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The arid scrubland of north and central Australia is an uncompromising environment of rocky hills, dry creekbeds, arid plateaus, desert mountains, scree, and a landscape which Australians call “gibber plains” (which, as far as I can tell, seems to be a desert of cobblestones or small sharp boulders).  Plants need to be tough to survive in this harsh country and the spinifex grasses fit the bill.  These course sharp grasses form stout tussocks which can survive with minimal water in a land where droughts can last for years.

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But this is not a post about desert grass or dry cobblestones; it is about an amazing bird which is capable of living a gregarious sedentary lifestyle in this vast dry landscape.  Spinifex pigeons (Geophaps plumifera) are a species of bronzewing pigeon which live in the baking grasslands of the island continent.  They are handsome and endearing pigeons with yellowish barred feathers, a white belly, and red cateye glasses.  Perhaps their most pronounced feature is a a magnificent elongated crest which looks not unlike the bleached khaki grasses which provide their home and sustenance.

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The spinifex pigeon lives throughout most of northern and central Australia where it survives by foraging for seeds of drought-resistant grasses and suchlike scrub and by eating any tiny invertebrates it is lucky enough to find.  The birds are social, and live in flocks from four to a couple of dozen (although much larger flocks have occasionally been spotted).

I don’t really have a lot of further information about the spinifex pigeon, but it is a worthwhile addition to my pigeon gallery, because of its handsome appearance, and because it is so thoroughly a resident of the scrubland.  Just comparing the spinifex pigeon with the Nicobar pigeon of tropical islands of the Andaman Sea, or the bleeding heart pigeon of the Philippine rainforest is to instantly see how climate and habitat sculpt creatures into appropriate shapes and colors.

Sand Cat Kitten (Felis margarita) born at Zoo Brno

Sand Cat Kitten (Felis margarita) born at Zoo Brno

We all know that cats have mastered internet popularity. Whether through adorable antics on Youtube, elaborate pun-filled digital images, or just general grumpy demeanor, the felids have demonstrated an unparalleled ability to thrive in today’s new media environment. Therefore, to please the cat-loving legions of netizens, I am dedicating today’s post to sand cats (Felis margarita), which are small cats which live in the deep deserts of North Africa, the Middle East, and southwest/central Asia. Also a trio of sand cat kittens was just born in Zoo Brno in the Czech Republic, so expect this post to get super cute!

 

A sand cat hunkering down in the deserts of Saudi Arabia

A sand cat hunkering down in the deserts of Saudi Arabia

With short legs, a stout body, and a long tail, sand cats are among the tiniest of cats. Full-grown adults weigh only 1.35 to 3.2 kg (3.0 to 7.1 lb). Sand cats live in discontiguous ranges—so they are separated into several subspecies which are evolving in different ways. The tough little cats thrive in the deepest hottest deserts—the Sahara, the Rub’ al Khali, the Lut—where they live without water by surviving on the moisture in their prey. Like all cats, they are formidable predators, but their hearing is superior even to other felids: sand cats have huge highly-refined ears which are capable of hearing tiny burrowing animals moving deep beneath the sand. They survive on rodents such as jerboas, gerbils, and spiny mice, but they also hunt small birds and reptiles (and they are known as a particularly adept killer of snakes). Sand cats have heavy fur on the pads of their paws so they can run across burning desert sands. They co-opt the abandoned burrows of other desert creatures as their own to hide from the scorching daytime heat.

 

A sand cat with a snake

A sand cat with a snake

Sand cat populations are diminishing in the wild as human development encroaches on the edge of their habitat–but the true depths of their hellish deserts are places where humans are unlikely to build condominiums, so sand cats are merely listed as near-threatened. Until recently sand cats did not do well in zoos, and they are a somewhat unfamiliar animal. Because they are used to profoundly arid climate, they would die of respiratory infections when brought into humid locations. Today zookeepers know to keep their sand cats in dry arid enclosures—which mean the creatures are beginning to do much better in captivity. In 2012, the first captive sand cat kittens were born in a zoo in Israel, and this year three kittens were born in the Czech Republic. Look at how adorable they are (well, assuming you are not some timid burrowing desert creature).

Sand cat kittens at Zoo Brno (credit: Zoo Brno)

Sand cat kittens at Zoo Brno (credit: Zoo Brno)

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.

