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The spur-winged goose (Plectropterus gambensis) is a large waterfowl which is quite common in wetlands throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  Adults are 75–115 cm (30–45 in) long and weigh up to 7 kg (15 pounds).  The bird is a close relative of both true geese and shelducks (although they aren’t really geese or ducks but have their own genus).  They are intelligent gregarious birds which live in flocks of around 50.  They look somewhat plain—their feathers are dun, sable, and white, and their faces and beaks are red–like geese badly made up to look like vultures. Yet spur-winged geese are amazing animals in several respects (I mean beyond just being geese–which live for decades, have complicated social lives, and can fly across whole continents).

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Spur-winged geese have a habit of eating blister beetles and storing the poisonous cantharidin from the insects within their bodies.  Cantharidin has a long strange history in human society which you can look up on your own (it was known as “Spanish Fly”), however it is principally notable for being poisonous: 10 mg of cantharidin is enough to kill an adult human!  Spur-winged geese–particularly those which live in and around the Gambiaare often poisonous–or at least they have flesh which is toxic to humans.

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Additionally, males have dinosaur-like spurs on their wings which they use, dinosaur-like, to fight each other for females.  These wing-spurs are not trivial.  Poultry keepers who have tried to keep the spur-winged goose with other birds have suffered losses to the fearsome sharpened wrist-spurs (and the aggressive territoriality of the spur-winged males).

Probably the most remarkable thing about the spur-winged goose though is its speed.  These birds are blazing fast.   They appear on shortlists with crazy birds like peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, swifts, and frigatebirds.  Although they cannot dive at speeds approaching the raptors or maneuver like the swifts,  spur-winged geese can really move quickly.  When the goose gets up to speed, it can travel 142 kilometers per hour (88 miles per hour).  It is as fast as the Delorean in Back to the Future (though it apparently lacks time-traveling abilities).

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So, to sum up the spur-winged goose: it is an omnivore which lives throughout the most competitive ecosystems of Africa. It has fighting spurs on its wings, can fly as fast as a World War I warplane, and is toxic. I guess I am saying that you need to respect the spur-winged goose!

c_gariepinus2

Here is a stamp which combines two of my fascinations—catfish and Namibia.  Of course Namibia is a vast and profoundly arid desert—literally a sea of sand—so perhaps you are wondering how a catfish made it onto their postage.  Well the African sharptooth catfish (Clarias gariepinus) has a habit of getting everywhere.  It lives throughout most of Africa and the Middle East and (though ill-conceived aquaculture) has established colonies in Vietnam, India, Brazil, and Indonesia.  The catfish is an air breather.  It can sip pure air without the use of its gills, so it can survive in puddles, mud wallows, and even in filthy anaerobic water.  Some of them have moved into the sewers of big cities.  Speaking of big it is arguably Africa’s largest catfish with an average adult length of 1–1.5 m (3 ft 3 inches –4 ft 11 inches).  Even in a dry land like Namibia this tough persistent catfish manages to find watercourses of one sort or another.  Like its close cousin, the walking catfish of Asia, the African sharptooth catfish is a remarkable creature.

African sharptooth catfish (C. gariepinus)

African sharptooth catfish (C. gariepinus)

Angolan Coral Snake (Aspidelaps lubricus cowlesi)

Angolan Coral Snake (Aspidelaps lubricus cowlesi)

I promised to flesh out last week’s Angola post with an entry concerning the animals and culture of that West African nation. Although the greater kudu can be found in Angola, it lives in such a broad swatch of Africa, that I don’t feel I have satisfied the requirement. So today, allow me to present a very Angolan animal—the Angolan coral snake (Aspidelaps lubricus), which lives in the Namib Desert of southern Angola and on down through Namibia into South Africa. Well, actually, the Angolan coral snake is technically Aspidelaps lubricus cowlesi—a subspecies of the Cape Coral snake, but the appearance, habitat, and behavior of the animals within the same species is so similar, that I am not sure the distinction is meaningful except maybe to people onsessed over minor differences in snake coloration.

The Cape Coral Snake (Aspidelaps lubricus)

The Cape Coral Snake (Aspidelaps lubricus)

 

Aspidelaps lubricus perfectly illustrates how coral snakes and cobras are in the same family, the Elapidae. This little snake has coral snake stripes & a cobra hood. Adult snakes only grow to 60 cm (2 feet) in length and they spend a great deal of time underground. The snakes live in arid scrublands and along the edges of deserts where they feed on small rodents, lizards, insects, and strangely fish (if they can find them). The venom of Aspidelaps lubricus is a dangerous neurotoxin—but the snake is small with little fangs and not very aggressive. To date it has never caused any human deaths (although it still might be a mistake to pet it like a small dog or a guinea pig).

Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi

Recently I have become a bit obsessed with beautiful Africa, humankind’s original home. I know a few things about the natural history of Africa (which, after all, plays a critical role in the dance of the continents and the history of plant and animal life), but Africa’s human history—particularly recently—is sadly opaque to me. To make up for my ignorance, I am going on a blog journey across Africa from east to west.

Cichlids of Lake Malawi

Cichlids of Lake Malawi

Of course I could never afford to go on a real African journey, so we are doing this symbolically—specifically through national flags, which change with the frequency of streetlights in Africa’s um, dynamic political landscape. We already began our journey in the Indian Ocean on the microcontinent of Madagascar. We then traveled across the Malagasy strait to Mozambique, which features one of the craziest flags in the world. Today we push on west into the Great Rift Valley which runs down across Africa from Syria to central Mozambique and is slowly ripping the continent into two pieces (which geologists have named the Somali and the Nubian tectonic plates). As the plates are pushed apart, the area between them sinks down and fills up with water. Someday the entire fissure will become a great shallow sea, but at present it is a series of spectacular lakes including Lake Malawi (pictured in the two images above).

MalawiMap2

A millennium ago, various hunter-gathering peoples inhabited the plains to the west of Lake Malawi, but, in the 10th and 11th centuries AD, a great migration of farming Bantu peoples filled up these fertile lands. Great kingdoms burgeoned and fell. Then, in the early modern era, the entire area fell prey to horrors: the rapacious Portuguese appeared along the coast, and, worse, the Swahili-Arab slave trade captured people and funneled them north to Somalia, Turkey, and the Gulf kingdoms. In 1891, the British annexed Malawi after the frequently misplaced explorer, David Livingston, reported that it would be a fine site for European style farming (Livingston was also a devout Christian who despised slavery, so he may have also been dreaming of helping the African inhabitants of Malawi with his suggestion). Malawi gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1964 as part of a great wave of African independence, but sadly the nation fell immediately beneath the thumb of a totalitarian dictator, Hastings Banda, who clung to power until 1994.

Lilongwe, Capital of Malawi

Lilongwe, Capital of Malawi

Today Malawi is one of the most densely populated yet economically underdeveloped nations in the world. Livingston was right—the land is a great location for farming (and fish are available from Lake Malawi) yet there are few mineral resources, and the country is landlocked. People can survive, but not necessarily get ahead. The problem is compounded because the friendly and goodhearted people of Malawi are quick to offer sanctuary to refugees from nearby wars, political crackdowns, and disasters. Malawi has comparatively good relations with the great western democracies who have offered it great hunks of financial aid (with the usual terms and interests). The little nation is also friendly with rising China–and indeed the Chinese are rushing there to find new markets and set up shop (and are also welcomed with surprising good grace).

The Flag of Malawi (1964-2010: 2012-present)

The Flag of Malawi (1964-2010: 2012-present)

Oh, right, I was going to talk about the flag of Malawi. The first flag of Malawi was adopted in 1964 when Malawi gained independence from Great Britain. This flag (above) was a tricolor of black, red, and green modeled after the famous pan-African flag (which in turn was designed in New York in the 1920s as a high-minded response to a racist song). Unfortunately, the Pan-African flag has seen some low moments and has frequently been associated with extremist political movements or wrapped around tinpot dictators throughout Africa’s turbulent recent history (particularly by Libya, which harbored (harbors?) dreams of a Libya-led unified Africa).

Pan-African flag

Pan-African flag

The Malawi flag of 1964 placed the black bar at the top of the flag and set a red rising sun within it to celebrate the dawn of a new great era. In 2012, the president of Malawi Bingu wa Mutharika, decided that the original flag did not clearly represent Malawi and he pushed forward a new flag, which was a red, black, and green flag (with a white sun within the central black bar). The white sun was meant to represent economic progress (in lieu of actual economic progress, of which there was little). The citizens of Malawi regarded this as an irrelevant and egoistic maneuver by the president and they derisively labeled the new flag as Bingu’s flag. In 2012, after Bingu’s death, the parliament voted to re-adopt the old flag which is now restored to its official standing. All of this has caused dismay to model UN clubs and atlas publishers everywhere: it is unclear whether the pettifogging changes back and forth have done anything to help the likable yet impoverished citizens of Malawi.

