For the identification of insects and other fauna and flora of South Africa.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Pet Shop / Exotic pets

Exotic pets, tarantulas in particular, seem to have gained a lot of popularity here and there is apparently a lot of money to be made breeding them. Although these species are not from South Africa, we do have others here and as I was at the pet shop the other day, the owners allowed me to take some pictures. KEEPING A TARANTULA Keeping a tarantula can be very rewarding. They are beautiful, elegant creatures, individual and utterly charming. The ground species of tarantula are generally the most docile (although there are notable exceptions). The most popular of the ground dwellers is undoubtedly the Mexican red knee (Brachypelma smithi) which is becoming somewhat harder to obtain. Two good alternatives are the Zebra tarantula (Aphonopelma seemanni) or the Chilean Beauty (Grammostola cala). These are both readily available from dealers and both are fairly docile species although the former can be skittish. They are both very attractive. Among the many arboreal spiders the Avicularia avicularia (the South American pink toe) is one of the more popular. These are extremely pretty and very docile although they are fast moving at times and can jump quite high when surprised. Whichever you choose you will enjoy owning a tarantula. Housing Ground Dwellers — a fish tank 12 x 12 x 12-inch with a lid is adequate—I stress WITH A LID since tarantulas are great escapologists! Cover the bottom with VERMICULITE well wetted —this is the best medium for tarantulas since it is completely germ and mite free and holds humidity. A heating pad placed under the tank and controlled by thermostat will keep the tank to the correct temperature (around 75°F for most ground dwellers—slightly warmer for some species and more humid). A spray of the tank daily will keep the humidity at the correct level. Housing Arboreal Spiders — the tank and stratum need to be the same as for ground dwellers but remember that these spiders do climb so a tank which is higher would be preferable. The spider will need twigs or the like to suspend its arboreal nest. (You can compare the size of this one to the mans hand.) Feeding — you cannot overfeed a tarantula since it will only eat what it needs. Feeding consists of crickets, locusts, cockroaches etc. It will also eat giant mealworms sometimes and most tarantulas will take a piece of raw fat-free beef occasionally. Fresh water should ALWAYS be available. A small low dish either filled with soaked cotton wool or purely open water will suffice for most spiders. Arboreal spiders prefer to drink from the tank walls or the twigs so that a spray of their tank every day is most essential. Loners — spiders should ALWAYS be housed alone as they will fight and even kill one another. If you have a large enough tank you can insert a divider thereby enabling you to keep two in one tank. They do not need a great deal of space. Most spiders do not travel more than four feet in a lifetime. Moulting — a web is spun to make a mat upon which to lay to shed the skin so that is a first sign. The spider will usually not have eaten for some few weeks, even months, before the moult and the bald patch on the abdomen will turn blue-black. The spider will flip over onto its back—DO NOT TOUCH IT — but make sure there is no live food in the tank which can disturb and even nibble at the moulting spider. The moult itself can take several hours and once complete the spider will flip back over onto its feet. It will be very tired for several days and you should not touch the spider dyring this time or, indeed, until it starts feeding again. Offer food after three or four days but do not worry if it does not immediately snare its prey. If you treat your tarantula correctly and with tender care, it will be with you for many years, the females living the longest. Another important thing to remember is that tarantulas neither like nor do they need bright lights. The spider's home should be in a darkish corner making sure that the sun does not pass over the tank. ALWAYS keep the tank out of reach of toddlers and young children. Information supplied by: (There was also this beautiful Iguana. This one is about 2 1/2 feet in length and not a pet for children as even the man had difficulty holding and controlling it.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Elephant Museum - Part 3 Phelwane

For many, many years I worked in Kruger National Park as a tour guide. During that time, I got to know many of these elephants personally as they ranged in the same areas I frequented. Some of these huge fellows are still wandering around and a few, like my favourite Phelwane, has died. The following parts in this series is dedicated as my tribute to them….. Thank you for sharing your life with me.

Let me introduce you to them…… Phelwana (….. - 1988)

Origin of Name:

Phelwana was named by Anthony Hall-Martin when he was seen emerging from the Phelwana stream and tributary of the Timbavati in the central region of the Kruger National Park. (Origin of the name is unknown but was possibly a person of long ago – probably a Sotho person (Kloppers & Bornman 2005).


Phelwana frequented the Kingfisherspruit ranger’s section, west of Satara. During the latter part of the 1980’s Phelwana adopted the habit of breaking trough the Park’s western boundary fence where he was often seen in Manyeleti, Timbavati and other nature reserves.

Special Features:

Phelwana has a large round hole on the out edge of his left ear and had notable weight to his ivory.


