November has been a busy month! We have exciting news all the way from Liberia to the southern most tip of Africa. Read on to find out more….
Upcoming event: BDI Citizen Science Conference February 2020
Come and join the Biodiversity and Development Institute at New Holme Guest Farm (Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve) for our Citizen Science Conference. The core period is Friday evening, 14 February, to lunch time on Sunday, 16 February 2020. We encourage you to stay a few nights extra before and/or after the event too. The extra nights will also be at a discount rate. The theme for the conference is “Citizen Scientists: Ambassadors for Awareness”
Yip, we are very excited to announce that the BDI will be attending the Cape OutdoorX expo this weekend (7 and 8 December 2019) at the Meerendal Wine Estate, Vissershok Road, Durbanville. Expo times: Saturday 09:00 – 20:00 and Sunday 09:00 – 18:00.
OdonataMAP – The Atlas of African Dragonflies and Damselflies
For the November Shoot The Dragons Week, OdonataMAPpers managed to snap and map 909 dragonflies and damselflies from 5 African countries (Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia). Most of the South African records came from KwaZulu-Natal Province. The recent good rains in the province definitely benefited these amazing little freshwater dragons.
Corrie du Toit took top honours as Dragon Queen once again with an amazing total 210 records submitted for the Week! Well done Corrie, you are a star. Diana Russell did very well too, with 137 records submitted, followed by Andries de Vries on 123. A massive thank you goes to each and every one of you that took the time to snap and map odonata during the Shoot The Dragons Week. Each record is valuable and contributes to our understanding of odonata distributions in Africa. Keep your eyes peeled for the next event, but remember that you can upload records to the Virtual Museum at any time of the year, day or night.
The African Bird Atlas Project is launched in Liberia
The team of atlasers at the launch if the Liberian Bird AtlasThe first question that gets asked when you need to take decisions about the conservation of a species is this: “Where does it occur now?” So it is awesome news that Liberia has launched their own bird atlas. They are working towards answering the critical species conservation question, at least for birds. They are not starting from a blank map. Already, 31 of the 1114 pentads in Liberia have full protocol checklists. That is 3.1% . The first 10% of coverage is the hardest to achieve. After that, people see that the project is feasible, and start to believe in it. Liberia already has 88 checklists and 2,780 records of bird distribution. That is a great platform on which to launch. Awesomely well done! This is great news for birds in Africa.
So the African Bird Atlas is now live in Liberia! Following in the successful footsteps of the bird atlas projects in Nigeria and Kenya, it is great to welcome Team Liberia. The Liberian Bird Atlas is being led by Clara Cassell, with support from SNCL (Society for Nature Conservation Liberia), the BirdLife partner there, and Flora and Fauna International.
LepiMAP – The Atlas of African Butterflies and Moths
Why do we celebrate Black Friday? Here’s another colour event that we ought not to be celebrating: White Cabbage. It is now 25 years since the first Cabbage Whites Pieris brassicae were spotted in South Africa, at Sea Point, Cape Town, August 1994. This is South Africa’s only invasive butterfly.
Until the end of 1999, it had been recorded in eight quarter degree grid cells, all close to Cape Town, with green bars in the distribution map (see map above). Between 2000 and 2009, it was recorded in 24 grid cells (shaded with orange bars), and from 2010 up to now it was recorded in 38 grid cells (red bars). There are now records from the Northern Cape and Eastern Cape. How far has it really expanded its range? You can help us answer this important question.
Monitoring the breeding of the African Black Oystercatchers on Robben Island
Intensive monitoring of the African Black Oystercatchers on Robben Island started in the breeding season of 2001/02 and has continued in most years. Each year the objective has been to find all the nests. Bukola Braimoh has done the fieldwork for the past three summers as her PhD research project. She is busy writing up, and the data are starting to show long-term changes in the timing of breeding. Not long to wait to learn about her results; she is planning to submit in February.
This year Rio Button is leading the monitoring. Here she is at the first nest of the summer:
This was the 10th of the 11 nests found on 28 November 2019. The anticipated total for the summer is around 150 nests!
Farm houses in the Karoo can be oases for birds, allowing relatively many birds to be ringed.
Les, Karis and I visited New Holme guest farm (Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve) from 10-12 November 2019 to test out ringing there, and take Virtual Museum photos en route. The farm lies halfway between Cape Town and Johannesburg. The first BDI visit to New Holme was in May (read here), with Virtual Museum records collected en route (see here).