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The animals and plants of the Oligocene rainforest at Riversleigh (as envisioned by an artist)

The animals and plants of the Oligocene rainforest at Riversleigh (as envisioned by an artist)

Occasionally in the geological past, extraordinary circumstances resulted in the near-perfect preservation of an entire ecosystem.  These astonishing fossil beds are known as Lagerstätten (one of the first such finds was in Germany) and they provide one of the best sources of information about life on this planet.  A particularly rich Lagerstätten is located in the arid scrubland of Riversleigh in northwest Queensland, Australia: there fossils from the Oligocene and Miocene epochs are preserved in uncompressed limestone (which allows paleontologists to recover 3 dimensional skeletal remains).  During the late Oligocene, Riversleigh was a lush and vibrant rainforest filled with an incredible profusion of bizarre life forms.  When the Oligocene ended, the region dried into grasslands (and the climate continued to dry out further in subsequent epochs until the present, when the area is a near desert).

The giant carnivorous platypus (Obdurodon tharalkooschild)

The giant carnivorous platypus (Obdurodon tharalkooschild)

All of this is backstory to a remarkable recent discovery.  This week paleontologists studying the bats, snakes, and strange tropical marsupials of Riversleigh made an unexpected discovery–a giant hunting platypus twice the size of the living species.  This big predator, Obdurodon tharalkooschild, was a formidable meter long (3 foot) creature with sharp teeth for grabbing crayfish, amphibians, aquatic reptiles, and fish.  The newly discovered platypus lived in the long-lost rainforests of Queensland.  It was a generalist with a much larger diet than the somewhat specialized modern platypus.

No, not that much larger!

No, it wasn’t THAT big…

Monotremes (platypuses & the more recently evolved echidnas) are an extremely ancient branch of mammalian life which date back at least to the Jurassic–and more likely to the Triassic epoch or earlier.  Platypuses are believed to have evolved in what is now South America and then spread to Antarctica and finally to Australia.  The amazing giant hunting platypus indicates that there were hitherto unexpected branches of platypus evolution. I wonder if  Obdurodon tharalkooschild was toxic (like the modern platypus).  I also wonder what strange monotreme fossils lie beneath the ancient ice of Antarctica.

Sheilam Cactus Garden (South Africa)

Sheilam Cactus Garden (South Africa)

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Oh, there are all sorts of gardeners! Some people tend sugar plantations or farm huge monocultures of wheat whereas others raise variegated vegetable gardens or grow orchards full of exotic fruit. There are herb gardeners and OCD topiary gardeners. There are knot gardeners, and orchid keepers, and pharmacological botanists with climate controlled greenhouses. I am a flower gardener who also enjoys ornamental trees (a combination which makes for a beautiful but not entirely practical garden), however the strangest gardeners of all must be succulent gardeners who tend surreal writhing beds of mutated globes, obscene barrels, and fat tentacles all covered with thorns and spikes!
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The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden

The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden

Succulent plants are desert dwellers which store water in specialized internal storage structures (which, because of the nature of water, are usually thickened and fleshy). In order to fend off the animal inhabitants of deserts (who also live on thirst), these plants have evolved all sorts of defenses to protect their internal cisterns. Thus the cacti, aloes, orpines, agaves, spurges, and so forth are covered with wicked siliceous spikes or with rows of tooth-like spines or with stinging alkaline sap (or in some cases are just straight-up deadly poisonous).

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Succulent gardeners revel in this botanical arms race. The best cactus gardens look like the homes of hallucinating sorcerers. Forboding olive towers loom over chartreuse striped tendrils and purple spiky blobs. Snaky limbs bearing obscene fluorescent blooms reach out from a fat orange orange caudex above a world of yellow globes studded with black spines. Just look at these strange landscapes and revel at the combined power of nature’s asceticism and humankind’s sybaritic excess!

Debra Lee Baldwin created this garden from cuttings from friends!

Debra Lee Baldwin created this garden from cuttings from friends!

The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden (note the water tower)

The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden (note the water tower)

Designer: Lynn Woodbury (photo by GardenSoft)

Designer: Lynn Woodbury (photo by GardenSoft)

The San Diego Botanic Gardens

The San Diego Botanic Gardens

I have assembled a little gallery of these monstrous and beautiful dry gardens, but none of the images rival the real thing. You should jump in your car and head for a nearby botanical garden (even in cold latitudes there are usually desert greenhouses), or, if you are really feeling disenfranchised just head for Los Angeles where the craziest cactus gardens on Earth are right there on some absentee producer’s front lawn.

Lanzarote Cactus Garden

Lanzarote Cactus Garden

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Berkeley Cactus Garden

Berkeley Cactus Garden

When I was a boy I was wandering around in my grandfather’s storage shed when I found a ragged hand woven sack filled with mystery blobs.  These powdery golden-orange nuggets were hard (albeit slightly gummy) and they had a translucent glow.  When I inquired about the alien substance, my grandfather pulled a glowing ember from the fire and set one of the weird nuggets on top of the hot coal.  Immediately an aromatic cloud of smoke welled up from the lump and filled the room.  The glorious smell was simultaneously like lemon and pine but with deep strange medicinal undertones of cedar and some unidentifiable otherworldly spiciness.  It was transfixing. The blobs were frankincense, obtained in Somalia during the fifties (my grandparents and mother and uncle were living there on diplomatic/government business).  The unprepossessing amber lumps turned out to be the incense of kings and gods.

