Saturday, February 18, 2012

An embarrassing confession...

We all make mistakes, right?
There’s no call for embarrassment.
But some mistakes make you feel sillier than others...

Now I’m not talking about those absent-minded slip ups that everyone makes (they do, don’t they?).
You know, like realising in the supermarket that your shirt’s on inside out or that you’ve forgotten to change out of your mismatched trainers (the red pair’s left shoe is raggedy and the blue pair’s right shoe... Well, the mongooses don’t mind!).

No, the kind of blunder I’m talking about springs from ignorance, pure and simple uncouth and ugly.

I remember my sister discovering that her rural high-school pupils didn’t believe dinosaurs ever existed. They thought that these prehistoric beasts – along with King Kong, Godzilla and the Muppets – were creations of the media.
Well that’s the sort of mistake that I’m guilty of.

It all started when I was pottering about the local newsagent and noticed a stack of glossy, movie-spinoff booklets.
A sweat-streaked Harry Potter glared up from the cover of the top one, below that peeped the earnest blue face of a Na’vi from Avatar, and on a third, two CGI aliens stared nonchalantly off into space. They were lankily humanoid but clothed in a stylised uniform of fur: pure white with chocolate brown insets on their arms, chest and thighs. Disconcertingly golden eyes stared from their smooth black faces, and black elf-like ears peeped from the fur on their heads.
‘What will they come up with next’, I wondered before sauntering on.

But that image kept haunting me; there was something disquieting about it. They were so humanlike, but...
It was as if the artist had melded human facial features with those of a llama or guanaco. It was uncanny. And unnerving.

So you can imagine my shock - on my very first day in Madagascar – when I rounded a bend on a forest trail and found myself face to face with just such an alien. In fact, two real, living, breathing aliens.
Oh, and did I mention the excruciating embarrassment?

Extraterrestrials assessing the chemical composition of Earth’s flora? No, Coquerel’s sifakas (Propithecus coquereli) contemplating lunch. But you can see how one could be mistaken, can’t you? Oh sure you can.  Please...
When not impersonating computer-generated aliens, Coquerel’s sifakas hang out in groups of 2-10, in the dry forests of NW Madagascar. Like all sifakas, they're strictly vegan and the ladies rule the roost.

Named after their explosive, hissing alarm call (shee-fark!), sifakas are the bounders of the lemur world. I’m not being judgemental here; I mean it literally. They’re made to hop. With legs 35% lankier than their arms (the figure for people is 65%), these lemurs leap frog-like from tree trunk to tree trunk, and cling there vertically with their knees pressed against their chests. They’ve artistically long fingers, and utterly outrageous big toes, to clamp vice-like around tree trunks.

A toe of note.

Now if my first encounter with sifakas made me feel like Bridget Jones at the launch of Kafka’s Motorbike, my second interaction was almost as disquieting.

We’d just arrived at Berenty Private Reserve in southern Madagascar after a long, hot morning jolting over crumbling tarmac (last road mending, the 1950s). Trudging through the heat and dust towards the promise of lunch, I glanced up into a huge tamarind tree that overhung the tourist cabins.
There, almost within arm’s reach, was a fluffy white tangle of Verreaux’s sifakas. Pristine white, apart from a Santa’s cap of chestnut brown, they lounged along the tree’s massive branches or hung languidly upside down from the branch tips like an angelic manifestation of spider monkeys. As I gasped, they gazed down at me interestedly, golden eyes bright in their intelligent sooty faces. I can’t begin to describe the emotional impact of their unexpected and incongruous appearance; try to imagine the warmth invoked by fluffy white bath-towels coupled with the enchantment of snow.
Needless to say, I was very late for lunch.

Of the nine sifaka species bouncing around Madagascar, only the Verreaux’s sifaka (Propithecus verreaux) is not endangered (it’s considered vulnerable). It’s also my favourite (why court heartbreak?).

The Verreaux's sifaka groups at Berenty hold territories of only 2-3 ha (5-7 acres); that means 15 groups of sifaka could ricochet around happily within the territory of one dwarf mongoose group! 

