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Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have delved into giant ancient trees, yet we left out one of the most astonishing and iconic trees of all–the African baobab (Adansonia digitate).  Full grown baobabs are among the most massive flowering plants in the world, and, like the yews, the sequoias, and the great oaks, they can live for an enormously long time—up to 2500 years according to carbon dating.   The African baobabs live on the dry, hot savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.  The trees grow up to 25 m (85 feet) in height, but it is their mass which makes them astonishing: trunks with a diameter of 14 m (46 feet) are not unknown.  Shaped like jugs or squat bottles, these trunks help the trees store precious water during droughts.  Below the ground, the trees are even more astonishing.  The roots grow wider and deeper than the branches which is why enormous baobabs can be found in seemingly parched scrublands.  Their roots seek out secret water basins and find hidden underground rivulets.

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Baobabs are also known as “dead rat trees” because of the appearance of their fruit. Admittedly this does not make the fruit sound super appealing, yet it is edible and nutritious and a market is springing up for baobab fruit smoothies.  In addition to providing fruit for humans, the leaves and bark of the tree is important to wildlife on the great savannas.

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Although the trees are practically synonymous with the landscape, humans know less about them than one might suspect.  Although the trees are fertilized by pollen born by fruit bats and bush babies, the full process of fertilization is not entirely understood.  Indeed, botanists are increasingly unsure whether   Adansonia digitate is actually just one species.  The other baobab trees are largely native to Madagascar (although there is one Australian species, and a species on the Arabian Peninsula) so it seems like the genus originated on the microcontinent and then spread to the great supercontinent.

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As you might imagine, the baobab features heavily in innumerable myths, folktales, and religions of Africa.  It is the magic fairy tree of that land.  My personal favorite story comes from the Zambezi basin, where tribes tell of how the proud baobabs grew so tall and beautiful that they began to rival the gods themselves.  In wrath the gods inverted the trees so that the fat roots now grow into the sky, but the trees were still splendid, till evil spirits put a curse on the strange white flowers.  Now anyone who picks these fantastic blossoms is subject to terrible bad luck…more specifically a lion will kill and eat that person!  That should keep the blossoms safe.

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But, of course, in the Anthropocene world, such made-up curses don’t keep the trees safe at all.  There is one true curse on the great baobabs.  Across Africa they are dying.  Trees which were saplings during the fall of the Roman Empire (the western half!) are swiftly succumbing to an unknown scourge.  To quote a tragic article in the Atlantic, “Of the 13 oldest known baobabs in the world, four have completely died in the last dozen years, and another five are on the way, having lost their oldest stems.” The full truth of what is felling the giants is subject to debate, but botanists and arborists agree that the rapid warming of the world is the most likely culprit.  Trees which lived for two millennia in arid wastelands in the heat of equatorial Africa are suddenly dying from high temperatures.  Some of these trees have been landmarks for countless generations of people.  It is as though a mountain died and withered up

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I am not sure how to properly quantify something so troubling, but the truly ancient past offers some upsetting clues about what might soon become of the Baobabs’ home (which is humankind’s first home too).  Set aside your tears for the great trees and join me, tomorrow.  We are going to take another trip back to the beginning of the Eocene, the “dawn age” which calls to me again and again. In that sweltering summer world of 56 million years ago, there are clues about what will be the fate of baobab trees and of their home ecosystem. The Eocene was a world without ice.  The arctic oceans were warm year-round. Rainforests filled with unknown marsupials covered Antarctica.  I hope you will boldly join me in going back to that bygone age, but I am worried you will not like what we find, and I am worried we are not going to like what we find in the future either.

Baobab Toilet Caprivi

God DAMMIT, humankind, can you not even let me end on a chilling note without making it stupid?

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Here in America, we don’t hear a great deal about the Sahel, the great arid scrubland which stretches across Africa from the Atlantic coast to coast to the Red Sea coast just south of the Sahara Desert (I think the only time I have mentioned it, in thousands of blog posts, is when I mentioned the world’s most deadly snakes).  The Sahel is vast: it stretches for 5,400 km (3,360 mi).  It crosses some of the poorest and most sparsely inhabited countries of Earth.  Great droughts have hit the Sahel bringing starvation and horror to the semi-nomadic herdsmen and subsistence farmers who make up most of its population.  It is the scene of sectarian fighting, terrorism, instability and violence.  Most ominously, the desert is coming.  The world’s largest desert is expanding, pushing southwards into the Sahel (which in turn pushes further into the Sudanean grassland which lies south of the scrublands).  Imagine if half the United States was scrubland like the California chaparral (but with lions and Boko Haram); now imagine if turned to insane deadly emptiness like Death Valley or the Rub’ al Khali [shudders].

