Saturday, December 31, 2011

Why raw bamboo shoots are a no no

I was sitting on a wet, slimy boardwalk watching tiny leeches inch their way up my mud-caked boots.
Huge trees loomed all around, their foliage heavy and dripping from a recent downpour. Dark clouds still pressed low, making the forest as gloomy as I was feeling.

The conversation didn’t help.

My companions were debating how long a species could remain unseen before it should be declared extinct.

There was good reason for both the topic and our despondency.

You see we were awaiting the impossible.

How did we get into this predicament? Well we’d clambered up this steep, slippery hillside, in the rainforest of Ranomafana National Park, in the hopes of glimpsing one of the world’s rarest primates. Critically endangered, the greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus) once frolicked across the entire island of Madagascar but today it clings on in just twelve isolated forest fragments. Fewer than 200 of the critters draw breath.

Ranomafana National Park is a 39,200 ha (96,900 acre) tuft of rainforest growing on the bald pate of eastern Madagascar. It was protected after a new species of lemur (the golden bamboo lemur) was discovered here in 1985.

We’d been shepherded up to this isolated spot by our park guide and his posse of ‘wildlife spotters’.
You see gawking at lemurs is big business in Madagascar and Ranomafana (home to 13 species) runs a tight ship.
When you rock up at the park you're allocated an (unexpectedly knowledgeable) guide, who specialises in visiting just one specific lemur group (of each of the common species). The guide's bevy of spotters race off into the forest to locate the beasts, while you saunter along the forest trails marvelling at minutia (bugs, frogs, chameleons, weird geckos, weirder tourists). Then a cell phone trills. ‘They’re found!’ With agitated hast the guide musters any stragglers and chivvies you off to do your gawking.

A minutia. The tree frog, Boophis viridis, or so I was told.
It could be a Martian for all I know.

Another rainforest skulker: a pitta-like ground roller (Atelornis pittoides). Ground rollers raise their families underground and are endemic to Madagascar.

Now I can’t deny that this system is efficient and lemur-friendly (any one lemur group is subjected to gawking for a limited time only). But it’s also surreal.
Lemur home ranges are small, so bands of gawkers are constantly drifting by, like ships in the night, and the forest echoes with excited cell phone conversations. And woe betide anyone who inadvertently stumbles across the wrong group of lemurs. You’re expected to avert your eyes shamefully and hurry on by.

The eastern grey bamboo lemur (Hapalemur griseus) is one of three species of bamboo lemur (also known as gentle lemurs) that call Ranomafana home.

So it was our guide who’d parked us beside a towering stand of giant bamboo while he and his posse sought our quarry. But before he left, he shared a few facts.

He told us that this group of greater bamboo lemurs was the ONLY ONE surviving in Ranomafana National Park.
‘You mean, it’s the only one tourists visit?,’ we suggested hopefully.
‘No, no. There is just one.’ 
We stared at him non-plussed.
He explained that the lemurs’ nearest neighbours lived 200 km (124 miles) away in a forest fragment on the slopes of the Andringitra massif.


We asked how many lemurs were in the group.
‘There used to be eight, but when we last found them, there were only two left.’
‘When was that?’, a brave soul asked.
'Six weeks ago.'


We were still standing gob-smacked, mouths opening and closing like goldfish, when he and his team trooped off into the trees. Our dismay hadn't yet coalesced into cogent thought, so we didn't manage to holler,
‘Hey, why are we squandering our precious time in this park pursuing phantoms?!’

So we waited.

Now don’t get me wrong. Bamboo lemurs are worth investing time to see. They’re intriguing critters. With atypical accuracy, their common name really does reflect their tastes: they dine almost exclusively on bamboo, and giant bamboo (Cathariostachys madagascariensis) usually makes up 80-90% of their munchies.
The problem is, giant bamboo contains cyanide.

To thwart plant-nibblers big and small, many bamboo species stuff their tasty young shoots with taxiphyllin, a cyanogenic glycoside. When digested, taxiphyllin breaks down into deadly hydrogen cyanide. The bamboo’s branch shoots (which thrust up out of the ground like whopping asparagus spears) are the most heavily fortified; in giant bamboo they tote 15-40 mg of cyanide per 100g of shoot.
The lethal dose for humans is 0.5 to 3.5 mg per kilo of body weight.
Fortunately, cooking destroys the cyanide.
Unfortunately, lemurs don’t cook.

Lucky to be alive? If so, this eastern grey bamboo lemur is intending to waft the message to the world. It's smearing its tail with its own personal 'eau de lemur' from the scent glands on the inside of its wrists. 

No one knows how bamboo lemurs cope. They're the only primates to specialise on bamboo. Golden bamboo lemurs, who prefer to dine on the branch shoots, routinely guzzle 12 times the dose of cyanide needed to snuff out your average mammal. Researchers have found that the urine of all three of Ranamofana's bamboo lemur species is tainted with hydrogen cyanide (but their droppings aren't) showing that they really do digest and absorb the poison.

A golden bamboo lemur (Hapalemur aureus). Feeling a touch of indigestion?
Eastern grey bamboo lemurs sensibly favour bamboo leaves which are relatively low in cyanide. Tipping the scales at less than a kilogram (< 2.2 lbs), they're the smallest lemur to romp about by day.

