Since it started in March 2012, 450 records have been uploaded to the BOP section of the Virtual Museum. BOP stands for Birds with Odd Plumage. The BOP logo conveys the concept of “odd plumage”. This blog reviews a few of the records in BOP.
The Virtual Museum website describes BOP this way: “Birds with all sorts of unusual plumage variations are observed from time to time. Nowadays, with digital photography, pictures of these birds are frequently available. BOP (Birds with Odd Plumage) aims to provide a place where the photographs can be curated into one database. Any bird with any unusual plumage characteristic qualifies for inclusion in the Virtual Museum. This will provide the opportunity to look for patterns. Do certain species have abnormal plumage more frequently than others? Do unusual plumage patterns occur more in some places than in others?” The BOP section of the Virtual Museum has also become a curation place for photos of birds with deformities, especially of the bill, and also of hybrids.
Here is a collage of thumbnails of the 13 African Penguins Spheniscus demersus uploaded to BOP. The most commonly encountered plumage abnormality is a double throat band, similar to that of Magellanic Penguin Spheniscus magellanicus. Every year there are twitchers who believe they have made the first African record of the Magellanic Penguin.
But take a good look at the two photos of penguins at the left ends of the first and second rows. They are both more or less black in front, and they have white patches in the same places. They look like photos of the same penguin. Here they are, side by side!
The left photo, BOP002, was taken on Robben Island on 21 May 2004 (curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BOP-2). The right photo, BOP013, was taken by Jessica Kemper on Halifax Island, Namibia, on 1 June 2008 (curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BOP-13). Movements of African Penguins between the the Namibian islands and the penguin colonies of the Western Cape have been recorded, but are quite unusual. Alas, we do not have a match. Jessica and I have agreed that, even though the general patterns of these two birds are quite similar, the details are very different. For example, the penguin on the right has a small throatband, the one on the left does not (the patterns stay identical moult after moult). Nevertheless, it is amazing that essentially the same colour morph, the “black-fronted African Penguin” has occurred in two colonies so far apart.
There are two more African Penguins with extremely odd plumages.
This bizarre bird looks like it has been branded as penguin number 100. It was photographed on 3 June 2010 by penguin research Lorien Pichegru on St Croix Island in Algoa Bay, a little east of Port Elizabeth. Lorien comments “This bird was seen again on St Croix Island, at the same spot in March 2013” (see http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BOP-131)
And this “Dalmation”-style penguin was photographed in the penguin colony at The Boulders, in Simonstown, by Andre Coetzer on 17 February 2017. The white back would be a useful climate change adaptation, because the normal black back is a poor choice of colour when lying on nests incubating eggs. Black absorbs heat, white reflects it. (See http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BOP-290).
The next case study is totally different to the records for all the other species in BOP. We do not for a moment believe that the feathers of the Cattle Egrets actually grew to be pink and blue, just like we don’t believe that the blue ones are boys and the pink ones are girls.
We have absolutely no idea what happened to dye these Cattle Egrets blue or pink. They were solitary coloured birds in flocks. The blue egret on the left was photographed by Grant Egen at Mkombo Dam, Mpumalanga, on 18 January 2015 (see http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BOP-205). The photographs on the right were taken by Suzanne van Maltitz on a farm in the Northern Cape just south of Spitskop Dam. The top photo was taken on 22 January 2012, and the bottom photo three years later on 13 February 2015 (see http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BOP-1 and http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BOP-522). Explanations welcome.
This bizarre abnormality is fairly frequent! It’s a bald Common Myna, featherless head, and a bright yellow skin, simply known as a “bald-headed myna”. They are sometimes also referred to as “King Mynas”, as in this blog from the Seychelles where there is another, almost identical, photograph. Wherever Common Mynas occur, both in their native range and also in the multiple areas where they have been introduced, bald-headed mynas are observed occasionally. Chris Feare, co-author of a book called Starlings and Mynas, is particularly interested in this abnormality. He says: “It is remarkable that such an obvious and widespread variant has received little mention in myna literature. The causation of this strange condition remains pure speculation. We are not even close to understanding what is going on with bald-headed mynas.” Chris was involved in a myna eradication campaign in the Seychelles. “We don’t have enough data to uncover any seasonal effects, and we killed all the birds we caught during eradication programmes so we can’t say whether they remain in the condition for life, or recover a full head of feathers at some stage.” So here is a challenge for everyone who lives with mynas. If you have a bald-headed myna in your neighbourhood, try to watch it, and see if the baldness is permanent, or whether it sprouts new feathers after a few weeks or months! The photo above, by Doreen Wood, was submitted by Grant Egen, and is curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BOP-181.
It can’t get much worse than this for a myna. Johan van Rensburg took this photo west of Delmas in Mpumalanga on 18 May 2014. He comments: “A rather bizarre combination of two rare, unrelated plumage conditions, bald-headed as well as leucistic. One in a million?” Curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BOP-157.
If you want to have a look at more of the weird and wonderful plumages uploaded by citizen scientists, and curated in Birds with Odd Plumage, head over to the Virtual Museum at http://vmus.adu.org.za. Select BOP as your project, and then click on either of the “Search” buttons without choosing anything specific to search for. The next page will display the first 30 records. At the top of this page, you can click on “Display thumb-nails only”, and you will get small versions of the first 250 records in BOP. Click on any of the thumb-nails, and you will get a display of the record.
If you have photos to contribute to BOP, please do upload them! If you are new to the Virtual Museum, and want to get involved, please make contact.
What is the Virtual Museum? When people hear the word “museum” they often think of a building filled with dusty display cases and stuffed animals. But, the Virtual Museum (VM) is not gathering dust. Our “specimens”, photographic records of Africa’s biodiversity, are being used to make a difference for nature conservation in Africa. The VM provides the platform for citizen scientists (members of the public), aka BioMAPpers, to contribute to biodiversity mapping projects. We cannot conserve Africa’s wonderful biodiversity effectively if we don’t know where species occur. Up to date distribution maps are key for species conservation. The realm of biodiversity conservation is no longer only the responsibility of professional scientists and game rangers; everybody has their part to play in conservation. It is up to all of us to make a difference, the future of Africa’s wildlife and natural ecosystems are in our hands. So what can you do to help? You can snap it and map it! https://www.slideshare.net/Animal_Demography_Unit/how-to-submit-records-to-the-virtual-museums
I encourage all of you to submit your photographs of the awesome critters that you find out there on your adventures, to the various projects in the VM (e.g. MammalMAP, which is the Atlas of African Mammals), along with the locality information and the date. You can try and identify the critter that you photographed, but this is not essential, because the species identifications are confirmed by a panel of experts for each project. Within each VM project there are distribution maps and species lists freely available online, and these also serve as conservation and education tools. These maps and species lists include VM records as well as other distributional records contained within the Animal Demography Unit’s databases (e.g. historical records, museum collections, bulk data uploads, records from private collections, and expert confirmed sightings records). The data from the VM has been used in the Red Listing and Atlas of mammals, butterflies, reptiles, and frogs of southern Africa. This is data that is making a difference.
VM records help expand the distribution databases and information for these various taxa (mammals, reptiles, butterflies/moths, dragonflies, mushrooms, lacewings, spiders, scorpions etc.); they not only confirm the presence of a species at a particular point in time, but they also provide new distribution records for species and sometimes lead to extensions of the known range of a species. By uploading your photos to the VM you can make a difference for biodiversity conservation. Instead of having your photos sit on your computer gathering digital dust they can form part of a valuable database of biodiversity. Let’s take responsibility for biodiversity conservation, let’s snap it and map it! If you have any questions about how to submit your photos to the VM please don’t hesitate to contact us. Happy mapping!
We asked citizen scientist Altha Liebenberg to select a few of the Virtual Museum records which had given her the greatest pleasure in submitting during 2018. Altha lives in a small town called Daniëlskuil, in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, about 140 km northwest of Kimberley.
Traditionally, coverage of this vast area of the Northern Cape north and west of Kimberley is pathetically thin in biodiversity projects. Altha has turned Daniëlskuil into one of the coverage hotspots for the Virtual Museum. Over the past six years, she has submitted almost 12,000 records from the town and its immediate surroundings. This is close to the number of citizens of Daniëlskuil.
This is the sixth time Altha has photographed this “form” of baboon spider at Daniëlskuil for the Virtual Museum. This is her only record of it for 2018 – see http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=SpiderMAP-9631. This spider belongs to the genus Harpactirella. Ian Engelbrecht, who has a specialist interest in the baboon spiders, comments: “The genus Harpactirella is complex and we don’t know what the species boundaries are. This particular form only occurs around Daniëlskuil. At Griekwastad, Kuruman and Campbell, the next closest points from which we have records, different forms occur. These various forms occurs across the Karoo. They make very distinctive round burrows along drainage lines and the edges of pans. The females have striking orange markings on the front legs. All of Altha’s records so far have been of males.” So there is lots of taxonomic research needed just to sort out the species of the genus Harpactirella.
Altha uploaded 14 records to ReptileMAP in 2018, and is responsible for 88 of the 109 records of reptiles for this grid cell. This was her “reptile of the year”. She wrote: “OK, I’m still in shock. I was slowly creeping up on some springbok for MammalMAP when this snake came across the electric fence. I thought he was going to be a dead snake, but luck was on his side and he just sailed away.” This is a Northern Boomslang Dispholidus typus viridis and is curated in ReptileMAP at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=ReptileMAP-168928.
BOP stands for Birds with Odd Plumage. It is the smallest section of the Virtual Museum, and contains photos of birds with abnormal plumages or with deformities, such as abnormally long bills. There are currently 441 records in BOP. Whether or not this section of the Virtual Museum ever delivers any real “science” is a moot point. We believe that, sooner or later, someone will discover some amazing pattern within these records. Altha highlighted this African Red-eyed Bulbul as her record of the year for BOP. She comments: “There was a flock of these bulbuls present, and in among the flock was this black one. It really stood out from the rest, and looked out of place.” This is an African Red-eyed Bulbul, curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BOP-476; the inset photograph of a normal bird is by Vaughan Jessnitz (http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BirdPix-3460) and was taken at Witsand Nature Reserve, not far from Daniëlskuil, in the Northern Cape. (I will do a blog post soon on a selection of the weird and wonderful records in BOP.)
Identifying the “green lacewings” of the family Chrysopidae to species from photographs is notoriously difficult. This member of the family Dichochrysa tacta is an exception. LacewingMAP has 80 records of this species, and 40 of them are photographic. The emerging distribution is shown on the map inset. In broad-brush terms it consists of the arid parts of western South Africa and southern Namibia. But it would be nice to have a lot more records to see the pattern in detail.
This photo is one Altha’s 17 records from Daniëlskuil). (See http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=LacewingMAP-15393). There is special value in multiple records for a species at a site. They help define aspects of the “phenology” (timing of the annual cycle). The records for Dichochrysa tacta are spread throughout the year, but the overwhelming majority are in September-December. This was the first of Altha’s five records of Dichochrysa tacta for 2018, on 25 August.
Daniëlskuil is inside the red circle in the inset map above, so Altha’s records are at the “edge” of the distribution. If there are 17 records here, the obvious question is: “How much farther east does the real distribution extend?”
Altha took this photo on 26 December 2918, during an expedition to Douglas, a town near the confluence of the Orange and Vaal Rivers. Her comment: “Dragonflies were scarce, and I was getting very down-hearted that I had not seen any for the whole morning. Then this little guy popped in and said hullo and then was gone again. He just gave me time for two quick photos. I picked this record as one of the highlights of the year because it made a bad day marvelous.”
The species of dragonfly that made Altha’s day for her is Red-veined Dropwing Trithemis arteriosa. This record is curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=OdonataMAP-62887. Red-veined Dropwings occur throughout Africa, and the distribution extends beyond Africa in a northeastwards direction to the Arabian Peninsula and to Turkey in southwestern Asia.
This is the distribution map for the Red-veined Dropwing in Africa, based on 6,497 records; there are 3,823 records in OdonataMAP (ie the photographic records such as Altha’s) and 2,674 records in the Odonata Database of Africa, known as the ADDO database (African Dragonflies and Damselflies Online). The ADDO website also contains a profile of the taxonomy, identification and ecology of the Red-veined Dropwing. In this map, the grid cells in which Virtual Museum records of the species has occurred are green and the ADDO records are blue. The ADDO database contributes massively to our knowledge of distribution everywhere north of southern Africa. As amazing as this map is, the reality is that there are still lots of grid cells where Red-veined Dropwings occur, but for which we do not yet have a record!!
It would make the most remarkable difference to our understanding of biodiversity and its distribution if every community across Africa had a citizen scientist just like Altha Liebenberg. Thank you, Altha.
Birds are simple. So are dragonflies. If you are looking for one of life’s tougher challenges then volunteer to help with the identification of the moths in the LepiMAP section of the Virtual Museum. In reality, birds and dragonflies are NOT that simple! But in comparison to the moths, they are.
Moths are hard because there is not yet a proper field guide called the Moths of Southern Africa (and we are a long way away from the Moths of Africa). Moths are especially hard because the taxonomy is still unstable. DNA analysis is revealing that the relationships between genera and families are not what we thought they were. And moths are horridly hard because there are so many species, with 7,000 described for South Africa alone, and an unknown number undescribed. Globally, it is thought that there are around 160,000 species of moths, about 16 times more than the number of bird species.
During 2018, the key people on the expert panel for moths within LepiMAP were Quartus Grobler in East London, Kate Braun in Swaziland, and Johan Heyns in Heidelberg in Gauteng. Towards the end of the year, Rolf Oberprieler, now in Australia, and a global authority on the Saturniidae, the family that includes the emperor moths, joined the expert panel. We are hugely grateful to them as the tackle one of the toughest tasks associated with the Virtual Museum. We asked Quartus, who did more than 4000 identifications in 2018, to select a few of the submissions that he especially enjoyed interacting with. Here are the four he chose.
This moth is Knappetra arenacea in the Family Lymantriidae. Quartus chose this moth because it is the very first record of this species in the LepiMAP database (http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=LepiMAP-660635). Only a few hundred moths were “named” by Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), the founder of modern taxonomy. This species, probably endemic to the Western Cape, was one of them. Carl Linnaeus was the person who invented the “binomial” system of naming plants and animals. Starting in 1735, with a 12th edition completed in 1768, he catalogued and gave binomial names to about 6,000 plants and 4,000 animals. That’s an impressive life’s work, but in relation to the 1.3 million species with names by 2018 (out of an estimated 8.7 milliion on the planet) Carl Linneaus only got to name a minuscule fraction. So Knappetra arenacea got lucky!
This photograph was taken by Fanie Rautenbach, just inland of one of the beaches near Milnerton, Cape Town, on 21 October 2018. He comments: “I have seen this orange moth flying around for a few years now on the west coast side of Cape Town but was never able to get a photo. They are always flying and never seemed to go and sit. This particular day I was lucky because it was very windy. So I saw this one dive into a bush and was able to take a photo for LepiMAP.” Now Fanie is a very important person within the LepiMAP community because he is the expert panel member who does the overwhelming majority of the identifications of butterflies. He did 17,447 in 2018, and has done 57,609 in total. So it is fantastic that Quartus picked one of Fanie’s records, and has given us this opportunity to celebrate his contribution.
This Wimbledon-coloured moth is new to science. It is a new species within the genus Drepanogynis in the family Geometridae, the “inch worms”. This genus already has about 150 species, most of them occurring in southern Africa. This new moth has been recorded by only a single LepiMAPper, Altha Liebenberg, in the little village of Danielskuil, in the Northern Cape, west of Kimberley. And Altha has recorded them in every year, except one, and they appear during a short period in May! In 2018, it was recorded on 28 May (http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=LepiMAP-649429).
With around 10,000 records, Altha Liebenberg is the top contributor of moths to LepiMAP. A large proportion of these have been collected at Danielskuil. This set of records presents the most amazing opportunity for research. As a citizen scientist, Altha has collected data systematically, throughout the year, since the beginning of 2013. Out of this block of data there is a fantastic scope to investigate topics such as the seasonality of occurrence of species at a single location, and how this varies with rainfall and temperature. Quartus’s choice of this record gives us the opportunity to celebrate Altha’s outstanding contribution to the Virtual Museum. If there is a budding entomologist who is interested in this opportunity, please contact us.
This is the first record of this moth in LepiMAP. It is Vegetia dewitzi, from the family Saturniidae, the emperor moths. It has been recorded in South Africa and Namibia. There are four species in the genus Vegetia and they all seem to be confined to only these two countries. This photograph was submitted by Zenobia van Dyk but was actually taken by her cousin Ninon du Plessis, on a farm in the Victoria West district of the Northern Cape (http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=LepiMAP-640827). This is one of only two records in LepiMAP for grid cell 3123BA. Zenobia is in the top echelon of Virtual Museum contributors, with 3099 records submitted. Her records come from an area where there are few citizen scientists: the northern end of the Western Cape, the southern end of the Northern Cape and the northwestern corner of the Eastern Cape.
There are two records of this moth in the LepiMAP data, both uploaded by James Harrison from the same locality in Riebeeck East, Eastern Cape, and only 10 days apart, during April 2018. This record is curated as http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=LepiMAP-645787. This moth is Hebdomophruda apicata in the family Geometridae.
It is a great serendipity that Quartus selected one of James Harrison’s records. For it was James who invented the concept of the Virtual Museum. In 2005, SANBI had awarded a contract to undertake the “reptile atlas” to the Animal Demography Unit, with James as Project Manager. One of the conditions of the contract was that there had to be a “citizen science” component to data collection. It was quite hard to visualize how to safely implement a citizen science project for a taxon that included venomous snakes! But 2005 was the time when digital cameras and GPS units were starting to become affordable. James’s brilliant idea was to merge the two technologies, so that the citizen science for the reptile atlas consisted of digital photographs of reptiles and their GPS coordinates. And so the Virtual Museum was born. The Virtual Museum contributed 6,709 of the 135,512 records in the reptile atlas (5%). In this context, the Virtual Museum records had a special value, because they were up-to-date, whereas the great bulk of the records were historical records of museum specimens.
Thanks, Quartus, for selecting four interesting records from the 10,577 moths submitted to LepiMAP in 2018. The Expert Panel has provided identifications for 4,539 of these, and then it has often been to the level of genus, rather species. This is a measure of the complexity of doing the identifications. We all need to have the faith that, sometime in the future, someone is going to see this photographic database as an incredibly valuable resource, and a goldmine of biodiversity information. But if you believe you have the taxonomic skills to help the expert panel right now, please contact us.
The Virtual Museum had its BestYear ever in 2018, by a margin of 21%. The total for 2018 was 93,482 records. The totals for 2017 and 2016 were 75,408 and 73,104 respectively. That is a massive increase in 2018, conspicuously visible in the bar chart below.
In theory, it is easy to count. Subtract the counter for the number of records submitted to the Virtual Museum at the end of a year from the counter at the end of the following year. This is pretty close, but it does not give quite the right answer. This is because sometimes the photograph(s) for a record contain more than one species, and the record needs to be duplicated. Sometimes there are duplicate records which need to be removed. The table below gives the correct number of records in each section of the Virtual Museum which were uploaded during 2018, as at 5 January 2019. For the first time, this total exceeds 90,000 records! By a large margin.
From the table above, three sections of the Virtual Museum received more than 10,000 records: LepiMAP got 29,077, OdonataMAP 21,373 and BirdPix 19,525. Another eight got more than a 1,000.
But poor old LacewingMAP only got 678 records! And 2018 was its BestYear. Before you dismiss this as irrelevant, you need to grasp the context! Mervyn Mansell, who does the identifications for LacewingMAP, is ecstatic about this number. One of the things he achieved during his career as entomologist was to assemble a database containing the details of almost every specimen of a lacewing, collected in Africa, and curated in a museum anywhere in the world. That entire database contains 12,898 records, collected since 1900. (Gosh, that is only 44% of the number submitted to LepiMAP last year.) So the 678 records of 2018 added 5.3% to the specimen database. That is huge. The best decade of specimen collecting of lacewings for museums was in the 1980s, when on average 345 per year were collected. The 2018 total of 678 is almost double that. This is amazing. Proportionately, LacewingMAP is one of the best performing sections of the Virtual Museum. Now you can understand why Mervyn Mansell is so enthusiastic about the contributions made by citizen scientists to LacewingMAP. You catch this enthusiasm from the tone of his comments in the caption to the photo below!
