Biodiversity Superhero… BDI interviews citizen scientist Owolabi Bibitayo Ayobami

Owolabi Bibitayo Ayobami is a lecturer at the Department of Wildlife and Ecotourism Management at Osun State University in Osogbo, Nigeria. He is also busy with his PhD, focusing on vulture conservation in the southwestern state of Nigeria, through the Federal University of Technology Akure. Owolabi is passionate about wildlife conservation, especially that of birds.

Owolabi writes, “I was born into a family with an agricultural background, both my parents have a passion for agriculture. My mom was my Agricultural Science teacher during my secondary school days. I was only introduced to ornithology in 2013, but since then I have been an advocate for bird conservation! I absolutely love birds. Without birds, our chances of survival as humans are slim, we all need to do our part to keep the environment healthy for birds, ourselves as well as all other creatures that we share the planet with. Birds are important environmental indicators, they help us to quantify how healthy and balanced our environment are.”

How did you become a citizen scientist? What was the catalyst that got you going?

Like I mentioned earlier, in 2013 I was privileged to attend a seminar during my master’s degree programme and I found myself fascinated by the presentation on birds. That day my heart was so captured for biodiversity conservation. I went to meet the presenter (Dr Okosodo) and told him I want to work on birds for my Masters project. He gave me my first pair of binoculars and introduced me to the amazing world of citizen science. I did not know much about biodiversity prior to that seminar, I was quite ignorant of the beautiful flora and fauna that nature has bestowed on us.

I then took it upon myself to sensitize people to nature, through write-ups, social media posts, photos and any other mediums I could find in order to spread the gospel of nature conservation.

Red-billed Helmetshrike Prionops caniceps – photo by Dubi Shapiro

The catalysts that got me going happened in phases; first, the the feedback I received from people through emails and other means, of their eagerness to learn and know more about the environment and birds inspired me to go the extra mile as a citizen scientist. There is an indescribable joy when your efforts, to make life more meaningful and worthwhile, are noticed and appreciated. A friend once asked me, “I know butterflies to be colourful, but birds are either black or white. But the birds you have shown me are so diverse in colouration, do you paint them?” 🙂 I am glad that I can open people’s eyes to the wonderful world of birds. Another source of motivation for me, comes from senior colleagues in conservation who are at the forefront in helping to protect wildlife. They encourage me to keep up my own efforts.

Chestnut-breasted Nigrita Nigrita bicolor – photo by Owolabi

What has been the highlight for you?

There are too many highlights to mention!! Not a single day has gone by when I am out in the field with my camera and binoculars that I don’t discover something new and exciting. Each new discovery is wonderful to me. The more I discover, the more I want to know and the more I want to learn.

How has being a citizen scientist changed your view of the world?

Being a citizen scientist has helped me change my view of the world in various ways. I now feel that together we can make a difference to help the natural environment, if we choose to minimize the impact of various human activities. Collecting data and contributing to knowledge through the Nigerian Bird Atlas Project and the Virtual Museum really changed my views about the world in terms of species ranges, distributions and biodiversity conservation.

Dactyloceras bramarbas — LepiMAPed in Osogbo, Nigeria by Owolabi

What does the term “citizen scientist” mean to you?

Citizen scientists are a a group of people, either professionals or non-professionals, taking part in crowd-sourcing, data analysis, and data collection. The idea is like that of division of labour, distributing work or to break down huge tasks into understandable and manageable components that anyone can perform. Participation of non-professionals in science is increasing, and citizen science has a central part in this. It is a contribution by the public to research, actively undertaking and requiring thoughtful action. It is absolutely fantastic!

What are you still hoping to achieve? This might be in terms of species, coverage, targets …

Thank you for this question. It reminds me that there is still so much that I want to do! There are two things I hope to achieve. I want to publish a book on the birds of southwestern Nigeria, and a book on bats of southwestern Nigeria. I know this might be a huge task, but I know it is achievable. Embedded in these goals are so many other awesome things like new species to discover, distribution range maps to update, and more grid cells to cover for the Nigerian Bird Atlas. I also want to upload all my discoveries to the Virtual Museum, which will help to contribute to a rich database on Nigerian biodiversity.

What resources have been the most helpful? (And how can they be made better?)

The Virtual Museum has been the most helpful tool for me. But I think it would help and to give the website a bit of a ‘face lift’ to make it more attractive and user-friendly. The equipment and bird books provided by APLORI for the Nigerian Bird Atlas Project has been a great help. More donations of binoculars and books by the public or private organizations would be fantastic! It helps us to get more people into bird atlasing.

How do you react to the statement that “Being a citizen scientist is good for my health, both physical and mental!”?

The statement is 100% correct. I can’t imagine myself spending a whole day just sitting around discussing football, I will grow sick and tired of it. I love football of course, I am not against playing or watching it. Don’t get me wrong. You may even find it ironic that I am part of the staff football team at Osun State University. But what I am saying is that I have found a better way to keep the body and soul alive. Time spent in nature is always a healing experience. Walking about in nature is the best. It sets one’s mind at rest and gives one hope for the future. The splendour of nature’s majesty is indescribable and it works wonders! 🙂

What do you see as the role which citizen science plays in biodiversity conservation? What is the link?