Flag of Malawi (2010-2012)

Flag of Malawi (2010-2012)

Welwitschia mirabilis in Namib Naukluft Park

Welwitschia mirabilis in Namib Naukluft Park

The Namib Desert is probably the oldest desert on Earth.  Because of the quirks of plate tectonics and geology, it has been the same hot arid landscape since West Gondwanaland shifted to its present position along the Tropic of Capricorn nearly 130 million years ago!  Some of the regional plants and animals of the Namib Desert have had a very long time to adapt to the baking sun and shifting sands of West Africa’s Skeleton Coast.  The sandswimming (and misnamed) golden mole is a prime example of the strange animals which live in the Namib, but an even weirder organism is the ancient monotypic plant Welwitschia mirabilis.  As the sole member of its own genus, family, and order, the plant is a bizarre evolutionary loner.  This suits the strange plant well–since some specimens exist in stupendous isolation, far from all other plants in the midst of great desolate plains.  There, single plants can live for up to two millennia or longer, in environs which would swiftly kill most other living things.  Their distinctive appearance—a huge convoluted heap of withered ancient leaves of immense length—is a sort of trademark of the Namib Desert.

The coat of arms of Namibia features one at the bottom

The coat of arms of Namibia features one at the bottom

But Welwitschia mirabilis is even stranger than its bizarre appearance and lifestyle first indicate.  It is one of the last three surviving gnetales—a division of the ancient gymnosperms (which also include conifers, cycads, and ginkgos).  Botanists are still arguing about the exact taxonomy of the gnetales, but they seem to have evolved in the Jurassic era.  As the dinosaurs came and went, as the seas rose and fell and great ice sheets carved the world and then melted, welwitschia has sat in its inhospitable corner of the globe and quietly prospered (even as all of its close relatives died away).

A young Welwitschia

A young Welwitschia

Each welwitschia has only two strap-like leaves which grow continuously over its long life.  As the desert winds rip into the plant, these leaves become shredded into different ribbons and segments, but they remain the same two leaves—growing longer and longer like some tangled Rapunzel.  The all-important taproot of the plants is just as strange—a huge shallow water collecting disk which has approximately the same radius as the length of the leaves.  Each plant has its own gender and they are pollinated by flies and desert Hemiptera (true bugs).

Welwitschia mirabilis with a dangerous African animal species

Welwitschia mirabilis with a dangerous African animal species

Oddly enough, in our world of mass extinction, welwitschia plants are doing fine.  Although collectors have gathered some, there are still plenty left in places where people do not want to go. The plants in tumultuous Angola are better protected than those in democratic, ecologically-minded Namibia (simply because Angola’s many wars have left vast, unmapped zones of landmines where people never venture).  The welwitschia’s hermit-like asceticism is a very good strategy in our hedonistic Anthropocene world.

05

Felis silvestris lybica

Felis silvestris lybica


Aww! Wook at the wittle puddy-tat… Argh! Wait, that isn’t a puddy cat at all, it is actually Felis silvestris lybica, the African wildcat, a formidable crepuscular predator which ranges across the Sahara and Sahal up through the Arabian Peninsula and around the Caspian Sea. Although they are remarkable hunters, African wildcats are not large—males measure 46–57 cm (18–22 in) in head-to-body length (discounting the elegant tail) and weigh from 3.2 to 4.5 kg (7 to 10 lbs). Using stealth, speed, retractable claws, and athletic lunges, the wildcats hunt and kill everything smaller than themselves: small mammals are their main prey but cats also kill birds, reptiles, insects, amphibians, and miscellaneous arthropods. African wildcats hunt mostly at dawn and dusk, but thanks to incredibly keen senses, they can also hunt at day or night.
An African wildcat executes an insane flip while hunting doves

An African wildcat executes an insane flip while hunting doves


The senses of the African wildcat are truly astonishing. Their large vertically slitted eyes are extremely efficient in brightest day or in the faintest light (thanks partly to the tapetum lucidum—a layer of reflective cells at the back of the eye which reflects light back into the photoreceptors). Wildcat hearing is among the best in the animal kingdom—they can hear many ultrasonic noises inaudible to humans and dogs (cats developed this sense because many rodents and insects communicate with such noises). Their large mobile ears further augment their acute hearing. Although they do not have the unbelievable noses of dogs or wolves, wildcats have an amazing sense of smell which is estimated to be 14 times more acute than a human’s. Additionally, their heads (and particularly their faces) are covered with vibrissae (whiskers) to help wildcats sense vibrations and navigate in tight pitch black spaces.
African wildcat close-up