For those of you fond of Asian cuisine, who might doubt the toxicity of the humble bamboo shoot, beware! Eight people keeled over in a well containing pickled bamboo shoots, blacking out instantly due to the hydrogen cyanide gas given off by the pickles. Two of the victims never recovered, their hearts having failed them entirely. Frustratingly, the research paper fails to address the most obvious question: what were eight people and a load of pickled vegetables doing down a well anyway? Although suspiciously mute about the veggies, the authors do allude to a ‘botched rescue attempt’.

But I digress distressingly.
Back to the rainforest.

We’d been sitting about despondently for around twenty minutes, and conversation had lapsed into a silent contemplation on the nature of loss (or the loss of Nature). We weren’t really listening to the surround-sound screech of frogs, cicadas and other unseen stridulators; in fact most of us were staring off – unseeing - into the eerie, primeval gloom. One of our group, glancing up at the huge bamboo thicket looming above us, said chirpily (in a transparent attempt to lighten the mood), ‘I keep expecting to see fairies or something suddenly pop out.’

And within a matter of minutes they did.

It started as a rustling overhead, and then a clump of bamboo canes swayed wildly as something dark clambered down among them. We snatched up our binoculars and jostled one another for the best view of the moving fronds.
OK, there was some fur...
Oh, and look a tail.
Yes, yes, they’re lemurs for sure... But what sort...?
Oh my God!

The impossible had happened.

Above our heads, the last two greater bamboo lemurs in Ranomafana National Park were nibbling bamboo!

About the size of small house cats and clothed in dark brown fur, they sinuously wound between the bamboo canes. One peered down at us, his bald nose and prominent grey ear tufts giving him a nutty professor look. As we watched, he began gnawing at the woody stem of a bamboo cane. Once he'd made a small hole, he clasped an edge of the wood in his teeth and pulled down a strip to reveal the soft pith inside. This he munched with enthusiasm. Greater bamboo lemurs are alone in using this part of bamboo plants.

Greater bamboo lemurs (Prolemur simus) specialise more exclusively on bamboo than any other lemur. This reliance makes them very vulnerable because bamboo is also coveted by humans. Used as scaffolding, it's often removed from forest remnants, even in protected areas.

Greater bamboo lemurs normally hang out in groups of 7-11 individuals. These two survivors are father and adolescent daughter.

About ten minutes after the lemurs had disappeared further up the mountainside our posse of lemur spotters trudged back. Sweaty and bedraggled, they shook their heads glumly, only to be greeted by an uproar of excited exclamations. As they peered at the images on our cameras, their eyes widened and smiles broke out all round; there was much back-slapping and laughter. I must admit that I was greatly heartened by their obvious delight and relief over the continued existence of their greater bamboo lemurs.

As we slipped and slithered back down the muddy track, we talked of our amazing good fortune in seeing these rarities. But somehow our elation and sense of privilege just wasn’t strong enough to lift the heavy, underlying despair. These creatures were almost certainly doomed.

I found myself wishing that I could give the good luck back; somehow pass the blessing over to the lemurs like a vial of golden Felix Felicis (Liquid Luck).
They were going to need every drop they could get.

Praying for a future?


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Holy infants?

It’s Christmas Day and I’m knee-deep in nativity scenes!

OK, maybe there's a dearth of straw-filled mangers, but angelic infants I’ve got aplenty.

As a kid, one of the highlights of Christmas was braving the crowds of harried shoppers to gawk in the windows of Melbourne’s largest department store.
With my nose snubbed against the plate-glass, I’d gaze open-mouthed at the archaic, creaky animatronics. Above the gum-nut babies, possums popped in and out of velvet tree hollows, owls blinked with glassy eyes and parrots flapped garish wings. Tiny dancing mice circled Cinderella on a barely concealed conveyer, each one twirling in frozen ecstasy.
And of course there was baby Jesus, hedged in by misshapen, nodding donkeys and smiling beatifically at a drummer boy suffering severe stomach cramps.

By today’s standards, this was primitive stuff indeed.
But even the newest of whizz-bang technology can’t begin to emulate what I can see through my windows today.

You see the bush around here knows how to do Christmas.
Decked out in the lushest greens, the foliage glitters and sparkles with a million fairy lights (thanks to yesterday’s rain), and mini Chinese lanterns dangle from every trackside sickle bush.

The sickle bush (Dichrostachys cinerea): Santa's own tree.
The Shona name for this species (mupangara) means 'tassels for the chief's hat'.

Even the tree ornaments are animate.

But it’s the nativity tableaus that are the real treat of the season.

Look beneath the tree here and you’re likely to find a wobbly-legged foal, gift-wrapped in stripes, or a lavishly decorated giraffe calf touching noses with its mother. My own favourites are the drifts of russet daffodils that, on closer inspection, become snoozing impala lambs; just their little faces and black-tipped ears poking above the dew-soaked grass.

Baby baboons ride by like prize-winning jockeys, and the first warthog piglets (who emerged jitteringly from their underground nests last week) trot along in single file with tails erect, and scatter like a flock of startled birds at the slightest threat. As usual, the little brown wildebeest calves arrived only just in time; their sudden entrance into the world as unnerving as the off loading of a school bus.