Citizen science plays a key role in biodiversity conservation. It helps to spread the gospel of nature conservation and education. People around me now watch out for birds and other wildlife. They send me coordinates and photos of the critters they find. They all want to know what more they can do to help and contribute. Citizen science shows us that biodiversity conservation is a joint responsibility irrespective of your profession, gender, age, tribe, religion or political affiliations. Together we can achieve so much more! 🙂

Old Oyo National Park, Nigeria – Photo by Owolabi

Always on the move… BDI interviews citizen scientist Joan Young

“I have spent nearly 40 years living and working in the bush, loving every minute of every day. When I started with macro photography, I discovered a whole new world! Everything from insects to flowers …… so many wonderful shapes and colours that are often not that obvious to the naked eye. Some of the tiniest critters are often the most beautiful.”

Joan out in the field doing what she does best!

How did you become a citizen scientist? What was the catalyst that got you going?

Very early on in my career I discovered that, sadly, many people were obvious to the amazing world of fauna and flora. So I made it my mission to share all the fascinating things I found in nature with others. At the time, there were very few field guide books available, and those that were around were expensive. On top of that, the distribution maps in the books were often inaccurate as I was discovering species far outside their represented ranges. I started a website to help people identify critters, because I was receiving so many emails from people asking me “what is this?”. A few years down the line a friend told me about the Virtual Museum and its biodiversity mapping projects, naturally I jumped at the chance to contribute my photographs.

What has been the highlight for you?

There is just too many highlights to mention, as each discovery of something new is so exciting to me. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t come across something wonderful. The more I find, the more I want to find and the more I want to learn!

Pentila tropicalis tropicalis — Spotted Pentila or Spikkel-geelvlerkie — LepiMAPped in KwaZulu-Natal

How has being a citizen scientist changed your view of the world?

I never considered myself to be a citizen scientist, only an educator, someone who wanted to discover as much as possible about fauna and flora and to share that knowledge with others so that they could love and respect nature too. I think the whole idea of using enthusiasts like myself is fantastic, it’s great to know that we can help scientists collect valuable data on species distributions. We desperately need up to date maps, especially with current rates of human encroachment on the natural environment.

What does the term “citizen scientist” mean to you?

I had been asked to contribute my data and photographs to various other projects before I learnt about the Virtual Museum. I feel the Virtual Museum has given me the chance to really be useful and make a difference. Citizen science has given my life more purpose.

Canis mesomelas — Black-backed Jackal — MammalMAPped near Upington in the Northern Cape

What are you still hoping to achieve? This might be in terms of species, coverage, targets …

I will go on photographing and learning something new every day about fauna and flora, until the day I die or my eyes get too poor to take photographs! It is such a pity that I never had formal training, as I would love to go out into the field and help on science projects at a higher level, but often one needs a formal scientific background in order to be considered for such work. Citizen science has given me the opportunity to make a difference where I can.

What resources have been the most helpful? (And how can they be made better?)

Books on certain fauna like moths and mushrooms have been very hard to come by, but luckily through the years I have met and worked with wonderful scientists and I am so grateful for their patience and help. Photographs are not always sufficient for identifying a critter to species level. There are many species that I have been trying to identify for year, but I still do not have names for them. I would love to contribute as much data as I can. I am concerned that the undocumented species could end up on the extinction list without us even knowing!

Disa woodiiOrchidMAPped near Ramsgate in KwaZulu-Natal

How do you react to the statement that “Being a citizen scientist is good for my health, both physical and mental!”?

I can’t see myself retiring and sitting at home watching TV all day! Getting out into nature has helped me to stay healthy and mentally alert. I love spending time outdoors, walking or hiking and keeping a sharp lookout for anything of interest. I would have aged at least ten years by now without my photography and the Virtual Museum projects.

What do you see as the role which citizen science plays in biodiversity conservation? What is the link?

Citizen scientists often have more opportunities than professionals to get out and about and find species. Citizen scientists help to fill a huge gap in data collection that would otherwise cost thousands of Rands, and take up big chunks of time and effort if left to one researcher or institution. Many hands make light work as they say. The whole idea of using the public to contribute to science is one of the best ideas I have ever come across! 🙂


The Bald and the Beautiful

Today I want to share one of my paintings that celebrates the beauty of the Southern Bald Ibis, Geronticus calvus. This species is near and dear to me. As a child, I sometimes saw them on the sport fields of my high school; and I still see them today, from time to time, while out on birding excursions. They are striking birds with their bright red bald heads and iridescent plumage. Their calls are melodious and mournful, a far-carrying ‘kew-kou-kloup’. 

