Friday, November 22, 2013

Halloween callers (er... belated)

Sorry I’ve taken such a ridiculous amount of time to upload this post...

Outside North America, the heart-warming tradition of extorting candy from strangers (trick or treating) is often met with less than enthusiasm. A survey in the UK, for example, found that more than half of British householders turn off their lights and pretend to be out, come All Hallows Eve.
But living as a hermit, tucked away in the African bush, I wasn’t expecting callers.
I was wrong.

Now trick or treating can trace its roots back to the Middle Ages, when the financially-challenged celebrated All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows’ Day) by dressing as demons and bartering prayers and songs (to help the wealthy’s departed mosey on through Purgatory) for cash and cakes. This jolly festivity was called souling and it was definitely a souler who visited my house on Halloween night.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself here because my exchanges with soulers really started a few days earlier when I was walking my dogs down along the river. At this time of year (end of the dry season) the river is braided with sand and fringed by dense thickets of reeds. It was late afternoon and heavy clouds were leaching away the light when we heard a loud, rasping grunting coming from the far bank. The dogs and I crept upstream until we were directly opposite the hidden caller and hunkered down in a thicket of raisin-bushes in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the vocalist. With no more than 30m (100 ft) between us and the vociferous beast, its deep, grating calls were deafening, thrumming uncomfortably inside my chest.

Embarrassingly, it took me almost six years to figure out who utters this call. I’d always assumed it was a baboon expletive (something about one’s mother??) because it inevitably invoked a cacophony of outraged bellows from the local baboon troop. But it’s actually voiced by a much more impressive beast (my apologies to all Papiophiles). The books describe it as sounding ‘a lot like someone sawing wood’. I used to find this description unconvincing, but up close and personal, it’s spot on (in an age of chainsaws, perhaps I just don’t know what a distant wood-saw sounds like). The leopard utters its rasping ‘strokes’ while both inhaling and exhaling, and the result is shockingly loud. You can hear it here (click on leopard), but it's a recording of very distant animal (can't find anything better however).

Big cats (members of the genus Panthera) - unlike small cats (members of Felis) - can utter astoundingly loud roars because their hyoid bone (you know, the one that snaps during strangulation, as per CSI) has been replaced with cartilage.
Photo by Arno Meintjes.

Leopards (Panthera pardus) are the most cosmopolitan of the world’s cats (apart from our little domestic moggies, of course). They prowl almost every habitat in Africa and sneak about in Asia as far as China and Malaysia. They also sometimes munch people - mostly in India and Nepal - annually killing 1.9 Nepalese per million. Photo by Arno Meintjes.

The vocalist was hidden among the reeds by the water’s edge, and while we were trying to spot spots, I realised that the cat was actually dueting. Further upstream on our side of the river another leopard was answering. Fortuitously, we were downwind of both animals and it was clear that this second leopard was hot-footing its way downstream toward us. Were the two engaged in an acoustic border dispute? Or was one of them on the make?

I very much wanted to see what would happen when the two cats met. My dogs, however, weren’t too keen on the idea. I don’t know what’s changed their minds about leopards (they used to try to chase them) but these days the merest whiff of fresh leopard spoor makes them panic. They press up against each other and - glancing nervously over their shoulders - tow me away as rapidly as possible. They also now refuse to lie outside on moonless nights...
Thinking about it - maybe it’s better I don’t know...

Like almost all cats, leopards are solitary beasts. They stake claim to their territories using pee and song, and ferociously oust all members of their sex.
Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

She-leopards also use the species’ long-distance roar as a siren call for suitors. Like lions, leopards mate repeatedly for days at a time (he has to coax her into ovulation) but - unlike consorting lions - it’s very rare to catch them at it.
Photo (of captive Persian leopards) posted on Flickr by Tambako the jaguar.

As the leopard on our side of the river drew closer and closer, the dogs became more and more agitated, tugging frantically on their leashes. I began to wonder if I was acting prudently. I mean leopard fatalities are a rarity here in Africa but every few years the odd person gets chomped (and I’m certainly odd). In fact - I suddenly recalled as we sat hidden in our waterside thicket - a leopard attacked someone just a few weeks ago up near Pundia Maria (Kruger National Park). With the leopard on our bank no more than 50m (165 ft) off and closing fast, and the rasping roars of both cats now reverberating in our chests, Wizard’s nerve finally broke and he dragged me, sprawling, out of the shrubbery (let me tell you, huskies can pull). The leopard across the river immediately stopped roaring: our cover was blown. Although the cat on our bank continued to call, I figured that they wouldn’t interact normally, so I let the dogs haul me away inland.

Now I thought that this was the end of it.
But then the souler arrived on Halloween.

It was about 8pm and I was innocently watching TV when the roars began. Once again two leopards were dueting, with one far off and the other quite close. And getting closer... and closer... and CLOSER! Oh God, it’s roaring from the reeds just below my garden. Sitting no more than 15m (50 ft) from my back door, it gave its thunderous grating roars - one every three minutes or so - for more than an hour.

Now I don’t think this creature was seeking a treat (at least not from me) but I felt its performance would certainly hurry any passing spirits on their way, through Purgatory or otherwise. I mean leopards have harried our ancestors for millennia. Modern forensics show that at least one fossil hominid (who dwelt in South Africa 1.8 million years ago) fell victim to a leopard: the puncture wounds piercing the back of his/her skull perfectly match the bite impressions of a leopard’s lower canines. Researchers have even suggested that humans owe their intelligence to the leopard via an evolutionary arms race in which we combated stealth and might with cleverness. And I have to admit that while it was hugely exhilarating having a leopard at the bottom of my garden, it was also a little scary.
A leopard just isn’t something you want to stumble over when you pop out to move the sprinkler.
Would that be the trick I wonder?
Ah, spooky ol’ Halloween...

