Friday, January 21, 2011

Wet and soggy

At 3 am last Saturday, while wading ankle-deep through my lounge room, I realised I may have been a bit hasty saying that I'd escaped the floods.

Fortunately, the water merrily gushing in under my front door was just runoff – clean and blessedly crocodile-free; a consequence of the night-long deluge. As I sloshed about trying to divert the flow away from essential appliances, and reclaiming sodden groceries and clothing (well, I sometimes leave them on the floor), the pets watched with great interest, sitting, dry-footed, on the furniture.

Outside, the swollen Oliphants River was making a deafening roar, but didn't appear to be rising.
That would come later.

By morning, the rain had stopped and I began mopping (much to the irritation of my resident toads who were delighted to be able to orgy in the comfort of their own home). I kept dashing outside to check the river, and at around 8.00 it started to rise.

By 8.15, I was madly packing boxes.

In the space of 15 minutes it had halved the distance between me and it, and the swirling water was still creeping closer. If it continued at this pace, I was going to have very little time to evacuate. Fortunately, by about 8.25, the encroachment slowed, and then the water level stabilised, with the torrent rushing by closer than I've ever seen before.

But I'm still not sure whether to unpack my possessions or not!

The Makhutsi river. This small tributary is dry eleven months a year and, even when flowing, is normally only a few meters across. Thankfully it joins the Oliphants downstream of my house.

If the heavy rain caused me a few tense moments, it's been a bonanza for the local wildlife. With all the temporary pans brimful, the frogs are going berserk. Every now and again they send an emissary into the house just so I know how much fun they're having.

And the frogs aren't the only ones. While searching for Halcyon, I was crossing a granite outcrop when I noticed movement in a shallow pool of rainwater. Looking closer, I was amazed to see several baby terrapins madly scuttling toward the deepest part of the pool. They lay cryptically on the bottom among the debris for a while, but soon one paddled up to cautiously poke its nose above the surface, and eventually a whole flotilla of the little creatures was drifting on the surface. They were only about an inch long (25 mm) and unspeakably cute (for mere reptiles), reminding me uncannily of the baby turtles in Finding Nemo.

But how on earth did they get there?

The terrapins' ephemeral home. The rock pool is only a couple of inches deep and situated up on a koppie, many kilometres from the nearest creek or waterhole.

 A newly-hatched marsh or helmeted terrapin (Pelomedusa subrufa). It's probably male given our wimpy summer. Terrapins (concerned about sex-appeal) let temperature determine the gender of their kids, producing hot females and cool males.

Now chelonians (that's turtles, tortoises and terrapins, not residents of Chelonia) have done very well out of their protective-shell racket, in fact they've been trundling about under cover since before the dinosaurs were a twinkle in a reptilian eye (210 million years in total). Yet a shell has to be mighty tough to withstand the jaws of a crocodile, and the relatively thin covering of marsh terrapins make them tempting snacks, especially when small. So while you'll see adult terrapins basking nonchalantly on logs (or hippos) in croc-infested waters, you won't spot a baby one. When it comes time to raise a family, marsh terrapins trek off into the bush in search of crocodile-free accommodation. I've been utterly shocked, on several occasions, to find one shuffling about in a rocky cleft of stagnant water at least 4 km (2.5 miles) from the nearest water.

Marsh terrapins belong to an ancient dynasty (side-necked terrapins) restricted to the southern continents. Their most famous ancestor - Stupendemys geographicus from Venezuela - was the world's largest chelonian, growing more than 2.5 m (8 ft) long and weighing 2,000 kg (4400 lbs). Photo posted on Flikr by pimgmx.

The love life of marsh terrapins can only be described as kinky. When a male's consumed with passion, he trails his lady love, suggestively touching his snout against her hind legs and tail. If she reciprocates his feelings, he'll teeter up on top of her, hooking the claws of all four feet under the rim of her shell. With neck fully extended, he rubs his chin back and forth on the back of her head, tickling her with two short chin tentacles. And just to keep her in the mood, he squirts a stream of water over her face from his nostrils. Now tell me, can your lover do that?