We put a few nets around the farm house on Monday, and also before breakfast on Tuesday, and caught 86 birds. Top of the list was Cape Sparrow with 42 birds ringed (30 males, 12 females). Second was Southern Masked Weaver, partly due to a large colony in some reeds – there were many green nests, and at least 8 males in the colony – 1 juvenile, 15 males in full breeding plumage, and 8 females (two with brood patches) – it seemed as if breeding only started recently. Six Pied Starlings were caught, but there is potential to catch hundreds!
Cape Sparrow weights vary by region, as shown in the figure below. These birds are lighter in arid regions as represented by Namibia (Nam) and the Northern Cape (NC) compared to other regions in South Africa. The dots show the average and the vertical lines show the extreme ranges. A better analysis would be to separate males from females, but this shows the value of ringing very common species.
Although the ringing was relatively limited, there is great potential. In addition to ringing around the farm house, other nearby habitats provide interesting species. The river is within walking distance from the farm houses, and hosted many Three-banded Plovers. The surrounding karoo veld hosts the usual larks, chats, flycatchers, starlings, buntings and other specials – night spot-lighting could be used effectively to catch and ring these.
Greater Striped and White-throated Swallows breed (nests and juveniles seen), and could be targeted for ringing. Flocks of Barn Swallows forage over the karoo veld.
Table – total number of birds ringed at New Holme, 10-12 November 2019
African Reed Warbler
Southern Masked Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
Thanks to PC and Marisca Ferreira and their staff for hosting us incredibly well! Thanks to Karis and Rozaan for help with the ringing!
October has been hot hot hot, and so too is our BDI Newsletter. We have lots of exciting news and upcoming events to share with you.
Shoot The Dragons Week: 16-24 November 2019. Data drive for OdonataMAP in the Virtual Museum
BDI Citizen Science Conference: 14-16 February 2020 at the Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve, (half way between Cape Town and Johannesburg) on the N1 between Colesberg and Hanover. Details to follow soon. 14-16 February 2020 are the core dates. It will be possible to extend a couple of days earlier or later at special rates. Accommodation options will range from luxury to camping. Watch this space.
The Northern Cape, with the exception of a few places, has a grave shortage of biodiversity data coverage, both for the bird atlas and for all the sections of the Virtual Museum. A team of eight citizen scientists turned the Boegoeberg Dam district into a knowledge hotspot over a week end-September to early-October.
Citizen scientist extraordinaire Altha Liebenberg got the blessing from the owners of the Boegoeberg Dam Holiday Resort for us to use their camp site as our base for the week. Altha and Salome Willemse recruited a team of citizen scientists and coordinated the event. Salome has a great track record of organizing BioBashes, including two in Calvinia: in November last year, and in May this year. Tino Herselman, who would have loved to have been part of the team, prepared the maps that helped plan the activities for every day.
The Boegoeberg Dam was built on the Orange River in the early 1930s, the “depression years.” It provided irrigation water along 130 km of the river, all the way to the Augrabies Falls. It transformed the lives of the people living along the river. Over this entire length, there is a ribbon of green running through the desert, up to a kilometer wide in places. Lots of crops are grown, but mostly grapes and lucerne. It is a bizarre luxury to farm with an abundance of water without having any rain.
The impact of the irrigation system on biodiversity must have been massive. Superficially, it is a positive change. There are lots more birds, butterflies, dragonflies inside the irrigated areas than outside them. It was built so long ago that we have no idea of what we lost.
The bottom line is that the Boegoeberg Dam Holiday Resort provide an excellent platform for the BioBash. We would return in a flash, and fill the gaps in coverage! MSc student Karis Daniel has written a great blog on the expedition. You can read it here.
PanGoPods in the news!
PanGoPods are set to roll out across South Africa. The Tiny House movement has been spreading across the world in recent years. People have been drawn to the ‘less is more’ concept, and are downsizing their homes to embrace the philosophy and freedom a smaller space provides. This month the BDI’s PanGoPods are featured in Popular Mechanics and CapeTownEtc, follow the links to read more about our awesome eco-friendly off-grid tiny homes.
Keep an eye out for us at the Cape OutdoorX expo 7 and 8 December 2019 at Meerendal Wine Estate, Durbanville
LepiMAP – The Atlas of African Butterflies and Moths
We have some LEPI-TASTIC news! Citizen scientist Neil Thomson LepiMAPped an incredible butterfly record in Namibia while he was out bird atlasing. Neil writes: “I was actually birdmapping for SABAP2, but I kept an eye out for anything else I could find for the Virtual Museum. A butterfly landed on the ground next to my parked vehicle and I photographed it. When I looked at the photos I realized that it was a species I had never seen before but I did not anticipate that it would turn out to be a rarity!”
