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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