What better emissary to communicate with the dead than a professional killer? Photo by Arno Meintjes.

P.S. I always carry a nifty little pepper spray when I’m out dog-walking (I thought I’d mention that for the sake of nervous relatives).

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Avoiding the bathroom

Before I begin, I’d like to apologise if this blog post is a little... er... disjointed.
Or a touch confused.
Or just plain...  jittery.

You see I’m currently sitting hunched in front of my computer with my legs tightly crossed, jiggling. While half my brain ponders this blog post, the other half is quietly chanting, Sheldon-like,
‘I am the Master of my bladder...’
It’s not true of course. In any showdown, my gross bodily functions inevitably triumph.
So why don’t I just go and, er... relieve myself?

Because when I visit my toilet, I AM NOT ALONE.

No, the marbled tree snake has not moved back into my shower cubicle (actually I don’t even have a shower cubicle). The problem is smaller. But more numerous...

You see, dwelling within my toilet is a community of bubbling kassinas.
Now I know this probably won’t mean much to you.
It even sounds quite pleasant, doesn’t it? Drifts of tiny aquatic flowers maybe, garlanded with little silver bubbles?
Well you can forget that. Bubbling kassinas are frogs.
Little frogs; cute frogs; but FROGS!

Okay, I realise that when you live in the tropics, toilet-dwelling amphibians are humdrum and routine. But those are tree frogs. Those are frogs that hop about and clamber up the porcelain because it’s a cool place to chill. They aren’t aquatic frogs. They don’t come sculling in, underwater, from the dreadful lower reaches of the septic tank. They don’t circumnavigate the toilet bowl, in unhurried breaststroke – while you’re using it – and then dive deftly back down the outlet pipe.
Call me old fashioned, but I find that disconcerting.

Bubbling kassinas (Kassina senegalensis) are also known as running frogs (because they’re a bit anatomically-challenged). The critters trot about over much of sub-Saharan Africa but it’s still unclear whether they all belong to one big, happy family species.
Photo posted on Flickr by Vivi Bolin.

Look I’m not denying that bubbling kassinas are agreeable little frogs. Just 4 cm (1.6") long, they could have crept straight out of a Peanuts cartoon: their smiling, snub-nosed faces make up almost half their total being. They swim about wearing glossy wetsuits of yellow, cream or silver grey, flamboyantly adorned with black go-faster stripes. But most impressive of all are their massive eyes: burnished-gold with an inky black cat’s pupil.

Frog’s eyes, of course, don’t just look weird. Fitted out with rods and cones, they let the frog see in colour, but - unlike in a mammal's eye - the lens doesn’t flex to focus on objects at differing distances. Instead it trundles back and forth within the eyeball to adjust the focal length. Oh, and frogs’ eyes also aid in digestion. When a frog is scoffing down a bulky prey item, it retracts its eyeballs into its mouth cavity, giving the hapless victim an extra shove down the gullet.
Now that’s what I call gob smacking.

The skin cells of frogs are peppered with colourful chromatophores that can be corralled or dispersed within the cell to alter the frogs’ colour. One type, iridiophores, are silvery, reflecting light back through the other pigments to give the frog a vibrant ‘inner glow’. These kassinas are dressed for (left) the dark, chilly depths of the septic tank and (right) the warm, sunlit waters of the toilet bowl.

Sometimes I’m lulled into believing the toilet is ‘unoccupied’ only to find that the little beasts have crept up under the porcelain rim. When I press 'flush', they come whooshing down in a swirl of white-water, limbs akimbo like a granny in a waterslide. When I can, I fish the creatures out (NOT pleasant) and release them carefully into one of the water dishes I maintain (for no apparent reason) in the garden. But after repeated ‘rescue missions’, I began to wonder.
Was I translocating the same frog over and over?
Unwisely, I started photographing their back patterns...

Argh! There are hundreds of the creatures!

Kassina number 15. According to my frog book, bubbling kassinas hang out in temporary and permanent water bodies, including vleis, marshes, pans, ponds and dams. Please note the conspicuous absence of indoor plumbing. Is this an oversight or are my frogs eccentric?

The rains haven’t yet arrived this season, so the squatters in my bathroom are blessedly mute. Like most frogs, macho bubbling kassinas have two different croaks.
The first is a love song (a short, rising boip which you can listen to here) whose lyrics go: “I am WONDERFUL and I’m waiting here just for you” (okay, I can’t guarantee this is absolutely verbatim).
The other ditty, which has more of a punk rock feel, is sung to fellow choristers: “Piss off you mongrel, this is MY bloody podium!”

The problem with all this fine operatic communication is that the intended recipient may not be able to hear you above the racket. I mean when the rains come, there can be ten different species all bellowing out their serenades down by the water. But bubbling kassinas are wily. Firstly, they adhere to the early birds adage and begin calling in the late afternoon when everyone else is still abed. Secondly, they avoid the Idol's try-out scrum down at the poolside, secreting themselves in the shrubbery well back from the water. It’s out here, where it’s less noisy, that they rendezvous with potential lovers, and – if their song is sexy enough – then accompany their ladylove down to the water.

