Seen and read

Curious and humorous observations.

Too close!

During our recent visit to Mana Pools National Park we saw a Yellow-billed stork (Mycteria ibis) feeding in one of the pools that give the name to the park. This was nothing strange as we often see these birds in that pool.

What was unusual was that the stork was feeding very close to a semi-submerged crocodile of a size that could have gone for it!

What else can I add? My immediate thought was that the stork meat must be so bad tasting that this is its best defence!

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See if you can spot this one. Please, do not look too much if you fail to find it in a few seconds…

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This one is really a different “Spot” as it is quite clear that we have a terrapin in front of us. However, have a good look at it.

I did not notice anything strange until my son, said “look at the terrapin doing Yoga”!

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It was rather hot in Roma so the beast was sunning one leg at a time at leisure!

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.

 

 

Landscape

While in Presidencia Roque Saenz Peña in the Chaco Province of Argentina (on our way to Salta) we came across this sighting. I wonder if you can guess what it is?

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It looks like some kind of terraces that could be of volcanic origin?

Not so. It is a finding I have not seen before: ant nests!

 

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They “sprouted” in the front of our hotel and their builders were some species of leaf-cutting ants busy carrying stuff to their nests. However, this cargo was not the usual green bits but yellow.

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Here they are in motion…

Curious, we followed the yellow ribbons for quite a long distance around the corner and immediately saw the “victim” about 50m away: a smallish tree still covered with yellow flowers despite the ongoing harvest.

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I am sure that in a couple of days the ants will have to look for other source of sustenance as the flowers would have gone!

 

 

A rhino in Rome

During earlier visits I have seen some of the big five in Rome and I described one of them already [1]. During our brief visit this month we were treated to a nowadays rare sight: an endangered white rhino under the Arc of Janus at the Via del Velabro, very close to the church of Santa María in Cosmedin where the famous Bocca della Veritá (Mouth of Truth) mask is located.

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IMG_3956 copyThe Arch of Janus, seen behind the rhino, is the only quadrifrons [2] arch in Rome. This arch has four facades and it was built at an important place and crossroads in antiquity, where the slope of the Palatine Hill (where most Emperors lived) coming from the centre of Rome met an important port on the Tiber River.

Interestingly, the experts say that the structure was built from pieces of other ruins, including the marble slabs that cover it. This construction method has enabled archaeologists to date the structure to the second half of the Fourth century.

Unfortunately, following an explosion that took place in the area in 1993, the arch was fenced and remained inaccessible to the public since then and it also remains unrestored. But now it has a rhino inside the fence…

The white rhino is there as part of a drive by the Fendi Foundation to give this less known area of Rome some visibility through the promotion of art at their Palazzo Rhinoceros nearby [3].

Hopefully, the presence of this very real-looking rhino that somehow surprised me will also promote its conservation!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/07/24/roman-elephant/

[2] In Greek “tetrapylon”, and in Latin “quadrifrons”, is a kind of ancient Roman arch of cubic shape, with a gate on each of the four sides. These kind of arches were generally built at crossroads.

[3] See: http://fondazionealdafendi-esperimenti.it/info/ and https://www.forbes.com/sites/liviahengel/2018/12/13/why-alda-fendi-is-giving-back-to-rome-with-new-arts-foundation/ – f4a4b7774d28

 

 

Thieves…

We have a few macadamia trees at home that have not yielded very much for luck of water. Last year we had very good rains so we were rewarded with a good harvest and we are busy drying them under the sun so that I can then proceed with the rather time-consuming exercise of opening them.

Macadamia’s shells are extremely hard and, after trying various methods, I have resorted to a vise in the workshop that so far is still working until its thread gives in!

Some time ago we have discovered hollowed out nuts in the garden and we could not believe that an animal could be so powerful as to gnaw such thick and hard shells! Eventually we found lots of empty nuts near a large hole and realized that we had a colony of Southern Giant Pouched Rats (Cricetomys ansorgei) [1].

After a while we stopped seeing them and they disappeared. Apparently they moved off our house one night in a group and entered under the gate of a neighbouring house but I was not a witness to this Pied-piper of Hamelin-like migration!

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The empty shells after the rats ate the tasty inside.

More recently, we noted that the nuts we were drying were being peeled from their green outer cover and taken away whole from the sunning box. We “smelled a rat”!

