Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Return of the Giant Earwig (No, not that extinct one).


They are probably the largest order of insects that I am inclined to forget exists; a quick google search puts the number of described species close to 2,000; with their generally inconspicuous lifestyles, it's easy to imagine that twice that many species actually exist.

An easier number to reach are how many are recorded from Zambia; a rather unimpressive 17 (given that our 8 neighbours average 45 species each; and excluding the two arid/desert nations brings that up to 59) are listed by Fabian Haas on his excellent map which you should definitely look at. Even this isn't concrete - as with everything else, the community at large seems to forget that Zambia used to be called Northern Rhodesia, and any pre-60's record from 'Rhodesia - North' are generally attributed to the tropical quarters of Zimbabwe (even when they mention specifically Zambian sites, such as the Broken Hill mine; now Kabwe).

So far as I know, this is one of those 17:

Dacnodes cf. acutangula; photographed in Chongwe Distr., Lusaka Prov., Zambia in February 2016, using Olympus E420 with 40-150mm lens and 2 58mm KOOD magnifiers). 
This particular earwig is a member of the tropical genus Dacnodes, which I believe is largely Afrotropical, but with Dr. Haas' website playing up, I can't actually check up on). It is most probably Dacnodes acutangula Hincks, 1955, which is recorded from Zambia, but I'm not convinced of the distinction between D. acutangula and the more widespread Dacnodes caffra (Dohrn, 1867), which occurs in the wider region but doesn't appear to be recorded from Zambia.

And why should I care?

Well, because they're interesting. Not just phylogenetically - the position of Earwigs within the Insects has changed quite a bit over the years; they spent a good while being squashed in next to beetles before they settled into their current - more comfortable - space next to the grasshoppers and stick-insects.

This one's most striking feature is its size; it is - 
at least for an earwig, massive. 
For a sense of scale, here it is sitting on a 58mm (diameter) magnifier lens: 

But aside from being big and difficult to classify, they have suffered the long indignity of superstition; the very name 'Earwig' is a contraction of their Old-English name Ear-Wigca (ear-crawler), a nod to the still-prevalent belief that they are inclined to crawl into people's ears - a lot of insects do this accidentally, but none - and certainly not earwigs - do it as a regular habit.

Instead, most earwigs are either innocuous decomposers, predators of small insects (which some species, possibly including Dacnodes, rather impressively grab in their forceps) or nibblers of pollen and flowers; most go for a combination of all three. They often get into trouble because of the last habit, but one of the most widely-maligned flower-nibblers (a much smaller earwig in the genus Forficula) recently received something of a reprieve when it was found that, on wind-pollinated crops, the effect of occasional pollen-nibbling is hugely offset by its tendency to eat something else, far more destructive: pollen mites. Despite conspicuous damage to flowers, earwigs can actually improve their effectiveness by eating away smaller, often overlooked pests which do much more damage.

A bit of a ramble, but the upshot is: most earwigs are really quite unfussy about what they eat. This is not unheard of for insects - most true crickets are similarly catholic in their tastes - but it is unusual. And it does mean that - despite that (fairly) high-profile extinction of the (really) Giant St. Helena Earwig, which is double the length and much, much chubbier than this one.

But to be perfectly honest, my favourite thing about this Earwig has very little to do with the Earwig itself: Some [insert long, long list of expletives here] stole my Laptop in January this year, and with it, my pictures of a lot (a very lot) of invertebrates that I hadn't yet backed up.

Three days later, this was the first species that I had lost the pictures of to return to my computer - and - half-drowned in a swimming pool - it was very tolerant of a few dozen camera-flashes.

But, moving on swiftly and without delay, to see how it (currently) fits into our slow-growing tree-of-life:

Also includes web-spinners and stoneflies. 
Also includes the Dictyoptera, such as Idolomantis dentifrons and Sibylla pretiosa 
- Neoptera                                   
As well as the Polyneopterans, includes most major insect orders such as Dichtha inflataOedemera nobilisOtiorhynchus atroapterus,Malachius bipustulatus , Phyllobius pomaceusCheilomenes lunataMelolontha melolonthaNeojulodis vittipennisDemetrias atricapillusAnthia fornasiniiLophyra cf. differensSynagris proserpinaVespula germanicaAstata tropicalisAnthophora furcataAndrena nigroaeneaEnicospilus, Zebronia pheniceCrambus pascuellaNemophora degeerellaSphinx ligustriLaelia robustaAcada biseriataMetisella willemiAnthocharis cardaminesCatopsilia florellaPapilio demodocusPanorpa germanicaChloromyia formosaSenaspis haemorrhoaHelophilus pendulusEpisyrphus balteatusMetadon inermisDiasemopsis meigeniiDolichotachina caudataMegistocera filipesPephricusGrypocoris stysiRanatra and Anoplocnemis curvipes.
- Metapterygota                             
As well as the Neoptera, includes dragon and damselflies such as Pseudagrion hageniLestinogomphus angustusRhyothemis semihyalinaOrthetrum brachiale and  Enallagma cyathigerum.
- Pterygota                                         
In addition to the Metapterygota, includes the primitive Mayflies. 
- Dicondylia                                        
In addition to the familiar winged insects, includes several primitive, wingless orders such as the silverfish.  
- Insecta                                                
- Hexapoda                                              
- Arthropoda                                             
- Ecdysozoa                                                   
Other than the Arthropoda, includes mostly small, worm-like animals. 
- Protostomia                                                   
As well as the Ecdysozoa, includes the Lophotrochozoa; such as Burtoa nilotica.
- Nephrozoa                                                         
 - Bilateralia                                                                 
- Eumetazoa                                                                  
- Animalia                                                                        
- Eukaryota                                                                        

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Hemiblossia bouvieri, Kraepelin, 1899 - OR - a small Arachnid and a mid-length essay on my motivations.

At this point, I'm almost certain.


Male. Photographed in September, 2011, in Chongwe District, Lusaka, Zambia, using Olympus E-420 DSLR, Zuiko 40-150mm lens and 3 KOOD magnifiers.
To do away with any suspense (is there any?) this tiny little fellow is a Solifuge, specifically (with probably around 97 percent certainty)

Hemiblossia bouvieri
Kraepelin, 1899

 These more-or-less friendly little beasties have a number of names, and probably just as many myths surrounding them - in Afrikaans, they are Haarskeerder or Baardskeerder, reflecting the (likely incorrect) belief that they cut off the hair and beards of unsuspecting people, and use the hair to line their nests; the names Rooiroman is simply a translation of the english 'Red-Romans', which, along with the rather charming Jerrymunglum, is of unknown origin to me.

The Afrikaans tradition is actually quite a sweet belief in comparison to some: in North Africa and the Middle East, Solifuges have picked up the Anglophone name of 'Camel Spider', with which comes a host of beliefs; that they can outrun camels, that they develop parasitically within camels and chew their way out, or that they simply chew their way in for no apparent reason; that they inject sleeping soldiers with anaesthetics and then strip away the flesh - to the bone - while they sleep... in parts of Masa(a)i East Africa, they are held to be venomous, and the conventional wisdom is that goats' blood should be applied to the wound in treatment of this venom.

In Chewa, I cannot find a name for them; we're settling, then, for another direct translation - the 'Sun spider' becomes 'Dzuwa Kanguade' .

This name comes with its own associations and stories - the name for the order, 'Solifugae' literally means 'those that flee from the sun', which isn't - unusually - entirely inaccurate, but more on that later.

You see, the Solifuges are plagued by dichotomies. They have, for an arthropod, a most extraordinarily advanced eye - as if it wasn't unusual enough to have only the two, theirs represents, in evolutionary terms, the last step in the chain between the ever-popular compound eye and the visually rewarding 'simple' eye that we vertebrates are so lucky to possess; although the Solifuge eye is small, it is - at least in theory - capable of passing on a really quite accurate image of the world around them to their brain.

A good many species, though, hunt only at night and furthermore, almost entirely by touch.

The order is split between nocturnal and diurnal species, but - unlike, for example, the birds, where the nocturnal species are almost all found in just two evolutionary lines (Caprimulgiformes and Strigiformes), nocturnal species make up a significant chunk of a great many of the larger genera, and most - if not all - of the families show representatives of both groups.

Of the day active species, many are at their most active in the hottest part of the day; which - in the tropics - is a rather questionable life choice for a small, relatively soft-bodied invertebrate; presumably to offset this, these thermally naive species are often noted for their tendency to chase shadows - which, although it presumably limits their chances of being boiled alive at an essentially predator-free time of day, does mean that they are frequently perceived as aggressors by the already quite invertebrate-unfriendly human race, and met with a boot or a faceful of insecticide.

Before we get onto talking about me, there is one more dichotomy to mention: these are small, relatively slow moving (very fast within their size-group, but not compared to, say, us) invertebrates, whose inability to cross geographic barriers is made apparent by the restriction of entire families to Southern Africa, and yet - along with hundreds of species recorded only from single sites - there are a handful of species that are - apparently validly - recorded from the entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa.

And now onto the other part. 

Several months ago, I posted this picture on the - wonderful - Spider Club of Southern Africa face-book page, hoping that someone could help me get started on its identification: my experience with this group was not remotely taxonomic - it consisted largely of panicking when one fell off the ceiling into my food.

Very quickly, someone told me that it looked like a member of a particular family (Daesiidae), but they couldn't be sure.

Shortly thereafter, an authority whose opinion I held, and continue to hold, in great esteem, posted their 2 cents.

They stated that these could not be identified - even to family - from a photograph, and that a captive male was required for any form of I.D.

This might very well have been the end of it, except that, off the back of the first post, I had already been digging up what I could (on the gobsmackingly fantastic and completely FREE biodiversity heritage library) on the Daesiidae within southern Africa.

I'd dug up quite a lot.

I'd identified that mine was male, and I'd identified that its peculiar, membranous flagellum was clearly unlike the vast majority of illustrations I could find of genera known to occur in southern africa. Several families could be quite easily ruled out and, within the only family that couldn't, most genera were similarly quite clearly inappropriate for my little (tiny) find.

So I said as much on the post, and asked whether, given that I understood that a great many Solifugae were impossible to identify from photographs, I was correct in all my readings of the word 'Distinctive', 'Unique' and 'Diagnostic' in the original literature.

The response wasn't snarky. It wasn't even unkind. But it was dismissive.

In that response, it was abundantly clear that this acknowledged expert - whom only hours previously I have been ecstatic to have received any contact from at all - had not even read what I had written. This should not have been a problem - if there are two things that I am exceptionally good at, it's being told that I'm wrong, and falling off things. The skin of my forearms and knees is really quite thick, and more importantly, my brain is by now quite happy to let go of something it formerly held to be true.

So all should, you would think, be as it was. I should have moved on and left the Solifuges alone, safe in the knowledge that in a few years time, they would be genetically barcoded, and we could identify them by snipping bits off living, breathing organisms and sending it to some cold, mechanical lab in Boston. Or something.

But my dismisser also repeated something he had said in his first statement. Something which I now had empirical proof was abundantly not true: that a male was required for any concrete identification.

This is not an unusual view - males of many animals are not usually more abundant, but they are usually more conspicuous and, often, more unusual in their form, and this is reflected in descriptions of the types.

However, this species, and the genus that Kraepelin created for it, were originally described from females.

If a species and a genus that are still held to be valid over a century later, even when a dozen or so species variously described from males and females have be added to the genus since, based on a sample composed entirely of females, it's safe to say that some identification can be made within this group based on the females.

My dismisser, in my admittedly rather warped mind, had used his position as a pre-eminent arachnologist to fuel a lie. I was, in a word, enraged.

Which is why now, one hundred species and a third of the way through transcribing the entirety of the type descriptions of known Southern African Solifuges, I can tell you that the person most responsible for this somewhat misogynistic view of arachnid identification was a gentleman by the name of R. F. Lawrence, who had the common indecency to die, and leave southern Africa without its most prolific author on these wonderful little monsters. The forty years that have passed since that saw increasingly few publications, and without publications and citations, much of the original literature more-or-less disappeared, making it essentially impossible to identify species. The fact that Roewer had, in 1933, written a lengthy treatise on Solifugae from all over the world was somewhat irrelevant if nobody knew it existed. South Africa's first noteworthy Boer (actually half-Boer) scientist, William Purcell, might as well have never been born, for all the inattention to almost everything he had ever written .

This is a travesty, not only because I have an automatic soft-spot for people who share my genetic mix-ups, but also because knowledge was degrading. If it got much further, the original descriptions would be better off scrapped, and, at least for my favourite subcontinent, the entire order would have be redescribed as though it was new; considering how limited many Solifuges are in their distribution, quite a few of them could very well have gone extinct in the last century, and if their original descriptions disappeared - what then? Would we not count that as a loss because, for taxonomic purposes, they never existed?

I told you that this was going to be a mid-length essay; I lied. I know it's a long one. I know it borders on the fantastical, but these concerns aren't entirely unreal. This order has an extraordinary level of endemism; endemic species are the first to be pushed over the edge and into oblivion, and if no-one even knows that they exist, how would we know if they had ceased to?

Well, now that doesn't have to happen. The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a fantastic project to put all of this information online, and - even if I give up and fail halfway through my personal attack on these type descriptions - information is being clawed back from the edge of nothing.

The internet, in its own special way, is saving the world.

No, I'm not certifiable. Daylight saving has ended, which is always unsettling. 

If anyone is interested in this group more generally, I really recommend The Solpugid Website, which, although it lacks much in the way of information on African species, does, crucially, have a lengthy list of all known citations for this order, which is even more valuable when you realise that many of these come with downloadable PDFs of the same citations.