However, there’s a flaw in this plan. When one lusty kassina boips, his neighbours can’t resist doing it too, and while this creates a lovely rippling or bubbling effect (hence the frog’s name), it’s probably teeth-grindingly annoying to amorous gentlemen (yes, most frogs do have small teeth; some even have vomerine teeth that sprout from the roof of their mouth). In an effort to get a word in edgewise, male kassinas serenade antiphonally; that is, they carefully utter their boips in the space between the boips of their rivals. Begging meerkat pups use the same technique; in fact experiments show that adult meerkats bring more food to a speaker playing two pups begging antiphonally than to the same two begging simultaneously (I warned you I’d have trouble staying focussed tonight).

Now I don’t know what all this means for my effluent dwellers. Will the males position themselves around my lounge and kitchen, singing their hearts out from my bookshelves and stove? Will female kassinas come scratching at the windows like Cathy’s ghost? And will lovelorn couples then converge on my bathroom to indulge in hot amplexus in the toilet bowl? 
Hmm, something to look forward to I guess...

Female bubbling kassinas lay 100 to 500 eggs.  OH GOD!
Photo posted on Flickr by liesvanrompaey.

I was planning to tell you all about the kassinas’ ugly duckling tadpoles who look so similar to tiny fish that metamorphosis must come as a real shock to them. However, the prospect of a toilet bowl brimming with tadpoles (even spiffy goldfish-like ones) is too distressing to contemplate. Additionally, I couldn’t find a SINGLE image of the little creatures anywhere on the internet. I’ve resolved that when my resident kassinas do become parents, I’ll take a photo of their ankle-nibblers (come Hell or high water – oh yuk!) and post it – free for use – all over cyberspace.
Actually, the real reason I’m finishing up now is because I’m afraid I’m going succumb to major renal problems if I don’t IMMEDIATELY go and pollute my kassinas' home...

Monday, August 26, 2013

Archaeopteryx meets Priscilla

Ask people to name an iconic African bird and you’ll likely wind up with a whole lake-rim of flamingos and ostriches, plus maybe a ground hornbill or guineafowl thrown in for luck (ahhhhh... splosh).

But of all the myriad feathered critters cluttering the airspace of this continent, there are only two orders who flutter here and nowhere else: the mousebirds and the turacos.

I’ve already sung the praises of cute little mousebirds, so today I’ll take you down to the river to meet one of the weirdest birds I know.
A creature of the forest, around here it lives only in the verdant tangle of trees along the riverbank.  As you pass beneath the towering leadwoods, jackal berries and figs, you’ll hear its eerie kok-kok-kok-kok-kok call (which rises, in strength and pitch, to a deafening crescendo) reverberate through the gloom (you can also experience it here).
Carefully scan the smooth upper branches of that giant fig... but no...
Wait... there!
In that water berry, there’s movement.
A large ungainly bird suddenly lopes out along a branch, swaying slightly from side to side as it runs towards you. At first it looks to be black, its long wedge-shaped tail dark against the sky, but as it paces through a splash of sunlight you see its flamboyant plumage: iridescent purples and greens with a flush of rose rising on its breast. Without pausing stride, it leaps over a gap and halts abruptly on a branch directly above you. For a moment it shifts uncertainly from foot to foot, craning first left, then right, trying to catch sight of you. Then, cocking its head on one side, it peers down with one carmine-encircled eye, raising its raffish violet crest (a movement suggestive of arching an eyebrow) and fixes you with a fierce quizzical glower.

This is the purple-crested turaco.

If it decides you’re scary enough, you’re in for a real treat.
After a moment of dithering, running and hopping, it opens its stubby, rounded wings to unfurl a dazzling pageant of scarlet. It then launches into an elegant, balletic leap and glides away to a nearby tree. (I couldn’t find an ‘available-for-use’ image of the bird in flight - and of course snapping one is way beyond me - but please take a look at this one; it’s worth it.)

Running through the treetops, the purple-crested turaco (Gallirex porphyreolopha) bears a distressing resemblance to the world’s earliest feathered aviators.

Young turacos (this one’s an up-and-coming Ross’s turaco) even bear gnarly claws on their wing joints (used for pre-flight travel). They sensibly lose these primordial mementos in the embarrassment of adolescence. Photo posted on Flickr by SeaworldSA.
The turacos’ proficiency at tree-clambering is aided and abetted by a weird, reversible outer toe. This accessory normally sits at right angles to the axis of the foot, but can be swivelled fore or aft, depending on need. Photo by Vince Smith.
Turacos are members of an ancient order (Musophagiformes) and - since they keep themselves to themselves - no one really knows who their relatives are. The proteins in their eye-lenses (hey, the first place you’d look, really) hint at kinship with songbirds, their feather parasites are cousins to those on itchy fowls and their strange, swivel toes place cuckoos in their ancestry.
But as far as I’m concerned, they’re like no other. There’s something absurd and incongruous about their awkward, cumbersome shape coupled with such over-the-top plumage. They somehow remind me of avian drag queens, and I’m always half expecting them to break into an Abba dance routine.
Of course, it’s entirely inappropriate to question the purple-cresteds’ sexual predilections: they’re highly conventional birds. Living in old-school nuclear families, they’re unflinchingly monogamous and defend their home turf (very noisily) from anyone who may disrupt their conservative familial bliss.

I included these dreadful images (typical of my photographic prowess) because they show (in a blurry way) courtship feeding. It sounds so romantic, doesn’t it? Then you realise he’s hacking up regurgitated fruit pulp...
Nevertheless she seems grateful. Maybe it’s because she knows there’s worse to come. Parent turacos not only chomp their little darlings’ old eggshells, they gulp down their excrement too.

