Bushbabies: who they are and how they live?

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There is a small furry animal in Africa that prefers a secretive nocturnal lifestyle, hiding among tree branches. Its scientific name is galago, but the locals call this creature bushbaby. What is a galago? Why are they called bushbabies? Why are they so adored, and where can you find them? Can you keep one as a pet? - We will tell you everything about these unusual animals in our article.

Northern greater galago, a nocturnal animal from Africa
Northern greater galago, a nocturnal animal from Africa

Galagos - cute little bush babies

If you stay in the African countryside away from the big cities and take a stroll outside late at night, you can often hear noises remotely resembling intermittent baby cries coming from the nearby bushes and trees. Those who do not know the local animals will guess that it must be monkeys making these sounds. However, these are galagos, nocturnal animals that live in the trees. They will howl all night long, sometimes to assert their territory, sometimes to communicate and warn each other of danger. You will quickly get used to their cries and stop paying much attention.

Galagos are fluffy animals with huge eyes, which makes them look very cute - as if some animators from Japan drew them. Their second common name is bushbaby, which refers both to the sound they make and to their cute appearance. In Afrikaans, they are also called nagapie, which literally means “night monkey”. This is perhaps a compliment for the galago because although they are technically primates, they do not quite reach the level of intellect that many other apes and monkeys are known for.

 A Senegal bushbaby. All galagos have big eyes and ears
A Senegal bushbaby. All galagos have big eyes and ears

In addition to their funny name, big eyes, and passion for making cries in the night, bushbabies are distinguished by their large ears and outstanding agility. They are able to jump from branch to branch with ease and feel truly at home on the trees. In addition, galagos are omnivores, which means that they are excellent hunters and foragers. Indeed, these are interesting animals that are very fun to observe. However, it is not easy to do so because during the day they hide among the branches, not giving away their presence and carefree sleeping, and at night it is difficult to see them because stealth is another trait that accurately characterizes these little creatures.

When an inexperienced African traveler can take a better look at this animal, they are likely to confuse it with a lemur. And no wonder - lemurs are much more well-known, not least because of the “Madagascar” animated franchise with the charismatic King Julien and his assistants. Lemurs are indeed related to bushbabies, but they are not the same. Lemurs live only in Madagascar and Comoros, while the habitat of the galagos is spread around continental Africa south of the Sahara desert. Bushbabies also have other close relatives that dwell in tropical forests of Africa: lorises, pottos, and angwantibos. Now let’s understand a little better who the galagos actually are before we start learning the most interesting facts about them.

The ring-tailed lemur is a relative of the galago
The ring-tailed lemur is a relative of the galago

Who are the galagos?

Galagos are small nocturnal primates native to continental sub-Saharan Africa. All primates are scientifically classified into dry-nosed and wet-nosed primates, respectively. A wet nose in an animal is a sign of a good sense of smell. It allows one to instantly determine the speed and direction of the wind, pick up various odors at once and break them down. You've probably felt the wet noses of cats and noticed that the tip of a dog's nose is wet, too. But if you touch your own nose, you will once again be convinced that it is dry, and therefore you must be classified as a dry-nosed primate (sub-order Haplorhini), like all other humans.

And we will find the galago in the neighboring suborder, Strepsirrhini (lower primates or “wet-nosed”). Besides the wet nose, we can notice that their thumb does not oppose other fingers so much and they have elongated “grooming” claws to care for their hair. In addition, bushbabies, due to their predominantly nocturnal lifestyle, have a poor ability to distinguish colors. Galagos typically give birth to several babies at once and have a smaller brain volume compared to monkeys and other placental mammals. In general, lower primates are more ancient creatures than apes, so they are more “primitive”.

Bushbabies are primitive creatures compared to any of the apes
Bushbabies are primitive creatures compared to any of the apes

Lower primates are divided into lemur-like and loris-like creatures. As we said before, all lemurs are endemics of Madagascar. They swam from continental Africa to that island several tens of millions of years ago and evolved there in isolation. In our time, several species of lemurs were brought by humans to the neighboring Comoro Islands, but are not found anywhere else. Our galagos are hidden in the Lorisoidea superfamily, although they are not loris. As you can see, it is difficult to find these little guys not only in the shrubs of Africa but also in the classification tables.