This awesome little butterfly is a Linda’s Hairtail or Kalahari Kortstertjie Anthene lindae. Neil photographed it south of Windhoek in Namibia. The only other records of Linda’s Hairtail are recorded 750 km away (as the crow flies) in the Kalahari region of South Africa. Reinier Terblanche, butterfly expert and LepSoc member, writes: “Anthene lindae, though small, is distinct and cannot be confused with anything else. On all accounts this is a spectacular record submitted by Neil. Some of these near-endemic butterflies of the Kalahari regions could be widespread but still rare and habitat specific, even it they use widespread host-plants. I would really like to get more information on these records. I have, for example, worked in areas where there are thousands of Camel Thorn Vachellia erioloba trees but still only recorded Anthene lindae in very specific places. Also, some years they appear absent, but this might be because there are not enough people looking for them in any one year”
Nigerian Bird Atlas reaches 2000 pentads atlased!
Accurate and up-to-date knowledge of bird distributions is critical to their conservation. Therefore it is fabulous news that bird atlas coverage of Nigeria reached 2000 pentads on 15 October. Study the map (below) carefully, and see how the caterpillars are growing. The north-south caterpillar in the southeast, near the border with Cameroon, is brand new. It is 500 km long. East-west caterpillars are also nearing completion. It won’t be long before it will be possible to travel from Cameroon to Benin along atlased pentads. Awesomely well done, Team Nigeria!
OdonataMAP – The Atlas of African Dragonflies and Damselflies
The second Shoot The Dragons Week for the 2019/20 season kicked off on Saturday, 19 October 2019. OdonataMAPpers managed to snap and map a total 805 dragonfly and damselfly species from 5 African countries (Botswana, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania). Awesomely well done everyone. Thank you for your efforts.
Corrie du Toit took the top spot for the Week with 129 records submitted, followed by Pieter la Grange with 124, and Phillip Nieuwoudt on 105 OdonataMAP records. Amazing stuff. Diana Russell OdonataMAPped the species in the featured photo (above), a Blue Basker Urothemis edwardsii.
The dragonfly species that was encountered most frequently during the Week was the Red-veined Dropwing Trithemis arteriosa, with 55 records uploaded to OdonataMAP in the Virtual Museum.
Virtual Museum reaches a great milestone
On 27 October 2019, the Virtual Museum reached the fantastic milestone of 500,000 records on African biodiversity submitted through the website portal at http://vmus.adu.org.za/. This brings the total number of records in the database to almost 2 million. This is absolutely amazing and it is all due to the efforts put in by citizen scientists! Well done BioMAPpers, and thank you. Every record submitted to the Virtual Museum is a vote for biodiversity conservation.
These pictures show a type of place which is known, in the trade, as a novel ecosystem. The original waterway, whatever it looked like, has been totally destroyed. No amount of money can restore it. Whatever this place looked like in pristine condition, it is gone, gone forever. The original habitat that was here is extinct. It was replaced by concrete, which is biodiversity-hostile.
This is the Black River in Paarden Eiland, Cape Town. The photo is taken from the Section Street bridge. The bridge in the distance is about 200 m away and takes the N1 over the river.
How do we respond to this destruction? There are two alternatives: (1) Pessimism: Give up in despair; (2) Optimism: Try and get some biodiversity to flourish in this novel ecosystem. The second alternative is a massive compromise. But in places which are already irrevocably lost, it is forced upon us. The biodiversity of the novel ecosystem is likely to be controversially different to the pristine biodiversity. But, in the face of the biodiversity crisis, we might have to take the view that any (or almost any) biodiversity is better than concrete. Usually, we can do better than this, and that is what this blog is all about.
I visited this piece of the Black River because we were in Shoot The Dragons Week, and it was possible that there would be a few dragonflies here to photograph for OdonataMAP. But it was a bit cold, and I saw none.
But then a Yellowbilled Duck emerged from the cover of the vegetation along the bank, followed by seven ducklings. The family swam confidently downstream under the Section Street bridge. “Something is going on here.”
This Levailliant’s Cisticola perched on the top of some restios, faecal sac in bill. It must have removed this from a nest. So it is breeding here!
