The Buffalo Thorn (Ziziphus mucronata) is more commonly known in South Africa as the Blinkblaar-wag-‘n-bietjie (shiny leaf wait-a-bit). A strange name for a tree, you might think, yet it is a very apt one. I find Afrikaans names tend to be so in their descriptiveness. The etymology of the scientific name for this tree is interesting, coming as it does from the ancient Greek zizyphon, which they got from the Arabic zizouf, which – of all things – was a name for the mythical lotus! It became known as zizyphum in Latin. The species name mucronata is also Latin, the meaning ‘pointed’ doubtless referring to the thorns.
Speaking of thorns: these trees are not to be tangled with as the two thorns at the nodes make extricating yourself from it rather tricky – you can easily become entangled in passing if you are not looking where you are going – as one thorn faces backward and the other faces forward. Look at this photograph and you will have a clearer understanding of why you will probably have to wag-‘n-bietjie (wait-a-bit) before getting free. One thorn is straight, while the other is slightly hooked and, although they are fairly small, I assure you that these thorns can be vicious enough to tear into your flesh if you are not careful!
The blinkblaar (shiny leaf) part of the name is easy. You can tell from the photographs above and below how shiny the leaves are. Both photographs are of young trees that have self-seeded themselves in my garden.
The minute golden-green flower clusters are borne in tight clusters above each leaf and are rich in nectar that attract birds and bees. I can only imagine the buffalo part of the English common name is derived from a thought that only a buffalo could walk through a thicket of these trees unscathed.
So sings the hippopotamus to his fair hippopotamus maid in The Hippopotamus Song by Flanders and Swann:
Mud, mud, glorious mud
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood
So follow me, follow
Down to the hollow
And there let us wallow in glorious mud.
Hippos spend up to sixteen hours a day wallowing in rivers or waterholes –– submerging themselves to keep their bodies cool during the day.
Elephants also cover themselves with mud not only to keep cool, but to protect their skin from parasites. It is enjoyable watching elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park either rolling in mud or squirting it over themselves.
Rhinos also use mud to cool their bodies as they have no sweat glands. As with elephants, a thick layer of mud both helps to protect the rhinos from biting insects and traps parasites that might otherwise burrow into their hide.
Buffalos like a mud bath too. They also use mud as a protection from parasites.
Closer to home, every summer we witness the trials and tribulations of the Lesser-striped Swallows that build their nest from globules of mud.
Mud or dust can be important for humans too: geophagy is the habit of eating mud or dust to augment a mineral deficient diet. Some people feel the need to eat a fingertip of dust every now and then for this reason. This craving to eat earth is also known as pica, and may be an indication that young children have an iron deficiency.
Symbiosis is an interesting word meaning ‘living together’ which derives from the Greek syn = together and biono = living. It is frequently used in the form of symbiotic relationships between plants / animals / birds. A very common example of a symbiotic relationship between birds and animals is the presence of Cattle Egrets that follow close in the wake of grazing cattle.
They are also often seen in the company of buffalo or zebra.
What these birds are doing is catching insects that are disturbed by the movements of the grazing animals. This is a type of commensalism whereby the birds benefit enormously from the animals, although what the latter get out of the relationship is uncertain – unless the birds act as a warning system perhaps.
I suspect this Red-winged Starling was using the bull as a convenient perch for the same reason – there were several other cattle grazing nearby.
A symbiotic relationship with more mutual benefit would be this one between the Red-billed Oxpeckers and the Nyala bull: the oxpeckers probe the skin and ears of animals in order to feed on the parasites harboured there. This benefits both them and the animal concerned.
In the case of these oxpeckers on a Cape buffalo, only one appears to be ‘working’, while the others are enjoying a free ride!
The horns of Cape buffalo are characterised by a heavy boss (where the base of the horns converge in the middle of the head) and upward curved horns.
Look at the large symmetrical horns on this buffalo:
These horns are not as large, yet the boss is impressive:
One can tell that this is a younger bull because its horns are still hairy:
Given the amount of hair on this buffalo’s horns, I imagine it is even younger:
This old buffalo’s horns have a ridge between them:
Note: Click on a photograph for a larger view.
Size-wise, the African or Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is no pushover:
Look at the beautifully symmetrical curve of the horns on this one:
This buffalo must have been in a tussle a long time ago as a result of which it has lost one tip of its horn:
Red-billed Oxpeckers were re-introduced to the Addo and Great Fish reserves in 1990 and play a role in ridding animals of ecto-parasites. Here one can be seen inspecting the boss of a buffalo:
Here is an old buffalo:
Sadly, this is all that remains of a buffalo that was no longer able to defend itself.
NOTE: Click on the photographs if you wish to see a larger view.