Two families make up the Lorisoidea superfamily: Lorisidae (lorises, pottos, and angwantibos), and Galagidae (galagos). And there are over 20 recorded species of galagos, with scientists anticipating more new species to be discovered in the future. If you search for photos of the galago on Google, you will see such a variety of appearances that it seems as if the different bushbaby species are completely different animals. They live in different habitats, in landscapes of different types, and have different external characteristics and lifestyles. Sometimes it is even easier for biologists to distinguish the differences between the galago species by the sounds they make. Each species has its own set of cries ranging from squeals to squeaks for all occasions.

Describing every species of galago here would be too lengthy, so we will only say that the largest of them, the Brown greater galago, reaches a maximum length of 47 centimeters (minimum - 26), while the body length of the smallest galago (Prince Demidoff's bushbaby) varies from 7.3 to 15.5 cm. Among other unusual species, we can mention the Uluguru bushbaby, living in Tanzania and Kenya at an altitude of up to 2000 meters, and the Zanzibar bushbaby, which lives not only in Zanzibar but also in mainland Tanzania. Another rare species that does not even have a popular name - Sciurocheirus makandensis, was seen only a few times in Gabon and is barely studied. 

 Some bushbaby species are really tiny
Some bushbaby species are really tiny
 The Zanzibar bushbaby can be found not only in Zanzibar
The Zanzibar bushbaby can be found not only in Zanzibar

So what do we know about the better-studied species? How do these small and cute creatures lead their secretive lives hiding among tree branches?

How is the life of these nocturnal animals organized?

Virtually every characteristic of the galago's appearance and behavior corresponds to their way of life. Big eyes are needed to catch maximum light at night and see in the dark, which is characteristic of all nocturnal animals. Large ears, like locators that can rotate independently of each other in all directions, help bushbabies orient in space, detect the enemy in advance, and hear signals from their relatives. During the day, while sleeping, the galagos fold their ears and press them tightly against the body so that extraneous sounds do not disturb their sleep. They do the same while jumping so that the ears don't touch branches.

The galagos have strong legs and arms, which make them excellent jumpers and climbers. They often grasp tree branches and pull up the small light body, which weight varies from species to species, but does not go out of the range of 50-1500 grams. Their long and flexible tail helps them balance as they move along branches.

 The Brown greater galago is a good example of a big-tailed bushbaby
The Brown greater galago is a good example of a big-tailed bushbaby

Galagos leap from tree to tree with ease, deftly and firmly clinging to a pre-selected branch or palm leaf. These small animals can easily jump from tree to tree even if the branches are a couple of meters apart. Some species of galago are known to be able to make a five-meter-long jump! The muscles in their legs that are responsible for jumping work 6-9 times better than those of frogs. To quickly cover a long distance with a series of jumps is a usual thing for bushbabies.

In short, these African animals are perfectly adapted to live high up in the trees. It is known that they almost never descend to the ground. At the same time, they satisfy all their needs at night, returning to shelters during the day and resting carefree in nests they have built, in hollow trees, or simply on a convenient tree branch.

Most galago species do not form large groups and prefer to lead solitary lifestyles, this is especially true of male bushbabies. Females, on the other hand, live with their offsprings, and as the infants grow up, male offsprings leave and female offsprings remain, forming a group of relatives. In some galago species, males form bachelor communities. But more often galagos live individually, marking their territory and strictly ensuring that no one crosses its boundaries. To do this, they urinate on their own paws and, moving them, climb trees, leaving traces of their own scent.

 Northern greater galago. Most of the time these animals hide in trees
Northern greater galago. Most of the time these animals hide in trees

At night, the galagos return to their nests made out of leaves and small twigs. In some cases, they use abandoned bird nests or even beehives. Sometimes, bushbabies while remaining solitary during the active night phase, form a kind of temporary community by sleeping near each other during the daytime. This is safer for them because if a predator gets close, the first galago to detect danger will wake up the others by crying.

