Safari Facts on African Wildlife: Osteophagia

Safari Facts on African Wildlife: Osteophagia

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C. Fraser Claire

The reason herbivores perform this seemingly strange act is due to a need for phosphates and calcium in their system

On a recent safari in Namibia, we noticed a pair of kudus nibbling on an old elephant skull close to camp. At first, this seemed extraordinary. Why would this elegant herbivore eat bone? As I found out from safari guide Rebecca Boshoff, this unusual wildlife sighting has an interesting scientific rationale.

When you think of Africa’s bone-crunchers, the graceful kudu rarely features. This act of eating bone amongst wildlife is called osteophagia. This pastime is more commonly associated with animals like hyenas, with vice-like jaws and digestive systems adapted to their diets. To understand a bit more about this sighting, South African guide, Rebecca Boshoff, has given us some insights on this behaviour and the environment that drives it.

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“I've personally observed kudu and mostly giraffe chewing on old bones. In fact, it has given a few of my guests quite a fright!” says Rebecca. ”You can imagine how daunting a massive giraffe looks with a bone sticking out of its mouth while it stares at you, chewing...” No matter how macabre this behaviour may seem from the back of a game-viewer, it is driven by a nutritional need amongst these animals. “The reason herbivores perform this seemingly strange act is due to a need for phosphates and calcium in their system which is difficult to find in high enough quantities in their herbaceous diet - especially in low-phosphate soils,” Rebecca continued. “The plants absorb the phosphates from the soil and then are absorbed into the animal’s system during digestion. These minerals aid in bone growth and skeletal health; also in reproduction.”

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Another African animal that consumes bone is the tortoise. They require high levels of calcium for shell and skeleton development and they get this, in part, from bone. They have also been known to eat the scat of hyenas and big cats for the same reason. “In general, animals perform osteophagia more often during the drier months, as the nutrient levels of the plants that they eat decreases during these times.”

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An image of a tortoise and a giraffe, two animals which lick or chew bones to increase their calcium levels

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