Frankincense

Frankincense has been harvested from the arid deserts of Southern Arabia and Northeast Africa since prehistoric times.  The hardened resin which is also known as olibanum is the product of tiny scrub trees from the family Boswellia.  The sacred frankincense tree Boswellia sacra, produces an especially fine grade (although the same tree can produce different grades of frankincense depending on the time of year).

A Boswellia Tree (Frankincense Tree)

Frankincense trees are tough trees capable of surviving on misty breezes from the ocean, rocky limestone soil, and little else.  Certain species of Boswellia trees are able to produce a disk-like bulb which adheres to sheer rock.  The trees can thereby cling to boulders and cliffs in severe windstorms.  The incense is harvested by carefully scraping a wound in the tree’s bark and then returning later to harvest the hardened resin (although such mistreatment is said to gradually diminish the trees).

For countless centuries, bags of frankincense and other aromatic resins were the chief trade products of regions of the southern Arabian Peninsula (in what are today Yemen and Oman).  These compounds were of tremendous importance to the ancient Egyptians for both cosmetic and funerary purposes.  In Biblical times, incense was traded throughout the Middle East and in the classical Greco-Roman world.  The fragrant resins even were exported to ancient India and dynastic China where they became part of traditional medicine and ritual.

An earthenware censer with lead glaze from the Eastern Han dynasty, 25-220 AD

This incense trade was allegedly centered in the quasi-mythical lost city Iram of the Pillars.  In this oasis at the edge of the Rub’ al Khali dunes, the Ubar people dwelled in a beautiful columned city. According to the Quran, the city of Iram met an apocalyptic doom when its ruler, King Shaddad defied the warnings of the prophet Hud .  Shaddad’s impiety caused Allah to smite the entire region into the sands.  All of this was regarded as mythology until space-based imaging systems (including LandSat, SPOT, and shuttle data) revealed that ancient caravan trails did indeed center on a collapsed oasis.  It is speculated that over millennia, the inhabitants had drained the ancient subterranean aquifer, which ultimately caused the ground to collapse—a salutary lesson for the aquifer based cities of Western America! Whatever the cause, the frankincense industry contracted greatly around 300 AD, although plenty of resin still went to medicinal and liturgical buyers.

Frankincense is purported to have many pharmacological uses, particularly as an anti-inflammatory agent, an anti-depressant, and an anti-cancer treatment. Although initial clinical studies of these claims seem encouraging, the safety and efficacy of frankincense is still being tested and reviewed.  Sources on the web suggested that a recent study by Johns Hopkins biologists and doctors from Hebrew University in Jerusalem found that inhaling frankincense incense could alleviate anxiety and depression (but again my sources are unclear so don’t run out and start eating frankincense if you are suffering from holiday blues).  Even if frankincense does not provide us with a new class of wonder drugs, it remains useful for deterring insects, including the deadly malarial mosquitoes.  Additionally, as noted above,  frankincese smells wonderful.  Maybe you should run to your local caravan and pick some up.

Or wherever you go for incense these days...

A Pistachio Tree Beside Ancient Ruins in Turkey (photo by cemalsepici)

Only two nuts are mentioned in the Bible.  The almond is referred to frequently, but the pistachio (Pistacia vera) is mentioned only once, in Genesis (when Joseph’s starving brothers are trying to curry favor with an Egyptian official, not knowing that they are dealing with the brother they wronged).  It is appropriate that pistachios are in the first book of the Bible, the nuts have been eaten by humankind since the depths of prehistory (and they were probably eaten by near-relatives among the hominids before our turn on the scene).   Pistachio is a desert tree which is highly tolerant of drought and saline soil.  The deciduous trees grow up to 10 meters (33 feet) tall. They are wild throughout the Middle East from Syria to the Indus valley–but their original range has been blurred by their popularity as a cultivated plant.  Since they are one of humankind’s wild foodstuffs from before the invention of agriculture, human dissemination of pistachio seeds is a “natural” vector (although the very nature of that sentence casts the meaning of some of our implicit assumptions concerning nature into question).