A search up and down the garden was organized and, eventually, a large hole was discovered at the farther corner of the garden. Suspecting that the giant rats were there I set up a camera trap pointing towards the suspected burrow and this is what I got:

We confirmed our fears as the various videos taken showed one rat at a time either entering or leaving the burrow. As I was curious to see how many there were, I decided to put some food hoping that they would gather to feed. Although I got over 180 ten-second videos, I still failed to get a rat gathering! However, I got a few that prompted me to write this post!

I have selected a few that I find interesting and/or funny. Please note that one is eating a few carrot pieces on the ground while the others are chewing a chunk of (delicious for humans at least) butternut hanging from a bush, the idea being that they would not drag it into their nest!

This giant rats are widely distributed in mainly tropical regions of southern Africa, notably Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I first saw them in Monze, Zambia while driving on the main road and I had difficulties stopping my Zambian workers from jumping from the moving vehicle to catch them as they consider them a delicacy!

Later, also in Zambia, Bruno, a colleague from Belgium, invited me with a surprise roast that happened to be delicious and it was a giant rat -as tasty as a piglet- with baked potatoes (tasting like potatoes!)! Giant rats were very abundant in that area at the time and I am sure contributed to food security of the village where the project was based.

Giant pouched rats are named after their large cheek pouches and they are only distantly related to the true rats. Recent studies place them in the family Nesomyidae and not in the Muridae as they used to be [2].

They are able to produce up to 10 litters of one to five young per annum and they are nocturnal and omnivorous with special taste for palm nuts and, as we have experienced, also for macadamia nuts. Interestingly, they are hind gut fermenters and coprophagous, producing pellets of semi-digested food that are consumed.

They are not only easily tamed as pets but useful for detecting land mines as they have an excellent sense of smell, particularly sniffing TNT while being too light to detonate the mines! But this is not all. They are also being trained to detect tuberculosis by smelling sputum samples. This procedure is faster than the normal diagnostic test and remarkably increases the sample processing. [3]

So a few disappeared nuts ended up producing an interesting story and  I am now positive that we  have a colony of rats (being fed on expensive macadamia nuts) that could potentially be bred to remove mines and improve human lives!

I regret now having eaten one (and liked it!) and I will not do it again!

 

[1] I am not a rat taxonomist so I base my identification more on distribution and abundance than on their morphology. The other possible species in Zimbabwe would be C. gambianus but the whole pouched rat taxonomy is under review. See: Olayemi, A. et. al. (2012). Taxonomy of the African giant pouched rats (Nesomyidae: Cricetomys): molecular and craniometric evidence support an unexpected high species diversity. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 165, 700–719.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_pouched_rat#cite_note-MetH-1. Seen on 6/12/18.

[3] https://www.apopo.org/en. Seen on 6/12/18.

 

Surfing heron!

Someone made a positive comment in YouTube about this video I took in Mana Pools and I looked at it again and liked it!!!

Hope you enjoy it also.

Secret insect life at Bangweulu

Often, apparently insignificant details reveal interesting facts when sometime is spent following them up. This was -again- the case while camping at the Nsobe campsite at the Bangweulu wetlands during our prelude to attempting to find the Shoebill storks.

As -aware of the differences- the landscape reminded me somehow of that of Intona Ranch in the Transmara of Kenya in the 80’s [1], I decided to look at some of the tree islands surrounding the one we were camping at. The similarities ended as these, although around termite mounds, were composed of different trees.

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The Bushsnob walking about in the Bwngweulu wetlands looking at the tree islands.

In one of the bushes nearby I observed that some leaves were yellow while others were just their normal shape and green. A better look showed that the yellow parts were in fact an enlarged part of the leaf itself. I thought it was probably a viral or fungal infection but, in any case, I collected a few for opening up as I was curious.

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Close-up of the malformation (gall).

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Similar lesions of Thryps infestation. Credit: Mr Thrips (Talk | contribs). [2]

I cut them lengthwise and found some tiny insects inside the galls!

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The capsules opened lengthwise to show their contents.

Luckily I had with me a “super macro’ lens given to me by my son (he likes gadgets!). This lens is applied to the cellphone camera and give you enlarged macro pictures like the ones I showed in from our bat house in Salta, Argentina [3].

Through the camera I could see an adult (black) insect, several white eggs and what looked like larvae or nymphs of the black insect walking about. In addition there was a large white insect that I assumed to be the female lying eggs according to its pulsating movement under the macro lens.

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Adult (black) with nymphs and eggs.

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Eggs and a nymph (reddish abdomen).

As I had no clue of what these could be, on return to Zimbabwe I resorted to the very helpful Plant Protection Research Institute of the National Research Council of South Africa as they had helped me in the past with insect identification and information. As usual, the reply came the next day and it was very revealing!

The host plant was identified as probably a Water berry tree belonging to the Syzygium (Family: Myrtaceae). It is likely to be Syzygium cordatum but I am not sure. In any case, the “leaf roll” or gall was the plant’s response to a kind of insect known as Thryps (Order: Thysanoptera), of which I have not heard before but later learnt that are important agriculture pests!

Adult Thryps have sucking mouthparts that cause damage by feeding on a plant’s fluids. The leaves respond curling tightly inwards developing the capsule I found. This structure protects the immature Thryps to develop and eventually disperse.

What I thought was an egg-laying female seems, according to the South African colleagues, a Hover fly larvae predating on the Thryps so there was also some drama going on in the dark!

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The suspected female was apparently a Hover fly larvae possibly predating on the Thryps.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] From https://thrips.info/wiki/Thrips_and_galls. Thryps and galls by Laurence Mound, CSIRO Ecosystems Sciences, Canberra.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2017/04/02/homely-bats/

 

Acknowledgement: Elizabeth Globbelaar and Michael Stiller of the Plant Protection Research Institute of the National Research Council of South Africa provided not only identification of plant and insects but also great information without which this post would not have been written.

Ostrich eggs

The Athi plains, adjacent to the Nairobi National Park (NNP), was another area we visited on weekends. The place was sprinkled with Maasai manyattas and the sound of cowbells accompanied the movement of their herds while grazing. It was open grassland where giraffes, wildebeests and Thomson’s gazelles would be usually found. Occasionally we would spot small flocks of ostriches intermingling with the herbivores.

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A Maasai manyatta.

Being rather obvious, ostriches could not hide very long from taxonomists and as early as 1758 Linnaeus had already labelled them as Struthio camelus. More than one hundred years later, more detailed observations followed and it was realized that Kenya hosted two different ostriches: the Maasai ostrich (S. c. massaicus) with a pink neck and its cousin, the Somali ostrich with a grey-blue neck. As the latter dwells in North-eastern Kenya, in the Athi plains we saw the Maasai sub-species.

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A male Maasai ostrich (S. c. massaicus).

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Somali ostrich (S. molybdophanes) photographed in the Samburu Reserve.

By luck one day while driving cross-country with our friend Paul enjoying the views and looking for a picnic spot our route was interrupted by a deep ravine. We needed to follow it for a while to find a crossing point when, lo and behold, at the bottom of it we spotted a female ostrich sitting on a nest and surrounded by eggs.

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The female sitting on her eggs. The “rejected” eggs are seen surrounding her.

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Judging by the couple dozen eggs or so that were not covered, we assumed that she had plenty more under her. As those outside would inevitably rot after the incubation was completed a maximum of forty days later, we decided that, once the adults and chicks moved off, we would collect some of the left over eggs that would be dead by then for emptying as we judged that there were enough to be shared with the Egyptian vultures and other possible predators.

Before I go on with the story, it has been reported [1] that, in general, wild ostriches lay their eggs in communal nests. Up to seven hens lay up to thirteen eggs each in the same shallow nest in the ground. Apparently, the “major” hen guards and later incubates the nest, helped by the male. As the female can only cover about twenty eggs the surplus eggs are moved out about 1one to two metres from the nest where they perish. But this is not all, the senior hen apparently recognizes her own eggs and keeps them!

Not having GPS technology at our disposal, we fixed the place as per the trees available and decided to have a look a couple of weeks later.

Somehow we forgot about the incubating hen but Paul did not and he visited the nest after a week and confirmed that the female and the eggs were still there. The following weekend, my wife and I decided to attempt finding the nest again. Surprisingly (we are not very good at bush driving!) we found what we thought was the right ravine but there was no trace of the female.

