Monday, November 1, 2010
Beasts for the bedridden
"The universe contains any amount of horrible ways to be woken up...
A dog's wet nose is not strictly speaking the worst of the bunch, but it has its own peculiar dreadfulness which connoisseurs of the ghastly and dog owners everywhere have come to know and dread. It's like having a small piece of defrosting liver pressed lovingly against you."
Terry Pratchett (Moving Pictures)
This quote holds particular significance for me this week because I spent the better part of it in bed, fighting off the horrible ravages of malaria (you're allowed to use phrases like 'horrible ravages' when you've got a bona fide tropical illness).
It's only been 'the better part' because of the regular intervention of the aforesaid noses. Oh, and don't let's forget cats' whiskers; equally unnerving when pressed into the face of a sleeper.
They've watched with deep concern as I trembled and shook, coughed and spluttered and fed-the-fishes (a phrase that's not as euphemistic as I'd like, given the state of the house's plumbing). Being cynical (a consequence of the illness, I'm sure), I couldn't decide whether they were genuinely worried about me or simply monitoring symptoms indicative of their continued neglect. But on Friday I decided it WAS true love. When I ate my first meal for four days, I had an utterly transfixed and joyous audience; and no one tried to beg a thing!
Being bedridden restricts one's wildlife encounters, so I thought I'd write a nice gentle post about the vervet monkeys who hang out in the trees beside my bedroom window. I love these little guys, silvery-furred and lithe, they're like wood sprites or dryads as they dance through the foliage. But my contemplative mammal post was not to be. The local wildlife came inside.
On Thursday night I was just drifting off to sleep - in a semi-drugged daze - when I felt something brush against my thigh. Magic's tail, I wondered? Tentatively I reached down and felt about a bit: no tail. Magic was lying too far away. Since our recent serpent-visitations, we've all been a little paranoid (Wobbly Cat still hasn't placed a paw outside and Magic won't sleep there), so I decided miserably I'd better wake up and check it out. I groped sleepily for my torch and shone the wavering beam toward my feet.
Within seconds I was out of bed.
There was a large black scorpion crouched among the sheets.
It was about 12 cm (5") long with a huge armoured tail upraised threateningly over its back.
It wasn't just any scorpion, it was a Parabuthus transvaalicus, one of the most lethal scorpions in southern Africa.
ISN'T MALARIA ENOUGH? I thought in anguish.
Trying to ignore my throbbing headache, I began bundling the pets out of the room.
Fleetingly I considered taking a photo, but thought 'To hell with the blog'. (Forgive me, dear reader, but I'm sure it was the wicked malady speaking, and I also remembered I'd taken a few shots of a dead specimen in the garden last August.)
Wielding a plastic drinking cup, I rumpled the sheets behind the scorpion and it obligingly trundled into the cup. Then, while stuffing a blanket over the beaker, I fumbled it and the scorpion scuttled out again. Not good. I should probably point out, at this stage, that this species doesn't just sting like normal scorpions, it can also spray it's venom for distances of about one metre/yard. Thankfully, it didn't. My second attempt was more successful, and despite a few nervous moments, trying to keep the lid on the cup with my chin while unlocking the back door, the release went smoothly.
While I'm not keen on scorpions, I have to admit their interesting little guys; especially when it comes to romance.
After following the trail of his true love's pheromones, the smitten male performs a little tap dance, juddering his body, tapping his pincers or wagging his tail (depending on his species). His lady detects these 'love vibes' through highly sensitive hairs on her feet and body, and sensibly curbs her predatory inclinations. Next the couple embrace, lovingly locking pincers or - more intimately - mouth parts. The male then whisks his sweetheart into a waltz (lasting 5 to 30 minutes), fanning out his pectines (fluffy sensory combs on his stomach that feel the ground) in search of the ideal place to consummate their love. The dance only halts when he finds a smooth hard surface. Here he deposits his spermataphore: a little package of sperm that's sticky on the bottom and hooked at the top. Once it's stuck firm, he helps his paramour move above it; they have to get the position just so, because the hook on the spermataphore must catch and pull open the covering of her genital opening. Ain't Nature grand!
While this is the end of the story for the male, the female's destined to a 2 to 18 month pregnancy (depending on her species). She then gives birth to live young, a feat virtually unheard of among arachnids. Withdrawing to the safety of a burrow or shelter, she arches her tail over her back and places her front two pairs of legs beneath her genital opening to create a birth basket for the emerging babies. She then helps the newborns (tiny, but pale and soft, versions of the adult) clamber up on to her back. Here they remain, safe and snug, (while she forgoes foraging) for their first 9-14 days.
Sharing a bed with a scorpion is not my idea of fun, especially when I'm already feeling under the weather. But my sense of persecution evaporated instantly when I read the latest blog post by the hyena researchers in the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya. Oh my! I urge you to check out what intruded on their sleep this week. Your life will suddenly seem so much better!