It's not always all about the Big Five

The first thing that usually comes to mind when thinking of an African safari are the Big Five. And while it is exciting to go look for those specific species (elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo), it is not always all about them. When you pay close attention to your surroundings and open your eyes to some of the smaller creatures, you might be surprised what impact they have on their ecosystem. We are highlighting some of the most fascinating, smaller species found on safari.

Dung Beetles - The Recyclers


  • There are around 8,000 species and over 100 of them can be found in the Serengeti alone

  • They are the only insects that use the Milky Way to navigate and orientate themselves!

  • Some can push over 100 times their own body weight

  • They feed on herbivore and omnivore dung as well as mushrooms, plants and fruits

  • They get enough fluid from the food they eat and do not need water

  • When the ground is too hot they climb on top of their dung balls to cool off

  • They use their sense of smell to locate fresh dung

  • Ancient Egyptians thought very highly of dung beetles; they believed that they kept the earth revolving like a giant ball of dung, linking them to Kephri, the God of the Rising Sun

  • There is a difference in how they make the dung balls: rollers, tunnellers & dwellers

  • Most herbivores extract about 50% of nutrients from the food, beetles take remaining nutrients from the dung


  • They are brilliant recyclers – they bury a big portion of the over 4,000 tons of dung produced by the big herbivores and carnivores in the Serengeti each day.

  • By doing that they stop manure from cementing on plants and therefore save the plants from dying out.

  • They control flies and diseases; they loosen and nourish the soil and spread seeds.

The Dongo – The Trickster

This inconspicuous common bird with its drab black color is not much of interest to many safari goers. But if you look beyond its appearance there is a world of intelligence and specialized, adaptive behavior to witness.

Dongos often follow large herbivores as they graze and browse. Those brilliant little birds have figured out that larger animals (herbivores) will flush insects from their hiding places in the grass, easy for them to catch. But this kleptoparasitic bird has another interesting skill - it mimics warning calls of animals to distract predators from their prey in order to steal the latter from them avoiding any confrontation.

Dongos have perfected this skill in relation to the dwarf mongoose and meerkats. The bird has learned to imitate the different alarm calls the mongoose make for different predators. It sits in a tree above a group of feeding mongoose and observes closely to see if a mongoose catches anything, then immediately screeches the alarm call sending the whole group running for cover and leaving behind the food they just caught. The drongo then swoops in, steals the food and flies back to its tree to enjoy its meal.

Birds keeping themselves clean

Did you know that birds, other than using their preen glands, have several means of keeping themselves clean?

  • Vultures use water to get rid of sticky blood after they have inserted their necks in carcasses

  • Fowls use dust to get rid of ectoparasites

  • Some birds such as crows, starlings, drongos and ravens use ants to keep themselves clean. This behavior is called anting. They lay directly on an ants nest or they pick several ants and rub them on their feathers one at a time. These ants, when disturbed, will produce formic acid as defense mechanism. This acid helps the birds kill any parasites living on the surface of their skin.

Denise Brown