This species shares its Genus with the Endangered Northern Bald Ibis, Geronticus eremita, which occurs from Morocco to the Middle East. There are also plans afoot to reintroduce it to Europe. The Northern Bald Ibis can be distinguished from the Southern Bald Ibis by the narrow plumes on its head. The Southern Bald Ibis is listed as Vulnerable and is endemic to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. It is estimated that there are only 4,600 breeding birds of this species in the South African region. Its continued existence depends on the conservation of its preferred habitat, which is short, fairly moist grasslands in mountainous and highland areas. Grasslands are some of the most threatened habitats on Earth, much of which has been lost to agricultural expansion. Grasslands are also impacted by overgrazing from domestic animals as well as bush encroachment. Bald ibises are able to make use of some human-created ‘grasslands’, like sports fields and some agricultural fields. In areas with cattle, they will turn over and probe cow pats with their long, curved bills to hunt for beetles and grubs. 

Northern Bald Ibis or Hermit Ibis – Geronticus eremita – photo by Richard Bartz

Bald ibises are also restricted by the availability of breeding sites. They are cliff-nesters and breed in the open areas of mountain faces, as well as river gorges and sometimes around waterfalls. One of the greatest causes in the decline of this species is human disturbance at their breeding sites and the degradation of their habitat. Most of their breeding sites occur on privately owned land, whereas only a small minority of breeding pairs are located on nature reserves or state forest land, which are the only areas where they are guaranteed protection.

Southern Bald Ibis – Kalkoen Ibis – Geronticus calvus – photo by Willem Kruger

An alarming sight at some of their nesting sites below the cliffs, are piles of shiny, plastic buttons. They probably confuse these with beetles, ingesting them and eliminating them intact. It is not known whether this has a negative impact on them, but it might, and yet another reason why we should be concerned about the large amounts of near-indestructible human-made plastic objects accumulating in all environments around the globe.

The Comrades Butterfly… BDI interviews citizen scientist Luelle Watts

Luelle Watts is an amazing woman and LepiMAPper extraordinaire. She has snapped and mapped 1632 LepiMAP records to date, all while training for South Africa’s infamous Comrades Marathon.

Luelle writes: “I grew up on a farm and my siblings were all much older than me. So I was very much a loner, finding my comfort and solace in Nature. I was a recluse and an introvert, shying away from people from a tender age. Later in life, my late husband and I lived on various small holdings, which made me bond with animals and the natural environment even more. I have a great passion for gardening, fishing and the outdoors. My love for running has taken me up and down the road to the Comrades Ultra Marathon 16 times and I hope to achieve my 20th Comrades finish soon.   

How did you become a citizen scientist? What was the catalyst that got you going?

I really enjoy insect photography, so I used my first DSLR camera to take ‘pretty’ pictures. Gradually butterflies became my most favoured subjects. I started posting them on the Bugs and Butterflies Facebook group to get help with identifications. And it was here that I met so many knowledgeable people! Steve Woodhall, butterfly expert and author of the Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa, encouraged me to start contributing to the Virtual Museum.

Anaphe panda – Banded Bagnest/Processionary moth – LepiMAP

What has been the highlight for you? 

The highlight for me has been all the knowledge I’ve gained on butterflies and moths from other enthusiasts and experts. I have also learnt a lot through rearing several butterfly and moth caterpillars. Steve Woodhall has been a great mentor, he has always been encouraging and helpful. Successfully rearing processionary moths Anaphe panda was very exciting for me, especially since they took six months to emerge! Rearing a White-ringed Atlas Moth Epiphora mythimnia was amazing too.

Epiphora mythimnia – White-ringed Atlas Moth – LepiMAP

How do you react to the statement that “Being a citizen scientist is good for my health, both physical and mental!”?

Oh I agree wholeheartedly that being a citizen scientist is definitely good for both my physical and mental health. Chasing after butterflies can be both exasperating and rewarding, especially when you manage to get that perfect photo after walking for miles! Citizen science is also mentally stimulating. I am always keen to learn something new everyday. I think it is important that one never stops learning.

Luelle on a recent trip to the amazing Pyramids of Giza

Spreading the Seeds of Light

On Saturday, 20 July 2019, I was lucky enough to join the Saturday Girls for their Career Guidance Day at the New Dawn Centre in Acornhoek, Mpumalanga. I was asked to talk about my work and personal journey as an Environmental Scientist. I felt really honoured to be invited to this special day. It was a new experience for me to talk about my career and how I ended up becoming an “Eco-Warrior”.

In many parts of Africa, and the rest of the world, gender inequality is still a sad reality. The main aim of the Saturday Girls’ Classes is to help high school girls achieve success within the local school system and prepare effectively for tertiary education, or whichever path they choose to take after school. Thabi Mosenohi, the Seeds of Light Education Support Program Manager, writes: “we want our young girls to think outside the box when it comes to choosing a career path. In the villages of Acornhoek, we find there is limited information regarding career paths and we want to expose the girls to a wide variety of possibilities. We also want them to realize that women are making things happen out there!”

