After the marketing success of the famous Big Five, safari professionals started to put together other lists to showcase the less celebrated animals you might spot on a game drive. The underdogs of the Ugly Five are – perhaps cruelly – marked out for their less than perfect appearances. But, as we all know, beauty is only skin-deep – and all these animals form essential parts of the ecosystem, whether as prey for top predators or the garbage men of the bush.
Warthogs are named after the big welts – not actually warts – that protrude from the sides of their heads. They’re primarily to protect the males’ faces when they’re fighting, though females have them too. With oversized heads, thinning hair that runs along their backs and hide that is often crusted in mud, it’s true that they’re not the most glamorous of bush-dwelling animals. But they are at least properly equipped: their large curved tusks help to warn off predators and warthogs can also run at up to 30 miles per hour (48 kilometres per hour). Though they’re on the Ugly Five list, many people have a soft spot for warthogs – and their piglets are particularly cute.
It’s tricky to argue in favour of the appearance of vultures. Many species of vultures have featherless heads, which serves a functional purpose, preventing the settling of parasites and bacteria from the carcasses on which they feed. Their habits are also not the most graceful – for example, they have a vomit reflex when scared as it empties their stomach for a quicker take-off. However, despite the slightly gruesome reputation vultures have, they are absolutely essential for ecosystems, clearing up carcasses that other animals have left, which would otherwise rot and potentially spread disease.
The long-faced wildebeest is often said to resemble an animal made up of leftover parts: an antelope’s body, the tail of a horse, the horns of a buffalo. It’s not particularly elegant-looking either, with a bulky upper body and slim legs. Wildebeest are also not known to be the smartest of animals and the males tend to spend most of their time running around fighting each other.
Perhaps the most divisive of the Ugly Five, hyenas have a reputation that has certainly contributed to their presence amongst the less physically blessed animals of the bush. Though they’re far from the ugliest animal you’ve ever seen, their short hind legs and steeply sloped backs give them a loping gait. Their habit of scavenging and eating all of a kill – aside from the hooves, horns and hair – adds to their less than desirable image. However, hyenas are a very interesting animal with complex social structures in which females are dominant, and they do also hunt as well as scavenge. Like warthogs, hyena cubs are adorable.
Often known as the ‘undertaker’ due to a ‘cloak’ of black feathers on its back and wings, Marabou storks have an…interesting appearance. Whilst their spindly legs are the same as other storks, like vultures they have bare heads and necks, spotted in a way that resembles an extremely wizened old man – in fact, the name marabou is often said to come from the French for ‘ugly old man’. A particular habit that doesn’t help their cause is that of defecating on their own legs to cool down. Marabou storks are pretty much universally recognised as being top of the Ugly Five list.
What do you think? Is the Ugly Five a mean concept? Which animal do you think shouldn’t be on this list?
Find out more about the other groups of safari animals that have formed over the years:
The Big Five – the original ‘five’