A Pied Kingfisher flashed by with a fish in its bill. There must be fish in this river!
This Common Moorhen is a juvenile, probably just a few months old. It does not have the red and yellow bill of an adult. It probably hatched somewhere close by.
The Red-eyed Dove pretended it was a wader, and had a good drink. The water is effluent from the Athlone Wastewater Treatment Plant, about 4 km upstream.
This Grey Heron was ignoring the traffic flashing by on the N1 – this is the Koeberg Road Interchange between the N1 and M5 – it’s a statue until a grasshopper emerges from the weeds to become a snack.
Whether this is a novel ecosystem by design or by neglect, it is a remarkable 200-m section of the Black River. Judging by the number of species breeding and feeding, a small but significant component of biodiversity is thriving here. You don’t anticipate seeing a kingfisher flashing by. Nor a brood of ducklings. What makes this place so good?
It’s so good because it is so untidy. An assortment of plants, some alien and some indigenous, has conquered the concrete. The walls that imprison the river are still there, but at least they are partially out of sight. It also has the advantage that the Black River provides a biodiversity corridor, linking an assortment of small wetlands to each other.
Whether it was planned or an accident, this novel ecosystem is a biodiversity hotspot. It is situated right on the edge of a rather miserable industrial area. This is where the people who work in all these factories, showrooms and workshops should come and eat their lunch. Somehow it is the exposure to nature and to biodiversity that encourages people to care about these things. Right now, if the City came along and cleared this waterway and mowed the grass with the blades set to 5 cm, no one would notice. Many would applaud the restoration of “neatness”. In reality, there should be an outcry. There should be oodles of protesting locals: “I love this place. It restores my sanity every weekday. Don’t you dare put your big machines in it!”
I am grateful to Peta Brom for introducing me to the concept of novel ecosystems. You can read up about them on page 10 of her MSc thesis. It’s section 1.5.3!
So, if you live in Cape Town, this is the place to go for your next biodiversity outing. I’ll be back when it is warmer, and I am sure I will find some dragonflies. Here’s the map!
Section Street is at the top and the N1 at the bottom. The coordinates are -33.916526 18.478211. The Black River is translated to Swartrivier. The Koeberg Interchange, between the N1 and M5, is in the lower right.
This blog is second in a series on “industrial biodiversity”. Industrial Biodiversity 1 covered another bleak area of Cape Town, Epping Industria. This is where the BDI has its workshop, and produces PanGoPods, which are off-grid, tiny homes.
The interface of Kalahari and Karoo is a study in contrasts: red sands and blue skies; dry earth and flowing river; bustling weaver colonies and deserted towns. My first week of October was spent participating in a BioBash in this dynamic region of the world, collecting Virtual Museum (VM) records alongside a team led by Altha Liebenberg and Salome Willemse. (If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a BioBash, this blog post explains our previous trip to the Northern Cape.) Apart from our fearless leaders, the team was comprised of myself, Hardy and Joey Herbst, Alan Lee, Stefan Theron, and Les Underhill.
In April 2019, citizen scientist Altha Liebenberg hatched a plan for a BioBash at Boegoeberg dam, a campsite-turned-resort alongside the Orange River in the Northern Cape. Tucked away on a gravel road between Groblershoop to the North and Prieska to the South, Boegoeberg occupies a unique biological niche. A variety of ecosystems meet and merge here: Kalahari Scrub-Robin, towards the southern reaches of its range, forage alongside Karoo Scrub-robin, near the northern end of its range, and riparian species such as Goliath Heron glide along the river.
The convergence of these three worlds creates a fascinating and complex playground of exploration for the curious biologist…and explore we did! Over the course of four days, Salome and I worked through seven quarter-degree grid cells (QDGCs) as well as our “home” grid cell.
A personal highlight for me occurred on our second full day, Oct. 2, when we stumbled upon Putsonderwater, an abandoned settlement 65 km southwest of Boegoeberg. Situated along a railway line between De Aar and Upington, the station-town formed in the 1800’s and enjoyed a brief but bustling history. Today, however, the settlement is devoid of life, eerie and beautiful.
Tentative trees poke branches through broken floorboards, and hallways display windblown carpets of red sand. It is deafeningly quiet; only a dusty wind, and the occasional rustle of feathers as a rock martin swoops past. Colourful cacti creep across the barren ground.
