Monday, September 12, 2011

Canniness, cowardice or flipping fraud?

Yesterday was International Rock-Flipping Day.

All around the world eager naturalists were out there turning over rocks and recording their discoveries.

Now this is such a fun idea, I always want to take part... until the actual day.

Then two niggling little doubts start gnawing at my enthusiasm.

What are these misgivings?
1. I will die.
2. I will kill something.

OK, I realise that plenty of people flip rocks in places where deadly critters slither and scuttle in dim, dank crannies. But heck, I really don’t want to stick my fingers under there!
Last year I managed to avoid the whole finger-fang close-encounter bit by fortuitously stumbling upon a rock monitor snuggled away in a rock crevice. But what were the chances of repeating such a serendipitous find?

I was mulling over the problem when it hit me that this was the same conundrum that I face professionally every day. You see I’m always trying to figure out ways to obtain the data I need without inflicting harm. If the aim of rock-flipping is to document what’s living under the rock, isn't there a less invasive way to get the info? Why not find a rock that’s clearly someone’s domicile and try to coax the resident out?

Now I was secretly very pleased with this solution, because although it was primarily motivated by my aversion to legless beasts, I could sell it as a commitment to animal welfare. Triumph!
Umm... but would it work?

Well yesterday, after visiting the mongooses (who were appropriately hiding underneath rocks to avoid the attentions of a black-breasted snake eagle), I set out on a binge of non-invasive rock-flipping.

Clutching my camera, a Tupperware container of mealworms and a water bottle, I tracked down a suitable rock.

The rock. OK, I know this behemoth is way beyond the provenance of conventional rock-flippers, but someone’s got to hang out under there.

Sloshing some water about, I sat down in front of this rock to wait for the alluring aroma to work its magic.
The first face to appear in the gloom beneath the overhang was that of a lady rainbow skink. She made straight for the puddle.

A female rainbow (or five-striped) skink (Trachylepis quinquetaeniata) enjoying a thirst-quencher. Youngsters and adolescent males also dress in female garb to avoid the aggro of territorial males (who wear orange).


When I tossed this intrepid pioneer a mealworm pupa, I was immediately surrounded by zipping reptiles. Among the many skittering rainbow skinks were some slicker, racier models.
These were lady common flat lizards.

Common flat lizards (Platysaurus imperator) are dorso-ventrally challenged so they can squeeze under rocks. They favour high density living, and although girls such as this one lay only two eggs annually, she and her rock-mates put all their eggs in one basket crevice.

“Too much lippy?” Flat lizards can live to fourteen in captivity.

I’d been divvying out mealworms for quite a while before the reigning monarch of the flat lizard colony deigned to emerge. In keeping with his status, he was a little more reserved than his courtiers, but I guess it must be difficult being the centre of attention all the time.

Flaunting the royal colours. His highness defends the rock face upon which his harem and progeny live.

Why flat lizards are flat.

When the mealworms were almost spent, a large shadowy figure appeared beneath the rock overhang.

This giant plated lizard (Gerrhosaurus validus) gave me the evil eye but wouldn’t emerge any further. She belongs to an ancient group of lizards (which includes the girdled lizards) endemic to Africa.

Giant plated lizards are... well... giant. They grow to a whopping 70cm (2ft 4in) and hang around in family groups. If you startle one when it’s basking it'll toboggan down the rock face on its tummy (not that I enjoy doing this, of course). Although these lizards guzzle berries and flowers, they’re also keen hunters, tracking down bugs and small vertebrates using their flickering tongues. My dwarf mongooses often run into them, and while this is a non-event for most of the year, during the summer breeding season (when both species have bite-sized young) suspicions run high. Exactly who chases whom depends on which species’ nursery is nearest. Mongoose pups, just big enough to look after themselves, find these scraps endlessly exciting.

After failing to coax mum from the shelter of the rock, I was just wondering whether to call it a day when junior appeared.

A non-giant giant plated lizard.

This little juvenile shared none of mum’s reticence and came dashing out into the sunshine in pursuit of mealworms. In fact, much to my surprise, it came zipping straight up to me, even climbing up onto my shoe to plead for further handouts.

“Please, please, just one more...”

So all in all, I feel that my non-invasive rock-flipping went quite well.
And all of us are still alive!

You can discover what other rock-flippers found beneath their rocks at Wanderin' Weeta.

God’s own creatures contributing to my under-rock species count.


  1. The royal colours are, rather loud. But what a beauty he is.

  2. John again, This post got me all excited. First of all, what a brilliant, non-invasive idea for avoiding actually flipping the rock. It is of questionable ethics to turn over rocks because it changes, (destroys) the micro-habitats that exist under rocks.
    In my teenage, (snake hunting) years, my friends and I figured that we needed to flip 100 rocks for every snake found. Other objects, especially boards, were much more productive for finding snakes. Interesting finds were a skunk under an old dog house, and a large Boa Constrictor under a car hood in Mexico.
    In South Africa, a Giant Plated Lizard came out to beg for scraps at a picnic area in Kruger. It bit Tom's finger when he offered it a bit of sandwich by hand.

  3. What a cool collection of lizards!

  4. What a great idea! I too hate to flip just for the sake of flipping. Your solutions was so productive and yet non invasive. Cheers!

  5. Great photos! Love the bright royal colors on his highness. :)

  6. Love both your non-invasive creativity and the outcome!

  7. Lizards-a-plenty! And skinks too! What a neat series of pics and a great pseudo-flipping account.

  8. Elephant's Eye,
    You don't need taste when you're that important.

    I know how to stop being anonymous (great for the self esteem). When you’re submitting your comment (choosing Google Account) and you get sent to the login screen, uncheck the 'Stay signed in' box. It worked for me!
    100 flipped rocks per snake sounds very reassuring. But the image of a large serpent coiled beneath the hood of one’s car isn’t one I’ll forget in a hurry... Who needs to check the oil anyway?

    Glad you like 'em, but cool is what these reptiles aint (35C/95F here and it's only the start of Spring). Still, hot thirsty weather makes for photogenic beasts.

    Devising devious denouements is what being a field biologist is all about!

    I think these little guys were enjoying their moment of fame.
    (I also just discovered the wonders of using a tripod. And the drawbacks: the poxy thing overbalanced on the rocks, destroying my telephoto lens - urgh!).

    I wish all non-invasive field techniques worked so smoothly. I think I need to introduce my mongooses to these accommodating critters.

    Thanks for the encouragement. I very much enjoyed your flipping prose; but armchair rock-flipping? Is your age beginning to tell?

  9. Lynda, I always enjoy your beautifully written and wonderfully paced posts immensely, but I think my favorite bit of prose ever was your caption for the (excellent) photo of the showy P. imperator peering out from the rocks: "Why flat lizards are flat." It really says it all.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...