These seemingly deformed limbs don’t all belong to this male African jacana (Actophilornis africanus). He’s a father with his feathers full, as wildlife photographer Charl Stols likes to put it. Four chicks hunker beneath his wings, drawing their legs free from the water. The strategy helps to protect them from predators that lurk beneath the lily pads where their father forages in the wetlands of the Chobe River, near Botswana’s northern border. It isn’t always effective: Many chicks fail to make it past their first few weeks.

Females of most jacana species have an unusual strategy for coping with those odds, though. Each breeding season, they take several mates and lay multiple clutches of eggs to boost the odds that some will survive. Then, they leave their young in the care of a harem of males that assumes the responsibility of parenting: incubating the eggs, raising chicks, and scooping them underwing when threats arise. Upon hatching, the youngsters’ most distinctive characteristic is their lanky toes—each half as long as their legs. While the adaptation looks ungainly, it helps the birds strut across lily pads without sinking, earning them the nickname “lily trotters.”

Jacanas spend their entire lives among these islands of aquatic plants, walking atop them and swimming gracefully below as they search for insects and small fish to eat. Sometimes, that means they must wander. Water levels fluctuate in Sub-Saharan Africa. During the rainy season, the birds thrive as floodplains bloom with new plant growth along river banks. In the dry season, flooded habitat becomes scarce, and they must search to find it. Despite farming and livestock grazing degrading some wetlands, the species’ population is large and stable. But that doesn’t make their breeding peculiarities easy to photograph. Stols, who hosts photo safaris in Chobe National Park, spent years waiting for the right opportunity to take this eye-level portrait. He was lying low on a riverboat when he finally captured it: a ten-legged bird, trotting across the lilies.

Chobe National Park, Botswana

Charl Stols

Christy Frank

Born and raised in South Africa, Charl Stols began his photography career working aboard cruise vessels. He spent 10 years at sea, visiting more than 100 countries and all continents, but his love for Africa brought him back home in 2014. Now based in Kasane, Botswana, he works for Pangolin Photo Safaris leading photo workshops in Chobe National Park and across Africa.

Katie Jewett

Katie Jewett

Katie Jewett is a science writer, producer, and communications manager at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions where she loves learning something new every day about our planet. Previously, she spent winters in the Colorado Rockies and summers living and working on the water.

bioGraphic is powered by the California Academy of Sciences, a renowned scientific and educational institution dedicated to regenerating the natural world through science, learning, and collaboration.