Some of the posters in the classroom – messages of inspiration and encouragement

The Saturday Girls Educational Support Program gives teenage girls a voice, allowing them a safe space in which to speak out and advocate for their needs. The girls also learn important leadership and problem-solving skills through the program. Like many other teenagers in South Africa, the teenagers of Acornhoek struggle with reading and mathematical literacy due to a lack of educational support. Rural schools often have minimal resources, large classes and not enough qualified teachers.

In these areas, girls often get left behind because the few opportunities that do exist are usually given to boys. Seeds of Light offers classes on Saturday mornings to local high school girls. The aim is to empower girls to make the most of the schooling they have. Seeds of Light offers some tuition in Mathematics and English, but their main aim is to encourage leadership, critical thinking and problem solving. Economies thrive and the financial resilience of families and their communities are strengthened when girls and women are empowered and given equal opportunities. Evidence like this forms the basis for organizations like the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) commitment to investing in programs and policies that prioritize girls and women.

The first slide of the talk I presented at the Saturday Girls Career Guidance Day
Some of the slides from my presentation

For me, it was so special to talk to these bright girls. They give me great hope for the future of our South African rainbow nation. It was also an opportunity for me to reflect on my journey as an Environmental Scientist. I realized, once again, how lucky I’ve been with the opportunities that have come my way. Yes, it still required hard work, sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears from my side, but nothing in life that is worth having ever comes easy. I am truly grateful for the people in my life that helped and encouraged me along the way (my family, friends, teachers, professors, and many more). I had a more privileged upbringing than most girls in South Africa, but I hope that in my small way I can give back and encourage other girls to reach for the stars, go after their dreams, and care for nature along the way too (no matter what career path they end up following).

Some photos from the day

The Saturday Girls program has helped many girls to approach life with a can-do attitude rather than dwelling on their circumstances. There were lots of other awesome women who spoke at the career day too. It was great fun to meet them and learn about their fields of work!

Career Day Programme

Seeds of Light, South Africa, began in 2000 as the humanitarian arm of CoreLight, a U.S. non-profit organization, when the founders (Leslie Temple-Thurston, Victoria More, Brad Laughlin, and Judy Miller) learned about the plight of over 1.5 million AIDS orphans in South Africa. Seeds of Light vowed to do something to make a difference. They committed not just to help the orphans but also to uplift the larger area of Acornhoek, Mpumalanga, one of South Africa’s designated poverty nodes, where 1 in 3 people is HIV+, and where there is 70% unemployment, and little access to running water.

It was a privilege to meet the Saturday Girls and I hope to join in on more Seeds of Light initiatives and activities soon! I would like to end off my blog with this beautiful quote from Seeds of Light Founder Leslie Temple-Thurston: “Children who are [encouraged to be creative] learn that they are not empty inside—that they always have inner resources to draw on and that they can create something out of nothing. They become adults who find creative solutions to life’s many challenges and therefore adopt a positive attitude. They find their value within and gain a sense of confidence and self-worth: essential qualities for developing a fulfilling life, and perhaps most importantly, a sustainable future for their community.”

Peregrine takes plover

On 14 November 2016 Kyle Walker collected Peregrine pellets in Scarborough, Cape Town, in on-going monitoring of Peregrine nests on the Cape Peninsula. Kyle was surprised to find a bird ring in the pellet. Peregrines prey on birds, especially on doves and pigeons, but finding a ring in a pellet is nevertheless exciting. In this case, the ring (number FH02254) had been placed on the leg of a White-fronted Plover by Penn Lloyd on Noordhoek Beach, some 8km from where the ring was later found. Penn had colour ringed many of these plovers in a short study of impact of beach-goers with dogs on the breeding success of the plovers.

Peregrine with prey

Two new insights arise from Kyle finding the ring in the pellet. While Peregrines take a wide range of birds, this is the first record of White-fronted Plover in its diet. Other unusual prey species listed in Roberts 7 include Cape Cormorant and Little Grebe.

Secondly, this is the White-fronted Plover with the greatest longevity to date, at around 17 years elapsed time between ringing and finding. The predation date is not known, but the Peregrine nest site was previously checked in November 2015. Thus the true elapsed time is anything between 16 years 3 months and 17 years 3 months. The plover was caught as an adult, so the longevity would be a bit more than the elapsed time. The minimum longevity of 16 years for the White-fronted Plover supersedes the previous record of 10 years.

White-fronted Plover
White-fronted Plover

Would you like to ring a bird? Book a trip with African Ringing Expeditions!

A Rainbow of Landscapes – PART THREE

Today our journey continues onward to the KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape midlands. The midlands are mostly undulating, moist grasslands, but there are lovely ‘mist-belt’ forests too. Most of South Africa’s eastern coastal belt is subtropical in climate, but towards the south it becomes cooler and drier.

Around the area of Port Elizabeth, there is a ‘break’ in the moist coastal belt, and drier landscapes appear. In this region a wonderful mix of vegetation types are found – almost everything in South Africa is represented: Karoo-type semi-desert vegetation, grassland, savanna, bushveld, thicket, forests, and even fynbos! The moister vegetation types are found on the slopes of hills and mountains that face the sea, while the drier types are found on the plains or ‘rain shadows’ in the lee of the mountain slopes or steep valleys and gorges.

