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3. Nile Crocodile
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Africa – a place of wonder and mystery to the world explorers of the 1800s. By the end of that century, rumors of never before seen animals were reported from the very heart of the continent. Strange descriptions of a horse-like creature with horns that would often vanish as quickly as it appeared. Was this the legendary, magical unicorn? Sir Henry Morgan Stanley, famed explorer of the Congo recorded in 1890, that the indigenous Bambuti people knew of a unique, striped donkey referred to as “atti.” Other reports and alleged sightings of some strange, yet unidentified creature, persisted for some time.
A few years later, Sir Harry Johnston – after speaking with Stanley on the possible existence of this mysterious animal – failed in his first efforts to find this elusive beast. Finally, in 1901, a complete animal skin and 2 skulls came into his possession and history now credits him with the modern discovery of the animal considered to be the only living relative of the giraffe – known today as the okapi.
Located along the Congo River is the dense, tropical lands of the Ituri Forest. It is here, in this remote region of Africa, that the okapi lives. Still rarely seen by humans, it is a shy and elusive animal with a beautiful reddish-brown to black velvet-like fur with zebra-like stripings along the rump and hind legs.
This unique color pattern serves as camouflage that allows the okapi to disappear into the dark background of the thick foliage. From the back, the white stripes against the brown fur help the okapi blend into the filtered light and shadows of the rain forest. These markings may also help young okapi follow their mother through the dense vegetation. The slick fur has an oily coating that helps repel rain and moisture and gives their coat a distinctive sheen in appearance.
Okapi are about the size of a large horse, standing between 4 and 6 feet at the shoulders and they may weighing 700 or more pounds – females are typically larger than males.
Like its relative, the giraffe, male okapi possess ossicones – small, hair covered horns on the top of their heads, these are usually formed between 1 and 3 years of age. Females typically lack the horns but may have small bumps instead.
Other similarities to giraffe include their stride – okapi move by simultaneously stepping with the front and hind leg on the same side of the body rather than moving alternate legs on either side like most other hoofed animals. They also splay their legs out to reach the ground while drinking. Okapi are ruminants – similar to bovine species they have a multi-chambered stomach and chew the cud.
Okapi have 14-18 inch long prehensile tongues which they use to reach and strip leaves from branches and vines while foraging. These long, flexible tongues – which are proportionally longer than the giraffes – allow them to lick their eyelids and clean out their own ears and nostrils.
Okapi have rather large ears that they are able to rotate independently – giving them an added ability to detect possible predators from both in front and behind. Leopard are the primary predator of okapi.
While okapi have a great sense of smell, their hearing is their greatest attribute. One of the reasons they are often hard to find and observe in the wild, they can easily detect people approaching at a great distance and will often disappear into the thick and dark forest.
Their sense of hearing also allows them to communicate through a series of low frequency sounds – these sounds are often too low for humans and even many predators to hear. A study done by researchers at the San Diego zoo discovered this “hidden” language of the okapi after analyzing observational recordings.
Okapi are typically solitary animals who will roam up to half a mile a day, foraging along well worn trails and creating a natural, pruning line of vegetation. They are most active during the afternoon and early evening and will eat as much as 65 pounds of plants and fruits each day.
Male okapi tend to be territorial but allow females to pass through their home regions. Okapi have a scent gland on each foot leaves behind a sticky, tar-like substance wherever they have walked, marking their territory.
Okapi reproduction is slow, the gestation period last 14 to 16 months and they give birth to a single calf which can stand within 30 minutes of birth.
Today it is estimated that fewer than 15,000 okapi remain in the wild. Due to hunting for bushmeat, habitat destruction and civil unrest surround their native habitat – okapi are listed as endangered.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has established a Species Survival Plan for the okapi and for over 50 years the Dallas Zoo has led the way in preserving this fascinating creature. Nearly 75% of all okapi currently in managed care are related to Dallas Zoo offspring.