African wildcat close-up


As well as keen senses, African wildcats possess other features which help them fit into their harsh arid environment. They have striped stippled coats which are the color of rocks, dry grass, and earth—so they blend in to most environments effortlessly (although they tend to have lighter colored bellies). Living in vast deserts, African wildcats have shockingly efficient kidneys. The animals can live without water on the fluid from prey animals. If necessary, they can rehydrate with seawater. They can also survive extremely hot temperatures and do not show discomfort until 52 °C (126 °F).
African wildcat kitten

African wildcat kitten


Felis silvestris lybica is actually one of several subspecies of old world wildcat Felis silvestris which ranges across all of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Wildcats are very, very versatile, resilient, and effective predators, yet all of the subspecies of wildcat are gradually losing their genetic diversity except for the African wild cat. This is because of interbreeding with the domestic cat Felis silvestris catus. As you have probably gathered by now, domestic cats descend directly from a handful of African wildcats which were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent between 10,000 and 9,000 years ago when humans first became grain farmers. The first domestic cat was found buried in a Neolithic grave in Cyprus which dates back to 9,500 years ago. The wildcats (Felis silvestris) are all fully fertile when breeding across species, so some of the differences between the wildcat and the domestic cat are fairly arbitrary.
Eek, there is an African wildcat in my living room! Wait, that's my beloved housepet Sepia. You can tell by, um, the white bib and gloves...I guess?

Eek, there is an African wildcat in my living room! Wait, that’s my beloved housepet Sepia. You can tell by, um, the white bib and gloves…I guess?

killer_2Dbee

One of the ongoing horror stories from when I was in middle school was the invasion of the Africanized killer bees.  In retrospect, it all sounds like a xenophobic horror movie from the 1950s, but people were truly alarmed back in the 80s.  There were sensationalist news stories featuring the death of children and animated maps of the killer bees spreading unstoppably across America.  The narrative was that mad scientists in South America had hybridized super-aggressive African bees with European bees in an attempt to create superbees (better able to survive in the tropics and produce more honey).  These “Africanized” bees then escaped and started heading north, killing innocent humans and devastating local hives as they invaded.

An animated map of the spread of killer bees (uploaded to Wikipedia by uploaded by Huw Powell)

An animated map of the spread of killer bees (uploaded to Wikipedia by uploaded by Huw Powell)

The amazing thing about this story is that it is all true.  In the 1950s a biologist named Warwick E. Kerr imported 26 queen bees (of subspecies Apis mellifera scutellata) from the Great Lakes area of Africa to Brazil.  A replacement beekeeper allowed the queens to escape in 1957 and they began to interbreed with local bees (of the European subspecies Apis mellifera ligustica and Apis mellifera iberiensis).  The resulting hybridized bees were indeed better able to survive the tropics and quicker to reproduce, but they were also more defensive of their hives, more inclined to sting, and more likely to swarm (i.e. get together in a big angry cloud and fly off somewhere else when they felt unhappy).   The killer bees (for want of a better term) could more readily live like wild bees in ground cavities and hollow trees.  The hybrid bees out-competed local honeybees and spread across the continent.  Sometimes aggressive queens would enter domestic hives and kill the old queen and take over!

Don't make her angry!

Don’t make her angry!

Although Ancient Egypt may have been an early adapter of apiculture, Sub Saharan African societies did not practice beekeeping but hewed to the ancient tradition of bee-robbing.   The African subspecies of honeybees came from a more challenging environment than the European subspecies.  Forced to contend with deep droughts and fiendish predators (like the infamously stubborn honey badger), the bees are more defensive and more mobile than their northern counterparts.  Apis mellifera scutellata is famous for not backing down from raiders but instead stinging them with dogged determination until the intruder flees far from their hive.  This has led to unfortunate instances of children, infirm adults, and people with bee allergies falling down and being stung to death (which sounds like a really bad end) by the American hybrid.  The sting of an Africanized bee is no more puissant than that of a European honeybee (and it also results in the death of the bee) but dozens—or hundreds—of stings can add up to kill a healthy adult.