A typical Albany Thicket landscape – photo credit of SANParks

One of the most fascinating and diverse vegetation types is that of the Albany Thicket. Thickets in the Eastern Cape are comprised of dense impenetrable vegetation dominated by spiny, often succulent trees and shrubs. The ‘canopy’ is low and mostly formed of tough, thorny trees and shrubs, and in the dappled shade one finds a great diversity of other delicate plants. This vegetation type used to be called Valley Bushveld. A fine example of this thicket is the Addo Bush, found in the Addo Elephant National Park.

South and west of the Port Elizabeth region, the coastal plain becomes moist again. In the Knysna-Tsitsikamma region, the plain broadens and is covered by an extensive, moist forest. Unlike the subtropical forests to the north and east, this one is considered a Temperate Forest, being quite cool and even on the cold side in winter. Nevertheless, frosts are rare, and plants grow luxuriantly. Some of the largest indigenous trees in South Africa are found in the Knysna Forest, such as the Outeniqua Yellowwood Podocarpus falcatus, which can exceed 30 m in height and spread, with a massively thick trunk.

Podocarpus falcatus The Big Tree at Tsitsikamma – photo credit of Random Harvest Indigenous Nursery

From the southern to the western Cape, the coastal plain is covered by a unique kind of vegetation – Fynbos (directly translated into English, it means ‘fine bush’). Coastal fynbos is also called ‘renosterveld’ (rhino-field). Named after one of the dominant plant species, the rhinoceros bush Dicerothamnus rhinocerotis, a shrubby member of the daisy family.

The southern and western Cape also sports an extensive and complicated array of mountain ranges. These are not part of the mountainous ‘rim’ that borders the interior plateau, but are a wealth of separate ranges, most being ‘fold’ mountains, formed by the buckling of the Earth’s crust. These mountain ranges can be very rugged; particularly spectacular examples include the Cederberg, the Little and Great Swartberg, the Hex River Mountains, and the Groot Winterhoek Mountains.

The Cape Fold Mountains host the most diverse vegetation type in South Africa – and one of the most diverse in the world: Mountain Fynbos. This consists mainly of low shrubby plants from the Protea, Erica and Restio family – but there are also vast numbers of other plant species. Up in the mountains, fynbos grows on shallow and rather infertile soil.  Plant cover is sparse, making the rocks and geological formations of the mountains easily visible. Fynbos doesn’t support many large mammal species, but a number of small mammals are restricted to fynbos habitat. Insect diversity in this region is fantastic.

Kogelberg Nature Reserve, Western Cape – photo by Wouter Jonker

The northern regions of the Cape Fold Mountains are drier than the southern regions, such as the Little Karoo, and the Worcester-Robertson Karoo, which are semi-desert areas. Here the plant growth is low and shrubby, with a wonderful diversity of succulent species. Towards the north and the west, this constitutes the Succulent Karoo, which is the world’s richest succulent region. Interestingly, most of the succulent species found here are very small, the Mesemb family providing the greatest number of species. Particularly charming are the many species that mimic rocks and pebbles, such as Lithops, Conophytum, Argyroderma, Bijlia, Pleiospilos, Lapidaria, Dinteranthus and many more.

Klein Karoo in full bloom – photo by Megan Loftie-Eaton

In the north and west, the Succulent Karoo reaches the ocean, forming ‘Strandveld’ and to the north, Namaqualand and the Richtersveld. It’s a region of dunes close to the sea and rolling hills, with occasional large, domed inselbergs, further inland.  Namaqualand is famous for its display of flowers. This region receives very little rain on average – but it varies. Some years – most years, actually – there’s hardly any rainfall, but every now and then, the rains are abundant. When this happens, the landscape explodes into colour! A great many seeds of annual plants that have been lying dormant in the sand, suddenly germinate and in a very short period of time, grow to adulthood and flower. Bulbs that have been buried deep in the soil, waiting for moisture to penetrate, sprout leaves and flower too. Even small perennial herbs and shrubs, that might have seemed dry and dead, suddenly burst into life. The end result being that for a few weeks, the entire desert becomes covered in a carpet of white, yellow, orange, red and purple flowers. People flock to Namaqualand to admire this wonder of nature.

In the northernmost reaches the Namaqualand merges into the Richtersveld, one of the driest and most barren desert regions of South Africa. This is where the Orange River meets the sea. In its lower reaches the Orange River carves its course through a mountainous landscape, which in our border country of Namibia includes the spectacular Fish River Canyon (the Fish River being a tributary of the Orange), and in South Africa, the Augrabies Falls, a voluminous and powerful waterfall, where the entire Orange River is constrained to rush through a fairly narrow, rocky gorge.

