How To Sex A Tortoise (and other safari queries)

Natural SelectionDecember 07, 2017

Safari types are an unusual lot. All that time away from civilisation, living within the confines of a tent with just a field guide and binoculars can do strange things to a person. One of the results of a bush-bound existence is the accumulation of niche knowledge. Knowing things like how to interpret a pile of faeces, what the colour of a bird beak means for the females of the species, or why zebras love to hang with giraffes. These are the nuggets of information that might struggle for a place in everyday conversation, but around the campfire or in a safari vehicle verge on Shakespearean.

If you fancy chiming in with your own bush chitchat on your next safari, here’s how to impress the khaki-clad…

Tortoise Gender

The Leopard Tortoise, as seen at all our camps in Botswana, can be a tricky critter to sex, with no fluttering eyelashes or smatterings of facial hair to give the game away it can all become a little bit like The Crying Game. However, the easiest way to tell the hes from the shes is by the tail. The males have longer tails without a terminal spine.

If you’re treated to a closer look, it’s also possible to tell by the plastron (the base of the shell), as it differs according to gender. On the females it’s flat, whilst it’s concave underneath the chaps – for reasons that become blindingly obvious during mating season.

Just to make life a little more trying, you can’t actually determine the gender until the tortoise reaches the age of five.

Date The Poop

Nope, not the worst blind date ever, this is actually rather a nifty little party trick – if your parties take place in a spot frequented by elephants that is. A good guide should be able to tell you when an elephant poo was produced, just by looking at it.

If the faeces comprises mostly grass, in all likelihood it was dropped early on in the rainy season, around the December/January mark. When there’s Marula fruit or seed to be spied in the heap though, it probably dates back to February or March when the trees were bearing the fruit. Dung from later in the season meanwhile will usually hold twigs and bark peelings as the beasts were becoming increasingly imaginative in their desperate quest for food.

Unlikely Friends

A big herd of zebra in all their black and white glory can be one of the most mesmerising sights on the African plains, but why are there frequently some of those lanky patchwork characters to be found in their midst? Because zebra are cunning and have figured out how to use giraffes to their advantage, that’s why.

Clever researcher types have found that when zebras are in a mixed herd with giraffes the levels of vigilance among the equids drops, quite simply because they know that their tall companions can spot a sinister shadow well before they can, leaving the zebs to chill and tuck into some grass.

Reddy Steady Mate

The red-billed quelea is a common sight at our properties, but next time you find one fluttering through your binoculars, pay particular attention to the beak.

These sparrow-like birds (also known as weavers and diochs) have heavy, conical bills. As the name would suggest, these avians’ bills are red, however if you spot one sporting an orange or yellow pecker, you can feel confident that you’re seeing a female during the breeding season, and she’ll probably appreciate it if you compliment her on her shade of lipstick. It’s a lure that clearly works, since this is the world’s most abundant bird.

Feet Of Thunder

It’s no secret that elephants are beyond incredible. They’re enormous and majestic, with intricate social structures, extraordinary memories, and some of the cutest babies that any species has ever produced, but the better acquainted you become with their foibles the more impressive they are. For example, did you know that they can also ‘hear’ through those massive feet of theirs?

Elephants have a nerve in their heel that can pick up the vibrations of sounds made by other ellies, and that nerve sends the message whizzing up to the auditory centre of the animal’s brain which registers it as a sound.

Amazing, we know. They’re the best!

Photos by Colin Bell