(largely) satiric

(largely) satiric

The entire Africanized bee event was really a case of anti-domestication.  Imagine if everyone’s dogs were suddenly replaced by wolves or if placid white-and-black cows were supplanted by ravening aurochs.   If you follow that bizarre thought to its logical conclusion, you will anticipate what actually happened.  Although initially dismayed, Brazilian beekeepers began to discover more placid strains of Africanized bees and started to redomesticate them.  The hybrid bees do indeed produce more honey, survive droughts better, and it is believed they have a greater resistance to the dreaded colony collapse sweeping through honey bee population.  Perhaps in the fullness of time we will learn to love the infamous killer bees.

Africanized "friend" bees?

Africanized “friend” bee?

Ah Florida…sultry weather, orange groves, glistening beaches, pouting beauties, and palm trees…but also walking catfish, killer snakes, and now giant mollusks!  The semi-tropical peninsula is prey to wave after wave of exotic animal invaders.  The most-recent problem creatures are giant African snails, immense land snails that can grow up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) long. There are three extremely similar species of giant snails which come from West Africa: the giant African snail (Achatina fulica), the giant Ghana tiger snail (Achatina achatina), and the margies (Archachatina marginata).  Each snail has a brown swirly shell and grows to be about the size of an adult’s fist.

Archachatina marginata

The giant snails eat over 500 varieties of plants—including the majority of agricultural and ornamental species.  They also have a taste for stucco and siding so some Floridians now awaken to discover that huge mollusks are literally devouring their houses.  The snails are hermaphrodites and can lay up to 12000 eggs per year.  They can survive freezing temperatures.

Authorities continue to investigate how the snails got into the country but increasingly the evidence points to…voodoo.

In the Yoruba creation myth, the entire world was once water.  The god Obatala possessed a magic snail shell which contained earth. Acting on instructions from the supreme divinity Olódùmarè, Obatala cast this land upon the oceans, thus creating the continents.  Obatala then molded the land into men and beasts–but he possessed an artist’s temperament and thirst. As he crafted the Earth and its inhabitants he drank so much palm wine that his mental clarity became dulled and he made big parts of existence wrong.  Eventually he passed out altogether and his brother Oduduwa was left to finish the work and patch up the errors as best as he could.  Unfortunately big parts of humanity were assembled incorrectly and these flaws remain in evidence everywhere…

Obatala

Anyway a mainstay of Obatala worship is the sacrifice of snails (in memory of the primordial snail shell which contained the first earth).  Apparently one of Obatala’s worshippers illegally brought some giant African snails into Florida for religious reasons and they escaped from him.

So, to recap, a smuggler who worships a drunken deity brought giant hermaphrodite snails in to Florida as a religious devotion to his addled god.  Unfortunately the snails escaped and they are now eating people’s homes. Argh! What is wrong with us?  I’m going to go drink some palm wine…

Next time please just light a votive candle!

The Crown of Ardra (made by an unknown goldsmith, 1664)

Behold the majestic Crown of Ardra!

Well actually, the crown might look regal, but it is only made of velvet, copper, and glass.  It was crafted in 1664 by an unknown English goldsmith as an impressive (but inexpensive) gift for the king of Ardra, a tiny slave-trading kingdom on the Bight of Benin.

Though worthless (aside from its antiquity and workmanship), the crown reveals a great deal about the era during which it was made.  In 1663, the Duke of York (Lord Admiral of the British Navy and brother to Charles II ) had sent an expedition to the West African coast to capture Dutch forts and trading posts.  Then in 1664, the English expelled the Dutch from North America by taking over the New Netherlands colonies (which were renamed in honor of the Lord Admiral).  The lands in North America were not especially valuable, however the Dutch coveted access to Africa, so in 1664, the Dutch navy struck back.  A fleet led by Michiel de Ruyter recaptured the African posts (before sailing across the Atlantic to make a punitive raid on the English colonies in North America).  This colonial grasping served the purpose of both sides–each of which was trying to goad the other into outright war.  The 2nd Anglo-Dutch War was declared in 1665.

Michiel de Ruyter (Ferdinand Bol, 1667, oil on canvas)

During de Ruyter’s 1664 mission, the Dutch fleet happened to capture the crown of Ardra, which was kept as a trophy of war and sort of survived the centuries by accident.  Today it is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and visitors can see it for what it truly is—a piece of junk meant to impress a tin-pot king and thereby pry open the African vertex of the triangle trade (which was key to controlling the valuable slave trade).

Ornamental Adenium Tree

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.

San hunters of the Kalahari

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