The Richtersveld, though extremely dry and barren, hosts one of the richest succulent floras in the world. Here, unlike in the Succulent Karoo, large and strange-looking succulents are found, like the Giant Quiver Tree Aloe pillansii, and the Halfmens or Elephant-trunk Pachypodium namaquanum. Together with the flora, this region also has spectacular rock formations, forming landscapes that might as well belong to a different planet. A surprising number of mammals, birds, reptiles and even amphibians have successfully adapted to this forbidding desert region.

Pachypodium namaquanum – photo by Winfried Bruenken

And that brings us to the end of our journey! This was just a small glimpse into the natural landscapes of South Africa. We live in beautiful country, there is so much to explore….so what are you waiting for? 🙂 And if you missed it, here is part one and two.

Africa is home… BDI interviews citizen scientist Chris Meyer

How did you become a citizen scientist? What was the catalyst that got you going?

Having spent my early years growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe, then spending many years as a geologist in the field in South Africa and Zambia, and having the privilege of being able to spend time outdoors with a camera during my later years I developed a real interest in the fauna and flora around me. Sometimes I feel maybe too late as there were many opportunities missed to collect even more photographic records during my working career and travels!

I started taking photos of almost anything and everything, particularly wildlife and birds and this has rolled over to moths and butterflies, so I had collected many photos with no real agenda other than, “nice to have”. I did try and send a few photos for inclusion in calendars and publications, but realised soon enough from the feedback that perhaps I should just do it for fun. My wonderful wife, Caddy shares our common interest in birding and the great outdoors, making our exploration trips very special. So when the opportunity came to share our photos and records on the various Facebook groups and the Virtual Museum, the platform was set and the catalyst ignited to share our passion with others “out there” that appreciate nature as well.

Awesome moth LepiMAPped by Chris in Ndola, Zambia

What has been the highlight for you? 

To be honest I don’t remember how I heard about the Virtual Museum, but being able to upload photos in order to help research and to show the diversity and range of various species; in particular where we live in Ndola, Zambia has added a special meaning to getting out and about. There is a sense of excitement and satisfaction when a new bird species, moth or butterfly is found and photographed. It is great when our records are identified by the panel of experts and then to see that certain records have never been recorded in Zambia, or can be added to our list of birds at home or “Life list”, is rewarding!

What does the term “citizen scientist” mean to you?

As a member of the general public with access to the outdoors, and the willingness to share information, photographs and other resources with professional scientists in their respective fields of study has been amazing. To know that we are able to assist with data gathering for scientific research makes me proud to be called a “Citizen Scientist”.

Lybius minor — Black-backed Barbet — One of Chris’ many awesome BirdPix records

What are you still hoping to achieve? This might be in terms of species, coverage, targets …

Right now, the goal is to continue taking photos of anything and everything and to upload as many of these new and historical photographic records into the various Virtual Museum projects. And with the hope that in time the unknown specimens can be identified too and that the records can be used in future research projects to update species distribution maps.

What resources have been the most helpful? (And how can they be made better?)

From my short time as a Citizen Scientist, the people behind the scenes that take time to identify and interpret the uploaded records have been the most helpful to me as an amateur photographer and novice conservationist, perhaps I have interpreted this question incorrectly but they are the unsung heroes of an initiative like this, so my profound thanks to everyone involved, keep up the good work.

Coenina poecilaria — Wisp Wing — LepiMAPed by Chris in Ndola, Zambia

How do you react to the statement that “Being a citizen scientist is good for my health, both physical and mental!”?

Just for the record, thank you for referring to me as a Citizen Scientist, it makes me feel proud to be recognised for my small contribution to a really big and diverse field of research and conservation.

Being able to get out into the bush and doing what we enjoy as husband and wife, sometimes with friends too, is especially invigorating. The clean air and being able to walk around and to put the stresses of work aside for just a few hours is very important, to feel challenged to get a clear photo or to make sure the GPS position is recorded correctly and captured in the Virtual Museum or BirdLasser App is really enjoyable. We love that citizen science challenges us both physically and mentally.

Kaupifalco monogrammicus — Lizard Buzzard or Akkedisvalk — BirdPix record by Chris

All the Pretty Pangolins

Many of you might be aware that pangolins are, at present, the most illegally-trafficked mammals in the world, mainly because of the illusory medicinal value of their scales. But rather than talk about the plight of these precious creatures I want to share some of my pangolin drawings and fascinating pangolin facts with you, to show you how unique, wonderful and worth-fighting-for pangolins are.

Today, there are eight species of pangolin: four occur in Asia, in the genus Manis; four in Africa, the two small tree pangolins in the genus Phataginus, and the two larger ground pangolins in the genus Smutsia. These species range in size from 30 to 100 cm in length. My illustrations in this blog are all of the African Ground Pangolin, Smutsia temminckii, the only species to occur in South Africa. 

Phataginus tricuspis — White-bellied Pangolin — MammalMAPped by Bart Wursten in Democratic Republic of Congo

Pangolins are instantly recognizable by their scaly skin. They have large, protective keratin (the same substance as in human fingernails) scales covering their bodies; they are the only known mammals with this feature. You could, in effect, think of a pangolin as having fingernails growing all over its body!  These scales are very hard and tough, and protect pangolins in the wild even against lions and tigers.

