Out of Africa

Spot the beast 54

Another beast to test your observation powers. Not too difficult this time but good camouflage nevertheless…

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Good dress to deceive in Autumn!

Rococo

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A rococo is a large toad as you would expect with such spectacular name! It has been classified as Rhinella schneideri and it is also known as cururú toad in other parts of South America. In English it goes under the much less spectacular name of Schneider’s toad.

As toads go, a rococo is a large one: the males can measure between 15-17cm and the females between 18-25cm with a maximum weight of  2kg of weight! Pretty sizable if you ask me.

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Rhinella schneideri is a widespread and very common species that occurs in a variety of habitats but most commonly in open and urban ones. It breeds in permanent and temporary ponds.They are found in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Brazil where they are sometimes kept as pets. I remember my aunt in Salto, Uruguay that used to have one in her garden that would come every evening from the cover of the plants to get its mince meat!

Luckily, at Salta, although we are at about 1,500 m above sea level we do get rococos and we see them sometimes around the house, feeding on the insects attracted to the outside lights. They are fierce predators feeding not only on invertebrates but they have been seen feeding on rodents, snakes, small birds and even fish and other amphibians.

Despite this, it a a shy animal that itself falls prey to snakes and birds of prey.  In fact, just a few days ago we saw a roadside hawk (Rupornis magnirostris) catching one on the road but our approach by car scared the bird that -luckily for the toad- dropped it unharmed (as we stopped to check it). They are able to pump themselves up to avoid being swallowed by snakes but this is clearly no defense against birds.

They are mainly nocturnal and very imposing creatures with a rather large body but rather weak hind legs that makes rather slow. They are distinguished by their supraorbital crests and their pupils are large and slit-shaped. Apart from their size they also have tibial glands located in their hind legs that secrete a milky bufotoxin. The later causes nausea, vomiting, and even paralysis and death in potential predators.

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Luckily, they are not threatened despite being collected for the pet trade.

 

 

Annual migration

Every year we embark on our annual migration that covers three continents: Africa, Europe and South America. We find this ideal. Not only we avoid the bulk of the rainy season in Zimbabwe but we also get to Uruguay and Argentina to take advantage of the summer time there. After our sojourn in the Americas we avoid the winter and return to Zimbabwe with a summer stop in Europe to visit our children.

This year things changed as our son moved to Tenerife in the Canary Islands and we decided to spend the end of the year holidays there. We traveled there via Rome to spend a few days with our daughter and friends prior to our trip to Tenerife. This, unfortunately, was not the best move as we picked up severe flus that matured on arrival to the Canary Islands and kept us homebound for several days, some of them spent in bed!

Despite this, the fact that the family was together offset our sicknesses and, fortunately guided by our son we had some good time touring Tenerife and have a look at its attractions although planned trips other islands and visit to friends were cancelled.

After this, already recovered, we traveled to Uruguay where we spent a few days in the company of relatives and childhood friends. It was summer time and we enjoyed the warm weather that sometimes turned rather too hot but always preferable to the cold and wet winters that Uruguay can also deliver.

It was soon time to travel to Northern Argentina, a long but interesting journey that would take us to our farm in Salta “La Linda” (the beautiful) as it is known in this latitude.

After a few years of traveling this route we have decided to divided into three legs of about 600km each. The first takes us to Mercedes in Corrientes, the second ends in Presidencia Roque Saenz Peña and the final one -slighty longer- takes us to our final destination in Salta. This time, because of a basketball tournament there was no hotels in Mercedes so we booked a place in Curuzú Cuatiá, a few km nearer to Carmelo.

The weather during the journey was expected to be stormy but, despite some rains on the way, we had no difficulties. After driving about 600km? we reached Curuzú Cuatiá, a small town whose name comes from cross (curuzú) as it is placed at an important crossroads with traffic to and from several important Provinces in Argentina and Buenos Aires. The Jesuits had marked this place with a large wooden cross but the local Guaraní already had a name for the place: Curuzú Cuatiá.

