Sunday, September 12, 2010

Flipless rock flipping

Today is international rock flipping day.

Nature bloggers from around the world are out there vigorously overturning boulders and stones, and recording all the grisly details of what's underneath.

Unfortunately, my intention to take part in this global event began to waiver as the big day approached. A little nagging voice kept whispering, 'Don't you encounter enough life-threatening beasties without going looking for them?'
My resolve was further eroded by today's cool, blustery weather – perfect for cobras, mambas and puff adders to be hiding snugly in subterranean crevices.

Maybe if I flipped only little rocks...

Of course, there were still the scorpions. But only two of the thirteen species that live around here are actually lethal to adults... If only I didn't have to stick my fingers under the to-be-flipped rock before I knew what was underneath!

Then this rock saved the day.

Alright, I admit I didn't flip it.
Herculean strength (like courage) is not one of my blessings.
To be totally honest, I wasn't even thinking about flipping rocks; I was crawling about in search of a trace of Koppiekats. As I peered into this crevice, diligently hunting for mongoose poop, I was startled to see an eye.

Can you see it?

Of course, the eye was equally startled to see me.
We gazed at each other for a bit, before I dashed to the car for my camera. I was jubilant. After all, I'd definitely found this creature under a rock - so it must qualify - yet I'd managed to evade 'death-by-venomous-beast'.

Appropriately, my saviour was a rock monitor (Varanus exanthematicus).

These heavy, thickset lizards grow to more than a metre (3 - 4 ft) and like to loiter in rock crevices, disused mammal burrows or hollow trees. This one was pressed as far back into its crevice as its bulk would allow. It had even folded its stumpy forelegs back along the side of its body for a better fit. Of course, you can't blame it for shyness; I wouldn't be forthcoming either if my scientific name meant 'skin eruptions' in Greek.

Impressive claws: all the better to scratch you with.

Of the 30 species of monitor that stalk the earth, only three live in Africa, and only two hang out here. I could see this one wasn't a Nile monitor (V. niloticus) because of its stubby, bulbous snout, and the weird placement of its nostrils (nearer its eyes than nose tip). Monitors (called leguaans in South Africa) have long forked tongues that they flick in and out as a snake does. Unlike most lizards, their tongues have no taste-buds, and are designed solely to pick up molecules and insert them - for chemical analysis - into the double opening of the vomeronasal organ on the roof of the mouth. However my prone monitor was clearly playing the cryptic card and appeared to be concentrating very hard on flicking nothing (maybe I just smell appalling).

This rock monitor (also called savannah monitor) was photographed on a previous occasion.

September is the season of love for rock monitors, but I'm not up on how to sex non-furred critters; particularly ones that defend themselves by lashing a hefty tail, biting and holding with bulldog-like tenacity, and squirting out the nauseating contents of from their cloacae. Of course, if all else fails, they sham death. I could probably handle that.

If this one was female, she'll bury her 10 to 40 eggs (soft-shelled and the size of small hens' eggs) in a deep pit dug in the rain-softened soil. Although the eggs take four months to hatch in captivity, out here it's usually twelve. Why? Well there's no point in leaving your egg if the soil above you is rock hard because of the dry season. Does this mean - that at this very moment - there are hundreds of little monitor lizards sitting inside their eggs, drumming their toes and waiting for the rain? Well I never.

Although rock monitors mostly dine on millipedes, beetles and land snails, they're also very fond of carrion and any animal small enough to scoff down (including mongoose pups). Do you recognise the crevice in the photo below? Yep, it's the same one; only here it's sheltering a little Koppiekat pup.

 To discover what other exciting creatures the world's (much braver) rock-flippers have found, visit the compilation at Wanderin Weeta.


  1. LOL!! I wish I cold write like you do Lynda. Your sense of humour shines through with every line. Love it!!

    With all I I have to do today, I clean forgot to go flipping over rocks which is just as well. I would probably have pulled a muscle, broken a finger or got bitten and so spoiled my up-coming holiday and NOTHING is going to stand in my way of that. :)

    I will also go and check out what OTHERS have found. :)

    I am hoping I will find many species of lizard and scorpion on my vacation as I have not collected pictures of things in that area before. I think I am seriously going to need to take a break after my holiday to recuperate. LOL!!

  2. My home in Alaska is the place to flip rocks, you're garanteed to find nothing that can hurt you. Breaking a nail, or pulling a muscle are the only hazards.
    When I was in SA earlier this year, I saw the Nile Monitor and another monitor species that looked nothing like what the pet stores here call Savannah Monitors. They looked like White-throated Monitors, (pet store name). They were common in Ndumo Park in KwaZulu Natal. Maybe a common name like Rock Monitor, or Savannah Monitor encompasses several different species?

  3. So why did I not know about this rock flipping day :( This guy looks like he is really jammed in there obviously so you can not pull him out :)

  4. Thanks for the great natural history lesson and photos! Glad you found a way to participate in what perhaps we should rename International Rock Peering-Under Day.

  5. WOW! I love monitor lizards; I wish I lived in a place where we had creatures like this. How cool to encounter him just when you needed something interesting under a rock to post about.

  6. Wonderful photos and information on this very interesting creature-under-a-rock!

  7. Joan,
    I'm sure you'll find lots of little critters to keep you busy here.

    You're right about the monitors (and Alaskan rocks too, I presume). I've found out that southern Africa's Rock monitors used to be considered the same species as Savannah monitors (which apparently occur further north) but they've now been classified as a separate species due to differences in penis morphology. They're (theoretically) called white-throated monitors (Varanus albigularis), although I've never heard anyone call them that here. Sorry for being out of date!

    Yes, this guy is seriously stuck in a rut!

    It doesn't quite have the same ring to it, does it. Maybe next year I'll be brave enough to flip.

    Yes, I was very relieved that I'd been let off the hook!

    Thank you. He didn't stay under-a-rock. I dropped by later in the morning and he'd trundled off.

  8. Hi Lynda, this is where you say, "Oh flip!" I used to catch these as a kid when I lived on a bushveld farm. The secret was to get hold of their neck and the base of the tail. Haven't had a desire to catch any for a while now.

  9. Dear Lynda,
    sorry for having been that quiet, was a bit busy. Not busy enough to always sink in each of your blog entries. I even print them out as the knowledge is priceless, and I second every word of the others.
    However, when I look at this special photo with the little pup, hey, I almost start lactating, LOL.
    This is by far the cutest I’ve ever seen.

  10. Max-e,
    I must admit I felt no desire to handle this one; a bit put off by those claws. You must have been a fearless kid...

    Lil Earthwoman,
    Nice to hear from you again. Yes, dwarf pups are really cute at this age; they always remind me of baby bears. Sadly, they're quite indiscriminate about who they bite!


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