Animal tracks and traces
These tiny sand balls on a beach near Tongxiao, western Taiwan, have been left here by small crabs, which cleaned their dens after high tide. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A large part of this cabbage head has been eaten by caterpillars of large white (Pieris brassicae), Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This leaf of giant taro (Alocasia macrorhiza), photographed in western Taiwan, has numerous holes, gnawed by insects. This plant is described in depth on the page Nature: Nature’s patterns. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
“Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night tracks of ‘coons, and with the spread pads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark.”
– John Steinbeck (1902-1968), American author, in his novel Of Mice and Men, 1937
This page deals with various forms of animal traces, including footprints, food items, gnawing marks, dung, diggings, etc.
Originally, the fallow deer (Dama dama) was indigenous to Turkey, the Caucasus, and Iran, and possibly also the Balkans and Italy. At an early stage, it was introduced to deer parks all over Europe, and in modern times, it has also been introduced to many other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and the United States. It often forms feral populations.
In the 1600s, fallow deer and red deer (see below) were introduced to Jægersborg Deer Park, Zealand, Denmark, as hunting objects for the king and his retinue. Today, about 1,600 fallow deer and 300 red deer live in this park.
Fallow deer, seen as silhouettes, Jægersborg Deer Park. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In the 1200s, the island of Romsø, near Funen, Denmark, was the property of the king. He introduced fallow deer from Turkey and released them on this island as a hunting object. On this island, there were no wolves to prey on the deer, which was the case in most areas of Denmark in those days.
Fallow deer, Romsø. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
These midland hawthorns (Crataegus laevigata) on Romsø have been severely pruned by grazing fallow deer. – Hawthorns are described in detail on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The red deer (Cervus elaphus) is native to most of Europe, north-western Africa, Turkey, the Caucasus, northern Iran, and scattered locations in Central Asia. It has also been introduced as a hunting object to other areas, including Australia, New Zealand, and North and South America.
Tracks of red deer. In recent years, this species has increased significantly in numbers in Jutland, Denmark, where these pictures were taken. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Wallowing place for red deer, Jutland, Denmark. Deer often wallow in mud to protect themselves from stinging insects. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Many deer species use the same routes every day when foraging, and, over time, animal paths, called tracks, evolve.
Red deer tracks, Borris Hede, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) is distributed all over Europe, with the exception of Ireland, far northern Scandinavia, Finland, and Russia. It is also found in Turkey, the Caucasus, and northern Iran.
From Ukraine and the northern flanks of the Caucasus, eastwards through the taiga zone to the Pacific Ocean, and also in Tibet, Korea, and Manchuria, this species is replaced by the Siberian roe deer (Capreolus pygargus). Formerly, these deer were regarded as a single species, but today most authorities recognize them as separate species. The Siberian roe deer is larger, with longer, more branched antlers than the European roe deer.
Roe buck, crossing a pond, Nature Reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tracks of roe deer, and a leaf rosette of scentless mayweed (Matricaria perforata), central Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Track, urine, and pellets of roe deer, and tracks of blackbird (Turdus merula), Nature Reserve Vorsø. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Roe deer track, Funen, Denmark. Withered leaves have gathered in the track. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Some species of deer have a habit of scraping aside withered leaves and vegetation, before they lie down on the forest floor.
Resting place of a roe deer in a carpet of lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and white anemone (Anemone nemorosa), Nature Reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Resting place of a roe deer in tall grass, Funen, Denmark. The vegetation was too tall for the deer to scrape aside, so it simply lay down upon it. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
When the mating season of deer is over, the antlers are shed. While new ones emerge, they are covered by a layer of skin, called velvet. When the new antlers are complete, the velvet dies, creating an intense itching. To relieve this itching, the deer brushes the antlers against bushes or young trees, causing the velvet to loosen and fall off. This behaviour is called fraying. This fraying is often so violent that the bark of younger trees is removed all the way around the trunk, and the plant dies.
A selection of antlers, shed by roe deer, Nature Reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The trunk of this young wild cherry (Prunus avium) has a partly healed wound, after being frayed by a roe buck, Nature Reserve Vorsø. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This small common fir (Abies alba), which was formerly frayed by a roe buck, has withered in the top, but managed to grow a side branch. Lately, the buck has scraped in the forest floor to mark its territory. – Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is one of the most widespread deer species in the world, found in most of North America, Mexico, Central America, and northern South America, southwards to Peru and Bolivia. It has also been introduced elsewhere, including Cuba, Jamaica, New Zealand, Finland, and the Czech Republic.
