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.


  1. What an interesting post packed with masses of information that I did not have a clue about.

    Hope the water level stays down it is not an nice experience. We used to live on the banks of the Zambezi and it is not a good feeling when the water starts lapping over the step. Especially when you know there are crocodiles and snakes swimming close at hand. I have to say when the water went back down it left a lovely top dressing on the lawn :))) Diane

  2. The fun and excitement never stops at your place. I'm halfway spilt between being envious and being whatever the opposite is.

  3. WOW about the Terrapins. Learned something new here again (just learned today that Herons sometimes eat Mammals,...).

    Hope you don't have to evacuate, nor have any bigger visitors in your house than the toads!

    Cheers from sunny - and too dry - Kuwait :)

  4. Given the non-stop happenings at Chez Mongoose, I'd be leaving stuff packed for some time yet! Although, after reading about those terrapins, I'm wondering whether that might just make it easier for them to cart your gear away.

    That photo of the winking terrapin is brilliant.

  5. Wonderful! ... and I wish you well, staying dry.

  6. *Great* brief-and-vivid take on environmental sex determination! (And the exhibitionist enthusiasm of your local frogs.) And I'm now finding myself wondering what the residents of Chelonia might be like...

  7. Diane,
    Mud, mud, glorious mud. I think I need to invest in snow-shoes.

    Oh you must cultivate the envy. How can I justify having no money, social life, job security or hole-free socks if I'm not an object of envy?

    I wish I could divert some of this water up to you. Come to think of it, I wouldn't mind sending some of the reptiles too...

    I'm keeping an eagle eye on my possessions but so far the terrapins are lying low. I think they're secretly constructing log rafts to paddle off with the stuff next downpour.
    Re the photograph: it's a sad fact, but even I'm able to focus on members of the tortoise family.

    I've not drowned yet. Congratulations on meeting your 100 paintings challenge. They're all wonderful!

    At the time of writing, I sort of imagined Chelonia to be one of those romantic 'lost beneath the waves' type of countries. But it appears I was wrong. According to 'Notes for Star Trek: the Motion Picture', Chelonians are a sentient race of sabre-toothed turtles. They're bipedal (at about 2m in height) and sweat a deadly contact toxin which is transmitted by claw strike. You live and learn.

  8. Is there a way to contact you off-blog, e.g., an e-mail address?

  9. Sorry, should have provided my own:

  10. Thanks for sharing this blog all those photos with turtle are lovely and cute…


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