Conservation | Aug 2023


PART 4 - Denning, while rearing and protecting their young, is another way that animals make use of burrows, writes Helen Mertens
Wild dog & her pups outside the nesting den, by Marcus Westberg

Mammals, including humans, invest considerable energy and resources into looking after their progeny, from the moment they are conceived until they, hopefully, reach adulthood. When it comes to survival, the elements are of primary concern for animals. Exposure is what will kill an animal’s offspring first, long before hunger, thirst, or potential predators. Finding shelter is vital, especially rearing fragile babies in an unforgiving environment with extreme temperatures like the Kalahari.


Cape fox keeping a protective watch over her den

Burrows to protect babies

Many animals that do not usually inhabit burrows make use of underground shelters when they have babies to protect. Prime examples of animals that use burrows for denning are the spotted and brown hyena, black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox, Cape fox, and wild dogs. Even large cats, such as leopard, cheetah and lion, will temporarily hide their cubs in burrows when necessary.


From left to right: Bat eared fox pup and spotted hyena pups, and cape fox pups in their dens by Barry Peiser

Above: Cape fox keeping a protective watch over her den. From left to right: Bat-eared fox pup, spotted hyena pups, and cape fox pups at their den.


Often, denning animals will find burrows or burrow systems that are just large enough for their youngsters to fit into. The adults protect the den from the outside but cannot go in – or not all the way inside. This reduces the number of predators that can pose a threat to the pups or cubs to those that can dig them out, such as humans or honey badgers, or those small enough to fit into the den, such as monitor lizards, some species of mongooses and snakes. As an extra precaution, social animals will leave a protector at the den site or, in the case of more solitary species, will move the youngsters regularly to avoid detection. Aardwolves, for example, tend to relocate to new dens every few days when pups are present. Burrows, therefore, provide many animals with safety from predators and shelter from the elements for their young, enabling the parents to go off temporarily to hunt or forage.


Warthog and her piglets

Family sharing in burrows

Some animals do not need to leave their helpless youngsters behind when they go out to find food and take them along when they forage. Examples include warthogs, aardvarks, porcupines, and pangolins. These animals normally use burrows for resting, and therefore share the burrow space with their youngsters. If a predator of any kind attempts to enter the burrow, the parent will protect their young from within. Warthogs, for example, are well known for reversing into their burrows, enabling them to attack swiftly, tusks facing the danger, should it become necessary. Porcupines sleep in chambers that are large enough for them to turn around in and, if necessary, can chase away unwanted intruders with the use of their quills.


Meerkats using their burrows to protect their young

How meerkats use burrows

When it comes to their parenting style, meerkats are both denning and burrowing animals. For the first three to four weeks of their lives, meerkat pups are too small and helpless to live outside of the burrow system. They remain underground under the supervision of babysitters until they are old enough to keep up with the colony on its foraging expeditions. This does mean that meerkats select their most central, roomiest burrow system for when pups are born and tend to return to the same burrow system throughout the first few weeks of the pups’ lives. The use of a central burrow, when rearing pups, in addition to its usual advantages, also protects the pups better from potential conflict with neighbouring meerkat colonies.


Aardvark and ant-eating chat

Even birds use burrows

The use of burrows for breeding purposes is taken a step further not by a mammal but by a bird. The Ant-eating Chat uses burrows not only for the advantage that underground living offers in a harsh environment, but also uses the potential inhabitants of large burrows as extra protection. A common bird on Tswalu, the Ant-eating Chat is often seen flying around the entrances of large burrows, presumably excavated by aardvarks. On closer inspection, small holes can be seen on either side of the burrow entrance. These are side tunnels, dug by the birds, that lead to little chambers for their nest. The eggs develop and hatchlings grow, safe from the outside world, and the parents can go and look for food knowing that their chicks have the added protection of a porcupine, warthog, or other strong burrow inhabitant as a bodyguard.


Author’s note: Helen Mertens drew on the expertise of Grace Warner and Wendy Panaino while researching this story.


Images by Marcus Westberg, Mark Winckler and Barry Peiser.