On the edges of the settlement, long-discontinued telephone poles wear heavy straw hats: massive nests, masterfully crafted by resident Sociable Weaver colonies. These remarkable birds are endemic to southern Africa and build the largest nests of any avian species. Their handiwork quickly became a familiar sight, whether draped over old trees or topping endless lines of poles.
After half an hour spent peering through windowless frames and wandering unroofed halls, we chose to explore a few of the surrounding buildings in search of more life. Our efforts yielded unexpected findings: a pair of Spotted Eagle-Owls peering down from a pine, and Red-veined Darters hovering above bone-dry perches. This Red-veined Darter was the first photographic record for the entire quarter-degree grid cell, 2921BD—for any VM project!
The surprises continued, as rusty sheets of metal and old bricks revealed Bibron’s Thick-toed Gecko and Spotted Sand Lizard.
Our afternoon in Putsonderwater ultimately concluded with fifteen species added to BirdPix, two for ReptileMAP, a Brown-Veined White for LepiMAP, and a new Steenbok record for MammalMAP–and we claimed the added satisfaction of acquainting ourselves with the mystery that is Putsonderwater.
Though most days were spent working in the pentads and grid cells surrounding Boegoeberg, we did take time to explore our “home” grid cell as well. In addition to camping facilities, Boegoeberg Dam also offers canoes and kayaks for use on the dam. Early Thursday morning, Salome and I hoped to take a canoe out onto the water to search for a few more riparian species…blissfully unaware that Thursday had other plans. Before dawn, we awoke to the unique sensation of wind violently shaking our tent—wind strong enough, we surmised, to deposit us in Marydale, the next town along the Orange River! Needless to say, we avoided canoes for the day, instead lacing up our hiking boots and tackling two trails running alongside the dam. In spite of the wind, these trails were bursting with life.
A short scramble and walk led us to a large patch of reeds beside the river. Along the route, we were treated to a beautiful sighting of this Pearl-spotted Owlet, whose mournful song carried across our campsite each night.
Once we reached the river, it was difficult to hear anything over the noisy gurgle of water pouring in from the canal to our left. Still, as is so often the case when in nature, a few minutes of patience paid off. We were soon rewarded with sightings of African Reed Warbler, White-rumped Swift, White-throated Swallow, Southern Masked-weaver, Reed Cormorant, White-breasted Cormorant, and Orange River White-eye.
We found treasures closer to the campsite, as well—as darkness settled over the tents, Altha set up a blacklight to attract moths and lacewings. This is one of her three resulting submissions to LacewingMAP, a beautiful female Nemopterella species.
During the day, dozens of Brown-veined Whites danced through the sunlight-speckled shade alongside the dam, clustering together to drink from shallow pools of water.
It was the mammals, though, which undoubtedly left the strongest impression; in particular, the resident population of vervet monkeys. Endlessly curious and ever-resourceful, these clever critters ventured into our tents not once, but twice! This especially cheeky individual made off with a rusk, and perched atop one of our tents whilst polishing it off.
With the exception of the vervet monkeys, other mammals kept a wary distance. Slender mongoose and South African ground squirrel scurried across pathways, and though we spotted baboons a few times (and certainly heard them in the morning), they stayed clear of the campsite.
This trip is, in my mind, accompanied by an overwhelming sense of gratitude; my story is only one among many. Whether by foot, bike, canoe, or bakkie, Alan and Stefan worked as a team, tackling difficult pentads for the South African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2). Though their quest for birds (and penchant for 50 species per pentad) led them across some unusual terrain, it also saw them welcomed into homes for meals and conversation. Altha, Hardy, and Joey focussed their energies on Boegoeberg dam, taking route recommendations from Magda, the dynamic driving force behind much of the campsite’s restoration. Together, these three scoured walking and driving routes along the water’s edge and the canal in search of birds, butterflies, reptiles, and more to build the species list for the grid cell. Les visited some of the furthest locations from the campsite, following the river and adding valuable riparian species records to the grid cells.
Beyond those of us immediately involved in data collection, the trip itself was made possible by dozens of generous sponsors in Danielskuil. Our sponsors supplied fresh fruit, cool drinks, and gear to fuel our journeys, and Boegoeberg Dam itself generously provided our tents and sleeping cots. And, of course, what BioBash would be complete without a large-scale “battle plan” map? Though unable to attend in person, Tino Herselman created beautiful, detailed maps of the region for each participant to use during the week.
Each individual contribution made our BioBash not only possible, but successful. We added Virtual Museum records to 10 QDGCs, and covered 23 pentads for SABAP2. Though ID’s for many of the Lepidopteran species and a few reptiles are still pending, one look at the BirdPix data speaks volumes.