This species is regarded as an invasive in Finland and New Zealand, and also in parts of its native United States. You may read more about this fact on the page Nature: Invasive species.
Female white-tailed deer, Cathlamet, Washington State. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This American holly (Ilex opaca) on Fire Island, Long Island, New York, has been pruned by white-tailed deer. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), also called black-tailed deer, is found in the western half of North America, from southern Alaska southwards to Baja California and central Mexico. The name mule deer refers to its rather large ears. The two names of this deer indicate the main differences between this species and the white-tailed deer.
Mule deer stag with antlers in velvet, Yosemite National Park, Sierra Nevada, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Dried-out pellets of mule deer in black lava, Kana’a Lava Flow, Coconino National Forest, Arizona. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The common beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris) is distributed in dry areas of the Colorado Plateau, from southern Utah and Nevada, western Arizona, and eastern California, southwards to north-western Mexico. In May, this species displays wonderful pink or rose-coloured flowers.
Chomp! – Pads of this common beavertail cactus in Red Rock Canyon State Park, California, have been partly eaten, probably by a mule deer. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is the most widespread of all canines, found all across Eurasia (except tropical parts), in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and the Nile Valley, and in North America, almost southwards to the Mexican border. It has been introduced to Australia, where it has become a menace to indigenous mammals and birds, and is regarded as highly invasive.
The red fox and other canines are described in depth on the page Animals: Dog family.
In cities, red foxes often become accustomed to people. This confiding pup was photographed in the Botanical Garden of Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tracks of red fox on a frozen pond, Nature Reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tale in the snow, Nature Reserve Vorsø: A red fox has killed and eaten a bird. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tracks of red fox, and of a mouse, in snow, Hardangervidda, Norway. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Excreta of red fox with rose hip seeds and remains of crab shields, Nature Reserve Vorsø. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) is found in eastern Asia, from Ussuriland southwards through eastern China to northern Vietnam, and also in Japan. Between 1928 and 1958, at least 10,000 raccoon dogs were released at various locations in the Soviet Union in an attempt to improve their fur quality. Many of these feral populations increased rapidly, and the species has spread to most countries in Europe, where it is regarded as invasive, being a threat to many breeding birds. (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raccoon_dog)
Scats of raccoon dog, Alam-Pedja, Estonia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Divided into 8 subspecies, the European badger (Meles meles), a large member of the mustelid family (Mustelidae), is distributed in almost all of Europe and the Middle East, eastwards to the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan. From western Russia eastwards across Central Asia to Ussuriland, Korea, and China, it is replaced by the paler Asian badger (Meles leucurus), and in Japan by the Japanese badger (Meles anakuma), which is brownish, with very faint facial stripes.
Tracks of European badger on a sandy beach, Nature Reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The badger lives in large family groups in dens, often ten or more animals together. This complex in Nature Reserve Vorsø has no less than c. 30 entrance holes. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The badger has a habit of defecating at places, where it has been digging for roots, larvae, bumblebee nests, etc. – Nature Reserve Vorsø. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Badgers use the same routes every day when foraging, and, over time, paths, called tracks, evolve.
Badger track, Nature Reserve Vorsø. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The snow leopard (Uncia uncia) lives in mountains of Central Asia, but has been hunted to extinction in many areas because of its rich and beautiful fur. In Buddhist areas of the Himalaya, hunting is banned, and in these areas this rare cat has safe havens, where it can prey on species like bharal (Pseudois nayaur), urial (Ovis vignei), Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus), and Himalayan musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster).
One morning, in the Jarsang Khola Valley, Annapurna, Nepal, we found these partly melted pugmarks in the snow, signifying that a snow leopard had passed here the previous night. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The cougar (Puma concolor), also known as puma or mountain lion, has a very wide distribution, found from the Yukon area in Canada southwards through western North America to the southern Andes of South America. This large cat is very adaptable, found in almost all habitat types of this vast area.
Cougar scat on a gravel road, Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, Cordillera de Tilarán, Costa Rica. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The African civet (Civettictis civetta, formerly Viverra civetta) is widely distributed in open woodland and secondary forest of sub-Saharan Africa. It is rather common, but is locally threatened by hunting. Wild individuals are also caught and kept in captivity to produce civetone for the perfume industry.
