Mopani trees with their butterfly-shaped leaves and variable growth habits are beautiful to look at, and being hardy and nutritious too they support an abundance of life in hot, dry and low-lying areas, such as in the northern sections of Kruger National Park.
As mopane trees (Colophospermum mopane) occur only in the very north eastern parts of South Africa and in other southern African countries north of our borders, I am most familiar with them from trips to neighbouring Botswana. Mopane trees are associated with sandy, poorly drained soils and they also occur in alkaline and alluvial (floodplain) soils. Mopane trees cope with heat by folding their two-winged leaves together to conserve moisture – which by the way also reduces any shade that they might cast.
In the photo above, small insects are visible on the open butterfly-shaped leaves. I am wondering if they are mopane psyllids (Retroacizzia mopanei). In the winter months the nymphs of these small sap-sucking insects produce sweet-tasting honeydew on the mopane leaves that is edible to humans as well as to birds, baboons and monkeys.
Mopane trees are variable in size and form depending on soil conditions, rainfall patterns and the occurrence of fire. In their range in South Africa in the north eastern regions in Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces mopane varies in size from scrub a few meters high to trees of about 18 metres. Mopani trees also occur more broadly in most southern African countries to the north of South Africa. In some regions, such as in Zimbabwe and in Botswana’s Okavango region, mopane trees commonly grow up to about 22 metres tall to form impressive woodlands that are known as cathedral mopane.
Scrubby mopane trees mostly about three metres high were sporting green leaves in a part of northern Kruger National Park that had had a bit of rain, as can be seen also by the grass that is just starting to green up, providing grazing for these zebras (Equus quagga burchelli).
In another section of the park that had had less rain the mopane trees were only just starting to sprout new leaves. The new leaves are in beautiful colours of gold, lime and orange, colours usually associated with autumn rather than the first flush of leaves in early summer. In this area the mopane trees are taller, forming woodland where they are the dominant plant in the sandy soil that likely overlies clay.
Above is a closer look at new mopane leaves backlit by morning sunshine.
It is hard to believe that this woodland of large trees just coming into leaf are also mopane trees in the same season and region. This mopane woodland is at the Sirheni Bushveld Camp in Kruger National Park.
Across their range depending on conditions mopane are deciduous or semi deciduous. Mopane trees grow in arid regions with very little rainfall as well as in hot frost-free regions with summer rainfall. Losing their leaves in winter is more related to coping with dry conditions rather low cold temperatures as winters in the Lowveld are not very cold. Remaining bare is a mechanism for mopane trees to survive the dry winter months.
Looking up – a tall mopane tree at Sirheni Bushveld Camp was just starting to come into leaf. The textured bark is very distinctive.
Above is a close-up shot of the almost ropey texture of the bark on the trunk of a mopane tree at Kruger National Park.
We came across a small group of waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) in a dry section of the park where the mopane leaf buds were just starting to unfurl.
A herd of buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) were near the road and so easily visible in the mopane that was starting to leaf-up. When the mopane is in full leaf it is very difficult to spot animals through the dense foliage in mopane scrub, which is why the mopane scrub regions are not as popular with visitors to Kruger National Park as the more open regions in the central and southern regions of the park.
In a taller mixed woodland area the mopane was already almost in full leaf and sheltering a small group of kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), one of which is in the photo above. Mopane leaves are nutritious for many browsing animals, with the young leaves being the most palatable.
Mopane trees are also known as turpentine trees as the leaves and the pods have a turpentine odour when crushed. However, even domestic stock can become accustomed to the odour and will eat either fresh leaves or dry leaves that have fallen to the ground.
Elephants (Loxodonta Africana) not only browse the leaves but they also break mopane trees so that they can strip the nutritious bark. We watched this elephant break a small mopane tree and then systematically strip the bark using its dextrous trunk with the aid of its tusks and a well-placed foot to get the job done efficiently. The “pruning” practices of elephants effectively pollard the trees and have an effect on the density and height of the mopane scrub.
Mopane trees and bushes have the ability to release unpleasant-tasting tannins into the leaves while they are being heavily browed so that any browsing animals will move on. More amazing still is while being browsed not only do they release tannins into the leaves but they release pheromones into the air that warn neighbouring plants of the threat so that they too can defend themselves by releasing tannins.
As explained by tree expert Gus Le Breton, the pheromones are carried on the breeze to neighbouring plants, so such “messages” are carried downwind. He says that consequently elephants have worked out to browse in an upwind direction. You can see a short video of Le Breton explaining this phenomenon here.
In late-November a thick carpet of dry leaves still remained in mopane woodland at Sirheni Bushveld Camp, providing habitat and food for many creatures.
Of course we also saw many birds inhabiting the mopane scrub and woodlands, including this African hoopoe (Upupa Africana) that had just flown up into a mopane tree after foraging on the ground.
Only because we had stopped to look at something else did we hear a grey-headed bushshrike (Malaconotus blanchoti) uttering a loud clicking call (part of a larger repertoire) while it was partially concealed among green mopane leaves.
We saw this brown-hooded kingfisher (Halcyon albiventris) perching in mopane scrub in bright sunshine early one morning.
A red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea) was taking a break from looking for food on the ground by perching in a mopane that was starting to show its new colourful leaves.
By chance we saw this bird flying off a short distance before it perched a metre or so from the ground in mopane scrub. At first with all the barring we thought it was a small raptor but then we realised it was a cuckoo. It could be either an African Cuckoo (Cuculus gularis), which is an intra-African breeding migrant, or a common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), but it is hard to see which in this photo as the bird was partially obscured and in difficult light. The common cuckoo migrates from the Palaearctic regions where it breeds, but while it is escaping the northern winter, in the southern hemisphere it does not breed. It is a rare vagrant in South Africa. When in South Africa, perhaps because it is not breeding, it does not call so we never hear the legendary “cuck-oo” call in these parts.
Despite its loud trilling call drawing attention to it, the exquisitely coloured woodland kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis) proved frustratingly difficult to photograph. My husband managed to snap this photo of one perched in a mopane tree in the camp at Shimuweni Bushveld Camp.
Not a bird, but also photographed perched in a mopane in the grounds of the Shimuweni Bushveld Camp, was this very alert tree squirrel (Paraxerus cepapi). In South Africa these small squirrels (weighing only about 200 grams) occur only in the most northerly regions. They are known to favour nesting in cavities in mopane trees.
A brown-crowned Tchagra (Tchagra australis) probably hoping it has not been spotted as it seeks cover at the base of a scrubby mopane tree.
This spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) was mooching along through mopane scrub next to the road early one morning. Two companions had already melted away into the shrubby cover. When we first saw them the three hyaenas had been walking along the tarred road, probably on their way back to the den after a night out.
And to end this selection of mopane-related photos, the orange and gold hues of new mopane leaves provide a warm backdrop for this zebra that is showing considerable poise. All of these photographs were taken on our trip to Kruger National Park in November 2021.
Alice Aubrey. 2004. Colophospermum mopane. http://pza.sanbi.org/colophospermum-mopane; Becking, David. [n.d.] Colophospermum mopane. Tree SA. https://treesa.org/colophospermum-mopane/; Chittenden, Hugh, Davies, Greg & Weiersbye, Ingrid. 2016. Roberts Bird Guide: Illustrating nearly 1,000 Species in Southern Africa (2nd edition). Cape Town: Jacana; Le Breton, Gus. [n.d.] Plant Communication – The Strange Case of the Elephant and the Mopane. https://wildmercury.org/plant-communication-the-strange-case-of-the-elephant-and-the-mopane/
Posted by Carol