The Kapama chelonians

On kapama we have three species of chelonians; the Speke’s hinged tortoise, the leopard tortoise and the Marsh terrapin.

The most elusive of the big 5, is ironically is the most common of the “small” five.

The Leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) also known as the Mountain Tortoise is the most common and largest tortoise in Southern Africa. For a species to be considered the most common it usually means that its adaptive skills are the best suited for their surrounding environment, and are absolutely opportunistic.

Scientific names are given to all animals, plants etc. to avoid confusion of multiple countries common names. The scientific names are also very descriptive of the animal in question. The generic name Stigmochelys is a combination of two Greek words: stigma meaning “mark”, “spot” or “point” and “chelone” meaning tortoise. The specific name pardalis is from the Latin word “pardus” meaning leopard and refers to the leopard-like spots on the tortoise’s shell.

In actual fact they float, this is due to their buccal cavity and dome shaped shell permitting greater lung size which is inflated. The buccal cavity is usually used as a water reservoir, keeping them hydrated in even the harshest environments. After inflating their lungs and buccal cavity they can cross dams and rivers bobbing around like a bottle cork, this adds to the statement that they are the most widely distributed tortoise in Africa. It is said that a leopard tortoise can be submerged for up to 10 minutes.

“Thanks to its very large, but light, domed shell, the Aldabra giant tortoise floats even more impressively. In 2004 a tortoise washed ashore on the Tanzanian coast, having survived the long drift from Aldabra Atoll. The weak and starving tortoise was covered in barnacles, and must have been drifting at sea for a long time. The ability to float not only saved this individual, but also saved the species from extinction.”

An average leopard tortoise grows to a length of 500mm and weighs around 18kg. Very large examples found in Zoo’s around Southern Africa are between 700 and 800mm and weigh around 50kg. The African Leopard Tortoise typically lives 80 to 100 years.

A very long-lived animal, the leopard tortoise is seldom sexually mature until it is between the ages of 12 and 15 years. Leopard tortoises “court” by the male ramming the female. While mating, the male makes grunting vocalizations. After mating, the female lays a clutch consisting of between five and 18 eggs. This enormous tortoise (4th largest in the world) starts from an egg about the size of a golf ball.

Leopard tortoises do not dig other than to make nests in which to lay eggs, butt will sometimes be found in abandoned warthog and anteater burrows. They use these burrows to escape from veldt fires, and extreme weather conditions.

The skin and background colour is cream to yellow, and the carapace is marked with black blotches, spots or even dashes or stripes. Each individual is marked uniquely.

The other terrestrial shelled vertebrate to grace Kapama with its company is the Speke’s hinged tortoise (Kinixys spekii) , unlike the rounded dome of the Leopard tortoise the Speke’s has a longer, flattened carapace (top half of the shell).

This species is named after Captain John Hanning Speke (1827 – 1864), English explorer and discoverer of the source of the Nile river.

Most terrapins etc have a hinge at the front of the shell that closes up the front part of the shell to protect the head and front legs (that do most of the paddling or swimming). But in the case of the Speke’s with a well developed posterior hinge, which the movement is more prominent in females, the function is to open up the shell (rather than close) when she is laying her eggs. In this species the male also has a distinctively longer tail than the female.

A couple of interesting facts about tortoises in general:

A tortoise shell is actually an extension of the back vertebrae, so the old folk tale that a tortoise can climb out its shell is a fallacy. The image below shows the internal structure of a tortoise, take special note of the vertebrae extending into the protective shell.

The picture on the left indicates the Carapace (or top half of the shell) and the picture on the right indicates the plastron (or bottom half of the shell).

The plastron can be used for the determining of sexes. Females possess a flat plastron, yet males have a more concave one. This function is for copulation purposes.

The carapace is dived into sections or oscoots, the oscoots can be used to get a rough estimate of the age of a tortoise. Much like the year rings in a tree each oscoot shows the year rings of a tortoise.

There is still a mountain of information about our chelonian friends, but more about that next time.

Riaan Bezuidenhout – Kapama River lodge
05/03/2013

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Always something different

The past few days have been a lot of fun. To start, in about an hour of our game drive, we saw a beautiful female cheetah drinking water at a close-by mud pan. While viewing her, out of the blue, far off the road, 3 lionesses were making their way towards us. Sadly the cheetah ran off, but we had a great sighting of the 3 lionesses. Then we experienced nature’s beauty as a thunder storm started to form in the distance.

Back at the lodge, we could hear and see the thunder storm, bright lightning up in the thick clouds. It was really amazing. To top it all of for me I also got the chance to catch two more snakes (not close to the lodge); there is always something exciting and entertaining happening here in the Kapama private game reserve.