Now who’s to say whether these charmers have been fathered by Gods?

Like all youngsters, this one's itching for Christmas.

Christmas dinner? Impalas believe devoutly in safety in numbers. Bundled up in huge creches, the lambs move like schooling fish.

Who are you calling a fish?

Christmas is a time for pigging out but, for wee warthogs, speed is of the essence. Mum only turns on the milk for one minute bursts.

Hogging the limelight.

Now, as anyone who’s spent time appreciating the African bush knows, every day here is rather like Christmas.

You set out at first light to pay homage and in return you’re granted an armful of gifts. And to add to the excitement, you never know whether they’ll be socks or a new Lamborghini.

However, during the festive season the lowveld really ups the ante; in fact it's as if I’m living out the Twelve days of Christmas, with a special boon arriving daily.

The other night the porcupines trundled up to my compost heap with a brand new porcupette in tow (isn’t that a wonderful name?). This little blunt-nosed guy shuffled about shyly, pressing itself up against Mum (or Dad or older sibling, since the whole family helps with childcare). I assume he was embarrassed about his extravagant mohawk.

It was on the following day that I discovered two newly minted terrapins – their tiny shells less than an inch across - paddling about in a rock pool (actually more of a puddle) atop an isolated granite koppie.

The sprogs of marsh terrapins (Pelomedusa subrufa) favour teeny pools to avoid the jaws of crocodiles. 

Then on the third day, while walking with Bugbears, I accidently flushed a family of large-spotted genets. Springing lithely from their tree stump home, the three youngsters scrambled up a nearby marula tree. Crumple-eared and blinking myopically, they clung teetering by their claws, waiting for me to leave. These breathtaking (if sleep-interrupted) carnivores are softly furred in flamboyant polka-dots and sport luxuriously ringed tails. They're strict night owls and it's the first time I've glimpsed them by light of day. Of course, with my usual aplomb, I failed to capture them on film (or should that be on digit?).

A large-spotted genet (Genetta tigrina) masterfully photographed at Cincinnati Zoo.
Posted on Flickr by West Chester Dumonts. 

And then of course there are the four young silver-backed jackals who sit around outside their termite-mound den each morning, disconsolately scratching their fleas. Presumably Mum has hussled them outside to play so she can spend quality time with her new litter.

Do you think she'll let us back yet?

I can’t help but wonder what I'll find next?
Five gold rinkhal eggs?
Five baby unicorns?

Come to think of it Halcyon’s reigning monarch, Jasmine, has just produced five tiny pups...
But don’t let me get started on mongoose pups...

‘See Dad, I could be a tree-top angel!’
Keid, an ambitious dwarf mongoose (Helogale parvula) pup, chaperoned by his older bro, Flame.
Photo copyright Cleo Grieve.

All in all, there’s nowhere in the world that I’d rather spend Christmas.
And I wish upon you the same blessing.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I think I'm going cuckoo

Thrice welcome, darling of the Spring!
Even yet thou art to me
No bird, but an invisible thing
A voice, a mystery.

                     Wordsworth (who clearly didn't live around here)

Firstly, let me point out that this post is not about lemurs.
In fact it isn’t even about Madagascar.

I’m taking a break from my lemur litany to indulge in a bit of a gripe.

I need it.

You see my neighbourhood ‘invisible thing’ is driving me to distraction.

I’m sure you know how it feels to be assailed by an apparently innocuous sound, endlessly repeated.
Whether it’s the plink of a dripping tap or a tune circling in your mind, incessant repetition can push the sanest of us into madness. (And after eight years as a recluse, sanity is not my strong suit.)

My own personal bugbear comes feather-coated. He swept in about a month ago, all fresh and perky after a winter vacation in equatorial Africa. Dressed elegantly in soft grey, with a waistcoat of pinstripes and salmon cravat, he’s far too dapper for his slightly embarrassing moniker: the red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius).

Like other cuckoos, the red-chested (Cuculus solitarius) is dressed to impress. His slick hawk-like shape, raptorish eye-ring and sparrow-hawk chest stripes are no accident. Experiments show that the stripes alone are enough to intimidate potential cuckoo-rearers, allowing the wearer access to nests. Photo by Johann du Preez.

My red-chested cuckoo is out for a good time.
Having staked out a bachelor pad in the trees along the river, he dallies at special ‘song posts’ hidden in the foliage (essential, to avoid the shot-gun blasts of irate listeners) and sends forth his message. Repeatedly.

Now his descending, three-note call is not unpleasant per se (you can listen to it here).
But repeated stridently - at one second intervals – for hour after hour after hour, it’s simply soul destroying. And don’t imagine that nightfall brings relief. Mere darkness is no deterrent to a red-chested cuckoo on the make.

Tossing and turning sleeplessly, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder the purpose of his incessant advertising. Is he warning off rivals or serenading the ladies? At the risk of eroding your sympathy, I’ll admit (solely for scientific purposes) that he does occasionally take a break; sometimes for several days at a stretch (ah, blessed relief).
But this is weird behaviour for a bird that defends its territory with song. Does he only engage in operatics when he has an audience?
I’ve come to the conclusion that what he’s really shouting is,
“Have I got a nest for you!”

