeds of up to 28.8 kilometres per hour.

Despite their abundance and the fact that they are active during the day, elephant shrews are seldom seen. They are shy, extremely well camouflaged and as mentioned above, exceptionally quick.

Elephant shrew 2

They are not very sociable. They form monogamous pairs but do not necessarily forage together or care for each other. It is believed they are only paired up for reproduction purposes.

They have a very long gestation period (for such a small mammal) of eight weeks. Females will give birth to two sets of twins (between September and March). The newborns can walk soon after birth but will remain in their nest for a few days before venturing out. They become sexually mature within 5 to 6 weeks.

Elephant shrew 4

4. Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis, previously Geochelone pardalis)

Leopard tortoise, front view

Leopard tortoises are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, in semi-arid areas of scrubland and savannah, from sea level to an altitude of 3,000 m.. They often seek shelter from extreme weather in the abandoned burrows of other animals including jackals and anteaters. They can dig for themselves, but tend to do so only when laying eggs. 

They are herbivorous and graze on dry grass but also eat succulent and fruit. (Occasionally they gnaw on bones for calcium.)

The Leopard Tortoise is the fourth biggest species of tortoise. An adult can reach 46 cm in height and weigh approximately 18 kg, although typically they are much smaller.

Leopard Tortoises are named after their striking markings, which roughly resemble the rosette spots of a leopard on their exceedingly hard upper shell (called the carapace). Young tortoises have a more defined dark brown or black pattern and as they mature the spots become smaller and duller.

Leopard tortoise, side view, close up

The individual panels or scales of the shell are called scutes. Scutes grow according to seasons and therefore one can determine the age of a tortoise  by counting the ridges (in the same way as one counts rings in a tree trunk to determine the age of a tree). The base of the shell is called the plastron and its shape distinguishes the sexes – the male has a concave plastron to accommodate the female’s shell during mating, while the female has a flat plastron.

As with most tortoise species Leopard Tortoises are able to draw their head, tail, and legs into their shell for protection. The Leopard Tortoise is the only member of the tortoise family, however, that can raise its head and this is because they do not have a nuchal shield, the protective scute above the neck. This means that the Leopard Tortoise is therefore the only one of its kind that is able to swim.

leopard tortoise swimming

Leopard Tortoises are usually solitary. They reach sexual maturity after 12 to 15 years. Mating happens in spring (September and October). Males will push and bite one another for the opportunity to mate with a female. There is little evidence that the female is very interested in the process.  Watch this video where leopard tortoise mating activities disturb a leopard’s hunting activities.

 The female will lay five to eighteen eggs in a hole she has scraped in the ground and if they are not eaten they will hatch eight to eighteen months later. (Tortoise eggs are eaten by several species of birds and small mammals and they are also eaten by indigenous people.) There is no parental care for the young tortoise.

The gender of the young is not base on genetic material from the parents but on incubation temperature (as is the case with the Nile Crocodiles). If temperatures in the nest are between 31-34 oC or above, then the eggs will produce female tortoises and if the temperatures are between 21-21 oC, then the eggs will produce males.

Tortoises are amongst the longest living animals and can survive between 80 to 100 years in the wild.

Leopard tortoise, on tar road

Tortoises should never be picked up during winter. They store water in their bodies during the dry winter months for hydration and also to moisten the warmer ground making it easier to dig a hole for the nest to lay eggs. If it is picked up the tortoise will be forced to eject its stored urine and water as a deterrent – and then be massively dehydrated.

5. Rhinoceros Beetle

rhino beetle 4

The Rhinoceros Beetle (or Rhino Beetle) is part of the family of scarab beetles (Scarabaeidae). Other common names include Hercules beetles, unicorn beetles or horn beetles.

Worldwide, there are more than 300 species of Rhinoceros Beetle, around 60 of which are found in Southern Africa. They are named because of their body armour, long hooked horn on the head of males, and impressive strength. Some species can grow up to 15 centimeters in length, although the largest Southern African Rhino Beetle reaches around 5 centimeters in length. They weigh between 30 and 40 grams. The body of the beetle is covered in a thick exoskeleton in adult beetles. A pair of thick wings lie over another set of membranous wings underneath, allowing the rhinoceros beetle to fly, although not very efficiently, owing to its large size.

rhino beetle

These insects are herbivorous. Their diet is surprisingly varied and can include nectar, rotting fruit, bark, sap and vegetable matter.  Rhino Beetles use their horns to dig for food in the undergrowth or rotting wood.

The male Rhino Beetle uses its horn to fight other males over territory and for a mate. (See the attached video.) Males are generally more aggressive than females. The horn size will determine the physical health of the beetle. The female lays on average 50 eggs on rotting wood. Larval stages may continue for three to five years with the larvae eating large amounts of rotting wood while the adults eat very little despite their size.  An adult male can live for two to three years while the female rarely lives long after mating, tending to have a short and sweet lifespan of three to six months.

Rhinoceros beetle

Proportional to their size, Rhino Beetles are among the strongest animals in the world. They are able to lift up to 850 times their own body weight while a elephant can only carry 25% of its own weight.

They are nocturnaand are often seen at night because they come crashing into lights that have attracted them from their proper habitat.

When disturbed, rhino beetles produce hissing squeaks. These are not vocal noises though. Instead, they are produced when the beetle rubs their abdomen and wing covers together.

Rhino Beetles are threatened in the wild by predators such as snakes and birds and in the wider world are threatened by the trade in exotic insects. Deforestation contributes to their increasing rarity.

rhino beetle 2

Despite their menacing appearance, rhinoceros beetles are completely harmless to humans as they do not bite or sting.

Click on the video below to show how male rhinoceros beetles use their horns when fighting.

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Paddy Pacey

Zimbabwean field guide and trainer of aspiring guides

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