African civets often defecate on the same spots, creating large heaps of dung, called ‘toilets’. This one was observed near the town of Samfya, northern Zambia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A relative of the African civet is the Andaman palm civet (Paguma larvata ssp. tytleri), a subspecies of the Southeast Asian masked palm civet. As its name implies, this subspecies is restricted to the Andaman Islands, close to Myanmar. It was perhaps introduced to these islands by settling negrito peoples, and has since formed feral populations.
Excreta of Andaman palm civet, containing palm seeds, John Lawrence Island, Andaman Islands. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Due to illegal hunting, bears have disappeared, or become very rare, in many areas, including Europe, Southeast Asia, Korea, China, and Taiwan. Many bears are kept in captivity to supply the various markets with bear paw soup, or ingredients for production of traditional medicine. In South Korea, for instance, only around ten Asian black bears (Ursus thibetanus), live in the wild, while c. 1,600 are kept in captivity, often under horrible conditions. These captive bears are often killed in the most cruel and horrendous ways, and that this practice is illegal does not seem to deter consumers.
As numbers dwindled in other areas, the attention of poachers, in the 1990s, shifted to western North America, which houses a large number of brown bears (Ursus arctos) and American black bears (Ursus americanus). Since then, numerous bears have been illegally collected here, intended for Asian markets in American cities.
Asian black bear, photographed in Chengdu Zoo, Sichuan Province, China. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Scats of Asian black bear, containing hairs and bone splinters, Ghunsa Valley (top) and Sagarmatha National Park, both in eastern Nepal. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In this picture from Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India, an Asian black bear has been digging for tubers. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This American black bear cub is eating seeds of a sugar pine cone (Pinus lambertiana), Sequoia National Park, Sierra Nevada, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Scats of American black bear, Kings Canyon National Park, Sierra Nevada. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Carnivore scats attract many insects, which suck moisture or nutrients from them.
These carnivore scats, observed at Phnom Kbal Spean, Angkor, Cambodia, are visited by butterflies, including a tailed blue of one of the genera Cheritra or Ticherra, and grasshoppers, bluebottles, and burnet moths. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Elephant seals derive their name from their great size, and also from the male’s large, inflatable proboscis, with which he makes loud roaring noises, especially during the mating season. While moulting, northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) spend a lot of time sleeping on their moulting site.
Formerly, these large seals were hunted extensively for their blubber, from which oil was made. By 1869, they had almost been extirpated, and around 1890 only one group, comprising about 100 animals, was known to exist. However, the elephant seal managed to survive, and since the early 20th century it has been protected by law in Mexico and the United States. Subsequently, it has now recovered, counting more than 200,000 individuals. Today, it occurs in scattered colonies along the Pacific Coast, from Baja California to the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.
When moulting, elephant seals spend a lot of time sleeping. In this picture, American herring gulls (Larus smithsonianus) are fighting over faeces that have just been delivered by an immature elephant seal. – San Simeon, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The wild boar (Sus scrofa) is found in a vast area, from almost all of Europe and North Africa across the Middle East and Central Asia to Japan, and thence southwards to Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Sumatra, and Java. It has also been introduced elsewhere, notably the United States, Australia, and New Guinea.
I once had a close encounter with a wild boar, see Travel episodes – Iran 1973: Car breakdown at the Caspian Sea. You may also read an amusing account of wild boar on the page Quotes on Nature, related by the famous hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett (1875-1955).
Diggings of a wild boar, De Hoge Veluwe National Park, Holland. Presumably, it was feeding on tubers. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
As its popular and specific names imply, the water vole (Arvicola amphibius) has a semi-aquatic way of life. The specific name amphibius is from the Greek amfi (‘both sides’) and bios (‘life’), thus ‘the one that lives on both sides’. This rodent is widely distributed, from northern Scandinavia and Siberia southwards to Italy, Greece, Turkey, northern Iran, and Kazakhstan, and from the British Isles eastwards to eastern Siberia.