After a good night rest we continued North, this time under heavy rain until, …km later and driving through the Iberá wetlands, we crossed the Paraná River at Corrientes through the large bridge that joins the Provinces of Corrientes with the Chaco. This time, the waters of this wide river showed a ribbon of clear water on the side of Corrientes (the waters from the high Paraná) and a wide brown area occupying more than half of the river course on the Chaco side. The latter indicated that the Paraguay River, that joins the Paraná a few km upstream, was in flood. The view reminded me to that seen at Khartoum with the Blue and White Nile running in parallel.

A couple of hundred km after crossing the river we arrived at our destination for the day: Presidencia Roque Sanz Peña. The reader may ask why we stopping in such an unsung place. As I mentioned, we needed a stopover that would be located about two thirds of the way to Salta and, after trying a few options Presidencia (for short) was chosen. It is the second city in importance in the Chaco Province after Resistencia, its capital. Luckily we discovered that it has a comfortable hotel with a sauna, adjacent to a thermal water spa. Just a short walk away there is also a good BBQ place where a large display of various meats allows for the choice of dinner to be made. A great desert of cheese and papaya in syrup is usually tasted after a good portion of “asado” (barbecued meat).

The final leg is the harder as it is a bit further and the road offers some “challenges”! Hence we departed as early as possible stocked with plenty of water. The straight road took us across what was a vast expanse of forest known as “El Impenetrable”. The straight road traverses the Chaco and Santiago del Estero provinces before getting to Salta. It passes through places with dramatic and even scary names, some of which are worth mentioning.

The first location we find is Avia Terai, (originally “Aviauck Tadaek” meaning large or thick forest in the Toba Qom language). Unfortunately, only isolated clumps of forest remain this day although, because of its woodlands of white and red quebrachos (Schinopsis spp) a very hard (density 0.9–1.3) wood tree species whose name means “axe-breaker”; algarrobo (Ceratonia siliqua) and guayaibí (Patagonula americana) was once known as the “Fortress of the woods”. Charcoal burning, the extraction of the hard woods and the clearing of lands for cultivation (mainly soybean) have taken their toll throughout the region nowadays

You then reach Concepción del Bermejo, a rather symbolic village that evokes an earlier settlement known as Concepción de la Buena Esperanza. This early attempt at colonizing effort was founded in 1585. Although it was the most effective Spanish occupation of the Chaco Province, it came to grief in 1631 when a tribal coalition destroyed it and forced the survivors to migrate all the way to Corrientes (240km), luckily ignored by the attackers!

The string of dramatic names starts with the next settlement called Pampa del Infierno (Hell’s Pampas) that clearly illustrates the feeling of the early settlers that chose the name when confronted with the intense heat and humidity that prevailed there. The next town, Los Frentones, is another small enclave that remembers the indigenous nation of that name that roamed this area. They used to shave their heads half way up their skull appearing to have a wide forehead (frente) hence their name that means “large fronted”.

Río Muerto’s (Dead River) is the next place we crossed. Its rather gloomy name comes from a dead “cauce” associated with the Bermejo River that apparently was blocked during the Chaco conquest through which the Argentinian Government conquered the aborigines. Pampa de los Guanacos is the next town name as a herd of these ruminants? were seen in the area at some stage. The place is home to a Mennonite colony? that came from Paraguay over thirty years ago. They live their rather isolated lives working the land and producing excellent cheese that is very sought after in the area!

We then came to Los Tigres (The Tigers) where probably jaguars once lived but no longer. Here the asphalt road deteriorates taking a rather “political” characteristic that also makes it interesting. It runs smoothly through the Chaco until you enter Santiago del Estero where the potholes become more frequent until it becomes a totally broken road. If your car survives the knocks, you emerge triumphantly back in the Chaco at Taco Pozo (hole of the tree or hole of the the algarrobo in Quechua) about 70km later after having driven through Monte Quemado (Burnt Forest).

Happy that we made it through this bad stretch, we decided to stop to regain our breath and recover some of the energy spent.

