If you haven’t noticed from our abundance of photos and videos, here at Fire Island Eco Retreats, we are passionate about animals. During our time learning about our extraordinary wildlife world, we’ve picked up some amazing and often amusing facts about animals.
Since most of our guests are just as wonderstruck by the animal kingdom as we are, we thought we’d share some of our favourite tidbits that we’ve gathered over our years of travels and wildlife interactions. And if you’re wondering about the names, we have to give credit to Twitter’s #theinternetnamesanimals campaign for those.
Well, we just had to start with our favourite animal of course. Turtles date back 240 million years, to the Triassic age. The oldest recorded fossil, from the Pappochelys (grandfather turtle), a semi-aquatic species, predates the first dinosaurs by 10 million years.
Although a 260 million-year-old fossil of the Eunotosaurus africanus was discovered in South Africa, and represents one of the first species to form the evolutionary branch of turtles, it is thought to have been terrestrial, living in the Karoo region.
While we can’t promise you prehistoric turtles, our guests at our quaint Klaarstroom Hotel in the Karoo, often spot leopard tortoises, the second largest species of tortoise in South Africa.
Who doesn’t love these big, beautiful beasts? Elephants are revered worldwide as intelligent and empathic and it’s typical for travellers to our mother country to want to clock as many of these endangered Big Five animals as they can on a safari.
They are matriarchal, living in female-led groups, with males moving out of the herd when they become sexually mature, often then leading a solitary life. We frequently observe herds of elephants while on a game drive with our guests staying in Machangulo Nature Reserve. And, of course, our Vida Nova Kruger guests are fortunate to almost be guaranteed elephant sightings. Over 30,000 are thought to reside in Kruger National Park and the surrounding areas.
Only in Africa will you find wild ostrich. These birds can boast a wingspan of over two metres, however, this does not aid them in flight. They are actually flightless and their wings serve to help them balance when they are running or defending themselves against predators, and can even help them ‘steer’, to change direction when running.
Unbelievably, they don’t even have the largest avian wingspan in South Africa. The wandering albatross’ wingspan can reach a whopping 3.5 metres and guests have been lucky to spot these birds off Hout Bay’s coast, during a stay at our Vida Nova Retreat eco-hotel.
If a female likes what she sees, she’ll flap her wings backwards, while bending her neck forward, and making a clapping noise with her beak. Not quite as romantic as the Rumba, but certainly a sight to behold.
There’s just something so adorable about otters, with their expressive faces and little squeaks. Southern Africa is home to two of the 13 species of otter worldwide and these highly adaptable creatures are happy to live near freshwater rivers and lakes, wetlands, estuaries and marine environments.
Cape clawless otters are periodically spotted on one of the Animal Ocean expeditions we organise for our Vida Nova Retreat guests off of Hout Bay’s coast, and it’s always a delightful interaction. It’s a real “aww” moment if you see one hobbling along on 2 or 3 legs while carrying something.
Despite their formidable reputation, sharks are actually a species that we should admire, not fear, as they are vital for the health of our oceans. There are over 500 species of sharks and Southern Africa is home to over 100 of these, including one of the tiniest sharks, the Happy Eddie, or puffadder shyshark, that reaches an average of 60 cm in length.
Shark eco-tourism is a crucial conservation tool in South Africa and Mozambique, and travellers can choose the adrenalin rush of cage diving with impressive white sharks, snorkelling with elegant reef sharks and magnificent whale sharks, and SCUBA diving with docile ragged-tooth sharks or endearing catsharks. Since sharks have been around even longer than turtles, an impressive 455 million years, we should be doing all we can to keep them around.
There’s nothing more glorious to see on the plains of Africa than the iconic black and white stripes of a herd of zebras. They are beautiful Equidae and native to Africa. Impressively, their stripes are actually unique to each individual, like a snowflake or our fingerprints.
While staying at our Vida Nova Kruger eco-lodge in Marloth Park, odds are high that you’ll get a chance to observe zebras grazing on our lawns. If you’re driving to one of our Machangulo luxury villas in Mozambique, you’ll likely pass dozens of zebras along the way since the trip takes you through both Maputo National Park and Machangulo Nature Reserve.
Where’s Waldo? The black & white striped pattern of a zebra’s coat serves a dual purpose. The stripes control body temperature; as the black hair rises, the white hair lies flat, creating convection currents as heat is lost from the skin. Scientists have also observed that the stripes act as a bug-repellant. In the study, far fewer flies landed on the zebras, or horses covered with a striped coat, than those covered with solid coats.
Ever since the success of My Octopus Teacher, filmed right here in South Africa, a short drive from Vida Nova Retreat, these endearing animals have caught the attention of people around the world. These eight-tentacled, three-hearted ocean-dwellers are fascinating creatures, who are able to recognise and remember individual humans.
With around 300 species of octopus found across every ocean, it’s worth being on the lookout for them while taking part in ocean activities.
Octopuses punch fishes. YES. OCTOPUSES. PUNCH. FISHES!!— Eduardo Sampaio (@OctoEduardo) December 18, 2020
Our new paper is out on @ESAEcology, showing that octos express this behavior during collaborative hunting with other fishes. This was probably the most fun I had writing a paper. Ever! (small 🧵)https://t.co/Vwg9BoaSUo pic.twitter.com/PIYuVXpM9t
The dugong is part of the Sirenia order of marine mammals and they are affectionately dubbed “sea cows”, along with the more widely known manatees. The nickname derives from its very small brain (less than 1% of its body size!) and slow nature, which we think adds to its adorableness. You can only find these vulnerable animals in warm, shallow waters in the Indo-Pacific region, from East Africa to Australia.
We’re on a mission to look for them in the mangroves near our private Mozambique island, Ilha do Fogo. They love munching on seagrasses, and there are fields of their favourite food along the 25 km of this mangrove channel.
It’s the big event…. the red carpet is laid out and the stars are arriving. Well, no animal is more black-tie-ready than the ocean’s most endearing bird. Penguins would look right at home waddling down that red carpet in their black and white garb.
We are fortunate to have a colony of endangered African penguins a short journey away from our Cape Town hotel, along Chapman’s Peak Drive. Just a warning though… you hear them before you see them. There’s no wonder their nickname is the ‘jackass penguin’ but, surprisingly, it did not derive from their personalities. Their calls sound very similar to a donkey’s bray.
Last but not least on our list is the “nose horn”. Translated from Greek, we (if you haven’t already guessed) mean the rhinoceros. Two of the world’s five species of rhino live here in Africa, and our Vida Nova Kruger guests have been lucky to spot both threatened white rhinos and critically endangered black rhinos during game drives in Kruger National Park.
Today’s African rhinos are a fair length shorter than their ancient ancestor, the paraceratherium. This hornless rhino species was around some 30 million years ago and towered over the largest of today’s rhinos. Our white rhinos reach up to 1.8 metres tall, almost a third of the height of the massive 4.9-metre paraceratherium.
These are just some of our most entertaining wildlife facts. Our eco retreats are perfectly located to see all of the animals on our list. You can read more on Southern Africa’s extraordinary animals, including when and where it is best to see them, in our blog.
Do you know an animal fact that you think we’ll love? Please share it with us on our social media pages: