Photo: Wild Dog… deep in thought

Just look into those eyes… I wonder what it’s thinking? Deep, existential stuff, no doubt… Maybe it understands that it’s one of the very last of its kind. 


But whatever it’s thinking, it’s probably thinking about a heck of a lot more than its buddy below is. I think this one’s a bit special. I’ve always got love for the underdogs.


Hoofnote: Only a tiny fraction of wild dogs will ever be lucky enough to breed and pass on their genes. Only the alpha males and females are worthy of the privilege. Something I understand far too well. Love.

Crocodiles: The Hot Sex Edition

We saw a crocodile on game drive this morning! Isn’t that fun? We don’t see them often, so it’s a pretty big deal.

  
But did you know…

… That temperature determines a crocodile’s sex? Yep, the temperature that the crocodile’s eggs sit at in the nest will determine if those hatchlings are little boy crocodiles or little girl crocodiles.

It’s called ‘temperature dependent sex determination.’ Or TSD. It’s a reptile thing.

It’s been shown that boys (‘crocomales’) incubate within a really tiny temperature range; between 31.7 and 34.5 degrees C. Any colder than that, and you’ve got girls. Any hotter and you’ve also got girls.

It means that within a single nest you’ll have a cool female:male:female sex ratio.

Conclusion: girl crocodiles are hotter. But colder. But hotter.

I drew an exquisite diagram showing exactly how this process works.

 

artistic genius. i take all the credit for this.

 
Hoofnote: As is TSD wasn’t enough to make crocodiles interesting, you should also know that crocodiles are the only animal in South Africa that see humans as natural prey. When they eat us, it’s fair game.

This morning’s game drive sightings:

Crocodile

Zebra

Giraffe

White rhino

Elephant 

Nyala 

Buffalo 

Impala

Woolly necked stork

Gorgeous bush shrike

Black backed puffback

Safari Moments: the Lemon Breasted Dung Beetle

Here’s a safari classic from a far-too-recent game drive.

Me: “Ooooh look! There’s a dung beetle crossing the road!”

*pull up alongside dung beetle, hop out and pick him up, after all, he’s not busy doing any important dung beetly stuff*

Me: “Dung beetle!”

*hold dung beetle up proudly, a la Mufasa presenting the future king – guests take photos*

Me: “Isn’t this dung beetle just brilliant?”

Guest: “What is this?”

Me: “It’s a dung beetle. They spend their lives rolling poo around.”

Guest: “And what do you call it?”

Me: “It’s a dung beetle.”

*guests keep taking photos, I keep praising the dung beetle’s resilience and usefulness*

Guest: “What animal is this?”

Me: “A DUNG BEE TUL.”

Guest: “Ah, so it’s a small bird.Like a canary?”

Me: “Yes.”

Me: *puts dung beetle down on the nearest pile of poo. Drives away.*

you wonder why we need signs like this?

South Africa Needs an Easter Bunny

Happy Easter! Or at least I think it’s Easter. They don’t tell safari guides about things like this and we’re left to figure it out for ourselves.

I’ve always loved Easter the most. Who doesn’t live for the morning of Easter sunday, when you scour the house for tiny, metallic easter eggs tucked into weird corners and crevices? Oh right, South Africans. Because South Africa doesn’t do Easter. At least not properly. A few days ago, I was in town shopping specifically for Easter eggs, and I couldn’t find a single one. The closest I got was a bar of imported Thornton’s chocolate, which isn’t even remotely Easterish. Let down? For sure.

 

this was my easter chocolate this year. i feel sorry for me.

 
I just wanted a bunny.

But did you know that bunnies don’t go down well in other parts of the world? When I spent Easter 2010 in Australia, they were campaigning for the ‘Easter Bilby.’ Why? Bunnies are an invasive species who have largely displaced the indigenous bilby. I ended up not only with my very own Eater bilby, but a chocolate Koala as well. And you know what? I’ll take that. Because it’s so much better than what I ended up with this year.

 

easter bilby! love it.

 
South Africa doesn’t do bunnies either. Instead, they do individually wrapped, gooey inedible chocolate marshmallow blobs that they call ‘Easter eggs.’ I propose we need a bunny. And much like the Australians have done, I think our bunny should be something indigenous and kudutastic.

So here are the contenders:

Scrub Hare

An iconic South African. We see a lot of them on on our safaris. But we see so many because they’re really common. And they eat their own poo. Do we really need a chocolate version? Probably not.

bunny rating: 2/10

 

image by Bernard Dupont and used under creative commons. because i’ve never got a good scrub hare photo…

 
Aardvark

How about an Easter aardvark? An aardvark weighs up to 65 kgs, which is so much chocolate. Its thick tail and chunky body would work really well. They eat termites, so there’s the option to fill the hollow chocolate shell with something like little honeycomb pieces that look like termites. They also go by the name ‘ant bear,’ and I would definitely eat an ‘Easter ant bear.’

bunny rating: 9/10

 

i’ve only ever seen one aardvark and I didnt photograph it. so this is taken from ‘Smithers Land Mammals of Southern Africa’ 1986.

 
Elephant Shrew

Why not? It’s in the ‘Little Five,’ which is way cooler than the ‘Big 5.’ ‘Easter Elephant Shrew’ also rolls off the tongue quite nicely. Their noses are super cute. But… those spindly four toed feet and their long, thin tails won’t translate well into chocolate. I want my Easter bunnies hollow, yet robust. It’s a no go for the elephant shrew.

bunny rating: 4/10

 

taxidermy elephant shrew? heck yes! image by Miguel Mendez and used under creative commons

 
Riverine Rabbit

You only find this critically endangered lagomorph in the Karoo desert of South Africa. It’s so rare because we’ve destroyed much of their former habitat with our agricultural practices. Surely, this is the South African bilby counterpart. Raise awareness for one of our most endangered species by eating a representation of it once a year? I love it! Also, it’s fairly big and would work nicely in hollow chocolate form.

bunny rating: 9/10

 

i doubt i’ll ever get to see a riverine rabbit. this image is also from Smithers 1986

 
Spring Hare

Spring hares are simply fabulous. And the name is also fitting. Spring. Except it’s not. Easter in South Africa comes in Autumn. These kangaroos of the Kalahari would make a great easter bunny. And yet, they suffer the same downfall as the elephant shrew; the spring hare’s long tail that allows it to balance while it hops about, is likely to break during the shipping process if it was made from hollow milk chocolate. But still, it’s tempting…

bunny rating: 6/10

 

i have tons of springhare photos from my kalahari days, but they just arent good! image by Revolutionrock1976 and used under creative commons

 
In conclusion? I think South Africa definitely needs an Easter Riverine Rabbit. The opportunities for conservation through chocolate are endless. But let’s also go for the Easter aardvark, and make it our own truly South African Easter bunny.

Much love and Easter ant bears, Safariosophy.

I’m Feeling Really ‘Ticked On’

I love that every living thing on our planet is here for a reason. From the massive to the microscopic, everything has evolved into their own fabulous little niches where they’ve adapted to thrive and pass on those genes of theirs. Even if we might think those genes and their carriers are somewhat annoying…

Some people might argue that there’s no place for the irritating little mosquito buzzing around our ears. But there is! Without mosquitos, the animals that eat them and their larvae would suffer, as would the things that eat the things that eat them, and the things that eat those. And it’s not the nicest thing to think about, but mosquitos and the diseases they transmit play a huge role in ‘thinning out’ weak populations of animals, preventing over crowding and making sure that only the traits of the very fittest animals get to carry over to the next generation. They’re an integral part of the ‘web of life’ and the exact same thing can be said of, well, everything.

 

isn’t she pretty?

 
A couple of weeks ago, I was on a walking safari and this little sweetheart caught my attention. She’s a bont tick, and isn’t she darling? I nearly couldn’t pull myself away. I was mesmerized, and quite rightly so. For her to make it to that bush where I photographed her, she’s had a heck of a life.

Let’s start from the very beginning where she would have been one of thousands of siblings from the same mom. She would have been born a rather tiny little nymph and would have had to wait patiently somewhere near the ground for her first host animal to come along. She was very small and there’s a good chance her first host was too. Maybe she attached herself to something like a hare or a rat. I’ve even seen ticks latched onto insects. After a tasty blood meal on that first animal, she would have fallen off and waiting for the next, bigger animal to pass by. After hitching a ride and stealing plenty of blood from that one, she would have fallen off again and moulted into an adult on the ground. And here’s where I found her; an adult tick waiting for a nice big host to walk by. Big like a buffalo. She’d attach herself to that buffalo, eat some more blood, find a hot boyfriend somewhere on that buffalo and then fall off to lay a few thousand eggs. Lifecycle complete. I wished her well. But I didn’t want her on me.

I think that ticks are still kind of misunderstood. They’re actually eight legged arachnids like spiders and scorpions. Their abdomens tend to be soft, so they can expand when they’re full of our blood. Or a buffalo’s blood. Or a tortoise’s blood. Or a lion’s blood. They’re not too picky. Any blood will do. And A LOT of ticks will attach themselves to one animal. Something really big like a giraffe or a buffalo might have as many as 20,000 ticks; more if it’s not feeling very well. Even the little guys like impalas are likely to have a good few thousand ticks crammed into every crevice. You’ll have seen oxpecker birds picking at ticks on animals, and they do help somewhat, but they’re just no match for such numbers.

The best thing about ticks is the fact that their mouthparts are called a ‘gnathosoma.‘ How can you even begin to dislike a creature that has something called a gnathosoma? You can’t. Although this week, I certainly tried.

I’ve spent nearly the last two weeks with tick bite fever. Tick bite fever is a nasty bacterial infection that happens when you’re bitten by an infected tick. And it sucks. Because of where my bite was, the infection went straight to the glands at the top of my right leg and rendered me completely useless. I usually go about my day at the pace of an ADHD-afflicted honey bee, but with my tick bite, I was forced to slow. Right. Down. In some ways, it was a real blessing to experience life at a gentler pace.

