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When I think of China, I tend to imagine coastal China or the Yangtze River valley—which is to say areas of tremendous human population density where neighbor lives smashed up against neighbor and black smokestacks belch poison smoke onto the churning masses. Yet China is truly vast and parts of the nation are among the least densely populated places on Earth. The great northwest deserts of China are a land of shifting sands, xeric scrubland, and nothingness. Yet the dry wasteland is home to one of the world’s rarest and fanciest leaping rodents.
The Long-eared Jerboa, Euchoreutes naso, is an insect-eating, long-jumping, mouse-like creature which lives in the deserts of China and Mongolia. The animal’s habits are largely unknown–since it is a master of stealth and also since it lives in such an unforgiving and desolate regions where biologists are infrequent guests. The long-eared jerboa is sufficiently distinct that it is classified in its own genus and its own subfamily. It is (self-evidently) notable for its long ears which it uses to hunt insects in the desert nights and to avoid predators.
The animal is lightweight with a mass of only 24 g (0.85 oz) to 38 g (1.3 oz) and its body is small, measuring from 70 mm (2.8 in) to 90 mm (3.5 in)—although its tail is just as long as its body so the whole creature measures up to 180 mm long (7 inches) if you count the tail. Like other jerboas, this species probably excavate burrows where they rest during the day. Because they are so enigmatic and poorly understood (and also so endearing), the long-eared jerboas are a kind of symbol of truly wild creatures and the little rodent was identified as one of the top-10 “focal species” in 2007 by the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) project.
The Adenium genus is made up of tiny evergreen tree from the dogbane family. The succulent trees come from Africa where they can be found in the Sahel (the semi-arid strip running along the south of the Sahara) and similar dry scrublands down the continent to South Africa. The most famous species is Adenium obesum, a little shrub which grows from 1 to 3 meters (3 to 9 feet) in height and bears dazzling five petaled flowers that look like glowing stars of pink, red, and white. The flowers are widely cultivated as houseplants known as the desert rose (although they are in no way closely related to true roses). A whole group of enthusiasts hold contests to determine who can hybridize the prettiest flower or cultivate the most striking ornamental bonsai trees.
In addition to their dazzling flowers, Adenium plants are known for having bulbous interestingly-shaped caudexes. A caudex is the woody barrel-like stem/trunk in which certain desert trees and shrubs store precious liquids. Adeniums are very lovely but their loveliness should not obscure the fact that the wild specimens survive in one of the more punishingly competitive ecosystems on Earth–where all sorts of hungry grazers are desperately looking for meals. To survive in Africa’s scrublands, Adeniums are not only hardy plants which can live almost anywhere on very little water, they are also poisonous. Adeniums produce a cocktail of cardiac glycosides-compounds which affect the electrophysiology of the heart. Although these molecules (and other related cardiac glycosides such as those found in the foxglove) can be therapeutic in very tiny doses for certain heart conditions, in larger doses they are poisonous and cause the heart’s rhythm to fail altogether. Thus, a plant known to American housewives as an frou-frou ornamental houseplant is known as the source of horrifying arrow poison to many of Africa’s toughest native hunters, who use the compound to kill big game.