Water vole, encountered in Nature Reserve Klægbanken, Ringkøbing Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Remains of reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), left by a water vole, Nature Reserve Klægbanken. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tracks of water vole and red fox (Vulpes vulpes) in snow, Nature Reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The field vole (Microtus agrestis) is distributed in all of Europe, except Iceland, Ireland, southern Spain, Italy, and the Balkans, and thence eastwards across Siberia to east of Lake Baikal. It lives in a wide range of habitats, including meadows, fields, plantations, woodlands, heaths, dunes, and marshes, and along rivers. In the Alps, it is found up to about 1,700 m altitude.
At some time during the winter, the bark of this young hawthorn (Crataegus) in Nature Reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark, has been eaten all the way around the trunk by field voles, resulting in the death of the shrub. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This hybrid crack willow (Salix x rubens), likewise in Nature Reserve Vorsø, was felled in the autumn, and during the winter, parts of the bark was eaten by field voles. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Numerous dried-out mouse pellets (and a single rabbit pellet), Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The European beaver (Castor fiber) was once widespread in Eurasia, but was hunted to near-extinction for its fur and for the so-called castoreum, a secretion from its scent gland, which was believed to have medicinal properties. Around 1900, only c. 1,200 beavers survived in 8 relict populations. Today, it has been reintroduced to many areas, occurring in Scotland, and from northern Scandinavia southwards to France and thence eastwards across Russia and Kazakhstan to Sinkiang.
Tooth marks of a European beaver on the trunk of a Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), Tammemäe, Estonia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In 1937, seven Canadian beavers (Castor canadensis) were introduced to Finland, where they were released with the intention of letting them crossbreed with the local European beavers, thus supplementing the declining population. However, the two species are not able to interbreed due to differences in their chromosome numbers, and today the European beaver has been replaced in most locations in Finland by the stronger Canadian beaver.
This species is native to the major part of North America. Besides Finland, it has been introduced to various locations in Europe, and also to Patagonia, southern Argentina.
Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), felled by a Canadian beaver, Crystal Lake Conservation Area, Massachusetts. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Beaver gnawing marks on another eastern white pine, Crystal Lake. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) has been partly felled by a beaver, Crystal Lake. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Beavers construct an underwater den beneath a huge pile of branches, which they collect themselves. The den is made waterproof by stuffing water plants, twigs, leaves, and soil between the larger branches. In late autumn, the beavers collect a winter supply of branches, which are kept inside the den to serve as winter food for the animals.
Beaver dens, Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Massachusetts (top), and Acadia National Park, Maine. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Prairie dogs (Cynomys), a type of ground squirrel, live in large underground colonies on the North American prairie, popularly called ‘prairie dog towns’. Each family has several entrances to their ‘apartment’. These entrances are at different levels, causing an air current to flow through the tunnels, which will supply fresh oxygen to the animals. The soil, which has been dug up, creates a bank around the den, preventing rain water from pouring into it.
Prairie dogs, and many other squirrels, are described on the page Animals: Squirrels of North America.
Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus), gathered around their den, Badlands National Park, South Dakota. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
When a red giant flying squirrel (Petaurista petaurista) is about to eat a leaf, it will fold it along the mid-rib and then eat the central part, thus avoiding the edge of the leaf, which is more toxic than the centre.
This large squirrel is distributed from eastern Afghanistan along the Himalaya to eastern China, and thence south through Southeast Asia to Sumatra, Borneo, and Java.
In the upper picture below, Indian forester B.P. Bahuguna shows a leaf of spiny-leaved oak (Quercus semecarpifolia) with a large hole in the centre, which was made by a red giant flying squirrel. During a hike up the Asi Ganga Valley, Uttarakhand, northern India, we found many such leaves along the trail. This hike is related in detail on the page Travel episodes – India 2008: Mountain goats and frozen flowers.
(Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A rodent, probably a squirrel, has opened these walnuts (Juglans regia) and eaten the nuts, Dharkot, Uttarakhand, northern India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hares and rabbits
The European hare (Lepus europaeus) is native to the major part of Europe and the Middle East, and thence eastwards across the steppes of Asia to Mongolia. It has also been introduced elsewhere, including Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and southern South America.
European hare in a littoral meadow, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hares often use the same routes every day when foraging, and, over time, animal paths, called tracks, evolve.
Hare track in a littoral meadow, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) has been introduced to many countries as a hunting object, including Britain, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and South Africa. In countless cases, the rabbit has done severe damage to the environment, partly through overgrazing, partly through its system of underground tunnels, and partly through competition with local wildlife. It is regarded as an invasive in most countries.