For those that don't? BHL. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Potentially Tomopterna cryptotis (Boulenger, 1907)

This little chule troubles me.

Photographed 04/01/2014 using Olympus E-420 DSLR with 40-150mm Zuiko lens and 1 KOOD magnifier. Chongwe, Lusaka, Zambia.

I had originally filed it as Leptopelis bocagii; a mistake made much easier by the here almost perfectly round pupil; unlike Leptopelis, however, I'm fairly sure that in daylight, this little frog has a horizontal pupil.

It does, at a glance, resemble Leptopelis as found on the farm - it is a chubby, pale frog, active at night and not overly active, with a faint, symmetrical dorsal pattern. It is blunt-faced, rough-skinned, and - unlike our other locally common chubby, burrowing frog, Breviceps powerii - it can, at least in theory, jump.

But then there came doubt. Leptopelis bocagii, and our other Arthroleptid (Arthroleptis stenodactylus) both show rough skin on their bellies; this one, although it's not at its most visible here, has a clean, bright white belly all the way back.

Unlike L. bocagii , it also has a little, almost glandular ridge running around the corner of its mouth, giving it a decidedly disapproving expression that seems to be most commonly associated with Ranidae, and certainly seems to be absent from the Arthroleptidae. In fact, ignoring the colouring - which is in the first place very variable, and in the second place is often paler at night, especially when a frog's been taking a swim in a chlorinated pool - and noting that the pupil is, in this instance, uninformative, it's actually got very little to relate him to Leptopelis; the snout is too bulbous, the legs are too short, and the tympanum (ear) is very nearly invisible.

And finally, there was a little white protuberance on the heel of the back foot:

 Which all seems to point, at least in theory, to the sand frogs (Tomopterna). The nearly invisible Tympanum - which is somewhat more visible in the first picture, where the animal's overall colour is paler - would suggest Tomopterna cryptotis, but at least two other species - T. krugerensis and T. tandyi; if this is, actually, Tomopterna at all, the call is listed as the only reliable way to separate these three; T. cryptotis is our tentative identification only because the other two have not, to my knowledge, been recorded from Zambia.

It's worth noting that they are not usually found in swimming pools; they are typically associated with rivers and temporary pools, where they bury themselves in the sand when the water retreats - the little flange on the foot is an aid to rapid burrowing. There are, however, several small streams and rivers in the wider area, some of them barely an hours walk away, which quite likely went from dry to flooded in the weeks before this little one was found.

As far as frogs are concerned, I have bypassed my commitment to freely available literature, and instead use Alan Channing's Amphibians of Central and Southern Africa; it's awesome and I really feel that more people should own it.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Trigonidium cicindeloides (possibly), Rambur 1838


It's summer. It's very hot. There are lots of insects around and about in the UK right now, and I've been tormenting them with the camera while completely failing to maintain this blog.

This is not one of them:

Male? Chongwe, Lusaka, Zambia, March 2013. Olympus E-420 DSLR with Zuiko 40-150mm lens and 3 KOOD magnifiers.

This little chukululu is, as you may guess from the Chewa introduction, a Zambian. In other languages, this widespread subfamily of crickets are known as Sword-tail crickets  in English, and Käfergrille (~black cricket) in German. To, as we've been attempting without much success, give it a more specific label in Chewa, we could translate the English directly to Lupanga-Khombo Chukululu, or perhaps, with an attempt at grammatical correctness, Chukululu ndi Khombo yonga Lupanga.

A more specific identity is a little iffy; it does belong to the genus Trigonidium, and bears a very strong resemblance to members of its putative species,

Trigonidium (Trigonidium) cicindeloides
Rambur, 1838.

There are, however, a fair number of Trigonidium species native to sub-Saharan Africa. None of them, interestingly, are noted by the - brilliant -  Orthoptera Species File as recorded from Zambia, but at least two very distinct forms are present in Chongwe district, which correspond in form closely to two widely distributed species recorded from neighbouring countries or - in the case of T. cicindeloides - recorded from an interrupted range of countries that suggest its presence in Zambia. While there are other species described from neighbouring countries, these are of such limited known range and recent distribution that it would be incautious to predict their presence in Zambia.

The location itself is further suggestive of the species the two so closely resemble - both were in an agricultural, regularly disturbed area not far from Lusaka city; notably widespread species, recorded - as both this and the (unshown) T. erythrocephala are - primarily from the most developed corners of the continent - are more likely to have the adaptability to survive, and even thrive, in such a human-dominated environment.