Similar stories can be written about many of the sections of the Virtual Museum, including many of the ones with relative small numbers of records submitted annually. and we will explore them in future blog posts. Citizen scientists are making a decisive contribution to understanding the current distributions of species, and how these are changing. This is critical information for all conservation initiatives.
This is the first of several blog posts about the Virtual Museum in 2018. We have, for example, asked members of the Expert Panels who do the identifications to tell us some of the records which impressed them the most in 2018. That is on its way. Enjoy.
For many years, Cape Dwarf Chameleons were available almost on demand in my garden in Rondebosch. If a visitor wanted to see one, it was seldom more than a few minutes search to find one. They had several favourite spots, which was where I looked first. One of these was a bottlebrush bush which was growing a few metres from the kitchen window. Given that the bottlebrush is an alien plant species, it is a unexpected that generations of chameleons would select the sane plant. But obviously, the bottlebrush must had attracted a good supply of insects, as chameleon food. So close-up views of chameleons during breakfast and washing up dishes was part of normal everyday life. This blog attempts to use the data in the ReptileMAP section of the Virtual Museum to describe how Cape Dwarf Chameleons went from common to locally extinct in the garden.
It seems that my first digital image of a Cape Dwarf Chameleon was an attempt to frustrate audiences. It was taken on 27 August 2006. It was regularly used in PowerPoint presentations, especially as the slide before the title, with the instruction, find the reptile on the screen. Now you need to find it on your screen!
Here is a zoomed in version, in which it is easy to see the chameleon, but you still need to find where this is in the photo above.
It next time I took a digital image of a chameleon was, a few months later, on 25 November 2006. It was doing the totally daft thing of doing a tightrope walk along the washing line.
It seems that I took no photos of chameleons from 2006 to 2012, because there are none uploaded to ReptileMAP. There were simply chameleons almost continuously in the garden. At the time, it seemed pointless recording them. The photos that I got were used to illustrate camouflage and to document the tightrope stunt!
A sobering event took place near the end of 2012. My PhD student, Elsa Bussiere, was distracted by a continuous clicking sound that was persisting for hours and hours. Investigating, she found that a chameleon was short-circuiting two of the wires of an electric fence which had recently been erected by a neighbour. The chameleon was dead.
After this, I started uploading the bottlebrush chameleons regularly, until I was doing this every time I saw them. There are five records in 2013. six in 2014, three in 2015, and two in 2016, on 28 September, and on 31 October. And those two records in 2016 were the last two records of Cape Dwarf Chameleon in my garden. This is now more than two years ago, more than double the largest gap in any previous pair of records
It seems likely that the Cape Dwarf Chameleon is now extinct in my garden, and this is probably true of the neighbourhood. The proliferation of electric fences took place at during the period the chameleon disappeared, and this is almost certainly a key factor.
Another factor is getting flattened on roads.
From 2012 onwards, data collection can almost be described as consistent, but it is certainly not good enough for a scientific paper. The weakest part of this account is the lack of solid evidence that Cape Dwarf Chameleons really were common in the garden until about 2012. We do not know what species is next going to be impacted. So the best advice to give citizen scientists is to set themselves the target of “refreshing” the occurrence of even the common species in their patches at regular intervals. Quarterly feels about right, but there are no hard and fast rules as yet.
Keep your favourite camera handy! Grab all the opportunities which present themselves to take photos for the Virtual Museum.
Don’t be shy to post a bad picture to the Virtual Museum. As long as we can work out what species it is, it counts as a record.
Don’t hesitate to post a picture of something which you don’t know what it is called – that’s why we have experts helping us.
Embrace the reality that contributing to the Virtual Museum is not only for serious photographers or scientifically-minded people, but for the ordinary everyday person too. Everyone can play an important role in citizen science projects.
Remember that even your backyard and the places where you work contain interesting records. So do shopping malls and airports.
Grab the opportunities that travel offers, whether you are going on holiday or on business.
If you think of yourself as only an occasional photographer, post the handful of photos which you have. They are important records and may fill serious gaps in distribution maps, in developing our knowledge of where species are found.
Hope that you discover a new species.
Make citizen science an activity for the whole family, young and old. Each member, with their varying interests, can be involved. And fun too. Take pictures on your hikes, picnics, a stroll on the beach. Everywhere you go, look carefully, there are important nuggets of information which can be submitted to citizen science projects.
Introduce someone to citizen science, by taking them with you, and showing them how easy it is to become a citizen scientist and to make a real contribution to biodiversity conservation. Recruit them and coach them into becoming active particpants in the Virtual Museum.
Become an “Ambassador for Biodiversity” – talk to people about citizen science projects and how important they are for understanding the current distributions of species.