While most people living in Africa have never seen an okapi, due to the efforts of accredited facilities – today it is possible for people around the world witness this mysterious and amazing animal.
The Serengeti plains of Africa. This large, flat grassland habitat is home to huge herds of grazing animals, such as zebra, impala, rhinos and even the impressive African elephants. There, living among these land-based mammals, is the world’s largest bird – the Ostrich.
This well known flightless bird is an icon of the African savanna. Standing up to 9 feet tall with long shaggy-looking feathers and bare, long legs – the ostrich is also the fastest two-legged animal on earth.
Though they cannot fly, ostriches are very quick and powerful runners. They can sprint up to 43 miles an hour and run over distance at over 30 miles an hour. They may use their wings as “rudders” to help them change direction while running. An ostrich’s powerful, long legs can cover 10 to 16 feet in a single stride. Even young ostriches are fast, at only a month old, they can run nearly 30 mph.
In addition to making them swift speedsters on the savanna, the ostriches legs and feet also provide defense. While most birds have either 3 or 4 toes on their feet, the ostrich is the only bird to possess two toes on each foot. Each foot is equipped with a dangerous, 4 inch long, sharp claw. A kick from an ostrich can kill a human and even a potential natural predator like a lion.
The rather odd characteristics of the ostrich, with its long neck, large eyes and peculiar walk, once gave it the name – “camel bird.” Also like camels, ostriches can withstand high temperatures and go without water for extended periods of time.
As the world’s largest and heaviest bird, males may weigh over 300 pounds. The second heaviest bird, Australia’s cassowary, weighs nearly 200 pounds less.
Ostriches also have the largest eyes of any land animal, despite their relatively small head – their eyes are nearly 2 and half inches in diameter, surrounded by long black eye lashes.
They are also known for their incredibly large eggs – usually 6 inches long, they can weigh in at more than 3 pounds, and are the largest eggs found on our planet today. One ostrich egg is equal in volume to 24 chicken eggs and would take an hour and a half to hard boil. Oddly however, when the egg size is compared relative to bird’s body size, the ostrich may actually lay the smallest bird egg in the animal kingdom.
In addition to being larger, a male ostrich can be identified by their distinct black and white plumage on their tails and wings, with a bald crown and a beak that is yellow on top and pink on the bottom. Females are grayish-brown with light colored feather edges. Ostriches found in the more northern ranges of Africa have more pinkish necks and legs while birds further south are grayish in color.
Before the start of the African rainy season, male ostriches will gather several females to form a harem. The male puts on an elaborate, sometimes strange-looking courtship display that includes bowing and waving his feathers toward the female. Once the harem is established, the dominant male mates with all the female members of his harem but forms a pair bond only with the dominant female. Each hen lays two to eleven eggs in a shallow nest dug out by the male.
The dominant male and female incubate the eggs. The dominant female makes sure that her eggs are always in the center of the nest to make sure that they survive. The two parents take turns incubating the nest—the female during the day and the male at night. The female’s dull plumage helps her to blend in as she sits on the nest during daylight hours. Likewise, the black feathers of the male blend in with the darkness of the night.
When nesting or when they feel threatened the ostrich will often lay its head and neck flat on the ground. The bird may often appear as a rock or shrub to an approaching predator, the behavior also gave rise to the myth that the ostrich will bury its head in the sand – this of course is not true but from a distance can give that appearance.
Ostriches are omnivores, eating both plants and small animals such as insects and reptiles. They are often found living among herds of zebra, antelopes and other grazing animals. This association benefits both species, as the large grazing mammals often kick up insects and small rodents that the ostrich will feed upon, while the ostriches act as a type of alarm system – with their excellent hearing, tall, long necks paired with excellent eyesight – the ostrich can often spot predators in the distance.
Ostriches have long been a part of human cultures, ancient Egyptian, Roman and Babylonian civilizations often farmed and traded ostrich plumes. Ostrich feathers were often worn by royalty.