The map on the left shows BirdPix coverage in the Northern Cape prior to our trip, in number of species recorded per QDGC. Boegoeberg Dam is located at 2922AA, and contains 30 species. The map on the right was created on October 15th, and the increase in that grid cell alone is astounding—83 species records! The surrounding cells also show significant improvements.
Once again, I am amazed at the difference a few dedicated individuals can make within such a short period of time. Thank you to all of the sponsors, participants, and contributors who made Boegoeberg BioBash 2019 possible—we are so thankful to have you on our team! To readers and citizen scientists who may not have ventured into this part of the Northern Cape, I encourage considering a visit to Boegoeberg. There are few facilities in this region which offer accommodation alongside such a unique diversity of wildlife, and your stay will be made all the more memorable by the warm welcome you receive. I hope that you are able to experience Boegoeberg for yourselves, and find your own adventures in this remarkable part of the world.
There are two groups of vultures in the world. The Old World vultures, with 16 species occurring in Africa, Europe and Asia; and the New World vultures with seven extant species, occurring in the Americas. Old World vultures are more closely related to eagles and hawks than to New World vultures; the similarities between them are due largely to convergent evolution. Convergent evolution is the process whereby species that are not closely related, independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environmental conditions or ecological niches. Among the Old World vultures, the Bearded Gypaetus barbatus, Egyptian Neophron percnopterus and Palm-nut Vultures Gypohierax angolensis are more closely related to each other than to other vultures. Strangely, no vultures occur in Australia, but several species of crow and raven fulfill the role of scavengers there.
Vultures are often wrongly considered ugly and stinky, and given villainous roles in stories, movies and books. The thought of these birds feeding on dead and rotting things might not be a pleasant one, but, without them we would be in big trouble! Vultures are nature’s clean-up crew. They consume the remains of large mammals. Some of these killed by lions or other large predators; some die of disease, old age, starvation or other reasons. In all cases, vultures are the ones who end up cleaning the carcasses down to the bare bones – the Bearded Vulture or Lammergeyer Gypaetus barbatus consumes the bones too. If vultures weren’t around, rotting carcasses would pile up. Over days or weeks these piles of stinking, festering carrion will be wonderful incubators for all kinds of diseases and pollute water resources. The carcasses will still get scavenged, but at a much slower rate, by animals like jackals, rats, stray dogs, and flies. Some of these species are not always desirable to have around, and may, instead of limiting, contribute to the further spread of diseases, including to humans and domestic animals.
A study led by Anil Markandya looked at the impacts of the disappearance of vultures in India. Vultures die offs occurred because of a veterinary drug called diclofenac, used as a painkiller and anti-inflammatory for cattle. While it helped the cattle, it harmed the vultures. Cattle in India are mostly considered sacred; they are not eaten, but when they die, are left for the vultures to consume. The vultures consumed many carcasses that had diclofenac in their systems; and only a small amount of it in a vulture’s system is enough to give it kidney failure. Vulture populations declined catastrophically!
What was the effect of the vultures vanishing? The researchers concluded that the decline in vultures, which meant more and more carcasses, led to an increase in the stray dog population by as many as seven million individuals! As a result, there was a big increase in dog bites – Markandya and his team estimated an additional 40 million dog bites over a 14 year period. This meant an additional 40,000 human deaths due to rabies, India being particularly hard hit by this disease. Researchers estimated the cost to the Indian government and health services at 34 billion dollars!
The principle of this study illustrates is that the disappearance of vultures is something that costs us humans money. And this study looked at only one factor, namely, rabies. There are likely many other impacts, diseases that may affect humans as well as animals, that may increase if the amazing feathery “clean-up crew” are not there to do their job.
We humans tend to value money above all, it would seem, and sadly many people in power are hesitant to act on anything if it does not affect their bank account. But, there are many things on our wonderful planet that go beyond monetary value, many things that are priceless. It is not really possible to estimate the full value of something like vultures in terms of money. Yes, they help limit diseases in various ways. There certainly would be many more indirect ways in which vultures are protecting us and saving us money. But, they are just one part of the amazing web of nature, where millions of species are all interacting with each other and with the environment to form a stable, whole, harmonious, living system or biosphere. For our own comfort, and survival, it is vital that the whole of this ecological web on Earth should be protected. Any species we lose leaves a ‘gap’ in the network. While one species may step up to take over a role left behind by another species that has vanished, there is certainly a limit to the knocks that any ecosystem can take. And the same goes for the ecology of the Earth as a whole. We humans are dependent on the healthy functioning of the living Earth, the Earth is not dependent upon us. We need the Earth for our survival, but the Earth does not need us.