Now if turacos are the closet transvestites of the avian world, it’s the way they come up with their extravagant costumes that’s earned them global notoriety. You see turacos are the only feathered critters able to wear green. Lesser birds may look green but it’s all a con. While others achieve their verdant hues using yellow feathers (structured to refract sunlight and reflect blue wave lengths), turacos manufacture a genuine green pigment, turacoverd. This unique colorant is a copper uroporphyrin compound made up of 6% copper. The birds’ brilliant red wing feathers (found in most of the forest-dwelling species) are also designer-made, tinted with another exclusive copper-based stain, turacin. (The rest of the world’s birds must make do with carotenoids, for bright, orangey reds, and phaeomelanins, for rusty reds). But accumulating so much copper is challenging (so that’s who’s stealing the telephone cables...) and it takes young turacos twelve months to grow as gaudy as their parents (cable theft is slow work?). It’s even been suggested that turacos are only able to employ copper-based pigments because they dwell in one of the world’s richest copper belts.

The local copper Mecca: humans have been mining the stuff around here for more than 1200 years. This is the Phalaborwa copper mine, about 60 km (37 miles) up the road.
 Photo by Roman Betik.

Pride of the kingdom. The purple-crested turaco (Gallirex porphyreolopha) is Swaziland’s national bird. But fame and fortune come at a cost: the species’ dazzling flight feathers feature prominently in the ceremonial regalia of the Swazi and Zulu royal families.
Photo by Lip Kee.
Of course turacos are not alone in using copper to brighten up their world. Humans have been daubing this metal about ever since those old winos, the ancient Greeks, discovered how to cook up verdigris (expose copper plates to the fumes of fermenting grapes, then scrape off the crust of blue-green tarnish). Unfortunately humankind subsequently went astray (oh, that’s unusual) creating killer wallpaper throughout the 19thC using a copper-arsenic dye (Napoleon’s emerald walls probably hastened his demise: studies show his hair samples are chockfull of arsenic).
Sadly, this pigment was also used to tint clothing, sweets and deserts. A mass poisoning in Greennock, Scotland (where green confectionary was all the go during village celebrations) spawned a national aversion to green sweets (and I’ve indeed met a Sparkle-scoffing Scot who staunchly refused the green ones). Nevertheless, it’s all OK. Once our forebears figured out the perils of snacking on arsenic they converted their lovely green dye into an insecticide...

There are 23 species of turaco (all native to deepest, darkest Africa) and I couldn’t resist showing you how spiffy they are. This demur little one is a Knysna turaco (Tauraco corythax) from, well, Knysna in South Africa. Photo by Johann du Preez.

“What do you mean, you’ve never HEARD of turacos!”
Photo (of a white-cheeked turaco, Tauraco leucotis) by Loren Sztager.

Like all turacos, the red-crested (Tauraco erythrolophus) from Angola likes to munch fruit, flowers and buds. They’re such committed fruitarians that they even feed their chicks mostly just fruit pulp. Photo by Ciaran Dunston.
Turacos once laboured under the name of plantain-eaters until ornithologists realised they didn’t. This one’s a great blue turaco (Corythaeola cristata) at home in the Congo jungle.
Photo by Brent Moore.

As well as the brightly coloured forest species, there are a few drab turacos who knock about in open woodland (the unfortunately named go-away-birds). But what these species lack in garishness they make up for in behavioural peculiarities. The grey go-away-bird (Corythaixoides concolor), who lives around here, often breeds in cooperative groups.
Photo by Arno Meintjes.

Livingston’s turaco, I presume (Tauraco livingstoni). This species explores the forests of southern Tanzania and Malawi. Photo by Heather Paul.

Ross’s turaco (Musophaga rossae) ready for the mardi gras. Longevity is one of the turaco's many claims to fame with captive ones surviving more than 30 years.
Photo posted on Flickr by San Diego shooter.

The Hartlaub’s turaco (Tauraco hartlaubi) leaps about in the forests of the Kenyan highlands.
Photo by Francesco Veronesi.
“Mama mia, here we go again... my, my... how can I resist you?” 
Photo posted on Flickr by Belgianchocolate.

Monday, August 5, 2013


I’m sure you’ve seen those documentaries about social insects where the camera snakes you down into the depths of the colony and there - lit by a ghostly green glow - you witness eerie fungal gardens, ants herding caterpillars and grotesque monarchs stuffing themselves on delicacies.

Well at the moment I feel as if I’ve somehow got trapped down there.

It all started a few days ago when I arrived home to find my living room abuzz.
As I opened the front door the sound hit me like a palpable wave; a droning, wrap-around buzz so intense I could almost see it.
There were bees everywhere. The air was thick with them. They were hovering and crawling and revving for takeoff. There were bees doing their waggle dance, pirouetting and tangoing within a circle of spectators; there were bees conferring quietly in small huddles and bees sitting calmly in apparent contemplation. The windows were coated, inside and out, with a mass of small bodies, but – and this worried me the most - they weren’t angry bees, striving to get out. Disconcertingly, they all had a laidback, we-want-to-be-here kind of manner.
All my pets had retreated outside and were looking as dismayed as I felt.

Of the 20,000 known species of bee (argh!), only seven are honey bees (all in the genus Apis). This select group (whose colonies cache honey is waxy combs) is thought to have originated in SE Asia, and our much loved common honeybee (Apis mellifera) started life in tropical east Africa before buzzing on northward.
Photo posted on Flickr by Goshzilla-Dann.

