February 27, 2023


Tracking Mother Nature: Who was strolling along here?

Tracks in the ground, marks on trees, droppings on a rock – we are surrounded by signs that can be read by anyone who is willing to look at their surroundings. Some of these signs are easy to decipher, but others are difficult to interpret. But put them all together and you can learn the latest about our wildlife neighbours.

By Stefanie Rach

If you only observe your surroundings attentively, you can see countless traces of all the life around you. Sometimes they just jump out at you: a hoofprint in the mud at the waterside, a rufous feather with a black tip next to disturbed sand, or scratch marks on a tree in the middle of a lion pride’s territory. Other tracks, however, are less conspicuous: dried brown-grey mud on an old tree stump, a leaf missing, a small piece of it likely, or a dark secretion on a grass stalk.

secretion of a hyena

But all these tracks tell a story for those who know how to interpret them. One of these stories might be about a warthog that cooled off in the waterhole on a particularly hot day, then rolled in the mud, as it is a natural sunscreen, leaving tracks of its hooves in the muddy bank. When the mud was dry on its skin, the warthog rubbed his flanks and buttocks on an old tree stump. The pesky ticks and other vermin were stuck in the dried mud. By freeing itself from the mud, the warthog got rid of the unwanted parasites.

a bush cricket was nibbling on a mopane leaf

Other bush stories tell of lions scratching their claws on trees to keep them sharp and clean, of hyenas using secretions to mark their territory, and of an African hoopoe cleaning its feathers in a sand bath. The rufous bird with a black and white pattern on its wings regularly takes sand baths, leaving a feather behind every now and then. It feeds on insects, including the bush cricket, which was still nibbling on a leaf earlier.

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