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.
If size matters, terrapins have a right to look smug.

Like mammals, chelonians have erectile phalluses, but - unlike mammals -they're BIG, often extending more than half the length of their shell. Males fold these impressive appendages up neatly inside their cloacae when not in the throes of love, but some species are not above flashing to intimidate their rivals.
As Ogden Nash so aptly put it:
'The turtle lives twixt plated decks
That practically conceal its sex.
I think it clever of the turtle
In such a fix to be so fertile.'

The end product of all this hanky-panky is a clutch of 10 to 30 soft-shelled eggs buried in a pit that Mum scrapes in the soil with her hind feet. Ground too hard? No problem: Mum just wees on it.
Heavy rain triggers hatching, about 90-110 days later, and the little terrapins must head out, often climbing many meters of rock, to find the water that Mum intended.

This little guy may look harmless but marsh terrapins are not to be crossed. As expected, they polish off insects, frogs, carrion and waterweed. But it doesn't stop there. They also ambush, drown and devour doves drinking at the water's edge, nibble ticks off wallowing rhinos and even team up to drag down swimming waterfowl.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Wearisome wildlife?

Everywhere is flooding, except here.

Admittedly, the river at the bottom of my garden (the Oliphants) sounds like an express train, and is tossing up great waves and spume of muddy brown water. But so far the torrent is only just brushing the twisted roots of the fig trees. Walking the dogs along the bank as the water rose, I was amazed by the yellow-billed kites, zooming along the shoreline in search of animals fleeing the flooded reed beds. My dogs nearly went berserk at the tempting scent of displaced cane rats and, down on the water's edge, pairs of blacksmith plovers dashed back and forth snapping up bedraggled insects.

Summer treat. The view of the Oliphants River from my house; normally I only get to see swathes of sand.

Thanks to the rain, everything here is resplendent and green; the grass is waist high and the bush a dense tangle of spiders' webs and foliage. Hidden in the depths of the greenery, the mongooses are busy raising their second litters and the pups from the first round are rushing about self-importantly chivvying and cuddling the new arrivals.

I couldn't imagine a lovelier place to live.
Well sometimes, the wildlife encounters get just a little bit wearisome.

Earlier in the week Magic (my husky-cross) was skewered in the nose by a rapidly reversing porcupine that she was hassling through the mesh fence (blood everywhere). The following day I was startled to find her crunching up and eating the quills. Since she's never shown the slightest interest in quill-consumption before, I can only assume she's desperate to erase all evidence of being bested by a rodent.

An apple a day keeps the dogs at bay
(well, maybe you need some prickles too...)

Last night my wildlife encounters deteriorated further when I accidentally squished a reed frog in the front door (worse for him than me, I know, but it still left me feeling awful). And now I'm eating pasta again - for the fifth day running - because the mouse living in my kitchen (I think it fled the roof) keeps nibbling holes in packets of premade sauce. I've been intending to live trap this bolognaise-mad fiend (since my cats are failing in their only conceivable function) but during the last couple of days my kitchen's rung with the small squeaks of sibling rivalry. So now I can't relocate Mum without inflicting mass death and destruction.

Of course my mouse isn't your ordinary sort of house mouse (I got suspicious when she preferred sultanas and sweet potato to bird seed and peanuts). She is, in fact, a multimammate mouse (Mastomys natalensis); so named for - you guessed it – her extraordinary endowment of mammae (nipples).

To quote the mammal field guide,
"The multimammate mouse is the most fecund of all southern African mammals, 22 foetuses having been recorded in a single female."

Oh good. I wonder if they'll all like pasta sauce.

Staying abreast of the future. Lady multimammate mice are equipped with 8 to 12 pairs of nipples.
Photo posted on Flickr by Batwrangler.