What was going on?
Had a swarm settled in my house?
I prowled disconsolately through the bee-clouded rooms, searching vainly for the tell-tale ball of bees. Then I tried following one of the bustling trade routes, and the hovering, buzzing hordes led me slowly back to my mealworm colony (housed in large plastic basins on top of a cupboard in the lounge room). Peering into a basin I was appalled to find a seething mass of bees, all rolling and writhing in apparent ecstasy, among the mealworms.
What the...??
Had I stumbled upon some dreadful orgy; a bizarre bacchanalia of miscegenation? 
Then I noticed that the writhing bees looked as if they were wearing cargo-pants whose bulging pockets were stuffed with something white.
Ah ha!  (A light bulb moment.)
They were gathering flour!

Err... flour??

Bees sifting flour from my mealworms’ bran.

Tentatively edging my way through the miasma of bees in the kitchen, I discovered another orgiastic clump squirming about in an open pack of maize meal.
Why had I never heard of bees behaving like this?
I mean, sure, bees show an unhealthy interest in sweet beverages. But dry goods? And it’s not as if I’m a complete neophyte when it comes to bees. As a child I shared home and hearth with a feral swarm (which resided in the chimney). Bee-stings were a routine hazard of television viewing, but never once did the little beasts attempt to pilfer our baking supplies.

With a reckless disregard for personal safety, I grabbed up the flour-bearing items and rushed them out to the veranda. A stream of bees accompanied me, and I prayed that the thousands still humming about inside the house would follow the food.

Could it be that they were starving? It’s been a bad year for bugs (as my skinny mongooses can attest); maybe the colony has scoffed its winter honey stores and is simply desperate? 
But then I looked at the exuberance of daisies currently blooming in my garden.
Nary a bee.

My scorned Namaqua daisies.

Evidence that other pollinators find my daisies attractive.

Craftily I moved the mealworm basins in amongst the flowers, hoping the bees might get the hint.
They didn’t.
But at least they all drifted out of the house, gathering in a massive, swirling column above the victuals. I discovered that if I laid out a smorgasbord of titbits (sugar water, maize meal and an open packet of cake flour), they deserted my traumatised mealworms and I was able to sneak the containers back indoors.
To what extent my mealworms have been scarred by this ghastly experience, I do not know. Caterpillars go off their food when bees buzz overhead (nibbling only one-third as much as usual). But the species used in this experiment (beet armyworms) sport special sensory hairs that respond to the vibration of buzzing wings (to track incoming parasitic wasps). As far as I know, my mealworms are hairless, so maybe they’ll make a full recovery.

Of course the bees are behaving most amicably and I remain unstung. However, the psychological impact on my dogs may be a problem. It was while I was fishing drowning bees out of a 0.5 mm smear of sugar water, that I noticed Wizard staring at me with a look of astonished disbelief. He’d come dashing over to interpose himself between me and whoever I was talking to (as alpha male he feels he has the right of veto), only to discover I was conversing with bees. Since then his attitude to our insect plague has changed: whenever a bee buzzes him, or lands in his bowl, or entangles in his fur, he fixes me with a look of profound reproach.

‘Hey look: it's a squashed bee!’
My dogs aren’t alone in disliking bees. When researchers played bee recordings to herds of snoozing elephants, the pachyderms immediately fled the scene, retreating about 60 m (200 ft) with their tails in the air. This little guy, however, hasn’t fallen victim to a bee (or car); he’s just annoying Mum by playing on the road.

Now it’s no surprise that bees are well-equipped to garner pollen (and flour?) but they’ve got one adaptation that’s genuinely electrifying. When bees zip around in their busy buzzing way, their bodies are bombarded by dust motes and other little bits of air-borne grunge. These minor collisions scrape electrons off the bee’s outer waxy cuticle and, voila, you get a positively charged bee. Flowers - in contrast to bees - sport a negative electrical field (at least on sunny days) and we all know how opposites attract. So when a positive little bee comes hovering down, the flower’s pollen flies up to the bee, like iron filings to a magnet.

But the niftiness doesn’t stop there.
Bees can also discern the electrical fields of flowers. When a conscientious worker bee touches down on a bloom, she neutralises its negative charge, and it takes a couple of minutes for the flower’s negativity to restore itself (rather like when I eat a piece of chocolate). This means that bees zooming about above a field of flowers can spot which ones have just been plundered and save themselves a fruitless nectarless visit.

It’s the bees’ flagella (the very tips of their antennae) that sense electrical fields. Pushed or pulled by an electrical charge, the flagellum’s tiny movements are monitored by touch-sensitive fibres within the bee’s antenna joints. When researchers unkindly immobilised these joints (by covering them with wax), the bees could no longer tell positive from negative.
Photo posted on Flickr by Johan J. Ingles-Le Nobel.

I have decided that today is D-day. I’m withdrawing all aid. I’ve carefully hidden my mealworm containers away inside my wardrobe (hey, who needs clothes?) and have locked up all cereal products.
Fingers crossed that the bees will leave!

Sweet-toothed, mead-guzzling humans have kept Apis mellifera for at least 3000 years. Archaeologists uncovered 30 hives (made of straw and unbaked clay) dating from about 900 BC at a dig in Israel’s Jordan Valley. However, it wasn’t until the 18-19th century that people learnt how to pinch the honey without killing the golden goose colony. Photo by Gwendolyn Stansbury.