You see, in red-chested cuckoo society, it’s the male who screens prospective foster parents. When not driving innocent bystanders insane, he skulks about spying on the neighbours. Once he spots a happy couple preparing their nursery, he hurriedly leads (one of) his true loves to the spot and helpfully distracts the parents-to-be while she sneaks in and lays an egg. To make the crime scene less conspicuous, she then scoffs a resident egg (why waste a good egg?).

Like all his kind, this cute red-chested cuckoo chick won his spoiled, only-child status by murder (struggle, push, shove... ‘Oh look, chick/egg overboard. Now how did that happen?’).
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

As I’m sure you know, cuckoos produce eggs that look similar to those of their victims to assist them in their evil egg-switching.
This is all good and fine if you’re a cuckoo species that freeloads on only one type of bird. But my annoying red-chested cuckoos don’t put all their eggs in one basket (that way, they could become extinct... or so I fantasize).
No, my cuckoos foist their ankle-biters off on to 18 different species of sucker, all of whom produce very different looking eggs. So how do the cuckoos mix and match?

Well not all red-chested cuckoos are born equal. In any one place, you’ll find several different races (called gentes), each of which specialises in hoodwinking just one particular host, and produces the eggs to match.
But how do the cuckoos maintain this racial purity? What happens when a girl from the Cape robin gens (gens is the singular of gentes) is swept off her feet by a boy from the wagtail gens. Will the couple’s daughters ever find a suitable nest for their miscegenated eggs?
Alternatively if maiden cuckoos always abide by family tradition and only choose lovers from within their own gens (i.e. there’s no racial mixing), surely the races are really different species?

The answer is devious. Unlike mammals - where it’s the male who totes the whacky, sex-defining Y chromosome - birds do things the other way around. Macho birds carry two Z chromosomes while the ladies are ZW. Egg colour is craftily encoded on the W chromosome, so it’s always passed on – unadulterated - from mother to daughter regardless of what or whom Dad is (as he can only ever contribute a Z chromosome).

A recent study of greater honeyguides (OK, not a cuckoo but employing the same nefarious means of reproduction) found that their gentes are extremely ancient. When the researchers looked at the honeyguides’ mitochondrial DNA (which comes only from Mum) they found that the gentes had remained entirely separate and unsullied for millions of years. But when they looked at the chromosomal DNA (which comes from both Mum and Dad) they could find no difference between gentes (because everyone happily interbreeds).

The eye of the beholder. Some gentes of red-chested cuckoo lay eggs that don’t match those of their target species. So why do the victims accept them? Unlike us, birds are able to see near ultraviolet wavelengths. When researchers examined the eggs using ultraviolet-visible spectrophotometery, they found that they were similar. Oops.
Photo by Johann du Preez.

Among their other weird traits, cuckoos are renowned for their fondness for hairy caterpillars (they munch them, not keep them as pets). They develop this predilection only in adulthood because no sensible foster parent offers a chick such noxious fare. Furred caterpillars are eschewed by almost all birds thanks to their urticating hairs (I love that word; it means ‘stinging like a nettle’). The tips of these hairs are detachable and dispense irritating poison. Although cuckoos scrub their dinner thoroughly (you can see footage here), the lining of their gizzard still ends up bristling with cactus-like spines. To rid themselves of these, European cuckoos slough off and regurgitate bits of mucous membrane lining (a trick most of us employ only after dining on dodgy prawns).

Local cuckoo food.
Who wouldn't want one as a pet?

It was perhaps this ability to stomach noxious things that encouraged our ancestors to link cuckoos with wedlock. The sceptre of the ancient Greek goddess of marriage is normally topped by a cuckoo rampant, and folklaw stipulates that to hear a cuckoo is good luck for those about to tie the knot, and a portent of adultery for those already wed. Since I fall into neither category, I’ll opt for the alternative claim: the number of cuckoo calls you hear signifies the number of years until you marry or die (whichever comes first).

By my calculation, I should still be going strong in 9011.
How long my sanity will last is another question entirely.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The world's cutest mammal?

There are surely many contenders for this title.
But up there with the best of them are mouse lemurs.

Now mouse lemurs don’t get much publicity. Compared to the hype dealt out for kittens, koalas, puppies or pandas, mouse lemurs suffer a media blackout. In fact, their only real public appearance was in the animated movie Madagascar, where Mort - the mouse lemur - was ‘Plan B’ should the lion Alex find sushi unpalatable.

Mort from Madagascar. Apart from his diminished dentition and propensity for bawling (oh such blatant exploitation of our nurturing instincts), he’s a reasonably accurate rendition of the mouse lemur genus (Microcebus).

As their name suggests, mouse lemurs are petite. They’re actually the world’s smallest primates. Pop them on balance (the scales-of-justice type) and you’ll need three of the little blighters to counterbalance one pygmy marmoset (and I know you thought they were teeny).

Being so eminently bite-sized (30-70g/1-2.5 oz depending on the species), mouse lemurs only come out under cover of darkness. So if you want to see one, you must venture out by torchlight.