This species is described in depth on the page Nature: Invasive species.
Dried-out dung pellets of European rabbit on the island of Fanø, Denmark. Rabbits were introduced to this island in 1913, and today it is extremely common here. The grass-tuft is grey hair-grass (Corynephorus canescens), which is common on this island. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Apart from owls, very few animals eat shrews, undoubtedly because of the strong, pungent smell, emitted from their anal gland. This smell is utilized to mark territory, create scent trails, communicate with other shrews, and, finally, as a defense mechanism. The latter is often not sufficient to deter carnivores from killing them, but the smell is so powerful that the carnivores will not eat them. This is why you so often come across dead shrews in nature.
As its name implies, the common shrew (Sorex araneus) is widespread, and, in fact, one of the most common mammals in northern Europe. It is found in forests, scrubland, and grasslands, from England eastwards to southern central Siberia and Mongolia, and from northern Scandinavia southwards to the Pyrenees and northern Greece.
This common shrew was killed by a domestic cat and left in a farm yard, Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Apes and monkeys
Gorilla, chimpanzee, vervets, macaques, and many other monkeys are described in depth on the page Animals: Monkeys and apes.
The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei) lives in montane forests of eastern Zaire, north-western Rwanda, and south-western Uganda. This region has been subject to war and civil war for many decades, during which gorillas also fell victim. Subspecies beringei, which counts only about 900 individuals, is the only great ape in the world that has increased in number lately, whereas subspecies graueri has been severely affected by human activities, most notably poaching for commercial trade of bushmeat. This illegal hunting has been facilitated by a proliferation of firearms from the various wars of this region.
This spot on the forest floor in Bwindi National Park, Uganda, was used as a night resting place by a mountain gorilla, which left a pile of dung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Comprising four subspecies, the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) has a discontinuous distribution from southern Senegal east across the forested belt north of the Congo River to extreme western Tanzania and Uganda, living in various types of forest, along rivers in savanna woodland, and sometimes in plantations, from the lowland up to app. 2,800 m altitude.
The chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, western Tanzania, were made famous by celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall (born 1934) – the first person to study these apes in depth.
Faeces of chimpanzee with remains of hard-shelled fruits, Gombe Stream National Park. A bluebottle is sitting on the excrement. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The vervet (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) is distributed from Ethiopia and southern Somalia southwards through Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, and Botswana to South Africa. It lives mainly in savanna and open woodland, almost always near rivers, but is extremely adaptable and able to survive in cultivated areas, and sometimes in towns.
Vervets, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Vervet tracks on a beach, Kisiju, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
As its name implies, the Taiwan macaque (Macaca cyclopis) is endemic to Taiwan, where it is quite common.
Fruits of Chinese screw palm (Pandanus odoratissimus var. sinensis), partly eaten by Taiwan macaques, Sheding Nature Park, Kenting National Park, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This twig, likewise in Sheding Nature Park, was bitten off by a Taiwan macaque, which ate a bit of the bark and then let it fall to the ground. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Elephants and their sad fate are described on the page Animals: Rise and fall of the mighty elephants.
The common baobab (Adansonia digitata) is the most widespread among the nine species in this genus, of which six are native to Madagascar, two to mainland Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and one to Australia. The bark of this majestic tree is a popular food item among elephants (Loxodonta africana), who often peel off the bark with their tusks. The tree may become so damaged by this treatment that it will topple during the next storm.
This magnificent tree is described on the page Plants: Ancient and huge trees.
Elephants, eating bark from a fallen baobab, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This hollow baobab, likewise in Tarangire, has been partly destroyed by elephants. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Not only the bark, but also the wood of this baobab in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, has been tremendously frayed by elephants. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Elephant dung often attracts butterflies, which suck nutrients from it.
Dixeia butterflies, of the large family whites (Pieridae), sucking from elephant dung, Meru National Park, Kenya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Ancient Egypt, Khepri was a solar deity, connected with the dung beetle, or scarab beetle (Scarabaeus sacer). These beetles were sacred, because they would roll balls of dung across the ground – an act that the Egyptians saw as a symbol of the forces, which move the sun across the sky. Dung beetles became very popular as amulets and impression seals, called scarab, and they were often depicted on temples, graves etc.