Phelwana was first recorded in 1980 during the annual aerial census. He was average sized bull, reaching 325cm at the shoulder and with a forefoot circumference of 152cm. On the 22nd January 1988 game scout Armand Ndhlouvu of the Kingfisherspruit Section reported that Pelwana was in difficulty, noting that he had been shot and that his condition was poor and he could scarcely walk. Assistance was called in and the elephant was darted for examination. A bullet wound from a heavy caliber rifle in the neck region had gone septic, and has also shattered his lower jawbone which made feeding and drinking extremely difficult. There was little hope of saving him and it was agreed to put him down.

Phelwana’s magnificent tusks were the heaviest in the collection, together weighing 135.5kg until the inclusion of Mandleve, now the heaviest recorded bull in Southern Africa.

(Phelwane’s tusks are on display in the Letaba Elephant Hall)

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Can someone tell me what this is? This is the underside.
It looks to me like a species of Cicadidae but I think it has some kind of growth / parasite on its back.

It is small, maybe half an inch in length and was still crawling around when I took these pictures.

I have put in pictures covering all angles and close-up shots of what I think is a growth or parasite in order to identify it.

All pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them. My e-mail address is at the top of my blog.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Herpetologist Johan Marais's new book

I was very excited to learn that Johan Marais, a herpetologist of note was bringing out a new book called “What’s that reptile? – A starters guide to reptiles of Southern Africa.”

Been a complete amateur, I have had to rely heavily on him to identify snakes and reptiles for me which he was kind enough to do.

Johan has many books published both in English and Afrikaans which can be ordered through his website : including:

Complete Guide to Snakes of Southern Africa
A guide to Reptiles of Southern Africa

Both make fascinating reading.
As a complete novice, there have always been many questions surrounding snakes and reptiles which one hears and never find answers to. Our simple fear of these creatures also keep us ignorant of them. His new book (and the others) answer so many for me that I now feel much better walking in the bush trying to photograph insects as I have a wider knowledge on what to expect.

“What’s that reptile? – A starters guide to reptiles of Southern Africa.” Is an exceptional book and a must have for all South Africans even slightly interested in the world of nature. It has beautiful pictures and written in a way that laymen like me can understand with none of that technical jargon which we do not understand half of.

It covers a wide range of things such as:

· How to find reptiles and snakes.
· Key identification checks on how to differentiate between similar species.
· Distribution maps.
· Explains their vision; smell; hearing; metabolism; reproduction; food and feeding to name but a few.
· Each section has a “Tell-tale Signs” which I found to be full of very interesting tidbits.
· The snakes and reptiles are nicely grouped together to make it easy for the average person to find what you are looking for.

Johan was kind enough to allow me to interview him and ask some questions which I think many people have on the subject:

Q: How did you develop your interest and get started in this field?A: I developed an interest in snakes at a very young age (around 8 or 9) in Woodlands, Durban where I grew up. We found quite a few harmless snakes in the garden and I encountered snakes on family holidays to Blythdale beach on the KZN north coast and various family farms in Ermelo, Stella and Grootvlei/Balfour. But my real interest only started in high school when I started keeping a few snakes. After school I started meeting like-minded people who really got me going.

Q: What has been your most interesting find so far?
A: I have found a lot of very interesting reptiles during various field trips and one of the highlights is the Mecula Crag Lizard (Cordylus meculiae) that we discovered in the Niassa Game Reserve in northern Mozambique and that I helped describe.

Q: Do you prefer snakes or reptiles?A: My initial interest was largely in snakes although I caught a fair number of lizards and frogs but in recent years I have been working on reptiles in general.

Q: Which areas do you most frequent when hunting for species?
A: I have spent a great deal of my time in Namibia the past six years but have also worked in Botswana, Mozambique and Malawi. My favourite area is Namaqualand, from around Springbok up to the Richtersveld.

Q: Do you think there are still species in South Africa which have not been discovered?A: Yes there are many. More than 160 new species have been described from southern Africa in the past 20 years and there are at least another 40 being described right now.

Q: Do you breed any snakes or reptiles?
A: No I do not keep reptiles, largely because of my extensive travels. The reptile pet trade is massive in South Africa with a lot of very competent breeders, some with massive collections.

Q: What advice can you give to amateurs getting started in the field of herpetology?
A: We live in good times. There are many books available on South African snakes and other reptiles as well as books on frogs. Get as many books as possible and read as much as possible. The internet also offers a lot of information but a lot of nonsense is also written as anyone can put anything on the internet. I would also recommend joining the Herpetological Association of Africa – it produces two newsletters and two scientific journals a year and has a conference every two years. The next one will be in Pretoria. (E-mail me at for more information).