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Preparing a coffee and snacks.

Aware that, after spending time negotiating the bad road drivers tend to go really fast we drove off the road down a gentle slope a few metres towards the railway track that runs parallel to the road most of the way and enjoyed our food while discovering a few interesting inhabitants.

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See if you can spot one of the locals… The answer is at the bottom of the post!

When the time to go came we were surprised that the car did not move although the engine was making an effort to go! We got out and discovered that one back wheel was spinning in the hitherto undetected red mud. I engaged 4WD and tried again with no difference. Well, there was a difference as a wheel at the front also buried. Used to these situations, I stopped the car and proceeded to inspect the situation learning that the grass upon which our left wheels were it was very soft and the wheels were deeply set. We were well stuck!

Luckily we carry a few tools for these occasions and the spade came very useful to dig in front of the wheels to enable them to move as their thread was totally filled with sticky mud that did not allow any grip. To make matters more sticky, raindrops were falling and it was imperative that we dug fast. We had about two attempts at going but our rather optimistic digging did not work. Eventually, after quite an effort the car move about one metre. That was all we needed and I rocked it back and forth until it gain some motion forward and, with the engine screaming, Mabel pushing and spreading mud all over, the car moved and I did not stop until I was on high and firm ground. It was a relief as we had lost about two hours between the picnic and the mud!

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With the car back on the tarmac, we took a picture of the trench we made!

From then on we had no other difficulties and we soon caught sight of the hazy mountains in the distance that are always welcome as they are the sign that we are getting close to the Andean mountains and our destination: Salta La Linda from where I will be writing for the next three to four months.

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An immature mantis waiting for the right prey to pass by!

Roman elephant

Walking through the various quarters of Rome in summer is a pleasure. Despite its apparent (and real) chaos, Rome has so many facets that every walk reveals new sights. Even old -and apparently commonplace- sights become interesting once we learn more about them.

Although I had walked through the Piazza della Minerva in the past, it had been to get to other of Rome’s main attractions such as the Piazza Navona or the Pantheon. I had noticed the obelisk in the centre but my attention somehow was directed to a plaque informing the public that the Argentinian General José de San Martín stayed at the Grand Hotel de la Minerve in 1846, four years before his death in 1850.

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The plaque on San Martín placed on the front of the hotel.

During this visit, my daughter mentioned that, apart from the Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) -close to her flat- she also enjoyed seeing the small elephant. So one afternoon we walked there and we got to the Piazza delle Minerva again. Not being one of the popular attractions, this small and rather overlooked piazza does not have the crowds and endless tourists’ queues to stick their hands in the Bocca della Veritá or to enter San Peter’s in the Vatican.

So, with time, we had a look at the obelisk. At the time we noted its rather the rather elongated trunk and agreed that it was a rather peculiar sculpture. Further investigation on its origins and development followed and its creation and symbolism is worth describing.

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The rather long trunk of the marble elephant.

The monument consists of two parts, an Egyptian obelisk -unearthed during some excavations carried out before the 17th Century- and the elephant that carries it. The latter is believed to have been the work of Ercole Ferrata, a disciple of the well-known sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini [1].

At the time of the unearthing of the Egyptian obelisk, Fabio Chigi (Pope Alexander VII) wanted to build a monument to display it. Father Domenico Paglia proposed the idea of the Obelisk resting over six small hills, as well as a dog in each corner, the dog being a symbol of the Dominican priests, the Order he belonged to. The hills recalled the six hills depicted on the Chigi family crest. By depicting the latter he hoped to convince the Pope. However, to Paglia’s surprise, Alexander rejected his design.

The Pope then asked Bernini for an alternative design. Bernini’s first reaction was to place four seated figures holding the obelisk at each corner of a pedestal. As this was not to Alexander’s liking, he presented another option showing the Obelisk resting on a rock and a later proposal depicted Hercules with his knees semi-bent as he hoists the obelisk upward and recalls Atlantis holding up the world.

