Why the small mammals of the Kalahari matter

Why the small mammals of the Kalahari matter

Posted by Megan MacDonald on 3 May 2022

Why the small mammals of the Kalahari matterImage: A small mammal that was captured during a survey as part of KEEP (credit: Marcus Westberg)

While on a game drive on your typical South African bush safari, you might occasionally be lucky enough to spot a small rodent of sorts darting across the road. Most of the time you rarely get the chance to identify the animal properly or actually watch what it is doing, let alone stop to think about what role that little mammal plays in the ecosystem. 


Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 11 seconds.

An article By Dr. Nico Avenant 

Traditionally, scientists have used plants to understand the ecological integrity of an area, but when it comes to managing entire ecosystems, scientists now realize the importance of understanding a diversity of different organisms at different levels within an ecosystem. One of the groups of organisms that prove to be very useful indicators for the health of the environment is small mammals, such as mice, shrews, and sengis (previously known as “elephant shrews”). 

Tswalu Kalahari Reserve Image: A Sherman trap is placed on the ground at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve to capture small mammals (credit: Nico Avenant)

Small mammals occur across all of South Africa’s terrestrial ecosystems, where they play vital roles as herbivores, carnivores, and prey for larger mammals, snakes, and raptors, but also as ecosystem engineers, pollinators, seed dispersers, soil fertilizers, and plant growth stimulators. Small mammals are ideal indicators of environmental health because most of these species reproduce rapidly, they have very specific habitat requirements, and they live in relatively small areas. They, therefore, respond quickly to ecological disturbance and habitat change, including environmental changes brought about by drought, overgrazing, poor veld management, and climate change. 

Supported by Suzuki Auto SA, as part of the Kalahari Endangered Ecosystem Project (KEEP), small mammal ecologists are studying the presence and role that small mammal species play in the Kalahari ecosystem, to improve our knowledge of specific indicator species in the system, and to better understand how climate change might impact small mammal community composition and structure. Under the KEEP umbrella, the team also hopes to better understand how changes in small mammal communities impact other organisms within the Kalahari food web, through establishing long-term databases at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve. 

So, the next time you are on safari in the South African bush, keep an eye open for these ecologically important creatures, and think about how they, as tiny as they are, fulfill a large role in telling us about the environment in which they live.

Smaller mammal captured Image: An even smaller mammal that was captured during surveys (credit: Marcus Westberg)

The valuable contribution and support from the Tswalu Foundation and Suzuki Auto South Africa to make the small mammal work possible is acknowledged.

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