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Bushbaby - Galago moholi
 

Bushbabies
Bushbabies are primates, but they are not monkeys. Along with lemurs, pottos and lorises, they form the primate suborder of prosimians or “pre-monkeys”. Like most prosimians, bushbabies are nocturnal and they have a reflective layer in their large eyes that allows them to see in the dark. Prosimians also have an elongated nose, almost like a snout, and are heavily reliant on their sense of smell.

Physical description: Including their relatively long, fluffy-tipped tails, these tiny primates are only about 37cm in length and weigh around 150g when fully grown. They have large orange-brown eyes encircled by dark fur. The rest of their fur is grey, with a lighter, partly yellow tummy and a white stripe down the pinkish nose. Their ears are large and can be swivelled independently of each other. Until recently, only 6 species of bushbaby were recognised. However, more intensive studies over the past 2 decades have proven that there are at least 25 different species, many of which look extremely similar (known as cryptic species). Detailed analysis has shown that some kinds of bushbaby are even more distantly related to each other than humans are to gorillas!

Habitat: Bushbabies inhabit many different types of habitat in much of sub-Saharan Africa, except the most southern parts of South Africa. Southern lesser bushbabies (the particular species found at Birds of Eden) can be found in the region between Angola, Tanzania and South Africa. They like to live in semi-arid territories, such as savannah, scrub forest or on forest edges, especially in the vicinity of acacia and mopane trees. Although they are not normally found as far south as Birds of Eden, our animals do just fine during the winter months since they have a heat lamp near their cosy sleeping boxes.

Diet: Bushbabies eat beetles, grasshoppers, scorpions, small reptiles, butterflies and moths. These amazing hunters can catch flying prey in mid-air whilst leaping from tree to tree. Bushbabies are also partial to acacia gum, which they gouge out of trees using their toothcomb. This dental apparatus is common amongst prosimians and consists of forward jutting teeth in the front of the lower jaw. Also helpful for tree-sap harvesting are the strong claws on their index fingers and a rough tongue, which feels just like sandpaper! Although some species of bushbaby eat fruit, Galago moholi only do so in captivity and have never been reported to eat fruit in the wild.

Life history: Like humans, bushbabies normally give birth to one offspring at a time, though twins and even triplets are occasionally born. The gestation time (or length of pregnancy) is usually just over four months. Newborn infants are carried in the mother’s mouth or cling to her belly during their first month of life, after which they are able to ride on her back. By two months of age, a little bushbaby can travel independently and weaning occurs by the age of five months. Females are sexually mature at about one year of age, which is when they leave the family group to make a separate nest in which to give birth. These animals have a lifespan of around 15 years.

Associations: Southern lesser bushbabies share homeranges with thick-tailed greater bushbabies, northern lesser bushbabies, Demidoff’s busbabies and Zanzibar bushbabies. The fact that many bushbabies share their territories with each other makes it particularly difficult for researchers to distinguish between species. In general, similar species sharing a habitat focus on different food sources and heights in the canopy.

Social structure: Little is known about the social organisation of bushbabies, since their nocturnal habits and jumping speed make them difficult to observe in the wild. Researchers believe that the various species exhibit vastly different social organisations. Bushbabies are often said to be solitary, but this appears to be untrue for most species. It seems that small groups of 1–3 Galago moholi may forage together at night. Whilst foraging, females usually “park” their young in a safe place until they can return for them. Up to 8 individuals, including only one male and often several females with their offspring, curl up together to sleep in tree hollows, abandoned bird’s nest or self-made treetop nests during the day. Males occupy territories that overlap those of several females, especially if they are dominant over other males in the vicinity.

Communication: Bushbabies scent-mark their territories with specialised scent glands and by urinating on their hands and feet, thereby spreading their sweet pungent smell anywhere they go. This enables others to sniff out where other bushbabies have travelled and it allows them to mark their territories just like dogs do.

Their wet noses (rhinariums) and Jacobson’s organ in the roof of the mouth allow them to detect complex information transmitted via liquid chemicals. Bushbabies make loud calls that sound like crying human infants, which is what earned them their funny name. The different species of bushbaby may look extremely similar, but they can be told apart by analysing their differing vocalisations, especially the loud calls and mating calls.

Also helpful in differentiating the various galago are hand pad shapes, reproductive behaviours, genetic analyses and male genital comparisons.

Mating: During the mating season, males roam through larger areas than usual in an effort to mate with as many different females as possible, whereas females remain within their territory. Males pick up weight during mating seasons, which occur twice a year over a period of only a few days each time. Their testicles also increase significantly in size and individuals with the largest testes have by far the most mating success! Mating is particularly popular in late September and is usually initiated by males. Intercourse lasts about 10 minutes and the longest recorded mating time in the wild was 53 minutes!

Other behaviour: These tiny animals can jump an astounding 5m from a vertical position on one tree to the next. They use their strong legs to push off for a jump and their tail works like a rudder to direct them to their desired landing spot. Bushbabies sleep very deeply, and therefore look endearingly stunned and confused immediately after waking up.

This makes them rather easy prey, but if they wake up without danger they tend to groom a little before getting on with their nightly hunting and foraging.
Conservation: Southern lesser bushbabies are classified as Lower Risk/Least Concern by the IUCN. However, population estimates in the wild are largely unknown and acute habitat loss is occurring throughout their range.

They are particularly unfortunate when habitats are destroyed, since this usually occurs during the day when they are fast asleep, and therefore have less time to flee. Furthermore, the various species of bushbaby are still not entirely understood, so it may be that some species die out before they are even officially named (a process which takes a surprisingly long time).

Bushbabies are also rudely removed from their trees to be kept as pets, although these nocturnal animals are completely unsuitable pets due to their social needs and their urine-washing habits!

Did you know? Bushbabies commonly use their toothcombs for grooming and are therefore ingeniously equipped with a second, pointy tongue underneath their normal one (called sublingua), which they use like a toothpick to remove any debris stuck in the toothcomb!