James Borrell is a biodiversity scientist and science communicator researching how people and nature can adapt to environmental change.

In Praise of the Little Guy

Have you ever heard of the ‘Big 5’? Supposedly the five African animals most difficult and dangerous to hunt on foot.

Unfortunately, it’s more a marketing term aimed at tourists than anything else, and although undoubtedly impressive I really don’t think that they comprise Africa’s wildlife highlights. The same is true around the world, visitors are reeled in with tales of the biggest, best and most dangerous wildlife a country has to offer, but in fact, I would argue in favour of the little guy. Here’s six of my favourite wildlife encounters, not the biggest, not the scariest, but definitely some of the best.

  • Leaf Cutter Ants – Probably as small as I can get, but I haven’t simply picked them to illustrate my point. Taking into account the size of the colony, they far outweigh most other organisms. Stumbling back through the rainforest on a night transect I was about to climb over a log when my head torch suddenly illuminated what I could only describe as a jungle disco. Marching along in a wide column were thousands of ants, of all different sizes and castes. Workers bobbed along in the middle, as if to an invisible beat, each carrying aloft fragments of bright green leaves interspersed with reds and yellows and all sorts of vegetation imaginable. Huge menacing warriors flanked them, with empty workers scurrying back in the opposite direction.
  • Wildebeest – Not one of Africa’s Big 5, in fact, frequently referred to as Lion food. Nevertheless, I found them to be the most majestic and iconically African, of all Africa’s antelope species. It was difficult to get close, but this and this, are two of my favourite photographs.
  • Electric Eels – We would paddle around the Amazon’s tributaries listening to Simon reading passages from ‘Jaguars and Electric Eels’ a book by the famous explorer Alexander von Humboldt. None of our local guides had ever seen one – in fact we didn’t think they even lived in our area. Late one night, out on a dugout canoe catching Caiman, Carlos panned the powerful lamp across the surface of the water and caught in the beam was a beautiful, shimmering, unmistakable electric eel. We only saw it for a moment, and then it was gone.
  • The Blue Morpho – A girly choice, and difficult to do justice with a description, so here’s a photo (not mine, they’re way too fast). Imagine these chasing through the dim light of the forest understory. Perhaps the reason they’re such a highlight, is that you’re unlikely to ever get a good look at them, just a flash of electric blue.
  • Chameleon – If ever there was a reptile that could fascinate, it’s the chameleon. Incidentally, Madagascar has more than anywhere else in the world, and they range from two or so feet, right down to species that can perch on the head of a match. My most memorable experience is catching flies and then feeding our menagerie of study specimens in the rainforest.
  • Dolphins and Algae – Dolphins in the mid-Atlantic were great, and joined us quite regularly, but one particularly mill-pond calm night it was the tiny single-celled bio-luminescent algae that made the encounter. As the dolphins raced around the bow, the algae would glow in the agitated water turning the dolphins into vivid green torpedo.

What are your favourite wildlife encounters?