My first encounter with a mouse lemur took place in a thicket of ‘spiny forest’ at Berenty Reserve in southern Madagascar. Now skulking about in the dark in a habitat that’s renowned for its thorniness isn’t actually as unpleasant as it sounds. In fact, for someone accustomed to the weapon-toting plants of Africa (designed to decorticate rhinos, elephants and giraffes), Madagascar’s thorny scrub is something of a cake walk. We’d only begun edging our way through the prickles when a searing flash of eye-shine leapt from the darkness. There, just at eye-height, crouched in the spiky shrubbery, was a stunning little animal.

A small piece of fluff with huge radar ears and large soulful eyes, it sat gazing at us, swivelling its ears back and forth (independently) as we appreciatively ‘ooohed’ and ‘ahhhed’. Its was a grey-brown mouse lemur (Microcebus griseorufus) and a ringer for a lesser bushbaby (although a third the size and more... well, mouse-shaped). As it sat there tremulously, looking at us with huge puss-in-boots eyes, it seemed so small and vulnerable I began to worry about our intrusion upon its life. Should we really be shining spotlights into those fathomless eyes?

It was at this moment that a moth fluttered down into the pool of light. With lightening speed, the little lemur reached out and snatched the insect from the air. Clasping its victim tightly in one fist, it bit off the head, and - still gazing at us - sat chomping away (very succulently) with its sharp little teeth.

Er, well maybe not quite so innocent and vulnerable...

My inept photograph of a grey-brown mouse lemur (Microcebus griseorufus). Fifteen species of mouse lemur haunt the forest (remnants) of Madagascar (ten of these were described since 2000).

Another of my out-of-focus photos of a grey-brown mouse lemur. Although quite svelte in October (after the cool dry season), mouse lemurs indulge in ‘opportunistic fattening’ (a concept I’m familiar with). They can double their body weight during the wet season, laying down fat in their tail (which I’m also familiar with).

Now this little mouse lemur was the first of about a dozen that we encountered on a one-hour night walk. I’m ashamed to say that we started greeting the flare of eye-reflected torchlight with,
“Oh, it’s another grey-brown mouse lemur.”
You see mouse lemurs favour high density living where conditions are good (up to 300 per sq km/780 per sq mile). Nevertheless, we only met singletons because they prefer to go a’hunting (mostly for bugs and fruit) alone.

But don’t you start imagining that they lead solitary lives. Mouse lemurs enjoy a social network that’d rival anything on Facebook. Like elephants, the girls stick together in big clans of grannies, daughters, aunts and nieces; all sleeping snuggled together by day (up to 16 per tree-hollow for grey mouse lemurs). Friends and rellies not only huddle and groom one another, they happily suckle each other’s sprogs. Even the guys, who head out to seek their fortune as adolescents, tend not to sleep alone. This saves on heating bills: mouse lemurs dozing in pairs use 20% less energy and trios enjoy an energy-saving of 40%.

When times are tough, grey mouse lemurs (Microcebus murinus) know how to wind down. Day or night, they can slip into torpor, dropping their body temperature to 12 C (54 F). These daily bouts of indolence (which last an average of 9.3 hours) reduce the lemur’s calorie needs by 38%. Of course, they can also opt for proper hibernation (and most females do).
Photo by Joshua Bousel.

The hazards of the night. Owls, like this white-browed owl (Ninox superciliaris), are very fond of mouse lemurs. In parts of southern Madagascar (e.g. Beza Mahfaly) they munch their way through a quarter of the population annually.

This is all well and good, but mouse lemurs kip in lots of different hidey holes, so how do potential bedfellows reunite after a night of solitary hunting?
They snoop and sniff.
Mouse lemurs don’t possess scent glands but they make the most of what’s on hand (literally). Saliva, faeces, urine and genital secretions are all smeared about strategically, to inform noses-in-the-know of each lemur’s identity, libido, property rights and level of alarm. Oh, and these fragrant little lemurs also like to urine-wash (the term says it all).

However, it’s acoustically that mouse lemurs really come into their own. Yodelling eight different types of call (plus a few ultrasonic ones that are beyond us), they coordinate group movements, importune lovers and warn of incoming owls. Studies have found that the ‘contact trill’ given by golden-brown mouse lemurs (Microcebus ravelobensis) seeking a dawn rendezvous is unique and consistent for each sleeping group (so no one ends up in the wrong bed). And the same is true for the seductive warbles performed by male grey mouse lemurs out on the prowl. What’s more, new guys on the block imitate the calls of resident dudes to hasten their acceptance in the neighbourhood!

The grey mouse lemur’s (Microcebus murinus) mating season is seriously hectic, and males prepare by increasing their testes size 5-10 times. The females are promiscuous but accept lovers for only one night. Enticed by a lady lemur’s lascivious trills, Romeos engage in ‘scramble competition’, and the successful ones knobble their successors by leaving behind sperm plugs.
Photo by A J Haverkamp.

I was blessed with another sighting of a mouse lemur in the rainforest of Ranomafana National Park. Here the local guides smear banana along the trunk of a roadside tree so three busloads of tourists can jostle one another for photographic opportunities. However, despite the less than inspiring circumstances, the resident brown mouse lemur (Microcebus rufus), who zipped in soon after nightfall, couldn’t fail to enchant.