Hanging loose. Verreaux's sifakas live in mixed-sex groups where love is free. However, the reigning honcho fathers most of the kids because he dogs the steps of any female on heat.
Now if, like me, your enthusiasm for wildlife is tainted by vices (laziness, for example, or voyeurism), Berenty Reserve is the place to be.
Protected since 1936, this tiny pocket (250 ha /620 acres) of gallery forest is set within a vast sisal plantation (the spiky aloe used to make ‘green’ shopping bags) and is chockfull of lemurs. Alison Jolly began studying ring-tailed lemurs here in 1963, so the furred inhabitants are enchantingly blasé about non-furred primates. You can lounge on your veranda and happily spy on three species of lemur as they blithely scent-mark, squabble or snooze. And of course you can also potter at leisure in the forest, blissfully unchivvied by zealous park guides.
It was certainly a highlight of my trip. 

No, not a sifaka, but a typical Berenty scene. Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) and red-fronted brown lemurs also smooch around camp.

High density living is the norm for sifakas. Groups of crowned sifaka (Propithecus coronatus) claim ownership to just 1.5 ha (3.7 acres) of dry deciduous forest (in NW Madagascar) and they advertise possession by smearing around goo from their chest and anal glands.

Sifakas, of course, are famous for another trait. Designed to leap, tree to tree, they aren’t well equipped to negotiate flat land. Bizarrely, they stand up on their lanky hind legs and skip along sideways, twisting their torsos back and forth and holding their arms up effeminately for balance. If you haven’t seen footage of these guys ‘dancing’, treat yourself by clicking here or here.
Leaping lemurs!

'No, I've never heard of the Ministry of Funny Walks.
Why do you ask?'

Let's move it, move it, move it!
Strutting their stuff by day, sifakas kip in the tree tops after dark. But despite this safety measure, being eaten is still a serious problem for them (well for anyone, I guess). Fosas, who specialise in chomping mammals, cunningly clamber up and nab them in the night. Raptors also won't say no to an occassional lemur. 
In an effort to evade these lemur-eaters, sifakas employ the usual arsenal of ‘functionally referential’ alarm calls (i.e. they shriek ‘Run!’ or ‘Hide!’ or ‘Get down!’ rather than ‘Harrier-at-10 o’clock!’ or ‘Bloody fosa!’).

What’s interesting is that different populations use the standard calls in different ways. While everyone seems to know that roaring barks warn of raptors (the lemurs look up and climb down), researchers found that playbacks of the iconic shee-fark cry invoked mixed responses.
Coquerel’s sifakas, and Verreaux’s sifakas who lived within fosa territory, believed it warned of ground predators (they looked down and climbed up), but Verreaux’s sifakas living in a fosa-free local just ran away. Growls were even more personalised. Coquerel's sifakas living in places with many birds of prey interpreted a growl as warning of aerial predators, while Verreaux's sifakas residing in fosa-rich habitat thought a growl meant prowling carnivores. The other populations, of both species, associated growls with minor disturbances.
Now this shows that the sifakas learn the meaning of their calls from others, and it lets them adapt calls to meet local needs. But what happens when we come along and translocate animals from one population to another?
'What? He's growling?! It's all Greek to me.'
The diademed sifakas (Propithecus diadema) living in Analamazoatra Special Reserve (aka Perinet) were translocated into the park in 2006 from three different sites (the original inhabitants were hunted to extinction in 1973). They appear to be prospering despite any language barriers.   

Like all the larger lemurs, Milne Edward's sifakas (Propithecus edwardsi) are hunted by humans as well as fosas. Although 'fady' (taboo) prevents certain tribes from consuming particular species, it often doesn't prohibit them from catching and selling the animals to people who do. Lemur is a delicacy in city restuarants.

Fossa snack food. Milne Edward’s sifakas bear only a single sprog every second year. 40% of their ankle-biters don’t make it to their first birthday, and only a third reach puberty.

A Milne Edward's sifaka (in Ranomafana National Park) awaiting the arrival of a Hollywood talent scout.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Masked weavers revealed

If you’ve come here expecting an exposé on the criminal activities of textile workers, you’re in for a disappointment.

This post is about something much less exciting: SEX.

Now I don’t know how you choose your sexual partners, and I wouldn’t dare suggest that anything is inappropriate... But whatever traits turn you on, you can be certain that somewhere out there someone with feathers is already doing it.

Regardless of whether your interest is sparked by a lover’s apparel, their talent in the performing arts, their real-estate holdings, the colour of their footwear (you’d have to be a real booby to go for this), their artistry or – let’s get down to it – the size of their gender-specific endowments (excuse me, I was referring to tail plumes), your tastes don’t differ from millions of birds.

