Safaris & stories
Africa Geographic
Wildlife . People . Travel
Shenton Safaris
Body of puff adder moving through vegetation
A puff adder (Bitis arietans), one of South Africa’s deadliest snakes, showing off its exceptional camouflage © Sophie Barrett / Garonga
SPONSORED CONTENT by Sophie Barrett, guide at Garonga

Safari goers are often drawn in by the big guys, the ones with fur and tusks, those who move with majesty and grace. As guides, we frequently hear cries for the Big 5, but little do safari adventurers realise is that there is a whole menagerie of weird and truly wonderful creatures just waiting to steal the show – the lesser-known, but no less marvellous, ‘Small 5000’.

elegant grasshopper (Zonocerus elegans)
An elegant grasshopper (Zonocerus elegans) after summer rains © Sophie Barrett

Now 5000 is not a precise species count (were we to start counting we would be laughably short of the mark), but we can definitely say there is an incredible and diverse array of small creatures just waiting to be discovered! So come and join us around the campfire to learn more about our spookier residents and their dastardly habits… but be warned, life in the wild is not for the faint of heart, it might not seem like it but these creatures will get your Halloween chills up and running!

Adult red velvet mite
Adult red velvet mite (Trombididiidae) © Vaughan Jessnitz

Red velvet mites are fascinating creatures. They look, to the untrained eye, a bit like a furry strawberry on legs. These wonders are seldom seen and when they are, they turn the head of even those not typically ‘arthopodically inclined’. But don’t let yourself be fooled, although they appear sweet and fluffy these animals are anything but!

As an intrinsic part of their life cycle, the larvae need to find an insect host, climb onto its back, drill a hole through its exoskeleton and feed on the (still living) insect’s bodily fluids! Whilst it is being quietly sucked dry, the insect is still mobile – this is key for the mite’s survival – allowing it to end up far from where it originally hatched, therefore reducing competition for food and living space. Once it has drunk its vampiric fill, the larva will drop off and pupate into a nymph where it transforms into an active predator and preys on every insect it can find!

Adult red velvet mite
Strawberry on legs or red velvet mite? © Sophie Barrett

Once it has fed until sated, the mite enters a dormant stage before transforming into an adult. Intriguingly, the adult is typically a less voracious predator than the nymph, focusing its diet on arthropods and their eggs, and, in this part of the world, they are especially fond of ants and termites. They spend large periods of the year inactive underground and are typically spotted at the surface after it rains. In some areas adult mites may only forage for a few hours per year!

Aside from their carnivorous habits these mites have a romantic side. Their mating rituals are seldom seen but carefully choreographed. First comes the courtship where the mites become acquainted by circling one another, tapping with their forelegs. Meanwhile the male has already deposited a spermatophore (a sperm filled parcel) onto a bed of leaves and twigs and laid down a silk trail leading to the prize. When the female has indicated her acceptance of the courting male (which presumably chiefly comprises of not eating him) he leads her down his silken trail and stops when she is positioned directly over the parcel. The parcel is hooked to her underside and the sperm fertilise her eggs. After mating she can lay as many as 100,000 eggs, enabling the whole cycle to start over again.

Africa Geographic Travel
Banded-legged nephila
Banded-legged nephila (Nephila senegalensis) © Sophie Barrett

Few creatures in life can claim quite as many phobias created as spiders. The next character we explore is the banded-legged nephila. My favourite description of this spider has to be that it is “non-aggressive and relatively harmless”. A description which is usually followed by the disclaimer that it can deliver a painful bite if “severely provoked”. Its venom is not considered serious and merely causes redness and blistering (that well-known “harmless” symptom)!

Sunlight catching on the characteristic yellow silk of a female banded-legged nephila
Sunlight catching on the characteristic yellow silk of a female’s web as she perches in the centre waiting for her next victim © Sophie Barrett

Commonly known as a golden orb-web spider these arachnids are easily recognised by the golden-yellow colour of their webs. This is believed to serve two (nefarious) purposes. First, it helps the web to blend with the surrounding foliage when it is cast by shadows, ensnaring unsuspecting insect prey. Secondly, and conversely, when in the sun it is thought to attract bees due to their preference for the colour yellow.

Females are noticeably larger than their male counterparts who need to remain constantly alert to avoid being eaten by the ladies. Post-coitus cannibalism is common with this species. To avoid coming to a sticky end the males will often distract the females with a food offering or wait until she is consuming a meal before sidling in to fertilise her and then retreating to a safe distance, living to see another dawn!

Shenton Safaris

Garonga Safari Camp and Little Garonga are luxury camps set in the Greater Makalali Private Nature Reserve, Big 5 territory west of the Kruger National Park, South Africa. Garonga's holistic philosophy is to offer a safari for the soul, an unhurried and intimate wildlife encounter, a time to reflect and find inspiration in nature.