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South African Bushbabies

Written by Benoit Knox

Apr 15, 2020

Night-time busybodies

Bushbabies or galagos are small, tree-dwelling primates. You can find them all over South Africa, but they especially love Acacia trees. The gum of the Acacia tree is a healthy snack for bushbabies, especially during winter when there aren’t many insects around. They use their scraper-like front teeth to scrape the gum off the branches.

Watch me leap!

If bushbabies could take part in the Olympic Games, they would definitely win the gold medal for the long jump. Bushbabies can leap up to 4m from one tree to another and up to 2m vertically into a tree. They have strong hind legs to propel them forward and long tails to help them keep their balance. The soft friction pads on their hands and feet help them to grip the bark of the tree when they land. When the bushbaby has to move on the ground, it will hop along, just like a miniature kangaroo.

Say what?

Even though bushbabies are very cute, they don’t have very expressive faces, so they use other ways of communicating with each other. They can make at least 25 different sounds, including grunts, clicks, moans, crackles, chatters, twitters, shrill cries, tchack-tchack sounds and even ultrasonic sounds. You need a good ear to understand all of these sounds! A bushbaby’s ears are remarkable things. They can be moved together, separately and folded back against their heads for safe-keeping.

Get this!

The bushbaby’s cry sounds just like a human baby crying.

Can you see any insects?

Bushbabies have huge eyes. Their eyes are so big that they can’t move in their eye sockets. Bushbabies are able to rotate their heads 180 degrees to help them see. Their eyes have expanding pupils to let a lot of light in so that they can see at night. They can also bulge their eyeballs to help them focus on a nice, fat and juicy bug to catch for dinner. Bushbabies have many cone cells in their eyes. This means that they can see colours, even though they are nocturnal animals.

Night time is play time!

Bushbabies are nocturnal. This means that when the sun sets bushbabies wake up, stretch and groom themselves before going out to forage. The females sleep together in tree-cavities and self-built nests. The males, on the other hand, sleep alone. Each bushbaby looks for food alone, but they feed together.

Get this!
There was once a theory that bushbabies are afraid of the dark. This was later proven not to be true. Most animals are skittish when moving around in the dark.

Can you see that we are different?

There are two species of bushbaby in South Africa: the lesser bushbaby (lesser galago or Galago moholi) and the thick-tailed bushbaby (greater galago or Otolemur crassicaudatus). They might look similar, but they are actually very different!

Lesser bushbaby

Galago moholi

Behaviour

Adult males will avoid running into other males by protecting their territories and marking everywhere they go.
Male lesser bushbabies mark their females by urinating on them.
The lesser bushbaby likes looking good. So, before they leave their nest for a night of foraging, they will groom themselves. They use a special curved grooming claw on their feet, called a ‘toilet claw’, to make sure that their fur is perfectly clean.
Young bushbabies do not cling to their mothers like monkeys do. The mother will carry her baby in her mouth, almost like a cat.

Habitat

You can find the lesser bushbaby all across South Africa, from woodlands to savannahs and the fringes of forests. These bushbabies love South Africa.
The lesser bushbabies have a high tolerance for different temperatures, so that makes South Africa the ideal place for them to live.

Thick-tailed bushbaby

Otolemur crassicaudatus

Behaviour

Thick-tailed bushbabies are the most social of all the bushbaby species.
Males each have their own territory which may overlap with the territories of one or more females, but the females are the more dominant in this species.
Thick-tailed bushbabies love to play! They will chase each other, pull each other’s tails, wrestle and bite each other when they play.
They will urinate on their hands and rub it onto the soles of their feet to mark their territory while they leap from branch to branch.

Habitat

You can find thick-tailed bushbabies all over Africa, from Somalia and Tanzania to Kenya and Zanzibar! They are even found here in the eastern parts of South Africa.
These bushbabies like living in highlands and forests.

Threats to bushbabies

Bushbabies are facing natural and human threats. In the wild, bushbabies fall prey to owls, snakes, servals and African wildcats. The main threat to the lesser bushbaby is veld fires. They can’t travel over long distances on foot, so they can’t outrun the fire. Bushbabies are very adaptable creatures because they can live near humans as well as far from humans. This does not mean that humans do not pose a threat. Their natural habitat is being destroyed by human developments, deforestation and pollution.

Get this!

Only six species of bushbabies were recognised by 1974. By 1995, 17 different species of bushbabies were recognised throughout Africa. There is even a chance that more species will be discovered.

How can we help protect bushbabies in South Africa?

It is important for us to look after the bushbabies in South Africa. We can do this by looking after their natural habitat and by creating new safe areas where they can live without human intervention. Organisations, like the African Wildlife Foundation, help communities to construct conservation tourism lodges across Africa. These lodges not only help the local community, but they also help to look after numerous animals, like the bushbaby.

Have you ever heard the eerie sound of a baby crying in the bush? Have you ever been lucky enough to see a bushbaby?

One thing is for sure, spotting a bushbaby is a treat reserved for those of us who like to spend our evenings outside under the stars.

This article originally appeared in Supernova Volume 8.5

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