Ostriches were nearly wiped out in the 18th century due to the demand for feathers. Today they are commercially farmed for their meat, their skin (which makes good leather) and their soft and attractive feathers, which are often used as feather dusters as well as remaining a prized feature in fashion. In the wild, ostriches are neither threatened nor endangered but efforts must remain to protect these peculiar birds from disappearing in the future.
Wild Africa has long been considered a place of danger. Even large animals that live there are often weary of the threats that exists seemingly everywhere. Watering holes and riverbanks are often sought as a place of rest and refreshing – but even there, danger lurks beneath the surface.
Known for its indiscriminate appetite and a reputation as a man-eater – Africa’s largest crocodilian species is the Nile crocodile. This powerful predator has been revered since the times of the Egyptian pharaohs – mummified crocodiles and their eggs have been discovered in royal tombs.
The Nile crocodile is found widespread across the African continent south of the Sahara desert – living in freshwater lakes, rivers and streams and in brackish coastal swamps. The crocodiles are also native to island of Madagascar where they are famous for residing in the Ankarana caves on the northern tip of the island. The crocodiles there are threatened and this strange location seems to offer them some refuge, though it is not exactly known how much time they spend inside these pitch black caves or what they feed upon.
Nile crocodiles were once found as far north as Israel, but were eliminated there by the early 1900s and the species at large was nearly hunted to extinction in the 1940s through the 60s. A ban on trade of products from the wild was enacted in 1975 and helped the restoration of native populations though human conflict, invasive plant species that affect reproduction and pollution remain a threat to their ongoing survival.
Nile crocodiles are large and strong hunters. They average 16 feet long and weigh around 500 pounds, however they can reach lengths up to 20 feet and weigh over 1600 pounds. Their long, muscular tail allows them to travel swiftly in the water and offers balance when traveling on land.
Ambush predators, their short but strong legs allow them to take down even large animals such as wildebeest, young hippos, zebras and even people. It is estimated that around 200 people may die each year in Africa from Nile crocodile attacks. Though nearly 70% of their diet consists of fish.
When fish are migrating, Nile crocodiles may hunt cooperatively by forming a semi-circle across the river and herding the fish. Eating the fish closest to them.
The Nile crocodile may remain underwater for up to two hours when not moving, this extended dormant period is possible because the crocodiles are adapted to high levels of lactic acid in their blood. These high levels of lactic acid buildup would often kill other vertebrate species.
They are most active at night where they spend most of their time in the water, during the hot part of the day they may come on land to bask or rest in the shade.
Like komodo dragons, Nile crocodiles will also scavenge carrion, and can eat up to half its body weight at a feeding. Despite their large size, however, the crocodile’s metabolism is very efficient and can allow them to go long intervals without feeding if necessary.
A distinguishing feature of the Nile crocodile that is rather unique among reptiles is their parenting preferences. While most reptiles lay eggs that are usually abandoned before or shortly after hatching, both male and female Nile crocodiles will viciously defend the nest and show some parental traits even after the young are hatched.
Though the males will take several partners they have been observed forming short term bonds during the incubation of the eggs. A typical clutch size is between 40 and 60 eggs and take up to 90 days to hatch.
Both parents will often roll eggs in their mouths, helping to crack the egg and assist the young while hatching. Just prior to hatching, the young Nile crocodiles begin vocalizing with a unique sound. Studies have indicated that this behavior triggers other young to respond and begin hatching themeselves – researchers believe this may help synchronize the hatching among most of the eggs in the clutch. The sounds also seem to attract the mother back to the nest, even if she is not present when the initial hatching begins.
Once the young are hatched, the adult female often pick up the young crocodiles and flip them into her mouth or throat pouch for protection – often entering the water with them. The young reach maturity when they are between 8 and 9 feet in length, this may occur as early as 12 years old. Known for their longevity, Nile crocodiles may live more than 50 years in the wild.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens
National Geographic/nile crocodile
San Diego Zoo Global
SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Animal Guide
Utah’s Hogle Zoo
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