Eventually Bernini got the agreement of the Pope with a design of an elephant carrying the Obelisk on its back, inspired by a popular novel of the time called “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” (“Poliphilo’s The Strife of Love in a Dream” )[2] authored by Francesco Colonna in 1499.

In Bernini’s original drawings, the obelisk’s weight would have fully rested on the legs of the animal. However father Paglia -envious of Bernini receiving the commission and being an architect himself- convinced the Pope that “according to traditional cannons, no weight should rest vertically above an empty space, as it would not be steady nor long lasting” so he strongly recommended that the obelisk should be placed upon a stone block. Bernini was opposed to this modification, especially as he had already proven that he could accomplish such a design in his “Four Rivers Fountain” in Piazza Navona.

Despite Bernini’s opinion, the Pope finally followed Paglia’s advice and decided that a marble cube should be inserted under the elephant. He also had the Latin phrase “These symbols of the science of Egypt, which you see engraved on the obelisk borne by the elephant, the most powerful of all animals, show that a strong mind is needed to support a solid knowledge” inscribed on the base.

Although Bernini tried to hide the heavy look of the block placed between the elephant’s legs by adding a saddle to the elephant’s back, this was not enough and the elephant acquired a rather heavy appearance that -I am sure to Bernini’s annoyance- originated its nick name of Minerva’s Piggy [3]!

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Despite the addition of the saddle the marble block supporting the obelisk is rather obvious.

The complete work was unveiled in February 1667 and it turned out to be the last commission of Pope Alexander VII as he died a few months later.

There is still a final twist to the story.

Bernini was able to take his revenge upon Paglia and the Pope by shifting the elephant’s tail slightly to the left and in that way pointing its rear end rather obscenely toward the Dominican Monastery sited in the square!

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The elephant’s rear end.

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The elephant with its rear end pointing towards the Dominican Monastery.

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gian_Lorenzo_Bernini

[2] https://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/hieroglyphs/hypnerotomachia-poliphili

[3] Today the sculpture is popularly known as Minerva’s chick as the Roman dialect word for piggy (“procino”) has been replaced by chick (“pulcino”).

 

Rome – Food processor seller

Another character from the streets of Rome and one of the most engaging. He is called Mustafa and spends his time selling gadgets to prepare veggies in an imaginative way. We had heard and then seen him in earlier visits at the Porta Portese flea market. This time he was trading at the Campo di Fiori market. I can assure you that you cannot fail to stop and watch!!!

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Mustafa’s stand.

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Mustafa blowing bubbles to demonstrate the versatility of his ware.

While selling ,Mustafa mentioned that he had over 5 million hits in his video at Youtube so I did not film him but went to Youtube where I found many videos of “Mustafa Patata e Carota” performance.

So, rather than filming him yet again, I decided to embed the video where he speaks English. There is another one in Italian with 2,5 million hits in Youtube! [1]

 

 

Mustafa was so convincing that we ended up buying his tools without really needing them! I am now practicing and destroying a few veggies but I am getting there…

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[1] The video in Italian can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbPBN6kvnCU.

 

 

Rome – Gladiators

If you know a bit about Rome, you will also know that it is full of surprises. This visit has been no exception and I found this scene during some rains we had yesterday while walking through the historical centre towards our rented flat in the Jewish quarter.

IMG_3474 copy.jpgThese two gladiators took advantage of the rain-break in their fighting to the death activities to catch up with life events and have a puff rather than sharpening their swords! This is something expected of the current Millennial generation but they are clearly beyond that, probably Xennials[1]

Whatever their generation, the sight was really amusing!

 

[1] The term “Xennials” is a portmanteau blending the names of Generation X and the Millennials to describe individuals born during the Generation X/Millennial cusp years of the late 1970s to the early 1980s. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xennials)

Spot the beast 44

The final beast from Salta as we are now moving to Africa again. It was spotted on some tree bark that stayed on the ground after collecting some firewood. See if you can see it.

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I do not think that it was too hard… I should do better next time.

Forever in doubt!