The local little bee-eater family (Merops pusilla): possible justification for indoor foraging?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Dwarf mongooses: warts and all

After seven and a half years working with dwarf mongooses (Helogale parvula), today I discovered the meaning of their scientific name.
And I’m outraged!

Their dreadful scientific moniker was bestowed upon them back in 1847 by Carl Jacob Sundevall. Dr Sundevall was a Swedish ornithologist (yes, that’s right, ornithologist) who was working as curator of the Natural History Museum of Stockholm at the time of his ghastly misjudgement.

The culprit. Image from Wikipedia.

Now let’s be clear. I have nothing against Sundevall’s choice of a species name, parvula.

In Latin parv means little, and ula is a diminutive form; so that’s little, little.
And there’s no question that dwarf mongooses are wee. Even at the height of summer when they’re at their chubbiest, adults clock in at only 270-300g (10 oz). They’re not only the teeniest of the globe’s 31 mongoose species (they’re only one-third the size of meerkats, for example), they’re also Africa’s most petite carnivore.

Chimera (EM061) and Doxy (EM066) helping me to document their littleness.

No, no, it’s the genus name, Helogale, that I have problems with.
In Latin gale means weasel.
Mongooses are NOT weasels.
Mongooses do not even belong to the weasel family (the pesky mustelids).
Heck, they don’t even like weasels!

If the mongooses held a family reunion, you’d see genets and aardwolves, linsangs and banded palm civets. There’d be hyenas, overseeing the braai (BBQ), and civets griping endlessly about the perfume industry. The binturong would be annoying everyone by picking up party nibbles with its tail, and the toddy cat, who’s had too much to drink (again), would be delighting the kids with unsavoury re-enactments of kopi luwak manufacture. Even the Madagascan contingent would be there: the falanouc pontificating about earthworms with the white-tailed mongoose, and the fossas and meerkats locked in heated debate over media bias.


Even when the distant cousins rocked up (oh you know, those weirdoes who lost touch eons ago), you wouldn’t see a single weasel. Oh yes, amid the fake smiles and cries of ‘pull up a pew’, you’d spy tigers and ocelots, jaguarondis and cheetahs, clouded leopards and (oh my god) a very obese Persian.


This is the only weasel to sully the lands south of the Sahara. When threatened, striped weasels (Poecilogale albinucha ) squirt stinking anal-gland secretions for a distance of 1 metre/yard. This is one of the many traits they do NOT share with mongooses.
Photo from Wikipedia.  

I’m willing to concede that weasels and mongooses do show some (superficial) likenesses. I can understand that a person who spends all their days mulling over dead bodies (and probably has seasonal affective disorder too) could consider these similarities noteworthy.
Yes - if I must - I can cope with gale.

But I cannot accept Helo.
Carl Sundervall what were you thinking??

So what does the dwarf mongooses’ scientific name actually mean?


Does this look like a LITTLE WART WEASEL to you?
(This is a rhetorical question. Any reader veering toward the affirmative is strongly advised not to leave a comment.)

 Now Carl Sundervall didn’t actually see a living, breathing (and biting) dwarf mongoose. He described the species from a cadaver sent to him by another Swede, Johan August Wahlberg. Back in the 1840s, Johan Wahlberg toured the length and breadth of South Africa shooting things collecting specimens. Dwarf mongooses were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. A vast mountain of carcasses (of mammal, bird and reptile species) were then shipped back to lucky old Stockholm.
So could it have been gun-happy Johan who was responsible for this dreadful naming travesty? Did he fail to treat the limp little body with sufficent reverence (and preservative)? Was the scrap of lifeless fur that Carl Sundervall lifted from the packing crate pocked with wart-like decay?

Is there an excuse for the inexcusable?

Another victim of Johan Wahlberg’s shooting spree. To add insult to (mortal) injury, this victim got landed with the perpetrator’s name: Wahlberg’s eagle (Aquilla wahlbergi). I guess things can always be worse. Photo by Arno Meintjes.

Now I realise that once a species is officially described and named, its scientific moniker cannot be changed. But surely Anagalligale parvula (delightful little weasel) or Dulcigale parvula (sweet little weasel) or even Maxigale parvula (greatest little weasel), would have been preferable.

Maybe I can just sneak in a different name as a typo...

Dwarf mongooses (Calligale parvula) enjoying a family moment. Ah, beautiful little weasels...

 P.S. Johan Wahlberg was ultimately killed by an elephant. Hee hee.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Intruder rampant

Last night I was victim to a ‘break and enter’.
Although (to be honest) ‘enter and break’ would be more apt.

It was 2 am when I was flung from sleep by a loud, tinkling crash coming from the kitchen. A quick head count revealed that all my pets – now struggling groggily to their paws – were with me in the bedroom.
There was an intruder in the house.

Snatching up my bedside torch, I and the pets (two huskies and a cat) stumbled drowsily toward the noise.
Now call me unwise, but it never occurred to me that the intruder might be human. From the china-shattering sound effects, I knew someone had knocked over the dishes I’d left teetering on the sink (for security purposes only, of course). This suggested an arboreal offender, and my sleep-clogged brain was shuffling inefficiently through alternatives... a bush baby, maybe?
Hopefully, NOT a leopard.