Moving faster than the eye could follow, this tiny creature leapt and flitted from liana to branch to trunk to twig. It darted up and down in a fever of constant movement, pausing only for the briefest licks of banana paste. Of course photographing this amazing animal was way beyond my skill, so I’ve included a couple of images taken by more competent visitors so you can share in the experience.

A brown mouse lemur (Microcebus rufus) enjoying its offering of smeared banana. Photo by Leonora Enking.

Brown mouse lemurs (Microcebus rufus) at Ramonafana National Park are known to munch 69 different kinds of fruit (I’m unsure whether this includes the banana). The fat-rich mistletoe, Bakerella, is a mainstay of their diet.
Photo by Frank Vassen.

 So now you’ve met mouse lemurs, what do think?

Where would you place them on the mammalian-cuteness-scale?

Before deciding, please bear in mind that these little critters are full-grown adults, and it’s quite unjust to compare them to the bumbling, blunt-nosed infants of other species (i.e. all those nauseatingly saccharine kittens and bunnies).

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pillow magic

I’m not a superstitious person.

I’ve a deep fondness for black cats, and will happily loiter under even the most rickety of ladders.
But sometimes things just happen...

Last Saturday was one of those times.

Now I’m sure you know those cutesy old-wives-tales about placing things under your pillow.

Sleeping on a chunk of wedding cake brings dreams of your future spouse (or devourment by mice), a spoon ensures a snowfall, a bay leaf conjures prophetic dreams and a mirror lets you see the face of your next lover. Oh, and don’t forget that your boyfriend’s unwashed sock will, when slept upon, guarantee he never leaves you (although, by then, you’ll probably want him to).

But these harmless little myths spring from a much darker tradition.
‘Pillow magic’ is big in the shadowy realm of Voodoo.

The idea is that you sneakily conceal a charm (composed of bones, hair, string, herbs, toenails, morsels of black cockerel) within the pillow of someone you hate. (And if you’re pressed for time, you can buy handy little pre-made ‘voodoo pillow bags’ on the internet). This talisman not only disturbs the victim’s slumber, it saps their very life force. Night after night the charm grows stronger (and the victim wastes away) until finally it bursts forth as a monstrous beast or bird (a tupilek) which kills the sleeper. Pretty natty, huh?

Now bearing this in mind, you can imagine my consternation when my field assistant announced on Saturday that she’d found a monstrous beast lurking under her pillow.

Dashing into her room, I confirmed the worst.
Poking out from beneath the pillowcase was a glistening, terracotta coil.
It belonged to a Mozambique spitting cobra who gazed up at me myopically, flicking in and out its little black tongue.

A Mozambique spitting cobra tucked up enjoying some creature comforts. (Yes, I know the colour of this bedding could induce insomnia, without the aid of voodoo, but it was VERY cheap.)
The photograph we failed to take in the heat of the moment.
Photo by Arno and Louise Meintjes

Tradition dictates that all voodoo-related entities must be doused with salt and set alight. But even for someone who suffers a snake phobia, this seemed a trifle harsh.
Yet how were we supposed to remove the beast? Spitting cobras are renowned for their... well, spitting. They can spray venom up to 1.5 m (5 ft) and they shoot for the eyes.

Now if you’ve ever wondered how a cobra manages to accurately target its victim’s eyes (this is something I’ve admittedly taken for granted), science has solved the puzzle.

Brave, goggle-wearing researchers have found that spitting cobras do their stuff in response to a jerky head movement by their assailant.
Sixty-five milliseconds after you’ve unwisely turned your head, the cobra begins to rapidly nod and shake its own head, visually pinpointing your precise location. It then stops nodding, and tracks its head in the same direction (and at the same speed) as your own movement (thus compensating for the moving target). And 200 milliseconds after you first began to move, it squirts a jet of venom from its fangs, jerking its head rapidly from side to side as it does so, to ensure a wide, fan-like spray of eye-searing droplets. (You can read a popular account of this research here.)

While this is all very interesting, it doesn’t leave one feeling particularly optimistic about extracting a spitting cobra from one’s bed.

A Mozambique spitting cobra (Naja mossambica) in action. The species’ venom is more dilute than that of non-spitting cobras. Of course, it can still kill you, if you let the critter bite.
Photo by Steven Gilham.

After some deliberation, we opted for the strategic placement of a postal tube and a bit of judicious prodding with a broom.
Oh yeah, and we squinted a lot.
And - hey presto - it worked like a charm: pre-packaged cobra ready for translocation.

However, while I was busily wielding the broom (and trying in vain not to move my head), I noticed something (even more) disturbing.
The snake was not alone under the pillow.
There was a book there too.
Edging it out from beneath the covers, I looked at the title: ‘Mongoose Watch’ by Anne Rasa.

Now this is a very readable account of a field study of dwarf mongooses carried out in the 1980s. I’d recommend it.

But might it explain our ‘pillow serpent’?

You see everyone KNOWS that mongooses like to kill and eat snakes.

If sleeping on wedding cake can conjure up spouses, and stinky socks, boyfriends, what happens when you snooze on a book about mongooses??

I’ll let you decide.
Not that I believe in superstitions...  


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Love at first lemur

Beware supernormal stimuli!

You mightn’t be familiar with the term, but you’ll know the concept:
some innocent critter is sensibly designed to react to a natural trigger (like the colour of its mate) and then we come along and offer it something that’s... well, MORE.

