Rock Stars of the Serengeti

Small hills on the savanna make a big difference.

BY Peggy Scott

Photography by Ken Bohn

Didyouknow A kopje habitat can reach 65 feet above the savanna

One glance across the sweeping vista of an African savanna reveals an element that stands head and shoulders above the rest—kopjes. These astonishing microhabitats are home to unique flora and fauna. The word kopje (pronounced “ko-pea”) is Dutch for “small head,” and describes perfectly how the rocky formations seem to pop up from the landscape and survey all that surrounds them. At the Kopje habitat in Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks, Zoo visitors will be busy turning their heads this way and that to take in all the sights—and it’s likely the residents will have already spotted them!

Rockin’ Roommates

The nooks, crannies, and burrows within the rock formations are home to rock hyraxes Procavia capensis, furry, brownish, little football-shaped mammals with feet made for life among the boulders. Their bare, padded, sweaty footpads act like suction cups to help them get—and keep—a grip on rocks and cliffs. Their rounded toes, hoof-like nails, and tiny tusks are little clues as to this creature’s unlikely next of kin—the elephant!

Specially adapted hooves keep klipspringers perfectly in step on rocky surfaces.

The hyraxes’ “rockmates” include agile antelopes called klipspringers Oreotragus oreotragus, which certainly live up to their name: in Afrikaans, klipspringer means “rock jumper,” and that’s what these fleet-footed animals do! Standing less than 2 feet tall at the shoulder, klipspringers can jump 25 feet without breaking a sweat. And their clingy little hooves ensure they can scamper among the rocks without breaking anything else.

Didyouknow There are 18 species of small mammals that live among the kopjes of the Serengeti

Can You Dig It?

While the dwarf mongoose Helogate parvula may be the smallest carnivore in Africa, these busy, pint-sized animals have big personalities. Curious and sociable, dwarf mongooses measure less than a foot in length, making them snack-sized morsels for large birds of prey. For this reason, the alpha male in the group is always on the lookout for danger.

This “all-for-one-and-one-for-all” approach to thwarting predators also works well for the Kopje’s colony of meerkats Suricata suricatta, which are master diggers, constantly improving complex burrows that include numerous entrances and exits, as well as sleeping chambers and tunnels. Their digging also helps aerate the soil and spread plant seeds.

Bateleur eagles are the most famous of the snake eagles.

Didyouknow The rocks of Africa’s kopjes are 550 million years old

As the home improvement project progresses, a sentry stands guard on a high spot, keeping a keen eye open for threats such as the bateleur eagle Terathopius ecaudatus. The Zoo’s Kopje is home to this colorful, medium-sized winged wonder too, but don’t worry—they have separate accommodations from the furry residents.

Despite their challenging features, kopjes are perfect examples of biodiversity, and support many plant species as well. For their inhabitants—and their representatives in the Zoo’s Kopje at Africa Rocks—it’s out of this world!

Go Fig or Go Home

Given the challenging terrain, it takes a unique tree to thrive literally between a rock and a hard place. The red-leaved rock fig Ficus ingens is anything but a hothouse flower, managing to grow wherever its seeds are distributed via animal dung. This hardy, semi-deciduous tree is known as a “rock splitter,” growing sideways and on rock faces and outcrops, sending out its branching roots to seek water and nutrients.