What do the galagos eat and who eats them?

Galagos are omnivores, although the set of preferred foods varies slightly from species to species. But if we talk about bushbabies in general, we’ll get the following diet:

  • tree gum;

  • flowers, seeds, leaves, and other vegetation;

  • various fruit;

  • small insects like beetles and moths;

  • small rodents;

  • frogs and lizards;

  • small birds and their eggs.

Thanks to their agility and large ears, bushbabies can hunt insects with little effort. They can see well in the dark and are able to track and catch insects that just fly by.

So far it seems like these little guys are pretty comfortable in their natural environment, isn’t it? Insects fly to them on their own, there's plenty of plant food in the tree crowns that you can pick up just passing by, nutritious sap oozes from the trees, and birds live and nest nearby. Besides, it is safer on tree branches than on the ground. However, the galago still has natural enemies.

 A galago enjoys a piece of fruit
A galago enjoys a piece of fruit

Bushbabies are hunted by mongooses, genets, snakes, owls, common dogs and cats, and jackals. Primates such as blue monkeys have also been spotted hunting bushbabies' infants. There is evidence of chimpanzees preying on the galagos too. As superior primates and closest relatives of humans, these apes even made primitive weapons that were used to kill bushbabies.

The famous chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall was the first to notice in the 1960s that these clever apes were making tools such as sharpened sticks for extracting termites from their high mound dwellings. Chimpanzees have also been known to excitedly and efficiently hunt colobuses. In our days, Chimpanzee attacks on bushbabies have been documented many times: a chimpanzee breaks off a branch, makes a sharp stick out of it, sharpens the end with his teeth, and then gets up to the hollow with the sleeping bushbabies during the day, pokes the pointed stick inside several times and takes out the immobilized body of the galago.

It is amusing that scientists are arguing over whether to call such a weapon a spear or a club. On the one hand, the sharpened stick does resemble human spears, but on the other hand, chimpanzees do not throw them as primitive humans did, but simply thrust them into the victim's body. In any case, the practice is successful - long, up to 60 centimeters, sharp sticks help chimpanzees hunt lower primates.

Where do the galagos live?

Bushbabies can be found in a variety of places in continental Africa south of the Sahara, which excludes the desert northern part with its barren environment, unsuitable for these tree dwellers. Of the islands, only some small and closest to the continent fall into their range, but not the largest and most distant one, Madagascar.

Most species of the galago prefer to live closer to forests, but it is common to hear and see them in the scrubland near villages and towns and even in some urban territories. Some species live in drier areas, having adapted quite well to the savannah. There are also some species that thrive in grasslands with shrubbery. The African Wildlife Foundation considers the galago the most successful of all lower primates because of this species' diversity, overall abundance, and vast range.

Sometimes bushbabies get close to homes and hotels
Sometimes bushbabies get close to homes and hotels

Bushbabies have also learned to get along with humans, getting quite close to their homes. To see them, you often do not need to go deep into the African wilderness. Just choose a hotel located among lush greenery with abundant trees and bushes. A perfect example is Aishi Machame Hotel, owned by Altezza Travel, which is located in a green buffer zone of Kilimanjaro National Park in northern Tanzania, in the heart of East Africa, which is home to several species of galago.

Bushbabies are regulars at Aishi Machame Hotel

It might seem a little odd that we recommend a regular 3-star hotel out of all the locations in Africa for galago watching. But it really is a good place to watch bushbabies. Here they are plentiful, active, easy to hear and even to see if you have a little patience.

Aishi Machame Hotel stands on the bank of the Weruweru river, which carries its waters directly from the great African Mount Kilimanjaro, and takes its source from the volcano’s largest glacier - Furtwängler. The town itself is called Machame - it is located not far from Moshi which is famous among the climbers of Kilimanjaro. The hotel is buried in verdure, so the animals that are accustomed to people often come right to its territory. During the daytime, blue monkeys frolic in the tree branches and on the balconies of the hotel, sometimes even peeking through the windows of the guests, and at night the bushbabies wake up and start their games.

