Backsides and Best Sides

After a hard day's game viewing in the Kruger Park we often complain that we saw ‘nothing'. Just a few animals disappearing into the thickets.

Maybe we should not lose interest too soon if an animal turns its back and walks away, because the backside of an animal plays a vital role in its survival strategies.

A waterbuck's behind is one of the most recognised in nature. Legend explains the white markings in many ways but there are other ecological explanations. Herd animals, such as impala, also use their hindquarters as the beacon of herd recognition.

Distinct markings simplify following one another. Walking in line provides protection from the front as well as from the tail end of the herd.

Young warthogs running through long grass have no difficulty following the white tuft of their parents' tails - away from danger or straight to new grazing or fresh water.

The tails of some species are indicators of their reaction to their immediate environment. Feeding hyena have droopy tails; but their tails shoot up when danger looms or if they give chase. A folded-in tail, tucked away under the belly, shows submission.

A cheetah with a flicking tail means business. It indicates that it is preparing for attack. There are also of course the obvious uses for tails such as being a handy fly swat for herbivores, or a sturdy handle for primates to control the young ones. But not just tails, all of the hindquarter is equally important.

A crocodile uses its tail to swim, as a support system, or as a weapon that strikes sideways. With deadly precision the jaws strike sideways to the one side and the tail to the other side.

So... next time, when an animal walks away from you, don't drive off believing that you have 'seen nothing'. Do take a second look - it might prove to be very interesting.

By Marike Bekker.

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