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Whether they’re the tallest, heaviest, fastest or strongest, or just unique in their own way, we’ve put together a collection of animals you’ll find in South Africa that are extra special for one reason or another.
The blue duiker ranks as the smallest species of antelope in Southern Africa. They are about the size of a house cat and weigh between 4 and 4.7 kg. They have teeny little sharp horns. Although they mostly feed on vegetation – as you would expect – blue duikers are actually omnivores (like humans and dogs), as they will opportunistically eat birds’ eggs and insects. They are exceptional in this habit as other species of antelope are strictly herbivores.
Did you know? While the Blue Duiker is the smallest antelope in this part of the world, the planet’s very smallest is the Royal antelope, found in the rainforests of West Africa, and is about the size of a rabbit.
While you might not think much of the lowly dung beetle, pushing around its carefully-formed balls of elephant and other animal poop in the wild, this insect is remarkable in many ways. A dung beetle can push a ball of dung 50 times its own body weight. This would be equivalent to a human weighing 70kg bench-pressing 3500 kg at the gym!
South Africa has about 780 species of dung beetle, but we are not home to the species that rates as the strongest animal on earth. The male Onthophagus taurus can move an object over 1100 times its body weight, equating with a 70kg human being able to push six fully-loaded double-decker buses.
Fun fact: Dung beetles have yet another superpower. In order to locate their dung balls which they have stored in various places, they are able to memorise the position of the sun, moon and stars and use this to accurately navigate their way round.
Cheetahs are by far the fastest sprinters on earth, capable of reaching record-breaking speeds between 80–130 km/h. Of course they can only sustain these phenomenal speeds in short bursts so they try to get as close to their prey as possible, then run them down. Even at half their top speed cheetahs are still incredibly fast and agile. Cheetahs are literally built for speed, their top advantage when hunting. Lean, lithe and graceful, cheetahs weigh between 50–65 kg, have long slender legs, a small head on a long neck, a long tail that aids in turning at speed, and special pads on their paws to help with traction. Cheetahs are the only cat species that can’t retract their claws, and this too aids in maintaining traction on the hunt.
Did you know? Cheetahs are also unique amongst the big cats in that they prefer hunting during the day. The distinctive black markings that run from the eyes down the side of face are thought to aid their vision by reducing glare. This is the same reason why some sportsmen draw thick black stripes below their eyes.
Peregrine falcons can be found all over the world, except in the icy polar regions. South Africa has only about 400 resident breeding pairs. These birds predominantly prey on other birds and tend to nest high up in rocky outcrops and cliffs. However, they have also adapted to city life with the large numbers of feral pigeons as easy pickings.
These amazing birds of prey are touted as the fastest animals on the planet, with the ability to reach an astounding speed of over 350km/h when rocketing down from a great height to snatch their unfortunate and unsuspecting prey in midair.
The African elephant is world heavyweight champ, weighing between 2,300 kg to over 6 tons, with males being usually a good deal larger than females. Bull elephants can be as tall as 4m in height. Elephants live in highly complex social structures and have excellent memories, no doubt due to their large brains which can weigh up to 5 kg. A human brain weighs on average 1,5 kg.
The African elephant has another record-breaking attribute: It has the longest gestation period of 22 months to produce a baby. A newborn calf weighs in at approximately 90 kg. Coming in at second place for the longest pregnancy is the Asian elephant, with the sperm whale following up in third place.
The coelacanth fish, identified from fossils, was thought to have become extinct by the end of the Cretaceous period 65.5 million years ago. That is until 1938, when the skipper of a fishing boat netted one off the east coast of South Africa. Because it was such a strange-looking fish, he alerted the curator of the Knysna museum, who then contacted an ichthyologist at Rhodes university who identified it from a drawing she sent. It was the very first coelacanth to be identified as a still-living creature!
While no more coelacanths have been found off the SA coast, a number have been caught or filmed around the Comoro Islands. Similar to what it looked like when it evolved 400 millions years ago, the coelacanth is thought to be a transitional species between fish and tetrapods (from the Greek ‘four legs’), which include reptiles, amphibians and some mammals.
Ostriches are by far the largest birds in the world, growing up to 2.7m tall and weighing in at up to 145 kilograms. They are also pretty fast and can sprint at a speed of just under 70 k/ph, using their wings to help them manoeuver when changing direction. Their powerful, long legs can cover nearly 5m in one stride when running. An ostrich’s two-toed feet, each equipped with a sharp claw, can be pretty deadly weapons, and a powerful kick can kill a human, or even a lion.
Did you know? Ostriches have the biggest eyes of any land animal, which are 5 cm in diameter.
Fun fact: Farmers rearing ostriches in the UK have discovered that their ostriches ‘fall in love’ with them and display seductive courtship rituals when they are around. Conversely, when humans weren’t around, their level of sexual arousal dropped significantly.
Giraffes are the tallest land mammals on the planet, thanks to their remarkably long legs and towering necks. A giraffe's legs are longer than most humans are tall, about 1.8m. An adult male giraffe reaches a height of about 5m and females about 4,5m. They weigh between 800 and 1200 kg – about the weight a smallish car. The Northern giraffe found in countries like Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia can grow up 6m in height and weigh up to 1900kg.
The giraffe’s height is an adaptation that allows it to exclusively browse on tender leaves at the top of trees that other species can’t reach. Because it has such a large skeleton and needs more calcium than its leafy diet can provide, giraffes will sometimes chew on discarded animal bones to supplement their calcium intake.
Fun fact: Giraffes were thought to be really quiet animals, but researchers discovered that they hum, mostly at night, and occasionally grunt or snort!
The springbok is the national animal of South Africa, with all sporting codes bestowing ‘Springbok national colours’ for outstanding abilities in sport. Springbok are found around South Africa and are a common sight in rural areas and on farms, mostly in bushveld and semi-desert regions. You won’t see springbok in the Kruger National Park though, as the vegetation and terrain is unsuitable for them.
The springbok is famous for ‘pronking’ – when on the move it jumps into the air with straight legs with head down and back bowed. These multiple leaps can be as high as 2m off the ground. It is thought to be a self-defence tactic, making this relatively small antelope appear much bigger when threatened. A springbok is no slouch either in the speed stakes – it can run as fast as 88 km/h.
If the name sends shivers down your spine, you’re in good company. The venom from a black mamba is the deadliest and fastest-acting of any snake species anywhere on the planet. It takes only two drops of venom to kill a person and an adult snake can have up to 20 drops in each of its two 6.5 mm fangs. The venom has both neurotoxins and toxins that affect the heart.
Snakes generally don’t want to harm people as we’re not seen as prey, but will strike if cornered or if suddenly something comes too close. They more often move away to escape, hence the fact that not many people are bitten by snakes. (Hopefully this is slightly comforting information.)
Did you know? Black mambas are not black but are an olive or dark brown colour. The ‘black’ part is the inside of the mouth that you’ll see (possibly not for long!) when the mamba rears and opens its mouth wide to strike when threatened.
Black mambas are found in grassland and bushveld in Limpopo, North West, Mpumalanga and northern KZN. Those of you living in other provinces can breathe a sigh of relief.
Fun fact: Sorry, there aren’t any.