So, waffle over, and another angle of our little lupanga-khombo chukululu

Eukaryota; Animalia; Eumetazoa; Bilateralia; Nephrozoa; Protostomia; Ecdysozoa; Arthropoda; Hexapoda; Insecta; Dicondylia; Pterygota; Metapterygota; Neoptera; Polyneoptera; Anartioptera; Polyorthoptera; Orthopterida; Panorthoptera; Orthoptera; Ensifera; Grylloidea; Gryllidae; Trigonidiinae; Trigonidiini.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Enicospilus - Stephens, 1835

National insect week continues!

The japantarra [Central Bearded Dragon - Walpiri] honours this by consuming as many as he possibly can in as short a time as possible. Of course, he does that every week, so it's unlikely that he's actually aware of the event.

Here's one that won't be going down his throat:

Chongwe, Lusaka, Zambia, February 2013. Photographed using Olympus E-420 DSLR, Zuiko 40-150mm lens and 3 KOOD magnifiers.

In Chewa dialects, this - and numerous species both similar and dissimilar - are referred to as Abemberezi (singular form bemberezi), a group of insects of particular benefit to both farmers and scientists; in English - and related languages - these are the Ichneumon wasps.

Their use to farmers is twofold: first, like almost all wasps, the adults are valuable pollinators; second, ichneumon wasps are one of the most diverse groups of parasitoids on land; animals which spend a significant period of their life as a parasite on or within another animal.

This second point is where the ichneumons stand out from other wasps; unlike potter wasps such as Synagris proserpina [link], most ichneumons are rather specific in their choice of baby-food, with any species usually sticking to a particular family, genus or species as a host for their developing larvae.

The upshot of all this is that a farmer having a particular problem with any given insect pest can encourage or introduce a selection of species that are known to preferentially parasitize that species, and, so long as chemical control doesn't wipe out the pest or the parasitoid, their problem will be kept at a manageable level thereafter.

While abemberezi are interesting to scientists in a great many ways, they - along with a diversity of other parasitoids - are of particular value as biological indicators.

You may or may not be aware that the top of the food chain is, in evolutionary terms, a very dangerous place to be. It is. Being fussy at the top of the food chain, although a great way to avoid competitive exclusion, is an even better way to go extinct.

Imagine, if you will, that any healthy population required only eight individuals in that species (which would be very low). If a species is a producer (a plant, algae or various bacteria), it only needs enough resources to be available to support eight individuals. Provided that no competitive exclusion, mass predation or cataclysmic event wipes them out, they'll generally survive.

Now say that a herbivore of about the same size as the plant exists, and it needs a population of, conveniently, eight plants, in order for enough food to support it to be consistently available.

Now we need sixty-four plants, in order to support those eight herbivores.

And those herbivores have a predator, again of similar size and, by a curious coincidence (I like the number eight today), requiring a population of around eight herbivores to eat so that it doesn't eat them faster than they can breed (and yes, this is a laughably low figure). That means we need at least sixty-four herbivores to support our predator, and its seven colleagues, and 512 plants.

We are, of course, assuming that these plants, herbivores and carnivores are the only species around and lack disease and exist in a perfectly stable environment.

In this environment, we could perhaps expect a tertiary consumer, or top predator. Think about eagles preying on falcons, or wolves eating pet dogs. That sort of thing. Anyway, the same rules apply about how many need to be around for him to not eat them too fast.

Anyway, this now gets to 4096 plants that need to be alive and well at any given time.

So now, we introduce the real world.

Populations fluctuate. A surprise abundance of plants due to good rain one year means that the rabbits are healthy enough to have an extra litter and double their numbers. Before fox populations can respond, the rabbits have eaten the plants down to their roots and after the winter, only 130 rabbits have survived.

Bad news for the foxes, only sixteen of whom can survive this famine, although, on a happy note - given how dispersed the foxes are within the environment at this stage - not even the two wolves who might theoretically have managed to survive on this population can forage efficiently, so these surviving foxes do quite well for themselves, and only one wolf makes it through the winter.

Oops. No more wolves. Ever.

This is not a real world example. But it serves its purpose well; no matter how fragile the situation gets in the lower levels, the most dangerous place to be is always the top. This used to apply to business, too, until the British Government started bailing out failing giants at the taxpayers expense...

But I digress.

As a parasitoid is essentially a specialist predator, it is in an extremely fragile position and, although some species may thrive in disturbed environments, a diverse assemblage of parasitoid wasps is usually a good indicator of an intact invertebrate fauna - which itself is an indicator of high-value habitats worthy of protection and/or study.

That has to be the most words it has ever taken anyone to get to the point.