I snapped on the kitchen light and all Hell broke loose.
Instantly a slim, cat-sized creature was hurtling around the room, bouncing off the walls, the fridge-top, the sink, the cupboard. Every gargantuan leap was accompanied by a cacophony of breakages as jars, pans, egg cartons, canisters and plates crashed to the floor (not that my kitchen is untidy, of course). My dog Magic leapt after the frightened animal, knocking over the garbage can and bounding through the broken crockery and glass. Over and above this chaos there arose a burgeoning stench: acrid, sweet and musky.
With everything happening so quickly, and the animal moving so fast, I couldn’t get a good look at it. My only impression was of a long, ringed tail.
Ahh, a genet.

Now genets are very special animals. Of all the carnivores pussyfooting about the globe today, genets are the ones most closely resembling the ancient grand-pappy of the whole toothy mob (a little miacid who hunted 50 million years ago). In fact, the genet’s teeth and skeleton have barely changed since way back then. This isn’t to say that genets are primitive; they’re simply traditionalists who like to do things the way their mammies’ did.
They’re also amazingly beautiful.
Clothed in the softest, pale silver fur, they’re brushed with delicate streaks of inky droplets. A trim of silky black fur crests along their spines, and their long, long tails - the ultimate accessory - are shockingly aposematic, ringed spectacularly in white and black.

The small spotted genet (Genetta felina) is one of ten species that haunt the African night. Their nearest and dearest are the civets, linsangs and mongooses (so how could they not be charming?).
Photo by Fredric Salein.

My intruder hurtled through the kitchen doorway and circumnavigated the lounge room in seconds by ricocheting off the walls. Leaping at the French windows, it slid spread-eagled down the glass, Sylvester-like, its claws screeching all the way. Magic (who’s mania for hunting ratchets into insanity in the presence of a small carnivore) saw this as her big chance and plunged across the room. I pelted after her in a valiant attempt to avert certain carnage. But I’d underestimated the genet. Touching ground, it instantly sprang again, bouncing off the top of Wizard’s head and disappearing into the bedroom.

Genets, like cats, have sharp, retractile claws that let them climb and snare small beasts efficiently. Their paws also have 5 toes (cats and dogs have 4).
Photo by David Bygot.

By this stage the musky fetor was almost making my eyes water. You see genets are masters in the art of perfumery. As professional serial killers, they favour a solitary lifestyle and operate only under the cover of darkness. This makes conversing with lovers and rivals challenging. Yet with typical mammalian ingenuity, they’ve hit on a solution: they leave little aromatic messages that convey their identity, sexual orientation and level of libido.
While most carnivores make do with bog-standard anal glands - brimful with pungent bacteria - (this, by the way, includes your sweet little cat and dog), genets brandish a perineal gland too (a little slit located between their anus and their naughty bits). When marking is imminent, muscles pull open this innocuous looking slit to expose an inbuilt paintbrush of fine white hairs oozing a clear oily emulsion. As if this isn’t scary enough, the animal then uses acrobatics to apply the malodorous stuff. Backing up to an object, it flings its hind legs up over its back and teeters around on its forepaws (in a perfect handstand) to smear the goo, back and forth, as high as genetly possible. (Okay, my dwarf mongooses also indulge in handstanding, but I’m sure they’re much more mannerly).

Oh, and I forgot to mention that when genets get anxious they release every possible excretion.

Genets munch any small critters they can lay their paws on, from bugs to duiker lambs. They’re also partial to fruit and nectar.
Photo by Isidro Martinez.

When I followed the procession of animals into the bedroom, I found Magic trampolining on the bed in an attempt to reach the genet, who was scrabbling up the wardrobe. Launching a flying tackle, I pinned the dog to the mattress with my body, and everything fell still. Panting quietly, we all took stock. The genet stood frozen on top of the dresser, one forepaw raised and nose uplifted like a wondrous heraldic beast (argent genet passant).

Unfortunately, I was so busy devising an escape plan for the frightened creature, I forgot to check out its tail. Now this may seem an understandable oversight but two genet species lurk around here, and they’re not easy to tell apart. The tail of the large spotted genet (Genetta tigrina) sports a black tip, while the small spotted genet’s (Genetta felina) tail usually concludes in white (I’m sure you’ve noticed the flaw in this masterly technique). Unfortunately, the whole ‘large’ and ‘small’ business is a red herring (to confuse newbies); it refers to the spots not the beasts.

Large spotted genets (Genetta tigrina) are found in the moister bits of southern Africa. Their spots are rust-coloured and ringed in black rather than being charcoal (hmm, a bit subtle...).
Photo posted on Flickr by West Chester Dumonts.

Common or European genets (Genetta genetta) are the only species to venture beyond Africa (they also prowl the Middle East and southern Europe). However, it’s uncertain whether they were introduced to Europe (by the Moors to Spain) as they were routinely kept as mousers throughout the Middle Ages (before cats got popular). Photo by Ricardo Sanchez.

After careful thought, I concluded the best way to help my nameless genet was to neutralise Magic. I wasn’t worried about Wizard: he’s not much of a hunter and he was still recovering from the whole head-bouncing incident. While I dragged a whimpering Magic off to the bathroom, the genet quietly slipped back into the lounge room and escaped out the window. 

Now I’m just left with a complete ruin of a kitchen and an overpowering stench.
It’s not entirely unpleasant, but... er... very animally!

This image is for those of us who secretly suffer tail-envy. Presumably it’s of Mum and the kids (but there seem too many). Maybe - like other solitary mammals - small spotted genets are willing to bend the rules when food is bounteous.
Photo by David Bygott.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Communiqué from a hermit


That’s an apology for my appalling lack of posts.