Q: What precautions should people take when walking in the bush or trying to find species?
A: There are strict laws regarding the collection of reptiles and these laws need to be respected. I think the most important aspect is to read as much as possible about reptiles before venturing into the bush to find them. Get to know as much as possible about their behavior and never attempt to catch snakes, even harmless-looking ones or “baby” snakes, unless you know what you are doing. And a snake handling course is required before grabbing snakes in the wild (Again, I can be E-mailed for more particulars of courses).

Q: Are anti-venoms available for all species of snakes?
A: No, not all species but the medically-important snakes are well covered in South Africa. Antivenom should never be administered by first-aiders and should be left to medical doctors in hospitals.

Q: What should you do if bitten by something?
A: The most important thing is to get to a hospital as soon as possible and remember that more than 95% of snakebite victims that are hospitalized, survive. Otherwise you can get more details from one of my books (see

Q: Most people are fearful of snakes – what advice can you give them?A: Snakes are not near as problematic as is often thought and the majority of snakes avoid people and do their utmost to escape if given the chance. Even notorious snakes like the Black Mamba do their utmost to avoid humans and no snake chases after people. So leave them alone, wear denim trousers and boots in the field and your chances of being bitten are minimal.

Q: Are all snakes and reptiles egg layers?
A: Most reptile lay eggs while others are viviparous, giving birth to live young. Most adders (except the Night Adders), the Mole Snake and a variety of other snakes give birth to live young while snakes like the house snakes, sand snakes, cobras and mambas lay eggs.

Q: What do you think of Snake and Reptile Parks and do they play a useful role in conservation?
A: Reptile Parks can play a very important role in conservation and we have had some of the best facilities in the world – specifically the old Transvaal Snake Park in Halfway House. There are still some excellent reptile facilities throughout the world but in South Africa we tend to have quite small parks and a lot of them are very poorly designed, badly managed and do very little for conservation. There are, of course, some exceptions. Khamai Reptile Park in Hoedspruit is excellent and do a great deal of conservation work through various projects. Google them for more information.

Q: Is it good to keep snakes and reptiles as pets?
A: I don’t have a problem with snakes in captivity but would caution youngsters about keeping venomous snakes, especially exotics that are not covered by local antivenom. There are also laws regulating the keeping of snakes and they must be considered and respected.

Thank you Johan for taking the time to do the book and answer the questions for me. It is greatly appreciated.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Elephant Museum - Part 2

External biology -continued
Head and neck
An elephant's skull needs to be physically large in order to support the heavy tusks and powerful trunk To minimize weight, the huge skull has a thick wall but contains large honey-comb like spaces. Male African elephants have a curved forehead. Females are more square in profile. Elephants have short necks and cannot turn their heads completely sideways. Legs
The leg bones are placed vertically above each other forming a rigid column when at rest. This helps to support the animal's enormous weight without the risk of its legs buckling but means elephants are unable to run or jump. Their normal walking rate is 6-8 km/h. The whole mass of the huge head, the trunk and the tusks, is carried by the forelimbs. This image shows how weight is distributed across the animal. Skin The skin thickness varies from paper thin on the inside of the ears, around the mouth and anus to about 2.5cm on the back and parts of the head.

Wallowing protects against ultraviolet radiation, parasites and moisture loss. Scratching and bathing are also important behaviours in skin care. The skin colour is usually gray although often seems brown or reddish from wallowing in mud holes. Feet
Elephants walk on tip-toe. The animal's weight rests on the tip of each toe and on a fibrous 'cushion' of fatty and connective tissues which acts as a shock absorber. This material absorbs sound, enabling these massive creatures to walk almost silently.
The front feet are larger and more rounded than the hind feet, which are smaller and oval.
The surface of the foot is very flexible and sensitive, adapting naturally to any irregularities of terrain. The soles of the feet are very thick, horny and superficially cracked. Trackers can use these unique 'footprint' markings to help identify individual animals.
Elephant tusks are upper incisor teeth which grow very long. They are similar to human teeth, consisting of a central core of pulp which is covered in dentine and encased in bone-like cementum. The internal dentine, making up 95% of the tusk, is the substance commonly referred to as 'ivory'.

It is a combination of mineral-based connective tissue and collagen proteins, making it very strong. Young elephants also have a layer of enamel at the very tip of their tusks but this is soon worn off and not replaced.

Tusks grow throughout an elephant's life although they may wear down or even break due to extensive use or major clashes. Many elephants favour one tusk over the other (effectively they are left- or right- tusked just as you are left- or right-handed). The most-used, or ‘master' tusk is usually shorter than the ‘servant' as it is worn-down by regular use. Often the most gentle bull elephants have the largest tusks in a population, as they are less likely to break them in a fierce clash.