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The people of the Sahel are tough people.  Their ancestors survived the great drought from 1450 to 1700.  They have conceived a crazy titanic super project to prevent the Sahel from becoming the Sahara.  It is a beautiful and stupendous concept—one of the great endeavors which is being attempted right now, but since it is not being undertaken by the great democracies or by mega-corporations or by the Chinese (who are experiencing one of their periodic scary resurgences under a ruthless and driven Emperor), it has not been much in the news.

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The project is to create a great green wall to keep the desert out.  This wall will stretch across the entire continent and it will be alive, made up of millions upon millions of trees.  The green wall will stretch though 11 countries (but 9 neighboring countries will also contribute). It is envisioned as a living wonder of the world: a vibrant forest where once there was wasteland.  The hard lessons of China’s Green Wall and the Algerian Green Dam have allegedly been integrated into the ecological planning for Africa’s Green Wall.  The project launched in earnest in 2012 and already 3 million trees have been planted in Senegal and Burkina Faso. Eritrea and Ethiopia are said to be making real progress on their forest planting projects too.  If this project succeeds I will have respect for the African Union.

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Of course, I can barely plant an azalea in rich loam in temperate Brooklyn without it croaking: how are nomadic warlords going to plant thriving forests across a vast sun-baked badland and end up with a living forest?  The green wall may well fail or it might cause strange unanticipated problems, but it is wise not to write it off.  Over generations, humans remade the forests and savannahs of the world before we even had our vaunted technology.  Anthropologists and ecologists are coming to realize how much of what we though of as natural forest (or rainforest) was actually the result of thousands of years of human nurture and cultivation.  The Amazon and the Congo rainforests may owe much of their makeup to human activity over countless generations (I need to explain these further in additional blogposts…but one mind-blowing concept at a time!).  If the people of the Sahel are steadfast, determined, and clever, there might someday be a forest like the one the dreamers have been describing.  Wouldn’t that be something—just imagine one of the world’s greatest forests in Sudan and Chad and Mali…

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Quokka with offspring

Quokka with offspring

The quokka is a small macropod.  Hmm, maybe I better explain that a bit:  macropods are browsing/grazing marsupials which use their long hind legs and muscular tails to aid locomotion —the most famous exemplars are kangaroos and wallabies.  The quokka (Setonix brachyurus) is a small-kangaroo-like mammal about the size of a domestic cat (2.5 to 5 kilograms (5.5 to 11.0 pounds)).  They are mainly nocturnal and live on some small islands along the coast of southwestern Australia, although there is a small dwindling population on the mainland.

A leaping quokka (from "Awesome Robo!")

A leaping quokka (from “Awesome Robo!”)

Just like that one kid in grade school, Quokkas have “a stocky build, rounded ears, and a short, broad head.” Early European explorers to Australia were perplexed by the quokka and wrote of them as cats or giant rats. Quokkas can climb trees and shrubs (which they graze on) and they live in semi-arid scrubland, dry forests, and in gardens and lawns.

Quokka at the Taronga Zoo (photo by Paul Fahy)

Quokka at the Taronga Zoo (photo by Paul Fahy)

Quokkas have dwindled greatly in their natural range due to habitat loss and invasive predators like cats, dogs, foxes, and dingoes. Somewhat sadly, quokkas have no natural fear of humans and will approach quite closely, particularly on Rottnest Island, where the highest population concentration is found.  This leads to all sorts of unpleasant incidents–for humans are very dangerous indeed–so the local authorities have levied fines for touching or handling the animals (the fines are charged to the humans—the quokkas having thus far failed to master finance).

A quokka hanging out with regulars at the Rottnest Island pub

A quokka hanging out with regulars at the Rottnest Island pub

Selfie with Quokka (Kempsterk)

Selfie with Quokka (Kempsterk)

Although their plain brown fur and giant pupils keep them from top-tier internet fame, quokkas are pretty adorable.  They look like a cross between kangaroos, squirrels, and koalas (which kind of also describes their lifestyle).  Their lamentable fearlessness also leads to many great photos!

"Quokka, quokka, quokka!"

“Quokka, quokka, quokka!”

The Gobi Desert

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 Long-eared Jerboa, (Euchoreutes naso)

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.

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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