Yes relatives, I am still alive.

The problem is (okay, one of the problems is) I’m now living in a spot unsullied by modern communications.
Yet hope’s recently arrived in the form of a laptop. If I drive half a dozen kilometres, clamber to the top of a wind-whipped kopje and sit numb-bottomed and squint-eyed (playing spot the cursor), I can communicate with the outside world.
But not very much.
You see my funding ran out last year so I’m trying to survive on... well, nothing at all really. And petrol and internet access are costly. Nevertheless, despite these adversities, I bring you a blog post! 

My latest domicile is tucked away beside the river in the reserve in which I potter with mongooses work. I moved in last March and have fallen in love with the place because my neighbours are all non-human.

Uninhabited (theoretically) for the last seven years, the house harbours an impressive assemblage of fauna. Fortunately the hippos and hyenas - whose dawn chorus ushers in my days - tend to stay outside, but others are less reticent. Jealously I guard my dogs from the leopards who stamp their pugmarks on my driveway nightly, and struggle (vainly) to oust the bloom-devouring porcupines from the garden. Ah, bliss...


Chez Mongoose (mainly)

The charming Oliphants River as viewed from my veranda.

Of course, adjusting to the idiosyncrasies of new housemates can be challenging. And some are far from pleased to see me. The incumbent geckos, for example, are the least friendly I’ve ever encountered. They lurk furtively in crevices and crannies, secretly plotting my downfall. Only if I arrive home after nightfall and unexpectedly snap on the light, do I get to see them, frozen guiltily and bristling with insurgency, up there on the walls.

The most welcoming of my new roomies spends much of her time in the kitchen (and sadly has a figure to match). You can usually find her lounging on the bench top beneath the window. Dressed with classic elegance in umber, bistre and pearl, she emanates a proprietorial air but graciously lets me share the facilities. Admittedly she’s only six inches (15 cm) long, but for a striped skink (Tachylepsis striata) this is not to be sniffed at. I have presumptuously christened her Algernon. (I should point out at this stage that although my zoological expertise is profound (naturally), it does not extend to sexing small lizards (well, any lizards at all really); hence the gender-related ambiguity.) 

Embarking on a staring contest with a striped skink (Trachylepis striata) is ill advised. Okay, unlike some reptiles, they do actually blink. But their lower eye lids have a transparent window so that glare never falters.

As might be expected, there was a little friction between us at first. Algernon’s insistence on spending the night tucked up in the egg carton led to heart-stopping encounters every morning. After ten days I finally realised that – in my early morning daze - I was incapable of remembering she was there, and so I hid the eggs away in a cupboard. She ruefully shifted into the washing machine. Of course now I can’t launder my clothes before 11 am (she’s a late riser on these chilly mornings) but we all have to make compromises.

As a striped skink (Trachylepis striata), Algernon is meant to live in trees. The soles of her feet have built-in cleats (special spiny scales) and each absurdly elongated toe sports a bark-catching keel. Unfortunately, these nifty adaptations are less well suited to kitchen fly screens. You see striped skinks are active hunters and - according to the books – they seize their insect prey after a short, fast dash. However, when Algernon is hunting flies on the window screen, her dashes - back and forth, up and down, round and round - are annoyingly protracted. With each step, her impressive grappling-iron toes snare the mesh, so she has to fling her limbs into the air like she’s practising semaphore. As inconvenient as this may be for Algernon, it’s worse for me: each unplucked toe produces a dreadful reverberating clatter that’s audible throughout the house.
Still a girl has to eat; I show forbearance.

Algernon showing off her fine toes and svelte figure.

Our relationship has grown considerably more cordial since Algernon discovered the delights of mealworms. Each day she greets me upon my return from the field, skittering across the counter top to stand gazing up at me in the hopes of cadging any leftover worms. (Yes, that soft susurrus was a gasp of outrage by my mongooses.) After hours basking on the window sill, Algernon moves quicker than the eye can see. I find this unexpectedly disturbing. I mean we’re all used to small critters flitting out of sight in the blink of an eye, but when one flits AT you, it’s a different story entirely. One moment she’s sitting peaceably on the counter top and the next she’s crouched on my wrist, glaring at me fiercely for failing to unhand the mealworm. As far as I’m concerned, teleporting lizards should stay firmly in the realm of science fiction.

I was wondering whether to teach Algernon tricks (is this demeaning?). But what’s the point of a lizard that jumps through a hoop if you can’t see it do it??

Now the advantage of living on the window sill (apart from the whole fly-catching business) is that Algernon can zip back and forth through the gap in the screen whenever danger threatens. The down side - at least from my perspective - is that those with an appetite for striped skinks sometimes pursue her right into the house. So far I’ve discovered a brown-headed kingfisher lurking behind the stove and a little sparrow hawk circling the light fitting in my bedroom. Considering that the hole in the screen is only the size of my fist (or, more accurately, the fist of a bygone burglar), this is impressive.

Striped skinks are modern, up-to-date lizards who have no time for all that primitive egg-laying stuff. Mums heroically bear a litter of 3 to 9 mini-skinks each summer (something to look forward to...  hmm).

Now if you’re reading this post, it means:
(a) I still have at least one gallant and faithful reader (I'll add you to my Xmas card list);
(b) I can upload posts despite my wonky internet connection.
Taken together, these suggest that I have no excuse for not resuming blogging. 
Of course, I do have a wide selection of half-written posts on my computer...
Hmm, all I need now is to overcome my self-loathing.... 
Please stay tuned!

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