Beyond their value, there is the sheer wonder of vultures. They have amazing physiological adaptations suited to their role, some of which we have discovered only recently. They have very acidic gastric juices, helping to rapidly kill harmful bacteria in the meat they eat. Other bacteria they tolerate, these flourishing in their guts and even helping them digest their food. They have very powerful immune systems, with copious anti-bodies in their blood. It is ironic that they can consume vast amounts of contaminated carrion with no ill effect, but are so vulnerable to the veterinary medications used to treat livestock.
Lappet-faced Vulture (left) and Hooded Vulture (right)
New World vultures have an extremely keen sense of smell, by which they find dead animals; Old World vultures rely mostly on their superlative sense of sight. Vultures, with long and broad wings, are perfectly adapted to soaring, using thermals and updrafts over hills and mountains to lift them high into the sky with almost no effort. From up there, they can keep an eye out for carcasses. Once one vulture spots potential food, other vultures watching it will see it going down and follow, and so no carcass gets left alone for too long.
At a carcass, different vulture species fulfill different roles. In Africa, the powerful Lappet-faced VultureTorgos tracheliotos with its strong, hooked bill is able to tear through tough hides and open up intact carcasses so that it and other vultures can feed on the flesh and entrails inside. It also performs the final clean-up acts of eating the hides and sinews after the other vultures have consumed the softer bits. The Bearded Vulture specializes in eating bones, which it can swallow whole or, if too large, drop from a great height onto rocks to shatter. Most other vultures prefer to feed on softer tissues. They rapidly gorge themselves, extending their crops, sometimes eating so much that they have to wait around for some time before they are able to fly off. If they suddenly have to fly, if, for instance a hungry hyena turns up, they will quickly vomit up some of their meal. A few vulture species have somewhat wider feeding strategies, including catching live prey, as the Lappet-faced Vulture does, or feeding on ostrich eggs, which the Egyptian Vulture does using rocks as a tool to crack their shells. The Palm-nut Vulture, while eating carrion occasionally, actually specializes in eating the oily fruit of raffia and oil palm trees.
Vultures are among the largest and most spectacular birds. The Andean Vultur gryphus and Californian Gymnogyps californianus Condors, and several Old World vultures like the Lappet-faced Vulture, can reach body weights of more than 12 kg, and wingspans approaching or exceeding 3 m. The King Vulture Sarcoramphus papa of South America has one of the gaudiest faces in the bird kingdom, with colourful wattles and patches of bare skin. The Rüppell’s Vulture Gyps rueppelli has been recorded soaring at altitudes of 11,277 m, higher than any other bird. It would be interesting to know how they are able to tolerate both the extreme cold and lack of oxygen at that altitude.
In some parts of the world, vultures are seen in a very positive light. In the East, cultures such as the Parsi see vultures as performing a vital spiritual cleansing function; the dead are left on platforms called ‘towers of silence’ for the vultures to consume. In Ancient Egypt, the Egyptian Vulture was sometimes portrayed in hieroglyphics; the Mayans of Central America did the same with the King and Black Vulture.
VULTURES IN TROUBLE
Vultures, with the amazing ecosystem services they provide, are in deep trouble worldwide. The threats take different forms. The Californian Condor, almost went extinct because of eating the carcasses of animals that humans had shot; the lead bullets and shotgun pellets poisoned them. They were only saved by an intensive captive breeding effort. In India, the big threat is the drug diclofenac introduced to treat livestock. In Africa, vultures are hit particularly hard. They are poisoned, sometimes through poisoned carcasses left out by livestock farmers that want to kill jackals and other predators. Elephant and rhinos poachers worry that vultures circling and seeking out their kills, will draw anti-poaching units’ attention; so they poison the carcasses to intentionally kill vultures. In a recent incident, over 500 vultures comprising five different species died from scavenging poisoned elephant carcasses in Botswana.
In Africa, vultures are also considered to have medicinal value. Because of their keen eyesight, they are thought to be clairvoyant (able to predict the future), and vulture parts can sell for considerable prices at muti markets. Their carcasses also turn up at bush meat markets throughout Africa.