The pangolin’s main defense mechanism is to curl up into a tight ball when threatened.  The name pangolin comes from the Malay word pengguling, meaning “one who rolls up”. A mother will enfold her baby into her protective ball of scales as she rolls up. In addition to the hardness of the scales, their sharp edges also offer defense. The scales are sharp, providing extra defense from predators.

Pangolins are insectivores, eating mainly ants and termites, which they find using their keen sense of smell. Their heads have thick, swollen skin around their eye and ear openings, protecting them against bites while they feed. They have incredibly long tongues that are coated in sticky saliva. Pangolins have to generate large quantities of saliva every day, and therefor most species need easy access to water. The African Ground Pangolin is unique in being able to exist in fairly dry regions though; most other species are restricted to moist rain forests. The pangolin’s sticky tongue has an attachment that goes down beyond the throat, all the way back to the rear of the abdominal cavity! It is supported by a prong-like structure that is formed from highly modified cartilaginous ribs, located in the thorax between the sternum and the trachea. Large pangolins can extend their tongues by as much as 40 cm.

Because of their diet of ants and termites, sucked up on their sticky tongues, pangolins don’t need big mouths or strong jaws. Their lower jaw is reduced to slender bone struts and they don’t have any teeth. Instead, they have a gizzard, like those of birds, in which the ingested insects collect. This gizzard has an inner surface covered in keratinous (yes, just like the scales) spines, to grind up the insects, aided by sand and soil that the pangolins ingest along with their prey. Pangolins have very large and tough claws on their forefeet, to rip and tear into ant and termite nests.

Pangolin tails are special. Tree-dwelling pangolins have tails that are prehensile, that is, they are muscular and able to grasp onto things, helping them to climb up and down trees. There is a sensitive, naked, finger-like pad at the tip of their tails. The African long-tailed pangolin has 47 tail vertebrae, more than any other mammal! The larger ground pangolins have blunt, heavy tails; the giant pangolin can defend itself by wielding its tail like a club. The smaller ground pangolin uses its tail as a counterweight while walking. It is unique in that it can walk on its hind legs, tucking its forelegs close to its chest. This manner of walking, with the front of the body balanced by the long tail stretched out to the rear, is likely how the extinct bipedal dinosaurs walked, but today it is only the pangolin that walks like this. Lastly, a mother pangolin often carries her baby clinging to the upper surface of her tail.

So numerous and extreme are the adaptations of pangolins that it has been difficult to work out where to place them taxonomically. In days of yore they were thought to be related to the edentates (Order Edentata), mammals having few or no teeth, including the sloths, armadillos, and New World anteaters. But pangolins are only very distantly related to these species. At present, it seems their closest relatives are the members of the Order Carnivora, which include the cats, dogs, bears, skunks, raccoons, otters, badgers, weasels, mongooses, genets and civets, as well as the marine carnivores, the walruses, sea-lions and seals. Pangolins have a fossil history going back about 50 million years, some beautifully-preserved ancestors are known from sites such as the Messel Pit in Germany. One of these, Eurotamandua, was indeed first thought to be an ancient tamandua (a South American anteater), but is now considered a very old pangolin relative. Pangolin fossils show that in the past they were more widespread, having occurred in Europe and not just in Africa and Asia.  Some fossil species were even larger than the present-day giant pangolin.

Ecologically, pangolins are important predators of ants and termites. In the rain forests of Africa and Asia, pangolins are the chief predators of ants and termites, keeping their population numbers in check. This means that pangolins are likely to be ‘keystone species’ in tropical rain forests; without them the ecological integrity of these habitats could be at risk. In the savannas, the ground pangolin plays a similar role, but is aided here by Aardvark Orycteropus afer and Aardwolf Proteles cristata.

Smutsia temminckii — African Ground Pangolin — MammalMAPped by Kyle Finn at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve

A few final fascinating pangolin facts:

  • They mark their territories with anal secretions and urine, some lifting up one hind leg like a dog would do;
  • They mate side-to-side, sometimes intertwining their tails;
  • Some pangolins like to wallow in mud, or even dung;
  • Some squirt a noxious fluid like that of skunks from their backsides to deter predators or anything that threatens them.
  • Though mostly silent, pangolins can growl and hiss.

The word needs to get out about pangolins. The living animals are immensely valuable and special creatures. Nobody needs the pangolin’s scales except the pangolin, let’s protect them and keep it that way!

A Rainbow of Landscapes – PART TWO

Last week we took a look at the wonderful landscapes of the central plateau of South Africa. From the vast open plains of the central Karoo to the rolling red dunes of the Kalahari. Today we continue our journey through the lowlands that surround the central plateau. Let’s start in the north. The Limpopo River forms the northern border of South Africa, it has carved out a low-lying valley that forms an arc around the northern central plateau. The climate of the northern Limpopo valley is extremely dry and hot. This is where the huge Baobabs Adansonia digitata are found! Towards the east, the Limpopo descends into a vast lowland region, most of which is in the neighbouring country of Mozambique.