But there’s one group of feathered critters whose predilections are genuinely perverse.
For them, sweaty singlets and wolf-whistles are all the go.
That’s right; construction workers rule the roost in weaver society.

Now if DIY skills were the currency of ardour in humans, I’d be destined for barren spinsterhood (hey, wait a minute, I am a barren spinster...). Although home-building skills may seem a tepid way to woo a lover, it hasn't held back weavers. Around 62 species (all in the genus Ploceus) are out there busily knocking up their edifices, mostly in Africa but also in southern Asia too.
And with all the recent rain, a large proportion of these creatures seem to be doing it right here.

A macho lesser masked weaver (Ploceus intermedius) kitted out for love. He only dons his mask - in bad-boy warning colours - when the talent weather is hot.

Gathering in rowdy hordes in trees overhanging water, the local lesser masked weavers are in a state of frenzy.
Males dash back and forth with long grass stems trailing from their bills, and there’s a constant buzz of chirping and squawking, which swells periodically into a goal-score roar when a flirtatious chick drops by.

Before a weaver on the make can fabricate an alluring boudoir, he must first stake out his own patch within the colony. This involves lunging at intruders and grappling tooth and nail beak and talon with any persistent rivals. Once he's scored an exclusive building site, Romeo gets to work weaving a collection of finely-laced, retort-shaped homes (if you're not a closet alchemist, a retort is a glass flask with a spherical base and a long tapering neck that's bent downward; it’s designed for distilling things). The male’s goal is to distil a harem of lady tenants who’ll considerately raise his chicks for him.

Using only fresh green grass, plucked straight from the clump, he twists and pokes and pulls, entwining the strips intricately, while emanating an air of intense and bad-tempered concentration. As the grass strands dry, they shrink, tightening up the weave and strengthening the structure. But with nest sites at a premium, a male can’t afford to keep any untenanted premises on his books, so pissed-off males demolish nests that have proven unpopular.

In the quest for the most beguiling nest, males also indulge in a bit of landscape gardening, clipping the leaves from all branches near their homespun abodes. This - along with the nest’s funnel entrance - is thought to make things tricky for those iniquitous nest robbers, the harrier hawk and the boomslang.

‘These damn things just keep growing BACK!’

‘Well, that’s an improvement anyway.’

When a lady weaver approaches, all the males get very excited, snatching up a grass stem and dashing to their best construction. Hanging from the base, a hopeful male flutters his wings enticingly, sticks his tail out horizontally and points his beak suggestively into his nest. He also chirps in a frenzied manner (precise translation unavailable, but I daresay you know all the usual pick up lines...).

‘If you come in here, you can see the playroom has a northerly aspect...’

‘I think someone should really tell George that the can-can is so yesterday.’

For any inept handymen out there, consoling themselves that bird's nest-building skills are hardwired anyhow, let me disabuse you. Male weavers must learn their trade.

While yearling females rush headlong into motherhood, their brothers eschew sex for a year or two. These young bloods get together in colonies of their own where they can work on their erections without censure. Experiments show that if adolescent males are deprived of this early practice (by denying them building materials), their DIY skills are seriously retarded. However, just like riding a bicycle (which you may be please to know male weavers cannot do), building prowess - once learned - is never forgotten; even if callous researchers blockade building supplies for years on end.

Slipshod workmanship will not escape the eye of a lady lesser masked weaver. However, the landlord's only responsible for creating the nest’s outer walls; all soft furnishings must be provided by the tenant.

But what does today’s lady weaver seek in a family residence?

Researchers working with village weavers (Ploceus cucullata) found that mothers-to-be aren’t swayed by outward appearances; neatness and closeness of weave are, after all, mere superficialities. What counts is the strength of the materials and the newness of construction. The girls will have no brook with old, browned off nests and, like master chefs, they’re canny at detecting what’s fresh and what’s not. Merely painting a good nest brown will not fool them, although the same cannot be said for males, who are three-times more like to demolish a nest if it’s been artificially dyed brown.

‘Hmm, I do like a Paspalum veneer; it gives a much fresher ambience than the traditional Poa finish...’

‘Yes Martha, I’ll join you in a mo’. That little minx Estella is looking real interested in Number 3.’

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