Lost among the trees. Aishi Machame Hotel in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Lost among the trees. Aishi Machame Hotel in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

And judging by the calmness with which wild animals spend time near the pool and on the lawn behind the restaurant, these creatures themselves do not mind the increased attention they receive from the hotel guests. You can often see squirrels leaping on the leaves of banana trees, hornbills flying to the huge ficus, owls howling near the office building, and beautiful little geckos crawling right into the hotel. The luckiest guests can see bushbabies and white-tailed mongooses at night.

You can listen to and even record the various cries of bushbabies in the late evening and at night. You don't have to go outside, just step up to the window. If you want to see these big-eyed cuties, go to the bamboo bushes and trees between the pond and the restaurant and you’ll have a chance to catch a glimpse of them. This is where the galagos like to eat since the hotel waiters bring fruit for the animals in the evenings. You can expect a quick scurrying beastie to come down from the tree, grab a treat, and disappear back into the thicket. But some lucky guests can see a brave bushbaby, observe it for a little longer, and even take a few pictures.

The place at Aishi Machame Hotel where the galagos come to visit
The place at Aishi Machame Hotel where the galagos come to visit

For photo-hunting, galago safaris are not very suitable. In the daytime, these animals are not active, and they hide perfectly well in the dense trees. But many other African animals can be admired on a trip across the savannahs in an off-road vehicle. We recommend going on a safari tour for as many days as your vacation allows you to, and visit several national parks as well as the most interesting remote areas. This way you will see many different animals and even begin to notice their different behavioral patterns. But nocturnal and secretive animals such as bushbabies are better observed on the hotel grounds.

 A bushbaby at Aishi Machame Hotel under the light of a red lamp
A bushbaby at Aishi Machame Hotel under the light of a red lamp

Galago and humans

In addition to peaceful forms of interaction, as in the example above, human activity can harm these little primates. In general, their conservation status is of the “least concern”, although for some species a decrease in populations or a decrease in habitat areas is recorded. Here humans affect bushbabies indirectly by expanding farmland or cutting down forests. And this leads not only to the direct expulsion of animals from their native environments but also to a decrease in the food supply for the galago populations.

Taking a galago as a pet is a bad idea
Taking a galago as a pet is a bad idea

Another issue on the part of humans is trying to domesticate these wild animals and keep them in our homes. This desire is understandable - a small fluffy animal with big cute eyes seems like it could make a good pet. However, it is a really bad idea.

A renowned zoologist, director of the Frankfurt Museum and author of "Serengeti Shall Not Die" Bernhard Grzimek had a pet bushbaby. Here is what he says in his book: “Lest too many people write and ask me to supply them with bushbabies, I had better mention that they have one very distinct drawback — the inelegant habit of urinating on their hands and feet, rubbing them together and then jumping directly at your face with wet palms. All the walls and the furniture which they touch become “perfumed” and, unless a window is kept permanently open, the stench is considerable.”

Galagos are wild animals adapted to their natural environment. In captivity, however, they feel unwell, and pick up various diseases after interacting with other species they don’t encounter in their natural habitat. Galagos are social animals, and so they need their own kind around to feel good and stay healthy.

There is an ethical problem in keeping bushbabies at home: tearing a wild animal out of its natural habitat, and confining it to an apartment or a house with artificial objects is a form of violence against a living creature. For a galago, no amount of human effort and care can replace the freedom and benefits of its natural habitat, for which evolution has been preparing these creatures for tens of millions of years. The desire to have an exotic animal as a pet is often just a selfish desire to stand out among other people, without much consideration of negative consequences for the animal and its owner.

 Bushbabies are wild animals whose home is Africa
Bushbabies are wild animals whose home is Africa

Many countries prohibit keeping galagos in homes. We fully share this approach and ask you to think about the possible suffering of animals before making rash decisions. Africa's wild animals should remain in Africa. And humans can come to visit and admire them by visiting the beautiful national parks and other protected areas teeming with wildlife. Come to Tanzania and we will show you the cute bushbabies and many other inhabitants of the local ecosystem living harmoniously in their natural environment.

Revised on 27 September 2023
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