In Africa, dung beetles are very common, often seen on various types of dung, which they form into balls, rolling them away to bury them and lay eggs in them.
As a boy, the famous naturalist and conservationist Gerald Durrell (1925-1995) was much intrigued by these beetles. His amusing account is related on the page Quotes on Nature.
Dung beetle, forming a ball of elephant dung, after which it will roll it away, bury it and lay eggs in it. – Meru National Park, Kenya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In the picture below, taken in Kruger National Park, South Africa, southern yellow-billed hornbills (Tockus leucomelas), feeding on insects in elephant dung, presumably dung beetles. – Many other species of hornbill are described on the page Animals: Hornbills.
(Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rhino dung also attracts butterflies.
Burnet moths, sucking from dung of white rhino (Ceratotherium simum), Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe. A single dung beetle (see above) is also present. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Scarab beetles, making balls of zebra dung, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This dung, presumably also from zebra, has also attracted scarab beetles, and a single green beetle, Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Gomantong Caves are a huge system of limestone caves in the Sandakan District, Sabah, Borneo, whereas the Niah Caves are similar caves in the Miri District of Sarawak, likewise in Borneo. These caves are famous for housing huge colonies of bats (more than a quarter of a million in Gomantong), and also hundreds of thousands of swiftlets of the genus Aerodramus. The guano from these bats and birds have accumulated on the floor of the caves, forming a thick layer. Various animals, such as cave cockroaches (Pycnoscelus striatus) and water scavenger beetles (Cerycon gebioni) feed on this guano, while others feed on dead bats and swiftlets.
Cave cockroaches and water scavenger beetles, feeding in a thick layer of bat dung and remains of insects from bat food, Gomantong Caves. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This cave cockroach is feeding on the remains of a dead frog, which perished in the bat dung, Gomantong. Presumably, the frog had entered the cave by mistake. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cave cricket (Rhaphidophora oophaga), feeding on a dead bat of the genus Hipposideros, Niah Caves. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
See caption Bats above.
The great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) is widely distributed, from northern Sweden, Finland, and Russia southwards to north-western Africa, the Caucasus, and the Alborz Mountains of Iran, and from the British Isles eastwards to Kamchatka, Japan, and China. Most populations are resident, but the northernmost birds are migratory. Some birds stray far from the usual distribution area, sometimes as far away as North America.
Portrait of a great spotted woodpecker, Rømø, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Spruce stump, processed by a feeding great spotted woodpecker, central Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
‘Workshop’ of a great spotted woodpecker on the trunk of an old apple tree, Funen, Denmark. The bird has placed a hazel nut in a crack and opened it. Note the frayed bark, a result of former usage of this tree by the bird. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Spruce cones have been attached to cracks in this crumbling birch by a great spotted woodpecker, whereupon the bird has extracted the seeds. – Tofte Sø, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) is found from Spain, France, and Scandinavia eastwards across the taiga zone to Kamchatka, Japan, and China, with isolated occurrence in the Caucasus and the Alborz Mountains in Iran.
Pine trees, worked on by black woodpeckers, Småland, Sweden. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A close relative of the black woodpecker is the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), which is found across southern Canada and the eastern half of the United States, southwards to Texas and Florida, and also in the Pacific States, southwards to California. The term pileated refers to the prominent red crest of this bird, from the Latin pilleus (‘cap’) and atus (‘like’), thus ‘with a cap-like (crest)’.
Male pileated woodpecker, feeding on the ground, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee. The female has a black moustachial stripe. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
American beech (Fagus grandifolia) with a nesting hole of pileated woodpecker, Kenoza Lake, Haverhill, Massachusetts. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The rufous-bellied woodpecker (Dendrocopos hyperythrus) is found from northern Pakistan, eastwards along the Himalaya to China and Southeast Asia. Due to its habit of drilling holes in the bark of trees to extract the sap, it was previously believed that this bird was related to the North American sapsuckers, genus Sphyrapicus, which have a similar way of feeding. The rufous-bellied woodpecker, however, is a genuine Dendrocopos species, and the similar habits are an example of convergent evolution.
At some point, a rufous-bellied woodpecker has drilled numerous holes into the trunk of this staggerbush (Lyonia ovalifolia), which has since shed its bark. – Asi Ganga Valley, Uttarakhand, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) is common from California through Mexico and Central America to northern Columbia. As its name implies, the most important food item of this bird is acorns. It has an interesting habit of storing acorns as a winter supply in small holes, which the bird chisels into the bark of living or dead trees.