Maybe you’ve seen footage of those songbirds who happily ditch their own eggs in favour of plastic ones because the fakes are bigger and brighter. Or how about the Aussie jewel beetles who prefer to woo beer bottles because they’re soooo much sexier (bigger and more amber) than their mates. (Please note that I’ve shown great self restraint re racist/sexist quips about Aussie males in general).

In a world of computerized special effects, photo-shopped images and plastic surgery, it’s easy for us to fall victim too. We’ve all seen those lovely faces of perfect symmetry, pupils enlarged to whisper of arousal.

Yet despite my awareness, I wasn’t expecting to encounter such chicanery on the first day of my holiday in Madagascar.

With a morning to kill in Antananarivo (the catchy name of Madagascar’s capital), we visited a small park in which rehabilitated lemurs roam free. It was drizzling as we pushed between the overhanging branches, peering through the wet leaves for our first glimpse of lemur.
Then womp. It happened.
I felt my chest contract and, for a moment, I couldn't breathe.

Right in front of me, staring intently into my eyes, was the most amazing animal.

Now lemurs come in a wacky assortment of models. There are tiny, trembling mouse-sized ones and weird etiolated ones with frog-like limbs. There are fluffy orbs with saucer-eyes, aspiring pandas and flamboyant confections of fur, complete with colourful ruffs, tufts and plumy tails.
But the lemur sitting in the tree in front of me was none of these. It was a common brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus): a sensible, work-a-day kind of critter. Clothed demurely in soft grey fur that shaded into a sooty face, it gazed at me with huge amber eyes and an intelligent, if slightly rueful expression.
I stared back open-mouthed, and felt as if we’d known each other all our lives.
Oh shit!

Common brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus): love at first sight.
A mongoose lemur (Eulemur mongoz) looking pensive. In retrospect, the name alone should've made me wary.

Now ‘Eu’ in Greek means ‘easy’ or ‘well’ and I can’t think of a better moniker for these lemurs. Each time I encountered a Eulemur species (there are ten in all), I was swept off my feet all over again.

Why? For a start, all their legs are of equal length (I know this doesn’t sound notable but - believe me - it’s no mean feat for a lemur) and they saunter about quadrupedally (as all good mammals should).

But don’t imagine that Eulemurs simply walk, oh no. They sashay along with all the poise of a supermodel. To see them walking toward you along a forest trail is to have your breath snatched away by their... well, panache. Unable to figure out what evoked such a strong air of self-assurance, I finally resorted to searching the literature. And, lo and behold, someone has actually studied the gait of brown lemurs (primatologists are a well funded lot).

These lemurs not only have an unusually long upper and forearm bones, their shoulder blades are astonishingly mobile. At the touch down of a fore foot, a brown lemur’s shoulder joint is extended much further forward than in other small mammals, and this serves to further lengthen its stride. From a human perspective, this exceptionally long stride coupled with a very prominent swing of the shoulders, is something one only ever sees on the catwalk!

The morning after the night before. Eulemurs are unique among primates (except perhaps for humans) in refusing to live in thrall to the sun. They happily gad about both night and day (i.e. they’re cathemeral).

Sipping sap. Red-fronted brown lemurs (Eulemur rufus) adore fruit (and are influential seed distributers) but when times are hard, they’ll also nibble flowers, buds, leaves, sap and creepy-crawlies. They even munch toxic millipedes, rinsing them in saliva and wiping them off on their tails!

The black lemur (Eulemur macaco) has a more macabre relationship with millipedes. This species nips the millipede repeatedly to make it ooze toxin, and then anoints its fur with a toxin-saliva mix (you can see one doing this here). Experiments have shown that the benzoquinones in the millipede secretion repel mosquitoes.

Many lemurs like to socialise, but the brown lemurs (there are six closely-related species) are best seen as the hippies of prosimian society. Unlike most other species (in which the females wear the pants), brown lemurs don’t go in for any of that tense, hierarchical stuff. Their co-ed bands are fluid and truly egalitarian, and no one seems to mind if a few of the neighbours crash for a while. If an argument does break out, brown lemurs respond promptly with loving gestures of reconciliation (unlike the better known ringtailed lemur, in which an escalation of conflict is all you can expect). Oh, and did I mention that they’re promiscuous too, happily bedding all opposite-sexed group-mates? Although no one has actually observed them putting flowers in their fur or driving VW Beetles, I reckon it’s only a matter of time.

Red-fronted brown lemur mums give birth synchronously in September or early October.

Baby red-fronted brown lemurs cling to Mum’s tummy for their first month and then go piggyback. After three months of baby-haulage, Mum puts her foot down and the little one must travel on its own four paws.

Now if you’ve looked at the photographs and you’re secretly wondering why I’m so smitten by such nondescript looking critters, you’re not alone.
In truth, I found my infatuation for these animals quite disconcerting. The problem is, you see, Eulemurs are a supernormal stimuli as far as I’m concerned.

After 15 years studying mongooses, I can’t look into a little mongoosey face without experiencing a warm inner glow. And these lemurs don’t just look a bit like mongooses, they’re equivalent to computer-enhanced mongooses! Not only are they ten times larger (and big is good, right), they also have HUGE lamp-like eyes, and they look right at you with a knowing intelligence that (sad as I am to admit it) mongooses just don’t show.

