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The Free State Province hosts a fairly large diversity of mammal predator species (≈ carnivores).  Thirty-nine of our 103 indigenous mammal species can be defined as carnivores. While 19 of these species belong to the order Carnivora, 20 other species are also considered to be carnivores, belonging to the orders Tubulidentata (the Aardvark, which is a specialist ant and termite feeder), Macroscelidea (the Eastern rock sengi or elephant shrew; eats insects and other invertebrates, but also some plant material), Eulipotyphla (including six shrew and one hedgehog species; they eat mostly insects, but also earthworms, millipedes and  small lizards and mice), Afrosoricida (Sclater’s golden mole; feeds on insects and other invertebrates), and Chiroptera (nine species of insect-eating bats). A seventh order, Pholidota (Ground pangolin; eats only specific species of ants and termites) is reckoned to have become extinct in the Free State in the 1980s. These animals range in size between 4g and 70 kg and play a most important role to keep our natural and agricultural ecosystems in a healthy state.

The National Museum currently has a temporary exhibition, The smaller carnivores of the Free State, displayed inside the Fichardtpark Library which will run from 1 February to 10 May 2019.Through the display of taxidermy specimens, study skins, skulls and interesting facts, it aims to exhibit the diversity and size range of our indigenous carnivores. It also strives to show the range of prey groups and species affected by these predators, thereby indicating the role that individual carnivore species, and the group as a whole, have on the ecosystem. These predators are adapted in a number of ways to survive in their natural habitats. Their teeth differentiation is, for instance, a clear indication of the type of prey that carnivores can catch, master and consume.

As such, the ant and termite eating aardvark and pangolin have almost no teeth as they gather their prey with their tongues and squash them against the palate using the tongue and or the mandible. The aardwolf (a true farmer’s friend, as one individual can consume up to 300 000 termites in a single night!) also takes other insects and has, apart from a broad palate, also weak, undifferentiated teeth to utilize grasshoppers, etc. These rather simple teeth cannot cut meat, their long canines are purely a deterrent and claims that they kill and eat lambs are therefore totally untrue. This also applies to the primarily insect-eating bat-eared foxes, whose teeth and jaw muscles are not developed enough to cut meat. Although they are at times found at carcasses, this behaviour is most probably related to searching for maggots. In comparison, the jackal, mongoose and cat species all have well developed canines to catch and grip onto mammal prey species, and incisors and premolars to cut meat into smaller, manageable pieces.

Cape clawless otters have strong jaws (also noticeable when considering the large, rough main mouth-closing muscle attachment surfaces on the mandibles) and molars adapted for crushing and eating crabs, carapace included. As they also eat fish, some insects, mice and reptiles in smaller quantities, and need to defend themselves and their food against other medium-sized predators, their other teeth need to be well developed and differentiated.

The study skins offer another, very interesting clue to each species’ behaviour. Here the camouflage colour patterns of polecats and striped weasels attest to their secretive manners to evade other predators and creeping up on unsuspected prey; the extremely short legs, slender body and relatively large head of the latter fits their behaviour of following rats into their burrows, where they trap and kill them.  The strong hind legs and claws of aardvark are clearly related to their digging behaviour (for termites, but also to excavate burrows deep underground to get away from predators and the sun).  The relatively large eyes of some species are related to their nocturnal activity patterns; the large ears of bat-eared foxes, aardwolves and aardvark are related to their food speciality (listening for termites); and the smaller ears of suricates, mongooses and meerkat species are most probably an adaptation to live in narrow burrows.

Photo : Cape clawless otter by Mark Paxton of Shamvura Camp, Namibia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29364330

It is such observations that really makes the animal kingdom come alive when you look at the rather sterile-looking collection of skins and skulls in the Fichardtpark library. The exhibition closes on 10 May 2019.

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