KUDU AND OSTEOPHAGIA

In a wildlife quiz you would be correct in saying that Kudu are predominantly browsers which feed on a variety of leaves, pods, vines, and even succulents such as Spekboom and Aloes.

They are also known to graze on occasion.

What one seldom sees is Kudu eating bones.

This is the first time I have witnessed them doing so, although I understand it is a fairly common activity – especially during the winter when calcium and phosphorous are not readily available in plant form.

Eating bones is known as osteophagia and, in the case of these Kudu, is a way they can supplement their diet – in the way that we might pluck extra calcium or vitamin tablets off the shelves of a pharmacy. Note the shaggy winter coat of this Kudu.

During the time I was observing these animals, some appeared to be licking the bones; others picked up bones and dropped them; while others definitely chewed the bones.

ANIMALS ARE WHAT THEY EAT

How often have you come across the saying ‘you are what you eat’? The context is usually a discussion (or lecture by a newly-converted-to-the-latest-fad-dieter) about the need to eat healthy food in order to maintain our sense of well-being. What we eat is frequently linked with every aspect of our health, ranging from the negative effects of certain foods on our health (the interpretation of these depends largely on the current perspective of the speaker) to the long-term impact on our mental health.  These days we are confronted with so many different choices of foods from all over the world as well as the temptation not to cook at all, but to rely on ready-cooked take-away foods. Obesity! Too much sugar! Empty nutrients! Meatless Mondays! We are bombarded with advice, scare tactics, recipes and suggestions … what are humans supposed to eat? Plenty of red meat, say some. No meat at all, others claim. Be a vegetarian – no, veganism is the answer. What are we to do? The trouble is that we have evolved to be omnivores – take a good look at your teeth.

What about wild animals that have no recourse to food imports, refrigeration, different cooking methods, gardens, supermarkets, delicatessens or restaurants?  How come they seem to keep fit and healthy with only grass, seeds, leaves – and meat – to eat? Their teeth provide a clue, for animals can be described by what they eat. Carnivores, such as Lions, eat meat.

Not all carnivores live on prey they catch but also eat carrion. Spotted hyenas are known as scavengers for this reason. They are quick to hover around the fringes while the Lions eat their fill after a kill.

As an aside: while you might not often see this in the wild, you may notice from time to time that your pet dog eats grass only to regurgitate it later. This is part of a natural process to clear parasites from their digestive system – no trip to the pharmacy for them.

English is a precise language and nowhere more so than in the sciences. There are specific names for everything: detrivores eat decomposing material, while folivores are animals that only eat leaves. Frugivores eat fruit. Generally speaking, plant-eating animals are known as herbivores. Included in these are South Africa’s national animal, the Springbuck.

Herbivores that specifically eat grass, such as Zebra, are grazers.

Browsers, like Kudu, also eat off trees and bushes.

Animals that eat seeds are called granivores; if they eat insects they are known as insectivores; mucivores eat plant juices; mycovores eat fungi; and nectarivores eat nectar. Omnivores, such as the Black-backed jackal, eat both plants and meat.

Then we get piscivores that eat fish, sanguinivores eat blood; and saprovores eat dead matter.

These are all part of nature’s way of ensuring that nothing goes to waste. What a contrast this is to the average human beings who lay waste to the environment in order to process food and then leave so much non-biodegradable waste in their wake!

Note: This post was inspired by Trevor Carnaby’s fascinating book, Beat about the bush: exploring the wild.

MAGNIFICENT KUDU

Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) are such common antelope where I grew up, as well as in the Eastern Cape where I now live, that I am taken aback at how relatively few photographs I have of these majestic, regal-looking animals. They are awesome to watch as they move elegantly through the veld or stand stock-still and look at one, totally unaware of their fine features, silently waiting for you to leave so that they can continue with their meal in peace.

They are mainly browsers.

Although they graze too.

I had a particularly close encounter with a kudu bull whilst walking through the Namib Naukluft National Park in Namibia over forty years ago: I had separated from the group and taken a narrow path through some thick bush that would lead to a dry riverbed lower down. I turned a sharp corner and came face-to-face with the unsuspecting Kudu bull, not more than a meter away. We eyed each other briefly. Then he turned away quietly to go down the path. I watched him but did not follow and allowed the unique experience to wash over me again and again before I joined the rest of the party.

While they are protected in our national parks and game reserves, during the hunting season kudu on private farms and in hunting areas are shot mainly for their meat, although some bulls are earmarked for their magnificent horns.

These horns were presented to the First City Regiment in Grahamstown by the then Duke of Montrose – then Colonel-in-Chief of First City – on the occasion of his departure for Scotland in July 1989. They originated from his ranch in the then Rhodesia.

The females do not have horns.

As one drives along the network of South African roads one encounters numerous road signs warning motorists to watch out for kudu – especially at night.

Kudu are the main culprits, although one needs to be on the lookout for other forms of wildlife too. Kudu are large animals, weighing up to 270 Kg and have a tendency to jump into the road at night after being dazzled by the headlights of the vehicle – crashing into the vehicle, causing extensive damage and even death. We once had a young kudu bump into the side of our vehicle early one misty morning. Fortunately, we were travelling slowly and it proved to be a sidelong encounter from which both parties emerged unscathed. The presence of an abundance of kudu creates hazardous driving conditions for motorists in the Eastern Cape and so this encounter served as a sober reminder of the dangers of driving in the country around here between dusk and dawn.

 

FOCUS ON KUDU

One of the most majestic animals we see is the Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros). They carry themselves so elegantly and look at one seemingly with the confidence born of knowing they are a cut above the rest. Look at the colouring of this beautiful female kudu with its tawny brown body, greyish neck and the stripes on its back. Both males and females have a conspicuous hump on the shoulder.

Note the fluffier fur of this immature kudu.

Only the male kudu has horns. You can tell this is a young kudu bull for its horns have not yet started to twist into the familiar spiral pattern. The spectacular horns of the kudu are used to fight each other for the right to mate with females.

You can see this pattern in the image below. Note the chevron-shaped white band across the face too.

Kudu are large antelope and rely on their disruptive colouration for camouflage as the stripes help their bodies to blend into the background – from the perspective of possible predators. They sport a mane of long hair from the back of the head to their tail that helps to disrupt their outline. An interesting characteristic of kudu is their large ears.

NOTE: Click on a photograph to see a larger image.