Anyhow, this wasp is a member of the vast genus,

Stephens, 1835

And as such, probably parasitises a selection of Noctuoid moths (such as, but probably not its actual host, the Erebid Laelia robusta [link]). 

Also, it's somewhat bizarre and alienesque. Here's another picture, to give you more of an idea of its form:

And that, folks, is all.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Catopsilia florella (Fabricius 1775)

Four days into national insect week, it seems as though it would be atrocious if I allowed the long-standing funk I seem to be in to stop me from posting something appropriate.

I had planned a lengthy discourse with tons of pictures of invertebrates, but focusing on anything lately has not been very doable (you may have noticed, in the unlikely event that you read through it, that the lengthy taxonomic notes have disappeared from recent posts. Which makes navigation harder, but saves about half an hour of distractedly re-doing the same thing.

Anyway, whining over, meet today's guest:

Lusaka City, Lusaka Province, Zambia, in October 2011. Photographed with Olympus E-420 DSLR, Zuiko 40-150mm lens and 3 KOOD magnifiers.
This soft-touch of an entry to a blog supposedly focusing on under-loved groups (in my defence, it was suggested by a random number generator) is one of Zambia's many Agulugufe (Chewa - plural of gulugufe), but is far from endemic; it extends through most of Africa, including island nations such as Madagascar and the Canary islands - which, having remained a territory (=colony) of Spain, is often used by entomologists to say that the butterfly is found in Europe. A little bit like saying that penguins breed on British shores when they're actually in the Falklands, but I digress.

This gulugufe is also found as far east as India and Sri Lanka (பட்டாம், ~Pattaam in Tamil; तितली, ~Dtidt(a)li in Hindi), and just in case you hadn't worked it out from the picture, the English term is Butterfly. 

As an etymological aside, one Chewa term for these distinctly user-friendly insects is Peperu, which is, to my ears at least, surprisingly close to the French Papillon.

As with a lot of insects which are not particularly edible, a common name specific to the species is difficult to find in Chewa; the most direct translation from the English '[African] Migrant' I can find is Matchona, which means migrant workers, and, by its structure and the persistent use of Zimbabwe in the example usages, would seem to refer even more specifically to members of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, who make up a considerable proportion of migrant workers in Zambia and Malawi.

So I am forced to think more broadly for a Chewa name to reflect the nature of these insects; Mlendo, which translates most directly to Guest, but can also mean Stranger, Tourist, Foreigner or Traveller, seems the most appropriate.

Our Mlendo Gulugufe can be referred to, internationally, as

Catopsilia florella
(Fabricius, 1775)

Within the butterflies, it is in a generally not white subfamily (Coliadinae) of the 'White' Butterflies (gugulufe loyera), the Pieridae, of which only one other butterfly has thus far been featured, the also not-white (but in the largely white-ish subfamily, Pierinae) Eurasian Orange-Tip, Anthocharis cardamines

Same as opening image, but only 1 KOOD magnifier.
As with most butterflies, there is sexual dimorphism (males and females look different), but with the Mlendo Gugulufe it is imperfect; while the individual to the right(the same one pictured at the top of the post) shows a colour form found in both males and females, the more cryptic colouring  of the specimen below is only known from females. 

Photographed in Chongwe, Lusaka, Zambia, in February 2013, using Olympus E-420 DSLR and 40-150mm Zuiko lens with 1 KOOD magnifier.

And that, folks, is all.

For the identification of large and distinctive African butterflies, the most comprehensive guide I've found affordable is Steve Woodhall's Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa, published through Struik and available through Amazon (here). As I remain the world's biggest fan of free information, I can't go without mentioning the late R. C. Dening's collection, which, although not as user friendly, is more appropriate to Zambia and, key point, freely accessible online (click here to visit it).

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Podiceps cristatus (Linnaeus, 1758)

It's nearly National Insect Week.

This, by the way, is not an insect.

Attenborough Reserve, Nottingham, UK, in June 2014. Photographed using Olympus E-420 DSLR and Zuiko 70-300mm telephoto lens. Edited using GIMP to remove unwanted element from bottom right corner.

I know, it's a long unbroken string of vertebrates, which is somewhat biased, but that's life.

This lovely bird is, however, quite important for British insects.

It, like most British wildlife with any hint of the exotic in its appearance, was almost wiped out through overhunting. It was fortunate in its timing, however, as the peak of its destruction coincided with the existence of one Emily Williamson, who, in 1889, began a campaign to put life before fashionable hats.

This, to avoid unnecessary drama, was the foundation of the RSPB, one of several organisations now responsible for a large number of Britain's nature reserves and, despite some questionable management choices in some reserves, a major player in the conservation of the diversity of British insects.