As usual, doubting that this was the right place we drove further along the donga until eventually we found the nest. Lots of broken shells were proof of a good hatching that we estimated in more than fifteen young! At the periphery of the nest, only a few eggs remained still intact and, as planned, we collected them (six in total) and took them home, hoping that they would not break “en route”!

A couple of days later Paul came to visit and told us that he had bad news: although he had found the nest, all the eggs had gone! So, he believed that someone had been there before us. After a good laugh, we showed him the eggs. Pleased, he recovered his normal good humour and mentioned that he will organize a garden “Ostrich egg blowing event”. He will invite a few common friends.

Somehow, prior to the event Paul managed to get a portable dentist drill that- he believed- would had been perfect for the job. So, when the day came, we went to his house carrying the eggs.

Paul and I (the veterinarians) were excited about the egg emptying exercise. Other friends (including all the ladies) were indifferent and focused on getting comfortable in the veranda to enjoy their sundowners and socialize! Only Timothy, our artist friend, decided to join us and immediately took possession of “his egg”. As Paul and I were used to strong odours, we did not think much of the exercise. I am not sure why Timothy was so keen on it and it remains a question up to today!

I am sure that you are all familiar with hydrogen sulphide (H2S) the gas responsible for the smell of the very few rotten eggs you find these days of “modern” farming and expiry dates. I had cleaned many bird eggs in my youth (including rhea ones) so I was fully aware of the risks! The technique I used consisted in drilling holes at both ends and -when the eggs are still liquid- blow through one hole to force the egg contents to come out through the other one. Not so easy with a large ostrich egg!

We set up the drill and lined our eggs very professionally on a table, at the other end of the veranda, as far away from the other guests as possible and Paul, claiming to be an expert on the dentist drill, started boring the first one with Timothy in attendance, holding his egg. The drill worked faster than anticipated and the egg eruption caught us (and the other guests albeit far) totally off guard!

The three of us failed to move away from the effects of the explosion as fast as the other guests that, luckily unharmed but proffering very bad words, swiftly trooped into the house and locked all openings to the veranda! We, the unsung heroes stayed put, covered by stinking egg gunk to complete the operation that involved repeating the process on four more eggs and then blow through them to empty them! Timothy had gone paler than his usual self and instants later started to retch while still holding to his egg with both hands.

“I think we will be better off on the grass” I said. Paul agreed and found an extension cable to plug the drill. We decided to use a garden hose to flush rather than blow the eggs contents so we went in search of the garden hose. As we walked in the garden we heard a noise and soon enough we met the retching Timothy seated on the grass while chipping at his egg with an awl. “Timothy”, Paul said, “do you want to prove something?” Amazingly, Timothy did not or could not reply but continued struggling.

We were about to finish washing our eggs clean when we heard a thud and heard loud swearing followed by more retching. Timothy had unplugged his egg! We helped him cleaning it. We had completed our job!

While carrying the eggs back to the house we got under proper illumination and we could only laugh at our condition while having a summary wash. The smell was so strong that we clearly did not understand it in its full intensity until we tried to enter the house. We found it locked and its occupants would only talk to us through locked doors or windows accompanied by rather rude sign language. Lengthy negotiations ensued. We protested that it was too cold to wash outside but our pleading was totally ignored so we had to agree and suffer the cold water. Finally under pressure we agreed to their demands that we would have a thorough wash with the hose outside and only then we would be allowed to enter the house straight to the bathroom while the guests moved to the kitchen for the duration of our showers!

We heard the door unlocking and someone said “You can come in now but straight to the shower, please” . We obeyed and, half naked, we went in under the scrutiny (and laughter) of the others. There was a small incident when Timothy was asked to leave his egg outside and he refused at first but, eventually he relented. We were then given towels and some of Paul’s clean clothes to wear for the evening.

Although we showered intensely and made use of Paul’s favourite perfumes, the smell was tough to remove so, although we were given the all clear  to dine, the three of us were eventually seated on a table away from the clean guests in a kind of “smell quarantine”.

The operation resulted in three eggs for us (for having collected them), two for Paul and one for Timothy (for his brave behaviour and also because we could not have taken the egg away from him!). The eggs still exist and are sitting on some special stands we eventually got made in Zambia for them. They look nice and do not smell at all now.

[1] Bertram, B.C. R. (1979). Ostriches recognise their own eggs and discard others. Nature 279, 233–234.