About one quarter of the tusk is housed within the elephant's skull, which has developed in order to be able to bear the weight of these huge teeth.
The forefeet have 4 or 5 toes, while the hind feet have 3-5. The toenails are made of the same substance found in human toenails (keratin) and are attached to the skin.
Elephant eyes are almost identical in size to those of a human. They are normally green or hazel in colour and are protected by long eyelashes. Elephants do not have tear ducts. In bright sunlight, elephants have poor eyesight. They can see best in dim light.

An elephant's trunk is extremely versatile. 70% of the air that elephants breathe is inhaled through the trunk. Like our noses, it can smell the surrounding environment. It can be used to touch and feel objects and other elephants. It can create trumpeting sounds and give physical communication signals. It can be used to break branches from trees, pluck bundles of grass, and suck up and spray water or dust over the body or into the mouth.

Trunks can be over 1.5m long and weigh more than 150 kg. They contain eight major muscles but have 150,000 fascicles (or portions of muscles) which provide amazing dexterity and strength. A trunk can lift more than 250 kg in weight and hold over 8 litres of water.

African Elephants have two prehensile 'fingers' at the end of the trunk which enable them to grasp objects.
An African elephant's impressive ears are not just used for hearing. They help regulate the animal's body temperature and may also be spread out wide in threat displays. Elephant ears contain a large number of blood vessels which are covered by very thin skin. When the ears are flapped, air flows over the blood vessels and the animal loses heat from them. Measuring up to 2m high and over 1m wide, 12 litres of blood can flow through each ear every minute and the animal's body temperature can be reduced by three degrees. An elephant's average body temperature is 35.9 degrees Celsius, just below that of a human (37 degrees). Elephants have excellent hearing and are thought to be able to communicate with other individuals several kilometres away. They can hear very low frequency sounds (their hearing range is 1-20,000Hz) which are not audible to humans (who have a hearing range of 20-20,000Hz).

The distinctive tears and nicks in elephants' ears are used by scientists to help identify individual animals in the wild.
Tail An elephant's tail can be up to 1.5 m long. It is used to swat flies away.

Adult elephants may grab a young animal's tail with its trunk in order to guide it. Older calves may also sometimes hold their mothers' tails as they walk.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spider and moth - Hairy Field Spider (Neoscona blondeli) Araneidae

This beautiful spider had just caught the moth and had started to spin a web around it so that it could not fly off. During the course of my browsing around trying to find out more about spider eating habits, I came across this article published in 2008 by Patricia A. Michaels and thought it might be of interest. What do spiders eat Spiders, long considered carnivores, (although there might be exceptions to that rule), traditionally choose insects and other arachnids as their primary source of food. Arachnologists, scientists who study spiders, have long been intrigued by spider diets. One question they consider, "Are Spiders Picky Eaters", has been the subject of both observation and scientific experimentation. Like all scientists, when arachnologists conduct experiments on spider diets, they are trying to stay as objective as possible with respect to the potential answers. Objectivity in scientific experimentation often loosely translates into scientists trying to prove their thinking is wrong, rather than prove their thinking is correct. Scientifically, the process is known as testing the null hypothesis. A pair of arachnologists conducting experiments on the pickiness of spider eating habits, started with the hypothesis that spiders eat any insects that come their way. They conducted an experiment with an Araneidae species, an orb weaving spider (Micrathena Gracilis). Over an extended period of time, they counted the number and size of insects that flew into the web. They also recorded the number and size of the insects that the spider captured for dinner. Testing the null hypothesis meant that the researchers thought that the spider would eat all the insects that landed in the web, regardless of insect size. At the end of their experiment, they concluded that when given the choice between large and small insects caught in the web, the spider preferred larger insects. In scientific terms, they concluded there was a statistically significant relationship between spider diet and insect size. The hypothesis that spiders are picky eaters still stands. Information supplied by:

Friday, April 15, 2011

Elephant Museum - Part 1

Over thirty years ago seven impressive elephant bulls, all with tusks weighing more than 50 kg each, could be found in Kruger National Park. The Chief Warden at the time, Dr U de V Pienaar, decided to publicise these elephants as a successful example of Kruger's conservation work. He named those bulls that had not already been identified and also coined the collective name, the Magnificent Seven, based on the 1960 Hollywood film. The promotion was launched in 1980 with specially commissioned paintings by celebrated wildlife artist Paul Bosman and illustrated articles written by the park's Senior Research Officer, Dr Anthony Hall-Martin. The public reaction was staggering and, when each of these great elephants died, it was decided to retrieve their tusks and skulls in order to display them. The Elephant Hall at Letaba Rest Camp now holds the tusks of Dzombo, Kambaku, Mafunyane, Ndlulamithi, Shawu and Shingwedzi. Internal organs: The Brain The brain of an adult elephant is the largest of any land mammal and weighs 4-6 kg. This is about 0.1% of its entire body mass. Although human brains are a lot lighter (about 1.5 kg), they make up a greater proportion of body weight (2%). The temporal lobes, known to function as memory centres are quite large in elephants. Like humans, elephant babies have much smaller brains than those of adults. In most mammals a new-born brain is around 90% of the size of an adult's. In elephants it is 35% and in humans 26%. This probably explains the remarkable learning ability of young elephants. Stomach Only about 44% of the food that an elephant eats is successfully digested. The rest is excreted - take a close look at some elephant dung and you will see undigested grass, seeds and other plant matter. Elephants eat for around 16 hours a day and a large bull needs about 300 kg of food each day. Heart An elephant heart can weigh anything from 12 to 28 kgs but amounts to only about 0.5% of the animal's body weight. It has a unique shape with two, rather than one, points. The heart beats at around 25-30 beats per minute when the animal is standing, increasing slightly when it is lying down. This is much slower than a human heart which averages 70 beats per minute. Some of an elephant's blood vessels can be over 3m long. In order to prevent their collapse, the animal needs to retain a high blood pressure. Intestines The small and large intestines may reach a combined length of 35m. As food works its way through this system, it can take 24 hours to digest a meal. Lungs Elephants take about 4-5 breaths per minute when lying or very calm. This increases to 10 breaths per minute when standing or active (at rest humans take between 12-20 breaths per minute). The lungs attach directly to the chest cavity and to the diaphragm. Unlike other animals (which use pressure changes to breathe in and out), elephants use muscles to inflate and deflate their lungs. Bladder An elephant expels about 50 litres of urine a day. Anus An elephant excretes up to 150 kg of waste a day. External biology Mouth Elephants breathe through their mouth when their trunk is being used to hold water or dust. African elephants have 6 sets of molar teeth throughout their life. As each set wears down, a new set grows behind it, moving forwards and upwards. As the old teeth are pushed out, the roots are reabsorbed into the jaw. When elephants eat their jaws and teeth move forwards and backwards not side to side like other herbivores. There are well-developed salivary glands in the mouth which help to lubricate the coarse vegetation of the elephant's diet. Continued in Part 2

Please excuse the quality of the pictures but everything is in glass which distorts them.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cape Zebra Cockroach (Temnopteryx phalerata) Blatellidae

These are not our favorite critter, at least, not mine!! There are several species of zebra cockroach here all with vertical lines on them. Cockroaches are nocturnal but not all species have wings. The feed on foodstuffs and some have become household pests. They have scent glands which protrude from the end of the abdomen,

Monday, April 11, 2011

I had a stunning day!!

There are some birds which one never sees but always hears and they are impossible to get pictures of. Yesterday, while taking a coffee break, I went outside to sit on the porch. Although we are going into winter, there are still plenty of birds coming to visit my birdbath so it is pleasant to sit and watch them. To my absolute astonishment and surprise, for the first time I was able to see these three birds and take pictures of them. Okay, they are not brilliant pics as the birds to not stay still in one place long enough. But I DID get pics and see them so I am very chuffed with myself. :) Not only that, but there were TWO DIFFERENT CUCKOO’S!!!!!! WOW!! What a privilege!! The first is the Diederik Cuckoo which is identified by its red eye and eyebrow stripe. It also has black and white blotches on the wing.
It is a migrant from tropical Africa and feeds mostly on caterpillars which are plentiful right now.

During breeding season it normally uses Weaver nests to play host to its eggs of which it lays one per season. This last picture is of an immature bird with a fat, juicy caterpillar in its mouth.

The second is Klaas’s Cuckoo which has only a small white stripe from the brown eye, backwards. It also has spots instead of bars on its chest.
It breeds in the northern part of South Africa and is a migrant in more southern parts. In size, it is much smaller than the Diederik Cuckoo and because of its shyness, is never seen.

The third was a female Cardinal Woodpecker which does not have the red stripe on the head like the male. I have always been envious of the lovely pictures I see posted of these great birds but never even get a glimpse of them here although they are very common birds and you hear hem calling all the time.
They excavate a hole in tree trunks and feed mostly on beetle larvae but will eat any insects. It lays 2-5 eggs and incubation is about 12 days.