Now I’m not going to go rushing out and start studying these lemurs.
After all, I’m only attracted to them because of my love for mongooses, right?
I’m sure I won’t.

Well, at least I’m pretty sure...

A common brown lemur (left) and a mongoose lemur (rear) conspiring to break my resolve.

“Mum everyone's watching!” Social embarrassment is rife among immature red-fronted brown lemurs.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Madagascan malaise

Sorry I’ve been off air lately.
No, I haven’t been ambushed by hungry mongooses or gnawed to death by gerbils.
I’ve been away on holiday: leering at lemurs in Madagascar!

For those of you harbouring secret dreams of one day visiting Madagascar’s wilderness, I’ve got bad news.
You’re too late.
It’s gone.

Yeah, I know you’ve seen the documentaries, chockfull of weird and wonderful critters, all evolving bizarrely in splendid isolation, etc., etc.

But good ol’ Madagascar aint what she used to be.

Madagascar, accompanied by a co-dependent India, made her break from Africa 160 million years ago. Seventy million years later, tired of living out of a suitcase, she severed connections with India (who was determined to continue north) and settled down at her current domicile, 400 km (250 miles) off the coast of Mozambique in southern Africa. For 90 million years everything went swimmingly (or more precisely came swimmingly), and it wasn’t until around the time Jesus began promoting his new cult that humans were faced with the taxing question of whether to scramble or poach their elephant bird eggs. Amazingly, these first human colonists weren’t locals from Africa; they'd paddled in from the Indonesian Archipelago (someone was either VERY lost or VERY brave; and probably both).

The ‘un-African’ houses (double storey and made of brick) favoured by the tribes people of northern and central Madagascar reveal their SE Asian roots.

Madagascar’s own Dark Ages stretched from 500 to 1500 AD. During this period, humans exterminated every large vertebrate on the island (nothing over 12 kg/26 lbs survived). Among the 48 species lost, were three pygmy hippos, two aardvark-like creatures, a giant fossa, two massive tortoises, an out-sized crocodile, a whopping rat, 17 species of giant lemur and 21 bird species, including eight species of elephant bird. Based on tantalising skeletons and folkloric tales, the lost lemurs included a couple of baboon doppelgangers, three ‘koala lemurs’, an aye-aye four times bigger than today’s version, and a gorilla-like beast, weighing in at around 200 kg/440 lbs.

Madagascar’s elephant birds arose from an adventurous member of the ostrich family who managed to cross 400 km (250 miles) of ocean, about 80 million years ago. Aepyornis (reconstructed here) was the heaviest bird the world has known, standing 3 m (10 ft) tall and weighing 450 kg (990 lbs). It met its maker around the 12th century and people are still stumbling upon its eggs.
Photo borrowed from here.

Today, Madagascar has lost more than 90% of its natural forests.
Of course this is not an unusual scenario, but in Madagascar the results are truly ghastly. You see, because the island was once completely wooded, the native birds and beasts aren’t designed for life out in the open. Remove the native vegetation and everyone just ups and goes (dies?). And thanks to all that ‘splendid isolation’, your bog-standard grassland species can’t move in to fill the vacuum, as happens elsewhere. So what you’re left with is a rural landscape that’s TOTALLY devoid of life.
This was a serious shock for me; I’ve never before experienced anything like it. You can travel hour after hour through the countryside without setting eyes on a single bird! If you’ve ever had nightmares about Silent Spring, well that’s Madagascar.

One of the country’s beautiful rural landscapes (at the southern tip of the island), UTTERLY devoid of living creatures. Rice paddies festoon virtually every valley floor in the country, providing a livelihood for 70% of Madagascar's 20 million inhabitants.

Pied crows (above) and yellow-billed kites are happy to dine on human refuse. They’re the only bird species you'll see in many parts of southern Madagascar.

An opportunistic yellow-billed kite. Go bird, go!

Now before you get as dismayed and distressed as I was for a good proportion of my holiday, let me reassure you that fragments of ‘real’ vegetation still remain. They’re small, they’re infested with enough invasive plants (e.g. prickly pear, sisal, lantana, eucalypts) to make a conservationist fall upon his/her weeding scythe, but they’re also – astoundingly - brimful with Madagascar’s iconic beasts. I scurried into these tiny oases with the utter desperation of wildlife-addict going cold turkey.

This little entity - along with Madagascar’s other 234 frog species - is unique to the island. So too are 92% of the country’s 363 reptile species. And although Madagascar makes up only 1.9 % of Africa’s landmass, it's home to more orchid species than the rest of Africa put together.

An astonishing 101 lemur species (this one’s a white-footed sportive lemur, Lepilemur leucopus) still manage to frolic in the remnants of Madagascar’s bush.

Now I’ve thoroughly depressed you with what isn’t in Madagascar any more, I’ll prepare some posts about the wildlife I did manage to encounter. I hope you like lemurs...
I mean what else am I going to do with 700 bad lemur photographs?
(This is a rhetorical question, just in case you're madly thinking up rude suggestions.)

Lemurs: what’s not to love?
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