This acorn woodpecker has chiseled its nesting hole in the trunk of a palm tree in Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, California, and around the nesting hole, it has made numerous small holes for storage of acorns. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
During the 1800s, the great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) was persecuted all over Europe, partly because it was competing with fishermen, partly because its guano destroyed the trees, in which it was breeding. From about 1970, it was protected in many countries and has since then made a dramatic comeback. Today, it is very common in Europe.
The generic name Phalacrocorax is from the Greek phalakros (‘bald’) and korax (‘raven’), while the specific name carbo is Latin, meaning ‘coal’, thus ‘the coal-black, bald raven’, where bald refers to the white crown of the great cormorant during the breeding season. However, as the crown is feathered, the name is rather misleading.
Other cormorants are described on the page Fishing.
This tree near Les Grangettes, Geneva Lake, Switzerland, which serves as a night roost for wintering great cormorants, is completely covered in guano. A highway is seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cormorant guano is caustic, and most of the plants that grow beneath a cormorant colony, will perish. These ramsons (Allium ursinum) in Nature Reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark, have been covered by a moderate layer of dung and may be able to survive.
Ramsons is dealt with in detail on the page Nature: Invasive species.
(Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus), sometimes called Impeyan pheasant, is a gorgeous gamebird of Central Asia, distributed from Afghanistan eastwards along the Himalaya to Bhutan. This species is the national bird of Nepal, locally called danphe, and often referred to as ’the bird of nine colours’, in allusion to the brilliant plumage of the cock. It is also the state bird of Uttarakhand, North India. The specific name commemorates Lady Mary Impey, wife of Sir Elijah Impey (1732-1809), who was chief justice of the Supreme Court at Fort William, the first settlement of the British East India Company in Bengal.
As with most other gamebirds, the meat of monal is delicious, and for this reason it is hunted in many places. However, it is still common locally, and in the Khumbu area of eastern Nepal it is very common, as the local Buddhist Sherpas are against killing. So even though the monal does some damage by digging up potatoes and eating them, they are not persecuted here.
Male Himalayan monal, surveying his territory from a rock, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tracks of Himalayan monal in snow, Dodi Tal, Uttarakhand, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Another Asiatic gamebird is the small chukar (Alectoris chukar), which is closely related to the European rock partridge (A. graeca). The chukar is distributed from Turkey and Egypt eastwards across the Middle East to Central Asia. It has also been introduced as a hunting object to many other areas and has formed feral populations in several countries, including the United States and New Zealand.
This confiding chukar was photographed in a camp ground in Capitol Reef National Monument, Utah, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Chukar tracks in a sandy area, Ulley Topko, Ladakh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
For hundreds of years, Hirsholmene, a group of islets in northern Kattegat, Denmark, have housed large colonies of birds, breeding in the thousands, including the black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus).
This species and other gulls are presented in depth on the page Nature: Urban nature.
Black-headed gulls above their colony at sunset, Hirsholmene. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The windows of an observation tower near the colony of black-headed gulls have had their share of guano from the birds. A black-headed gull is standing on the railing. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) is a large thrush, which breeds in scrubland and open forests, from northern Norway southwards to France, Switzerland, northern Italy, northern Slovenia, and northern Ukraine, and from eastern France eastwards across the entire taiga zone to eastern Siberia, Mongolia, and northern China. In England, it is a scarce breeding bird. Populations of Scandinavia and Siberia are migratory, spending the winter in the British Isles, southern Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, and areas around the Caspian Sea.
The name fieldfare is derived from the 11th Century word feldefare, which, according to some authorities, means ‘traveller across the fields’. However, in a paper from 1855, On False Etymologies, in Transactions of the Philological Society (6): 69, H. Wedgwood points out that this is a false presumption. In reality, the name is derived from the old Anglo-Saxon name of the bird, feala-for, perhaps alluding to the tawny-yellow colour on the breast.
Other thrushes are described on the page Animals: Thrushes.