Although alien species are widely (and rightly) regarded as a “bad thing”, they offer special opportunities for research! In a nutshell, many of these opportunities can be summarized into two questions: “How has the species adapted to its new environment? What impact is it having on its environment?”
Currently, 10 bird species are recognised as aliens which have established self-sustaining breeding populations in South Africa. The “natural” ranges of all these species are in the northern hemisphere, so one research opportunity is the question: “How does the timing of the major events of the annual cycle between the introduced population compare with that of the source population? Are they simply shifted by six months, or is it more complex than that?”
This article provides a list of these 10 species, and describes briefly how they arrived in South Africa. It summarizes opportunities for research. Each species is illustrated with a photograph selected from the BirdPix section of the Virtual Museum at http://vmus.adu.org.za. A few have their distributions illustrated by maps produced from the data of the bird atlas project at http://sabap2.adu.org.za .
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Mallards were not deliberately introduced, but were escapees from private collections of waterfowl. Sightings at wetlands started to be reported in bird club newsletters from around 1980, especially in Gauteng and the Western Cape. It was quickly discovered that they hybridize with the local ducks, and especially the Yellow-billed Duck Anas undulata. This poses a severe threat to the genetic integrity of the populations of indigenous ducks. Initial opposition to culling was largely overcome by good communication campaigns, for example this information brochure produced for Cape Town. Mallards and Mallard-hybrids are nowadays fairly consistently removed by the conservation authorities whenever they are reported. Of the 10 alien species, the Mallard is one of two which are actively and decisively controlled, and which are therefore not appropriate for observational research projects. The other species is the House Crow Corvus splendens, discussed below.
Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar
Six Chukar Partridges were confiscated in 1964 by the customs authorities at the port of Cape Town, and were released on Robben Island, Table Bay. In 2018, the population numbered in the hundreds. The size of the population has fluctuated widely; for example during the “cat-years” of the mid 2000s, the population seemed to have been down to tens of birds. They do not appear to have crossed the 7 km of ocean to reach the mainland. There is potential as a study species.
Common Peacock Pavo cristatus
Like the Mallard, the Common Peacock is an ornamental bird, with domestic populations on many estates and around farm houses. Out in the countryside, it is often hard to classify an individual peacock as “domestic” or “feral”; in reality many are along a continuum between these two extremes, and should be classified as “semi-feral”. The distribution map below shows how widespread peacocks, feral and semi-feral, have become. However, the peacocks on Robben Island are indisputably feral. It is thought to have been introduced there in 1968 and the population has maintained itself. Increasingly, we are grasping that there are more or more feral populations scattered across the whole of South Africa. Here are links to papers in the ejournal Biodiversity Observations which describe feral populations in Bloemfontein, Free State, and Amanzimtoti, KwaZulu-Natal. There are wine farms in the Western Cape, where flocks of peacocks do substantial damage in vineyards. These are potential study sites for this species.
Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri
The Rose-ringed Parakeet is a popular cage-bird, and escapes from captivity occur regularly. Small breeding populations seem to have been established in the main cities of South Africa multiple times, and then gone extinct. But there are now substantial populations, numbering hundreds, both in the Durban region, and in the suburbs of the cities of Gauteng. This was the study species of a recent BSc(Hons) project (Ivanova IM 2017. Spatial and temporal impacts of the alien species Psittacula krameria on the occurrence of avifauna in Gauteng. Honours thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg). There are opportunities for further research projects. Indeed, Ielyzaveta Ivanova ends her discussion with the statement: “this study highlights the need for more research into the potential impacts of the species.”
Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon) Columba livia
Wild Rock Doves in South Africa are derived from escaped domestic birds, a process that would have started in 1652 with the arrival of the first domestic Rock Doves with the Dutch settlers. Wild populations are continually supplemented by escapes from ornamental populations, resulting in a wide variety of colour morphs. Until about 1990 they were confined mainly to the urban and industrial areas of cities, towns and villages. They have subsequently spread into agricultural landscapes; for example, they have largely replaced Speckled Pigeons Columba guinea on dairy farms in the Swartland region of the Western Cape. There are multiple research opportunities.
House Crow Corvus splendens
The House Crow seems to be the only species of the 10 on this list that introduced itself. The ports of East Africa have large populations, and its arrival in the port cities of Durban (around 1970) and Cape Town (early 1990s) is likely to have been of birds that got themselves trapped inside the holds of cargo ships. In both cities there have been massive eradication campaigns. So it is no longer a feasible species to study!
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
18 Common Starlings were released by Cecil John Rhodes in Rondebosch, Cape Town, in 1887, about 130 years ago. The range expansion has been reasonably well documented, but it has not been properly reviewed for many decades. Until about 1910, it was confined to the Greater Cape Town region, and then steadily expanded eastwards and, more slowly, northwards. The range expansion has continued into the 21st century. In the two decades between the first and second bird atlases in southern Africa, it has started occurring extensively in KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, Gauteng and Lesotho. Common Starlings have also been introduced to North America, Australia and New Zealand. There has been quite extensive research on the starling in these regions, but all the studies in southern Africa have been descriptive. There are multiple research opportunities.
Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
There were two centres of introduction of Common Mynas to South Africa and different subspecies were involved: the mynas introduced to Durban about 1900 were the subspecies tristoides from Myanmar and adjacent Assam, an Indian state. The mynas introduced to Johannesburg in 1930s were of the nominate subspecies tristis. Of the 10 species considered here, this is the one that is currently expanding its range the fastest. There are multiple resources to describe the range expansion of this species through time, but an authoritative review remains to be written. Apart from some short notes, there are no studies of the biology of Common Mynas in southern Africa. There are multiple research opportunities.
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
The House Sparrows in South Africa are of the Indian subspecies indicus. It seems likely that some of the labourers transported from India in the 1880s and 1890s to work in the sugar-cane fields brought House Sparrows with them as pets. Those that escaped established the feral population. The history of the range expansion up to about 1950 is poorly documented, but it was still largely confined to KwaZulu-Natal. After that the range expansion was explosive over the remainder of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The impact of the founder population has been enormous. There is a small number of papers on the biology of this introduced species in South Africa, and the opportunities for further studies are large.
Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
Common Chaffinches were one of many bird species introduced by Cecil John Rhodes in the 1890s. The place of introduction was Rondebosch in the Cape Peninsula. In sharp contrast to the Common Starling, it is still confined mainly to the eastern slopes of the mountain range between roughly Rhodes Memorial and Tokai, and the adjacent suburbs. It must be a rare example of a species which has been introduced, and which, after 120 years has neither gone extinct nor expanded its range. Because of the small population size, this is not an easy species to study, but it certainly presents unique opportunities.
Eight of the ten alien bird species in South Africa offer opportunities for interesting research projects.
If you enjoy wildlife documentaries or scientific articles, you’ve probably seen photos or video taken by “camera traps.” Remote cameras have been used for years by scientists studying or documenting wildlife numbers and behaviour in sometimes difficult or inaccessible terrain. A camera trap is just like an ordinary digital camera except that you don’t have to press a button for a photo to be take, instead the camera is triggered by movement or heat from animals. Camera traps are super handy tools for mapping mammals, they are like little spies in the bush!
Camera trapping has proved to be a very effective way of finding out which elusive and, especially, nocturnal animals are in an area. It’s also an effective way to find out how animals are utilising an area.
There is an Animal Demography Unit project for which camera traps play an absolutely crucial role and that is MammalMAP. MammalMAP is the Atlas of African Mammals. The aim of MammalMAP is to update the distribution records for all of Africa’s wild mammals — the small ones, the big ones, the dry ones and the wet ones.
“Surely we know the distributions of Africa’s mammals? These are flagships species for tourism in Africa.” Sadly, the answer is “no” — the distributions are changing due to habitat destruction and climate change. Developing these 21st century distribution maps is filling a critical gap in conservation needs. To effectively manage and conserve wildlife we need to know where they are and we need to understand why they are there. But the reality is that across Africa, our knowledge of the whereabouts of many mammals is, at best – outdated, and, at worst – based on unverified anecdotes. Filling this crucial gap in our knowledge is the main aim of MammalMAP. If you are keen to help us map Africa’s wonderful mammals then setting up a few camera traps is a fun and effective way to do so.
A few tips on setting up camera traps:
It is very important to pick the right site for your camera trap. It helps to be quite sure that an animal will pass by the camera at some stage
Well-used game paths, hiking trails, quiet jeep tracks, dry watercourses and the bottom of ravines are all good places to set up your camera traps
For close shots, like on game paths, at watering holes or food sources set the camera up at no higher than waist height (if you are focusing on smaller animals it is better to set the camera up at a lower position)
If you are in an area where elephants, hyenas or large predators occur, make sure that your hands are free from any unusual or attractive odours e.g. food, perfumes etc. as this might tempt these animals to inspect the source of the odour — and they may just have a pull or a bite at the camera trap to see if its to their liking
Another important factor to keep in mind is the direction of the rising and setting sun. Occasionally when a subject triggers the camera when it is pointed towards the sun as the sun is rising or setting (typically heavy activity hours) this can lead to overexposed or ‘washed-out’ pictures
The Hantam is the general area north of Calvinia in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. It’s an arid area, and poorly covered in biodiversity surveys. Citizen scientist Salome Willemse arranged a BioBash for the area, and found accommodation in a farm house called “’n Handvol Gruis”. The expression, “’n handvol gruis”, literally, a handful of grit”, comes from a poem by C Louis Leipoldt:
For this poet, C. Louis Leipoldt, this area, the Hantam-wyk, was one of the most beautiful places he had experienced. I searched for an English version of this poem which captures the rich mood, but Wikipedia says that Leipoldt’s poetry doesn’t translate easily. In the last line, “arm” means “poor”, “eergister” is “the day before yesterday”, “en” is “and”, “nou” is “now”, and “skatryk” is “treasure rich”. Literally: “Poor the day before yesterday, and now treasure rich.”
The last line of the poem is about an emotional transformation from poverty to riches. The Calvinia BioBash aimed to make the same transformation, but in a somewhat more practical way. We aimed to transform the biodiversity database of the Hantam from poverty to riches. We certainly didn’t make it “skatryk”, but we enhanced the quality of the data dramatically.