Forthcoming snake-attractant.
These diminuitive multimammate mouselets are 3 days old.
Photo posted on Flickr by Batwrangler.

Since achieving global notoriety, the Large Predatory Beast dwelling in my roof has been lying low. I've taken no proactive steps, apart from shaking my fist at suspicious ceiling noises and shouting 'Stay up there, you bastard!' (ah, the joys of living alone). So I guess I can only blame myself for what took place a couple of days ago.

I was innocently curled up on the sofa reading a book when the dreaded happened.
Something fell out of the ceiling and landed on my head.
It was not small, and it was alive.

Heart-pounding and breath coming in gasps, I forced myself to stay still as the animal slid/slithered down my hair and on to my right shoulder. Not daring to turn my head to see what it was, I sat frozen, fervently hoping I'd be mistaken for an inanimate substrate. I could tell from the feel of it that whatever was poised on my shoulder was reptilian; you know, yielding on the outside but firm beneath (the texture that rubber snakes replicate so scarily). But after about 10 seconds of sitting perfectly still, my apprehension grew too great to bear (imagination is a highly overrated attribute) and - although I knew I may be precipitating a strike (fangs in the neck, urrgh) - I screwed my eyes shut, gritted my teeth and gave a small shrug.

The creature started, and then sIithered rapidly down, onto the arm of the sofa. I was already on my feet by the time I caught a glimpse of it. Sitting staring at me anxiously from the armrest was a very large Turner's gecko!

Now I should have felt relieved. I mean I was relieved; there are many worse things it might have been. But I guess I had too much adrenalin pumping around my system to feel anything but gasping anxiety. The gecko and I stared at one another in mutual antipathy. Still shaking, I guided it up the wall to the shelter of the curtain.

Now I NORMALLY like geckos. The ones in my house achieve gargantuan size because they sneak in and feast on my mealworm colony every night. This one was about 22 cm (9") long and 5 cm (2") across the tummy (no doubt worm-filled). Surprisingly it was still sporting a tail; most of my residents lose this appendage at the paws of my cats (we're only playing...).

Of course geckos are fascinating creatures and I'll probably write a post about them at some point in the future. But right now, I don't even want to think about geckos.

I'm sincerely hoping that my wildlife encounters will take a turn for the better soon.

The culprit. Turner's geckos (Pachydactylus turnerii) are close relatives of Bibron's geckos.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Meet the parents

Burchells or plains zebras (Equus burchelli). Photo by Vince Smith.

Subject of numerous movies and sitcoms, the old 'meet the parents' saga is one we're all familiar with.

And I wouldn't mind betting that tucked safely away in a dusty corner of your mind is at least one cringe-inducing memory.

Ah, you know what I'm referring to: that fateful dinner where you dropped the saltshaker into the wine, stepped on the cat (attracted by the clam chowder) and imprudently pretended that you weren't allergic to shellfish.

But unless your encounter actually ended in fisticuffs, you had it easy.
Compared to zebras, that is.

Why am I contemplating the tribulations of courting zebras?
Because yesterday, while Koppiekats and I were resting in the shade of a large corkwood tree (life's hard), a herd of six zebras came moseying by. Now Burchells zebras don't know about Women's Lib. Lady zebras live in small harems chivvied about by a chauvinistic stallion. Of course, it's possible they're just humouring him, since he does have his uses: valiantly attacking anyone intent on consuming the kids, and searching out misplaced family members. Yesterday's herd, unaware of my presence (I was downwind), sauntered past within a few metres/yards, snorting and stomping at pesky flies and pausing to nip the heads off seeding grasses.