I could have lived with my tick bite, if walking slow with an achy leg was all that happened. But by about day four, the fever started to kick in. The worst headaches I’ve ever had were accompanied by whimpers of ‘I hate everything’ over and over again any time I was forced to crawl or limp anywhere. It’s the sickest I’ve been in a long time. Around this time, the middle of my tick bite started to go black. Ew.

Please don’t let your safari or your trip to Africa get screwed up by tick bite fever. Take precautions if you know you’ll be walking. Tick bite fever can be prevented by using a good bug repellent when you’re out in the bush, but I haven’t seen a bug repellent that actually works on sale in South Africa since 2008, so it’s best to bring your own. The big symptoms show up 5-7 days after being bitten and most people don’t know they have it until then. The real tell-tale symptom is the black mark in the middle of the bite. If you’ve got that, you’ve probably got tick bite fever. Luckily, it’s easily treated with antibiotics (although I maintain mine did nothing) and can even be left alone to run its course. It should be over in less than two weeks. I’m going to hold it to that, because I still feel terrible!

Despite all this, I think I love ticks even more. This little episode has given me a deeper appreciation of their resilience, their diversity, their beauty and above all, their gnathosomas.  Love.

this is my tick bite. i know. pretty gross…

The Truck and the Tortoise: an excerpt from Dung Beetle Soap Opera

Preview time! The following is a snippet (because I adore the word ‘snippet’) from my next book, ‘Dung Beetle Soap Opera.’

 

different day, different tortoise…

 

“How cute is that? Look! We’re being charged by a tortoise!”

Yep. I was right. We were indeed being charged by a tortoise. A leopard tortoise to be exact. You’d be amazed at how quickly they can ‘run’ when they want to. In this case, the tortoise wanted to move because we’d suddenly pulled up to a dam in those hottest few minutes of the day, thus indadvertedly presenting the tortoise with an irresistible piece of shade.  Before I’d even brought the vehicle to a stop he was racing for us and the cover we promised. It was sweet.

“He’s gone under!” a guest observed as the tortoise slid from view and disappeared under my driver’s side door of the Land Cruiser.

We all moved instinctively to the left side of the vehicle expecting the tortoise to reappear again and make his way down to the dam. He didn’t. Minutes past and it became obvious that he’d made himself quite comfortable down there. It felt good to be of some assistance in providing the tortoise with some shade, but we couldn’t spend our whole game drive parked with a tortoise underneath us. I couldn’t safely move away either. The prospect of crushing him wasn’t one I wanted to entertain. Until he moved, we couldn’t move.

“I think that turtle’s gone to sleep, Ella,” another of my guests offered. “How you gonna get him out?”

Turtle. Ugh. Not a turtle. The names ‘turtle’ and ‘tortoise’ still get used interchangeably, but I can’t blame anyone for that. When I became a guide, I learned for the first time that the critters I’d been calling ‘turtles’ my whole life aren’t actually turtles at all. As a child, I even kept a collection of pet turtles. Except they weren’t turtles. It seems my mom had it right all along. At the time I thought a ‘terrapin’ was just the European way of incorrectly referring to turtles. I’d snap at her every time she talked about my little friends as ‘terrapins.’ “They’re NOT terrapins! They’re TURTLES!” at which point I’d storm out of the room like only a nine year old could.

Nope, they were terrapins.

From now on, let’s start calling them all by the correct names. Here’s how: Firstly, everything that we would describe as a ‘turtle’ belongs to the order chelonii. Within the chelonians, there are three distinct families, the tortoises, the terrapins and of course, the turtles.

So… turtles. Good place to start. A ‘turtle’ is what we’d call a sea turtle. Living in our world’s oceans with their giant flippers. Think Finding Nemo. Most of us will never get the chance to see a real turtle in the wild.  They’re divine.

But we’re much more likely to meet a tortoise. A tortoise lives on the land and just as in cartoons, it can pull its head and limbs safely within the confines of its shell – something a turtle can’t do. Instead of having flippers, it has sharp claws which give it traction as it moves across the land. Tortoises are very common in South Africa, where we have fourteen species of them. However, you’re most likely to see the uber-common leopard tortoise. Like the one sitting under my car.

Now on to the terrapins. One of the easiest ways to make a quick distinction between a tortoise or a terrapin is to look at where it is. Is it on the land? Tortoise. Is it in a body of freshwater? Terrapin. But not always. Leopard tortoises have been known to swim if they really need to and all terrapin species move across the land from time to time looking for better food or water. So failing that method, look at their feet. You can’t go wrong with their feet. Both have claws, but the terrapin’s feet are webbed. It’s a bit sad to think you can’t call them turtles anymore, isn’t it? Teenage Mutant Ninja Terrapins? Doesn’t really work…

So there you have it; three different chelonians adapted to three different lifestyles. Tortoises on land, terrapins in fresh water and turtles in saltwater.

I explained these distinctions to my guests. It took a bit of practice, but they got it in the end. Hopefully they’d never call a tortoise a ‘terrapin’ again…

That addressed, now I could get on to the matter at hand. How I was ‘gonna get him out….’