The main focus of the BioBash team was the bird atlas. The map below shows the coverage “before” and “after” the BioBash. Do a bit of visual exercise to see the difference between the two maps. You discover that a lot of pentads were atlased for the first time. Changes in colour between the two coverage maps show pentads which received additional checklists.
We also worked on enriching the Virtual Museum database (http://vmus.adu.org.za). Between us, with Zenobia van Dyk and myself being chief contributors, we added about 500 records to the various sections of the Virtual Museum. We highlight a few of the records.
Roads are essential for the collection of biodiversity data. They make doing the BioBash feasible! However, their direct impact on biodiversity is generally negative. Especially snakes and mammals become road casualties. Taking a photo and uploading it to the Virtual Museum means that the wasted animal is not a total dead loss, unless of course it is the last representative of the species in the district. The largely dried out Puff Adder above became a valuable point in the distribution map for this species. Believe it or not, this is the first ever formal record of Puff Adder in the quarter degree grid cell 3119BC, which lies immediately west of Calvinia, and with good roads. So even the published reptile atlas does not have Puff Adder for this grid cell. In fact, this grid cell has only had five records of reptiles, representing four species since 1980. The Puff Adder is the fourth! To see the map of this grid cell, and a list of the four species, go to http://vmus.adu.org.za/vm_locus_map.php?vm=ReptileMAP&locus=3119BC! This illustrates how much fieldwork still needs to be done!
Overall, fences are not a positive for biodiversity. But they are a big plus for BirdPixers. We are not bothered by the aesthetics of an ugly barbed wire fence. All we need are images in which the bird is easily identified. Fences provide great perches where we can take photos of a whole bird rather than a partly obscured bird.
Across much of the arid Karoo, trees are rare. Poles, and the wires between them, provide elevated perches for many bird predators, creating hunting opportunities that never existed before. Predators have an unobstructed view of the ground below, a luxury unavailable in pristine conditions, when the best hunting perch might be a shrub. It is likely that a more serious problem with poles is that they provide substitute trees for the nests of crows. Poles have enabled crows to spread into arid areas of South Africa. Controlling crows is not going to make any long-term difference, because there are plenty of spare crows to take the places of any that are culled. Removing poles might have a long-term impact.
Dragonflies are mostly associated with water. But the Hantam area is arid. So one would expect dragonflies to be as rare as rocking horse droppings. But there are isolated patches of water. There is a wonderful “watersplash” where the Hantam River crosses the gravel road in a remarkable gorge a few kilometres north of the farm Kaalplek. This was probably the best spot in quarter degree grid cell 3119BB for dragonflies. To see the map of this grid cell, and a list of the six species of dragonflies and damselflies recorded here, go to http://vmus.adu.org.za/vm_locus_map.php?vm=OdonataMAP&locus=3119BB!
Perhaps the prize record of the expedition for OdonataMAP was this Vagrant Emperor, photographed by Zenobia van Dyk. In the entire Northern Cape, this was the fifth quarter degree grid cell in which the species has been recorded.
At the start of the expedition, the number of butterfly species recorded in quarter degree grid cell 3919BB was seven. Four species were photographed and uploaded. Three were the extremely common and almost ubiquitous African Monarch, Painted Lady and Common Meadow White. The fourth, Namaqua Bar (in the photo above) was identified by Fanie Rautenbach, LepiMAP expert panel. Astonishingly, all four species were new to the grid cell! See the list below! You get the up-to-date list by clicking on http://vmus.adu.org.za/vm_locus_map.php?vm=LepiMAP&locus=3119BB, and you can see if any additional records have been added.
All the columns are easy, but the last two need some explanation. The column headed “Last recorded” provides the most recent date on which a species was recorded in the Virtual Museum. This provides you with an insight into how urgently each species needs to be “refreshed”. Ideally, you should download this list before you go into the field, and choose a set of priority species for “refreshment”. A species which was last recorded 10 years or longer ago is definitely needing a new record to confirm that it is still present in the grid cell. Even a three-year old record needs refreshing. If you have a series of photos for a grid cell, upload them all. Don’t worry if some the “Last recorded” dates are recent. Any species which are not already on the list are especially valuable and important!
Every entry in the final column reads “Records”, in blue. Click on this and you will discover it is a link to all the records of the species in the grid cell (including any from before 1980!). But it won’t work here, because this is a photograph of the table! It is fascinating to be empowered to see when the records were made, and who the observer was.
Kaalplek has been mentioned a couple of times above. To an English-speaking South African, with a modest grip on Afrikaans, this translates into “the place where you walk around naked”. This very literal translation does not capture the intended meaning: “the place which is barren and treeless.” The Hantam is a tough area to be a farmer, and the droughts of the past few years have resulted in many of the farms being totally abandoned.
Salome Willemse and Zenobia van Dyk did a reconnaissance trip to find the accommodation and test the roads for quality, and were part of the expedition, from 8 to 12 November 2018. Alan Collett and Tino Herselman traveled west from the Karoo to participate. Eric Hermann traveled north from Hopefield, and I came from Cape Town. We are all grateful to Salome for her coordination and leadership of the expedition. This was citizen science at its best.