Now I've always believed that zebras have chosen an amazingly innovative way to be grey; from a distance you can't distinguish their stripes and they blend in as discretely as any drab-coated duiker.
But up close: well!
I'm sure you've read the quaint similes (wearing pyjamas or prisoners' uniforms) but, in truth, my immediate reaction to such an in-your-face encounter with their stripes was one of shock and recoil. Sitting there with the mongooses, I flushed with embarrassment and dismay. I mean I adore zebras. I love their consistently roly-poly shape, the warm familiarity of their horse-like gestures, and the way they're always horsing around. But whether it's innate or learned, my instant, unconscious interpretation of the astonishing dazzle of black and white was: BEWARE, DANGER!

From porcupines and skunks to wasps, beetles and bees, black and white stripes unequivocally signal trouble. Is it coincidence that zebras sport these aposematic colours?
Photo by Arno and Louise Meintjes.

I was sitting pondering zebra stripes - and the herd had disappeared over the hill - when a movement caught my eye. Following along after the herd was a young stallion. He was walking briskly with his nose at ground level, zigzagging back and forth across the path the herd had taken. Preoccupied with his search, he inadvertently zagged within a metre/yard of where I sat, then, after another sweep, he picked up the scent and trotted off, head high, in pursuit of the herd.

This young man zebra was on his way to meet the parents. And I didn't envy him.

In zebra society, adolescents of both sexes leave home. The guys happily trot off to join gangs of like-minded peers, but the girls (due to their sexist upbringing, no doubt) wait around to be swept off their hooves by Mr Right. Of course they know how to catch the eye of potential beaus. When ready to move out, fillies become flirtatious. Very flirtatious. For five days each month they trip about coquettishly, tail raised and mouth agape, dribbling a stream of alluringly scented urine. And this flamboyant oestrus display (adult mares, who aren't seeking a new lover, display for only a few hours) doesn't go unnoticed. Up to 18 young hopefuls have been seen trailing a herd with a beguiling filly.

Of course, an autocratic Dad won't let his little girl run off with just any young buck zebra. So, in the doozey off all meet the parent encounters, he puts his daughter's suitors through their paces.

Fighting Dad for the hoof of his daughter.
Photo by Kimberly Brown-Azzarello.

As soon as a would-be suitor approaches the herd, Dad attacks, forcing the interloper to show his stripes. The pair rear up, striking out with their front hooves and attempting to bite the other's neck, ears, face and legs. Whirling and snapping, they'll drop down to battle on their knees, in an attempt to protect their legs (if an opponent gets his teeth into a hock or knee he'll hang on, grinding away viciously). Brawls are interspersed with bouts of chasing, and this horrifying test of endurance and commitment continues until either the suitor gives up or Dad grows satisfied that this prospective
son-in-law is worthy. Only then will he back off and let his little girl leave home.

So if you thought you'd been given a hard time at the hands of your
in-laws, maybe you should think again.

I couldn't resist this photo (taken by Martin Heigan).
Any caption suggestions?

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year’s resolution?

Pitter patter,  pitter patter,  pitterSQUEEEEE...!


I lie wide-eyed staring into the dark. Apprehension edges through me as I strain to catch a tell-tale sound.

Directly over my head an innocent rodent has just met its doom.
And I don't know why (or more precisely, whom).

For the last couple of months my nights have been haunted by the slaughter in my ceiling. The piercing shrieks of dying bats, mice and geckos shatter my dreams.
Somewhere in my roof lurks a Large Predatory Beast. And, so far, I've been too cowardly to find out what it is.

Tomorrow's supper? An Egyptian slit-faced bat (Nycteris thebaica) hides out in my bathroom.

While everyone's busy making New Year resolutions, I'm debating whether I should resolve to clamber up on my kitchen bench, clear away the cobwebs and poke my head up into the ceiling.

To look or not to look...