The tenuous link to the upcoming insect week is not the only interesting thing about this lovely bird; it's also extraordinarily adapted to an aquatic lifestyle; their legs, perfectly positioned for swimming, are completely inappropriate for supporting the adult's weight on dry land, and cannot do so for more than a few steps.

This presents an obvious problems; watertight though they are, the amniotic membrane cannot usually absorb enough oxygen to sustain a growing bird if it's partially or wholly submerged. A nest on the immediate edge of the water, which would allow a bird limited to the water easy access and escape, is extremely vulnerable to changing water levels, which would limit the birds to extremely stable environments.

This bird, however, survives - and arguably even thrives - all over Europe, Asia, Australia and parts of Africa, and breed in a number of areas where water levels are rarely reliable.

So they build a nest that maintains a constant distance from the water, by building their nest on top of the water, and when their chicks hatch, the first order of business is teaching them to swim.

Nottingham, July 2013. Olympus E-420 DSLR and 70-300mm Zuiko lens.

This comes in an act of rather heartless parenting. First, they give the babies a tour of the neighbourhood while perched on Daddy's back. Once they're used

to this, Daddy swims away and leaves the babies to work out how to get back to him.

Still, it's not all bad - the chicks seen in the photograph to the right were several weeks past water-dumping age, but were still allowed to pass a lot of their time enjoying the scenery from the safety of their parents wings.

So what, drumroll please, is this mystery bird? Why, it's the great crested grebe (Puteketeke in New Zealand's Maori language; Kuifkopdobbertjie in Afrikaans; or Grèbe huppé  in French),

Podiceps cristatus  

(Linnaeus, 1758)

And that, folks, is all!

Friday, 9 May 2014

Chamaeleo dilepis, Leach, 1819

Welcome to a bit of a picture heavy post.

This lovely lizard is the subject of a bit of a family obsession:

Photographed in Chongwe, Lusaka, Zambia in December 2013, using Olympus E-420 DSLR
and Zuiko 70-300 telephoto lens.

As far as current knowledge goes, this is the only member of its family native to the Lusaka area. A significant chunk of my school time was spent retrieving these lizards from the centre of a panicked crowd and removing them to a safe distance.

There is a widespread distrust of chameleons in Sub-Saharan Africa - in Lusaka, the traditional myth seems to be that if you are bitten, you are cursed and one of your family is going to die. In the city, this is generally transmuted to their being highly venomous, or harbouring deadly bacteria on their teeth - All of which is patently not true. An angry specimen, with sharply defined markings and throat inflated to show brightly coloured skin usually hidden in folds, can look quite imposing, but having handled countless terrified individuals through my life, and been bitten well over twenty times (my father, notably, once demonstrated their harmlessness by allowing one to bite him on the tongue), I can confirm that it's bite is less painful and no more dangerous than being pinched by someone with medium-length fingernails. 

Have a look at another individual pretending to be twig while I babble about language:

Chongwe, Lusaka, Zambia in October 2011, using
Olympus E-420 with 40-150mm Zuiko lens

I'm not familiar with any Afrikaans names for this creature - a Chewa term is Birimankhwe, considering the more-or-less interchangeable nature of  'L' and 'R' in many Zambian dialects, its Soli name of Bilimankhwe is essentially identical. Kalilombe and Likakatuwe (both Chewa) are usually for larger specimens; Nanzikambe and Tonkhwetonkhwe are also listed by my Chewa dictionary, although I don't recall hearing either of these, or Likakatuwe, in use.

A closely related species is present in southern parts of Europe; in Spanish, Camaleón, which is more-or-less representative of most European names for this lizard (including the English Chameleon).

Further east, a number of species are found on the Indian subcontinent, and the Tamil  பச்சோந்தி

(~Pachonti) is possibly my favourite non-Zambian name.

The only species known to be present over much of Zambia, and extending across most of Sub-Saharan Africa, in English this is known as the Flap Necked Chameleon; internationally, it is most reliably referred to by its Linnaean binomial, which is:

Chamaeleo dilepis
 Leach, 1819

As previously noted, no other Chameleon species are known from most of Zambia (with the exception of a Nyika plateau endemic) - which, given the diversity of species in East Africa and Southern Africa, is possibly due to a lack of any real study rather than a missing diversity. Tellingly, in a country which is naturally forested, the only known chameleon is one of the least forest-dependent of the non-dwarf chameleons, and may simply have been the only species to survive widespread deforestation - often by fire in the inhabited portions of the country.