Jakes – Kapama River Lodge
28/03/2013

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Frustration ends with a smile

It was the last morning drive of my guests’ two night stay here at Kapama River Lodge. We had been quite spoiled the previous three drives with a couple of really nice lion sightings and even the elusive leopard walking slowly down the road the night before. All we were missing from completing our Big 5 sightings was the elephants. They had proven difficult to see the last couple drives, as we had located them the afternoon before but they were deep in a riverbed where we were unable to see any of them properly – just a blur of grey moving through the thick bush.

About an hour into our last game drive, I got a call on the radio from one of the other vehicles that had been helping us try to find the elephants. They had seen one of them walking into the bush, and now had the sounds of the rest of the herd deep in the bush quite a way from the road. When we arrived in the area all we could here was some branches breaking quite far into the bush, but still no actual sight of the elephants. It seemed we might be frustrated again, so we decided to go have some coffee and come back to the area afterwards to see if they had moved closer to any of the roads.

Our patience with these surprisingly difficult-to-see elephants was richly rewarded when coming back to the area after coffee; we turned a corner to find the herd of about 20 elephants slowly crossing the road not 100 meters in front of us! We slowly drove closer to the magnificent animals and got to watch them feeding for about 15 minutes just on the side of the road, with the curious youngsters cautiously approaching closer to our vehicle to investigate our strange sounds and smells.

It was a fantastic way to complete my guests’ stay. The frustration of not being able to see them properly in the drives before was completely washed away by their smiles at witnessing these amazing animals so peaceful and close to our car.

Kevin – Kapama River Lodge
22/03/2013

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Communication between animals

Unlike with humans, animals don’t have the ability to speak with each other, so animals communicate in their own special way using sounds, scent, visual display, touch, or other sensory signals. Typically, one signal only has one meaning; unlike with humans which can give a greater picture by using words.

Some of the communication methods of animals include:

• Vocal communication

Sound is a good way to communicate because it can be turned on and off as the animal needs it.

These calls can mean many different things for instance, to indicate territories, alarm calls, to attract potential mates, to keep in contact with others in a specific social structure, between a mother and her offspring, and even to locate prey with eco-location.

Sounds are also good because it can be heard over long distances; elephants can communicate with each other over about 15km’s and humans can even hear a lion’s roar up to 8km’s away.

• Visual communication

There are many ways for animals to communicate with visual display, so I am only going to touch on a few of them.

These signals can be anything from a facial expression, body language and facial markings. Elephants raise their large ears to make them look even bigger. Baby cheetahs up to about 3 months have grey-white hair down their backs to make them look like a honey badger (a very aggressive animal). Glow worms and fireflies use flashing signals to indicate their species and readiness to mate. The aerobatic display of the Red Crested Korhaan is also a way to attract the attention of a female (they fly up high and close their wings to drop down to the ground). Colour is also used to display threat displays, but can also be used as a follow-me sign for the babies to follow their mother.

• Olfactory communication (Scent marking)

By using scent animals can convey information on sex, age, social status, group membership, emotional state, reproductive condition and individual identity.

Animals like lions, leopards and cheetahs will scent-mark as a way to mark their territories by spraying urine backwards onto vegetation at nose level or by scratching their feet while urinating down in the same spot.

Animals like impalas and rhinos have middens that they use time and time again to convey different messages. Most of the ungulates have a pre-orbital gland just in front of their eyes that they will then drag through vegetation to leave a specific scent.

• Tactile communication (touch)

Contact behaviour is generally demonstrated by social animals. Lions have a greeting ritual of rubbing their heads together when they meet to strengthen the bond but also to show peaceful intentions.

Baboons, monkeys and the dwarf mongoose do allo-grooming to strengthen the bond between the groups.

Some babies need to feel their mother in order to find her nipple and milk and also to provide heat for the baby.

Zebra mothers and their foals will groom each other by using their incisors and lips to scrape and nibble each other to strengthen the bond between them.

Stefan – Kapama River Lodge
19/03/2013

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The secret seven

This afternoon on game drive we had a beautiful sighting of a very rare and seldom-seen animal called a serval. We were able to observe the serval as it was scanning the long grass looking for some of its favorite food which includes small rodents like field mice and small mammals. It was a very relaxed individual that didn’t mind us being in the area which made it a very enjoyable sighting.

The serval forms part of a very elusive group of animals known as the secret seven, these animals are mostly all nocturnal and spend much of their days in hiding and many tourists visiting the African bush would most likely never even have heard of any of these animals.

Some of the other individuals in the secret seven include:

African wild cat
White tailed mongoose
Porcupine
Civet
Spotted genet
Aardvark

So be sure to ask about these interesting animals on your next trip to South Africa.

Wayne – Kapama River Lodge
20/03/2013

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