I know that as a wildlife enthusiast I should be bursting with curiosity and as a zoologist my scientific zeal should outweigh all other considerations. But I'm fairly certain The Beast is limb-free. And I do NOT like snakes. The tiny feet of mice and geckos hammer a noisy tattoo on my ceiling, and even visiting birds (shopping for nest sites) sound as if they're attending a tap-dance festival.
But when The Beast prowls, I hear nary a footfall.
Only one sound is detectable: a heavy, sliding slither. It's the sort of sound that, in the dead of night, conjures images of a hooded hunchback dragging his withered leg or a silent assassin gently shifting his kitbag.

I know you think I'm being paranoid. I'm mean lots of people have wildlife (even legless wildlife) living in the cosy space between ceiling and roof. But the problem is, only half my house has a proper ceiling. My lounge and kitchen are roofed with sagging sheets of thickened bubble-wrap, and each swayback strip - draped precariously over dangling wires – is bordered by big yawning gaps.
Call me wimpy, but I'm convinced that sooner or later - intentionally or otherwise – The Beast is going to drop down into my house.

Is it better, or worse, to know what's destined to land on your head?

The possible contenders are not encouraging. There are three nocturnal mammal-killers with a penchant for climbing: the snouted cobra, the African rock python and the brown house snake.

What I'm afraid I'll see if I poke my head through a gap in the ceiling. The snouted cobra (Naja annulifera) was once considered a variant of the Egyptian cobra (aka Cleopatra's downfall) but has now been granted taxonomic independence. Photo by Michael Randsburg.

Snouted cobras scare the Hell out of me. They're the thugs of the cobra family. It isn't enough for them to tote a highly lethal neurotoxin, or to inject enough of it to kill ten humans. No, they also have to indulge in body-building. Why any cobra feels the need to attain boa-like proportions is beyond me, but when you're battling a snake phobia, it's just not nice.

As with most muscle-bound heavies, snouted cobras are active at night. Occasionally I meet one at dusk while walking my dogs at the local mine. Last time, the dogs were too busy haring after a duiker to notice the snake coiled by the track, but as I approached it reared up threateningly and spread its hood. Although quite reasonable in length (about 2 metres/6 feet), its yellowish body (banded here and there with grey) was as thick through as my thigh (the part toward the knee; I can't vouch for the rest after Xmas indulgences). The creature stood poised with its head at waist-height (I hate the way South African snakes do this; isn't there some biblical stricture about 'slithering on thy belly') and its massive hood was a scary 25 cm ( 10") across. I felt queasy. Hissing threateningly, it glared at me for a few moments before correctly concluding I was not a threat and gliding smoothly up into the canopy.

A captive snouted cobra showing off its glorious physique.
Photo posted on Flickr by KBugler.

To find out whether I was alone in my feelings towards the snouted cobra, I turned to the internet. The herpetological forums are a source of endless fascination for me. A snouted cobra photo that sends shivers down my spine elicits a volley of appreciative comments:
"I love this beautiful snake".
"One of my favourite species..."
"A stunning specimen of a gorgeous snake. I still miss Paul."
The next comment, after a paragraph of snake-directed superlatives, concludes:
"Paul was a really great guy."
Yep, you guessed it. After a short search I find that Paul died several years ago after a snouted cobra nipped him on the wrist.

I do NOT understand snake-enthusiasts!

Of course, The Beast in my ceiling may turn out to be a non-venomous python. Unfortunately, the pythons around here grow a trifle large; husky-eating large. My neighbour, about 1.5 km downriver, recently found one 5.2 metres (17 feet) long showing a heart-warming interest in his Weimaraner dogs. Encountering one on my bed at 2 am has taught me that - venom or no venom - I do not want one of these falling on my head.

My guest room with guest. African rock python (Python sebae).

There is no doubt, that the diminutive brown house snake (Lamprophis fuliginosus) is my one shining hope. It's small (about 1 m/3 ft) and its teeth are entirely venom-free. It even sounds reassuringly friendly; like a house cat.
Of course I've never actually seen one around here...
But maybe that's just evidence of its discrete and humble disposition.

Currently I remain unresolved.
Would you look?

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