This event took place in August 2008, when I was not aware of the existence of blogs and even less that I would be writing one! It took place at our farm in Salta.

It all started with the death of a steer at a neighbour’s farm on the 17th of that month. The animal’s hide was removed on the 18th and left to rot. Over the next couple of days a number of Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus), Southern Crested Caracaras (Caracara plancus) and Chimango Caracaras (Milvago chimango) were seen feeding on it during the day. On the 20th we saw a fox and a tawny wild cat on the road, near the carcass but we were not able to identify them. As things were getting interesting and as we were used to waiting for hours for predators and scavengers at carcasses in Africa, we made a point of returning that night to see what could spot.

At about 21:30hs my wife and I drove to the area and pointed the car headlights towards the carcass, as unfortunately we did not have a spotlight. While I was maneuvering to get the best illumination of the dead animal, my wife -already known for her keen eyesight- said almost shouting with excitement “There is a large cat feeding!” I stopped the car and brusquely moved towards her seat to get a better angle.

What I saw left me amazed. At about 30 metres from us a large cat was crouching on the other side of the carcass, apparently feeding on it. It looked at us three times and bounded off towards the bushes. As we could not follow it with our lights, we could not see if it was spotted or not. What we both agree is that it was a large cat (at least the size of a large leopard) with a rather sizeable and rounded head that we saw clearly as it stared at us. That was it! Although we both knew that seeing a jaguar (Panthera onca) in this area was extremely unlikely, we were both convinced that this was what we saw.

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We knew that the chances of seeing it again that night were not high and, after a while, we returned to the farm, about 1.5 km away. We were so excited that we invited relatives staying with us at the time and our children to come back to the spot with us but failed to see it again!

The following morning we checked the area around the carcass for footprints but the soil was too hard and we failed to find any around the carcass or in the area we saw it moving towards, where there was a small stream.

When I spoke to our neighbor about this, I had the feeling that he thought I was joking but finally the concept sank in and he considered it as an impossible occurrence. After searching on the Internet I came across a publication that dealt with the distribution of the Jaguar[1] and decided to contact the author.

Below I translate our exchange.

4/12/2008

Dear Mr. Perovic,

Maybe this message surprises you but I have a farm in El Gallinato, Salta and wished to consult you about the possibility of having seen a Jaguar in this area. The coordinates of the place are: 24°40′ 23.10″S and 65°21′ 35.99″W.

In this place in August of this year a cow died and, aware that in Africa carnivores are spotted many times feeding on dead animals at night, we went with my wife to see what was feeding on it and we were surprised to see a large cat with rounded ears and green eyes that looked at us a couple of times, ate a bit and left. Regrettably we only had the car lights and a small torch that did not help us much to see the body. It looked rather dark but we do not know if melanistic specimens are present here or not. Around this area we have already seen wild cats and a puma but we do not publicize this to avoid hunters finding out and finishing off the few that may be around. Of course we returned to the carcass the following night but we only saw dogs feeding.

As I found your work on the distribution of the jaguar in the Argentinian North West, I thought that you would be interested in this information. I would also like to know if what we saw could have been a Jaguar or if it is that we are too old and having visions!!! Maybe some day when we are in Salta we could meet.

Kind regards.

His answer came the following day:

Dear Julio,

Many thanks for your message. Regarding your query, regrettably, I must tell you that is unlikely that it was a jaguar, I do not say impossible as one should never loose hope that their distribution will increase again to its original area which included the El Gallinato. But I do not think that nowadays it could have been a jaguar.

Regarding the article you mention, (although old) you would note that sites close to El Gallinato are mentioned (the mountain road towards Jujuy). These are data on footprints and some other signs, but regrettably 8 or 9 years have passed during which we cannot find new evidence.

I reside in Vaqueros and travel frequently to Jujuy (I am from there) in the mountain road. At the moment I work with jaguar and other cats (that are just as important as the one you saw) in several places, but mainly in the Yungas and Andes highlands.