An Iranian Merchant with his Pistachios

The route which Pistachios took into Western Europe is reflected in the etymology of the English word.  The Online Etymology Dictionary summarizes it thus:  “pistachio: 1590s, from It. pistacchio, from L. pistacium “pistachio nut,” from Gk. pistakion, from pistake “pistachio tree,” from Pers. pista “pistachio tree.”  It seems Greeks first brought the seed westward, and its subsequent progress across Europe can actually be traced from classical history sources. At the same time, the nuts were also heading east along the Silk Road: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China are all major producers today.  Pistachios originated somewhere in Persia, and Iran remains the largest producer and exporter of the nut. Speaking of exports, pistachios can be dangerous to transport in bulk containers. Because of their high fat and low water content, large quantities of the nuts can sometimes self-combust!

Its long, long history as a human food aside, pistachios are delicious.  The clam-like seeds pop open when they are ripe (although that is a human-selected trait) and the exposed seed has a brownish pink skin–which in turn reveals a pale creamy green flesh inside. Pistachios are members of the Anacardiaceae family, which includes sumacs and poison ivy.  Like these scary relatives, pistachio plants (and seeds) can contain the oily irritant urushiol—so pistachios sometimes trigger allergies and rashes, however, dieticians assert that the seed is one of the healthier sources of protein and oils.

Dyed and Undyed Pistachios


Traditionally pistachio nuts were dyed red to hide the blemishes made by handpicking, however such false color is no longer necessary (except to placate traditional markets).  The pistachio seed  has given its name to an especially pretty pastel green with pastel yellow undertones (the same hue found inside the nut). Pistachio green is one of my favorite hues.  There is something calm, refreshing, and languorous about the green which speaks to leisurely mild summer afternoons.  I hope you will excuse me, I would like to write more but I am going to go get a pistachio gelato!

A Pistachio-colored Pistachio Gelato

The Skeleton Coast of Namibia (photo from grandpoohbah.net)

Try to imagine the Namib Desert, where a stormy foggy shoreline gives way quickly to endless bone-dry dunes of shifting golden sand.  It is one of the starkest contrasts in the world’s geography: the fury of the cold waves is juxtaposed with the opposing starkness of the sun-pounded dunes.

The coastline where the Namib Desert runs up against the Atlantic is known as the skeleton coast both because it is a place where whalers and sealers once discarded the stripped carcasses of the marine mammals they killed in droves and because it is one of the world’s most treacherous coastlines. More than a thousand major modern wrecks dot the coast (where they mingle with countless older shipwrecks). Portuguese sailors trying to get around the horn of Africa to reach the riches of Asia called the area “the gates of hell.”  A human powered craft can make its way through the pounding surf to the desolate coastline but it then becomes impossible to re-launch.  Sailors shipwrecked on the Namib coast thus faced the daunting prospect of walking through a vast expanse of waterless desert. Before the modern era, most ship-wrecked souls did not escape and their skeletons soon became part of the landscape.

The shipwreck of the Eduard Bohlen (photo by Michael Poliza)

The desert is ancient.  For more than 55 million years it has existed as a wasteland with almost no surface water. Since the end of the age of dinosaurs, the warm tropical air of the Hadley cell has intersected a cold oceanic current welling northward from Antarctica. But the region was arid long before that.  West Gondwanaland shifted to its present position along the Tropic of Capricorn nearly 130 million years ago and has remained there since—a wallflower in the great dance of continents.

The Namib Desert photographed from The Space Shuttle Columbia

Namibia was a German colony during the colonial era. Unsurprisingly, the Germans made their Namibian colony the sight of the twentieth century’s first genocide when they tried to extinguish the unruly Herero and Nama peoples in 1904. The nation was seized by South Africa after the end of World War I but after many decades of gradual power shifting Namibia gained complete independence in 1990.

The Republic of Namibia is the second sparsest nation on earth with only 2.1 million people spread across a landscape roughly the size of Germany, Poland, the Czech republic, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands combined (not that those nations should ever be combined!). It is one of the few stable multi-party democracies in Africa (maybe I should say the world).  Namibia makes most of its money from mining uranium, gemstones, lead, tungsten, gold, tin, fluorspar, manganese, marble, copper and zinc.  Natural gas can be found just off the coast (though it may prove challenging to drill there).

The Navachab Open Pit Gold Mine, Erongo Region, Namibia

Why am I writing about this beautiful harsh anomaly of a nation?  The unique and isolated geography of Namibia have made it a unique ecosystem of creatures capable of surviving the harsh desert environment (to say nothing of the creatures which team in the rich coastal waters).  Desert dwelling creatures have had a long time to adapt to the hostile conditions of the world’s oldest desert. One of the most unique of all placental mammals is found in Namibia. I’ll address this bizarre fossorial hunter in my next post.

Hint: It's not the mighty African Elephant (one of my favorite creatures), but strangely enough african elephants do live in Namibia.

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