Although it is most readily encountered moving between trees, it is not limited to . Eggs, as with several other chameleon species, are buried underground, and, in areas with a marked winter season, won't hatch until a year later.

Smaller juveniles - like this hatchling from Chongwe - seem much happier on the ground than adults. This one was found sleeping on a grass-stalk a couple of feet above the waterlogged earth during a thunderstorm (only feet from the previously posted Zonocerus elegans) in January 2014.

Although individual colour changes are usually limited to darker or lighter tones of a base colour, with an increased apparency of dark stripes and spots being the common reaction to a human approach, the species displays an extraordinary diversity in individual colours; from rusty orange (Chongwe, October 2011)  to a lime green (Chongwe, March 2013):

Although abirimankhwe are generally of quite sensitive temperament, young individuals are often not overly concerned when handled - although the polka-dot appearance of the specimen in the right hand image is an indicator of stress, less than a minute later, it was comfortable enough to catch a grasshopper from its perch on my index finger.

Despite a dark spotting being associated with distress, this large female - bright green and darkly spotted when found trying to hide from passing cars on a road, fading to a leafy green before her release - seemed to grow darker as she headed for the canopy of a large tree, in a quite different pattern to her (not photographed) distress speckles:

Photographed in Chongwe, Lusaka, Zambia in September 2011,
using Olympus E-420 DSLR and 40-150mm Zuiko lens.

And with that rather lengthy preamble, and a record six pictures in one post, on with the taxonomy:

- Chamaeleoninae
- Chameleonidae    
- 'Acrodonta'            
 A bit of a questionable taxon, but see also Agama armata
 - Iguania                      
As noted in a recent reptile post, things get iffy and unsatisfactorily named here. The next grouping on from Iguania is with snakes and allied groups - for which see also Psammophis mossambicus and Thelotornis capensis; and thereafter with the Skinks and wall lizards (e.g. Afroablepharus wahlbergii, Trachylepis varia ,Trachylepis striata wahlbergi and Zootoca vivipara) and eventually the geckos (for example Lygodactylus capensis). This completes the:
- Squamata                       
- Lepidosauria                   
- Lepidosauromorpha         
- Sauria                                 
- Diapsida                                  
- Romeriida                                 
- Reptilia                                      
- Amniota                                      
- Reptiliomorpha                             
- Tetrapoda                                       
- Sarcopterygii                                    
- Osteichthys                                       
- Teleostomi                                          
- Gnathostomata                                     
- Vertebrata                                              
- Craniata                                                  
- Chordata                                                  
- Deuterostomia                                           
- Nephrozoa                                                   
See also Nephila fenestrata, Enoplognatha ovata, Argiope bruennichi, Alopecosa barbipes, Phrynarachne rugosa, Hyllus argyrotoxus, Enoplognatha ovata, Argiope bruennichi, Pardosa amentata, Dysdera crocata, Dicranopalpus ramosus, Ligia oceanica, Dichtha inflata, Oedemera nobilis, Otiorhynchus atroapterus,Malachius bipustulatus , Phyllobius pomaceus, Cheilomenes lunata, Melolontha melolontha, Neojulodis vittipennis, Demetrias atricapillusAnthia fornasinii, Lophyra cf. differens, Synagris proserpina, Vespula germanica, Astata tropicalis, Anthophora furcata, Andrena nigroaenea, Zebronia phenice, Crambus pascuella, Nemophora degeerella, Sphinx ligustri, Laelia robusta, Acada biseriata, Metisella willemi, Anthocharis cardamines, Papilio demodocus, Panorpa germanica, Chloromyia formosa, Senaspis haemorrhoa, Helophilus pendulus, Episyrphus balteatus, Metadon inermis, Diasemopsis meigeniiDolichotachina caudata, Megistocera filipes, Pephricus, Grypocoris stysiRanatra, Anoplocnemis curvipes, Idolomantis dentifrons, Sibylla pretiosa, Tettigonia viridissima, Stictogryllacris punctata, Enyaliopsis, Zonocerus elegans, Humbe tenuicornis, Lobosceliana loboscelis, Cyathosternum prehensile, Heteropternis thoracica, Pseudothericles jallae, Enallagma cyathigerum, Pseudagrion hageni, Lestinogomphus angustus, Rhyothemis semihyalina, Orthetrum brachiale and Burtoa nilotica.
  - Bilateralia                                                        
- Eumetazoa                                                        
- Animalia                                                             
- Eukaryota                                                            

And that's all folks!

My sister, whose primary vocations are more creative than mine by far, also has a thing for chameleons, and much of her art - including several commissions - features these wonderful lizards.
See a limited selection of her artwork online at