During a period of severe frost, this small spring in Nature Reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark, serves as drinking place for fieldfares. The birds have left piles of reddish dung, the colour stemming from rose hips. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Although sea turtles spend about 98% of their life swimming about in the oceans, the females must get ashore, when they are about to lay eggs. With a great effort, they crawl ashore on a sandy beach, above the high tide line, where they dig a hole with their hind flippers. When a female has finished digging, she lays a number of white eggs, often between 80 and 100. They resemble table tennis balls in shape, but are soft, so that they do not break when they fall into the hole. When the egg-laying is over, the female covers the eggs, throwing sand about with her flippers to camouflage the spot. Then she returns to the sea. Some sea turtle species lay eggs several times in a season, in some cases up to 11 clutches.
Egg-laying olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Although a sea turtle will camouflage the egg-laying spot with sand, it is revealed by her characteristic ‘tractor’ tracks, in this case on Latham Island, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
These tiny sand balls on a beach near Tongxiao, western Taiwan, have been left here by small crabs, which have cleaned their dens after high tide. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tracks of numerous hermit crabs create patterns around a fallen fruit on a sandy beach, Parque Nacional Corcovado, Costa Rica. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Butterflies and moths
The large white (Pieris brassicae), also called cabbage white, is a common butterfly throughout Europe, North Africa, and Asia, eastwards to the Himalaya. As its specific name implies, caterpillars of this species are partial to leaves of cabbage and allies, genus Brassica.
In the picture below, a Himalayan large white, of the subspecies nepalensis, is feeding in dandelion flowers, near Lake Deepak Tal, situated at an altitude of about 3800 m, Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh, India.
(Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Caterpillars of large white, clustered on a broccoli stem, Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The genus Yponomeuta, of the family Yponomeutidae, contains more than a hundred species, of which some are agricultural pests. The spindle ermine moth (Yponomeuta cagnagella) is described on the page Cobwebs.
Caterpillars of the spindle ermine moth have defoliated a spindle-tree (Euonymus europaeus), Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Leaf of redflower ragleaf (Crassocephalum crepidioides) with feeding tunnels of a species of leaf miner moth, Tamur Valley, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Caterpillar, leaving tracks on a dune, Dueodde, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The great capricorn beetle (Cerambyx cerdo), of the family Cerambycidae, is widespread in central and southern Europe, from Spain and France eastwards to Belarus, Ukraine, and Turkey. There is also a small, declining population on the Swedish island Öland.
Feeding tunnels of larvae of the great capricorn beetle criss-cross the trunk of this dead common oak (Quercus robur), Halltorps Hage, Öland, Sweden. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
There are about 6,000 species of bark beetles in c. 220 genera, belonging to the subfamily Scolytinae, of the family Curculionidae.
Feeding tunnels, made by larvae of the ash bark-beetle (Hylesinus fraxini), branching out from the mother-beetle’s egg-laying tunnel on the trunk of an ash (Fraxinus excelsior), Öland, Sweden. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Egg-laying females of elm bark beetles (Scolytus) often transmit spores of the Dutch elm disease fungus Ophiostoma to elm trees (Ulmus). This disease is described in detail on the page Nature Reserve Vorsø: Dutch elm disease on Vorsø.
Branches of common elm (Ulmus glabra) with feeding tunnels of elm bark beetle larvae, branching out from the mother-beetle’s egg-laying tunnel. The tree has since died from Dutch elm disease. – Nature Reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sand dune with beetle tracks, Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In the picture below, leaves of beach almond (Terminalia catappa) have been partly eaten by insects, western Taiwan. Other pictures, depicting the gorgeous winter foliage of this species, may be seen on the pages Nature: Nature’s patterns, and In praise of the colour red.
(Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Leaf of downy birch (Betula pubescens), partly eaten by insects, Mols, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Leaf of horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), partly eaten by insects, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Leaf of sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus), partly eaten by insects, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Dipterocarpus alatus is a large evergreen forest tree, which can grow to a height of 40 m, sometimes up to 55 m. It is found in tropical Asia, from Bangladesh eastwards through Southeast Asia to the Philippines. This species is one of the most important timber trees in Tropical Asia. Wild populations are highly threatened by habitat loss, and the species is listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The generic name Dipterocarpus is derived from the Greek words di (‘two’), pteron (‘wing’), and karpos (‘fruit’), referring to the two-winged fruits of this genus.
This fallen leaf of Dipterocarpus alatus has been almost completely eaten by micro-organisms, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded March 2019)
(Latest update May 2020)