The eastern lowlands of South Africa are known as the Lowveld. The Lowveld is mostly savanna, with good grazing, and larger trees, such as Mopane Colophospermum mopane, Marula Sclerocarya birrea, and Leadwood Combretum imberbe. The climate of this region is characterized by mild winters from May to September and hot summers from November to March. Precipitation mostly occurs in the summer months in the form of high-energy thunderstorms.

A green Lowveld scene – Manyeleti Game Reserve

The Lowveld is the only part of South Africa where most of the large mammals still remain. The Kruger National Park, a jewel in the national heritage crown of South Africa, encompasses much of the eastern Lowveld. There are many other smaller national, municipal and private game reserves in the region too.

Between the Lowveld, Highveld and Bushveld, there is a rim of mountains forming a barrier. These include the northern Drakensberg mountain range; the Wolkberg range; and the Soutpansberg range. This rim of mountains blocks moisture-bearing rains towards the west and north, forming a ‘rain shadow’. By contrast, the eastern and southern slopes receive a lot of rainfall. In these moist regions forests are found – these form only a tiny proportion of South Africa’s surface area, but are lovely and magical. Some of the best forest habitats are in Magoebaskloof, only a short drive from Polokwane. On average, Magoebaskloof receives 2,500 mm of rainfall per year, providing for the luxuriant growth of trees, ferns, shrubs, mosses, lichens and other amazing plants. From above, the forest canopy looks soft and billowing, with various different greens and leafy textures; underneath the canopy, the forests are shady, the crooked trunks and branches clothed in soft mosses and lichens and the forest floor covered in ferns. Frequent mists turn the forests into a magical and mysterious place.  These forests do not have many large mammals, but there are some, such as Bushpigs Potamochoerus larvatus, Red Duikers Cephalophus natalensis and Samango Monkeys Cercopithecus albogularis. Birds are abundant and diverse, as are the insects.

The beautiful forests of Magoebaskloof – photos by Megan Loftie-Eaton

South of the Lowveld lies the coastal plains of Kwazulu-Natal. Moisture from the Indian Ocean sustains a dense coastal forest. On the more exposed dunes, the forests are replaced by rolling grasslands. Unfortunately, in many places these forests have been converted to sugarcane plantations, but there are some areas under conservation too. The coastal forest is characterized by low-growing trees and shrubs with dense crowns. Some of the interesting plants of note include the Wild Date Phoenix reclinata and Lala Palm Hyphaene coriacea trees, Strelitzias Strelitzia nicolai, and coastal Aloes. Dune forests also have high insect, reptile and amphibian diversity, like the Endangered Pickersgill’s Reed Frog Hyperolius pickersgilli.

Pickersgill’s Reed Frog Hyperolius pickersgilliFrogMAPped by Nick Evans
Trumpeter Hornbill Bycanistes bucinator – iSimangaliso Wetland Park

In and around the coastal estuaries, a special kind of forest called Mangrove Forest is found. This consists of salt-resistant trees that are adapted to root in the soft mud and sand of the tidal flats. Some of these trees have stilt-roots, others have ‘upside down’ roots (pencil-like ‘fingers’ that poke out from the mud and allows the tree to ‘breathe’) or knee-roots. Mangrove trees include members of the genera Bruguiera and Avicennia, and the lovely Powder-Puff Tree Barringtonia racemosa.  Mangroves are very important for protecting the coastline from erosion and ocean surges, they also help to “trap” soil that would otherwise wash out to sea. Unfortunately, lots of mangroves have been destroyed to make way for harbours and coastal cities.

Powder-puff Tree — Poeierkwasboom — TreeMAPped by Pieter Cronje

In a few places along the coast, the forest becomes taller and includes some large forest trees such as the Water Berry Syzygium cordatum and the Red Milkwood Mimusops caffra. Coastal forests have a somewhat greater diversity of mammals and birds than the forests further inland, including interesting species like the Tree Dassie Dendrohyrax arboreus (yes, an arboreal hoofed mammal!) and the tiny Blue Duiker Philantomba monticola.

Blue Duiker Philantomba monticolaMammalMAPped by Janine Cotterrell

The northern parts of the coastal plain broaden into a region called Maputaland. Maputaland is bordered by the Ubombo Mountains in the west and the Indian Ocean in the east. It covers an area of about 10,000 square kilometers, stretching approximately from the town of Hluhluwe and the northern section of Lake St. Lucia (actually a huge estuary) to the southern border of Mozambique with South Africa. This region is almost tropical in climate and is home to plant species that aren’t found anywhere else in South Africa. Wildlife is also abundant as much of the region is conserved in the iSmangaliso Wetland Park

The green glades of Cape Vidal – iSimangaliso Wetland Park

In PART THREE of this blog series we keep traveling through the rainbow of landscapes that is South Africa, along the midlands towards the Cape Fold Mountains. Watch this space!