If you wish when you pass through Salta, you could write and we could talk about this, about things that need to be taken into account about the predatory attitude of the different species, and I could also give you some useful material.

I thank you for your interest and initiative.

Many thanks and I remain at your disposal for any doubts you may have.

Greetings.

Pablo

Although we had a couple of additional e-mail exchanges, I have not yet met Pablo. I was in Rome at the time of the exchanges and in the past and present our visits to the farm were (and are) always short for time as there is always other more urgent and or important things to do!

Thinking back, perhaps the situation called for the probably first and last use of my “yaguareté” (jaguar) caller that I had acquired earlier in the Beni of Bolivia with the absolute guarantee (from the seller!) that it would attract jaguars! Luckily, the contraption remained forgotten in a corner of our farmhouse!

Incredibly ten years have passed since the sighting and, although I take in what Pablo said, writing this post brought back the memories of the large cat we saw that night whose identity will probably always remain unexplained for us!

 

[1] Perovic, P.G. and Herrán, M. Distribución del Jaguar en las Provincias de Jujuy y Salta. Noroeste de Argentina. (http://www.jaguares.com.ar/datos-personales/distribucion/distribucion-noroeste.html)

Alien

This year Salta has been unusually wet and we still have warm weather and rather heavy rains in April. This has created a true green revolution accompanied by an insect explosion. The moths are still coming in numbers to our outside lights and midgets and mosquitoes are still around.

We found a cicada that had been attracted to the verandah lights. It was rather quiet and, unusually, stayed after daybreak. I collected it without much difficulty to have a look at it as there was clearly something wrong. While having a look, my wife noted pinkish silky filaments where its abdomen should have been! In addition, it was opening its wings from time to time but not making any effort to fly.

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Dorsal view of the cicada.

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The parasitoid larva can be seen at the joint between the thorax and the abdomen.

It was during one of these wing movements that she also noted a protuberance on its dorsal area that, after some careful inspection became a small pink worm-like creature apparently lodged in it. It was about 3 mm long and somehow it reminded me of a small warble fly larva.

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The pink parasitoid seen from above with a size reference.

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A close-up of the parasitoid larva.

Further inspection revealed another couple of worms also lodged on the cicada’s flesh. The larvae were still alive as they moved when I touched them!

We decided to keep the “sick” cicada under observation. As expected it died the following day but the larvae were still there so we left it undisturbed.

It is now about one month after the find. One of the larvae that detached soon after the death of its host has apparently built a small cocoon attached to the glass jar but the other two that stayed on the dead cicada turned grey and are apparently dead.

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What I believe hatched from the cicada and made a cocoon in the glass jar.

I am afraid that the outcome of the cocoon will probably have to wait until our next visit, hopefully in 2019. In the meantime I can only speculate that, as it happens with caterpillars and other arthropods, the cicada was the victim of some parasitoids that have somehow colonized it. It is likely, as we other situations like this, that the larvae had eaten the cicada slowly until the damage created caused it to perish but not before the parasitoids, or at least some, were ready to leave the body and develop.

I will venture that these are larvae of a parasitoid wasp but I cannot be sure until the small cocoon hatches, if it ever does. However, having seen such an interesting interaction, I will watch for another cicada showing similar signs and follow it up.

 

Postcript: In the internet I learnt that some flies are important parasitoids of cicadas and that they locate them through their sound. It is also possible that the silky, pinkish filaments could be a fungal infection that follows the parasitoid’s damage of the host.

 

 

Spot the beast 42

I am still thinking that Spot the beast 41 was too difficult! To make up for this, I am presenting you with this (more dangerous) creature we found while walking in Carmelo, Uruguay.

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It is a venomous snake known locally as “yara”, “yarará” o crucera (crossed pit viper)(Bothrops alternatus). It is found in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina and, although not naturally aggressive, it is an important cause of snakebite. The reason for this is its reliance on its comouflage for protection. It is then easy to either step on it or nearby causing a defensive reaction that can end in a bite.

The venom is haemolytic and can cause serious tissue damage although is not as deadly as it is generally believed.