Many vultures suffer fatal accidents in collisions with human-made structures. They are prone to collisions with electricity pylons, and more recently, with the blades of wind turbines. The latter phenomenon is worrying. Wind farms kill not just vultures but also other species of birds, as well as bats. While wind power is often considered a ‘clean’ source of energy, it also has its own serious ecological repercussions. Furthermore, vultures face destruction of their habitats and food sources by humans. It is likely that several species of New World vultures went extinct when most of the megafauna (large mammals) such as mammoths, horses, camels and ground sloths were exterminated by humans entering these continents. In Africa and Asia, natural habitats are threatened by the ever increasing expansion of human settlements and agriculture, and the numbers of large, wild mammals continue to dwindle too.
What makes vultures especially vulnerable is that they are long-lived, slow-reproducing birds. Even under the best conditions, they take a long time to recover from population losses. At present, more than half of the Old World vulture species are considered endangered in some way! The New World vultures seem to be somewhat safer, but not entirely out of danger.
HOW WE CAN HELP
To protect vultures, they need protected habitat and large animals to feed on. It is important that we eliminate chemicals such as diclofenac that poison them. There are veterinary drugs that do the same job without harming vultures. In Africa, we need ongoing efforts to combat elephant and rhino poaching, as well as the poisoning of other predators that lead to unwanted vulture deaths. One solution is the provision of safe livestock carcasses at ‘vulture restaurants’, which can serve a double role, first of all feeding the vultures, but secondly also attracting bird watchers and tourists. Most vulture restaurants have bird hides where people can sit and watch the vultures as they feed. This also helps to spread vulture awareness. In South Africa and Asia, there are now many such vulture restaurants. We certainly need to continue with our efforts to conserve these precious, feathered eco-hygienists. Fore more information see: http://www.vulpro.com/ and https://www.ewt.org.za/what-we-do/what-we-do-species/vultures-for-africa/
September flew by! Where is the year going? We hope you are all enjoying the Spring weather and getting ready for a great Summer of biodiversity explorations and mapping.
The Return of The Dragons
The Return of The Dragons saw OdonataMAPpers snap and map 646 dragonflies and damselflies from five African countries (Botswana, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia). Of the records submitted, 86% have been identified already, thanks to the amazing OdonataMAP expert panel.
The three species seen most often during the shoot the dragons week were Red-veined Darters Sympetrum fonscolombii (54 records), Tropical Bluetails Ischnura senegalensis (46) and Broad Scarlets Crocothemis erythraea (38). In the photo above we have a stunning Black-splashed Elf Tetrathemis polleni, mapped by Toby Esplin in St Lucia, KwaZulu-Natal.
Diana Russell took top honours for the week with 73 dragons OdonataMAPped. Followed by Toby Esplin (68) and Jean Hirons on 42 records. Well done. You are absolute stars! A big thank you goes to each and everyone of you that uploaded records to OdonataMAP during the Return of The Dragons Week – http://vmus.adu.org.za/ – please keep an eye out for any and all odonata this season.
News from the field
Les Underhill, Karis Daniel, Altha Liebenberg, Salome Wilemse, and a group of keen BioMAPpers were out in the boondocks on the Boegoeberg BioBASH collecting valuable biodiversity data. Les sent this wonderful photo (below) of the Boegoeberg Dam. The Boegoeberg Dam, completed in 1933, is the third largest dam in the Orange River. It is located near Groblershoop and Prieska in the Northern Cape, South Africa.
We look forward to hearing all about their trip. Watch this space!
Our main research project themes are ecology, environmental sociology, ecological economics, and historical ecology. These themes overlap to a large degree, and our research projects often involve cross-disciplinary research involving several themes.
Although applications from anyone, anywhere in the world, will be considered, we anticipate most of our students will be from universities in Europe. Many universities encourage their students to undertake a project abroad, and the academic year in which this opportunity is permitted varies a lot. The duration of the project also varies, between weeks and months. The role of the BDI is to provide accommodation and supervision. We are geared up to undertake the formal contractual obligations needed by the sending university.
Southern Ground Hornbills Bucorvus leadbeateri are large birds, sometimes weighing more than 6 kg and standing about a meter tall on tiptoe. With their glossy black bodies and bright red, bare facial skin, coupled with a bold and fearless demeanor, they are conspicuous wherever they occur. But many people who see them don’t know what they are, to the extent that in the Kruger National Park they now have an accepted secondary name, ‘Turkey Buzzards’. This comes from American tourists, ‘turkey buzzards’ is what many Americans call their Turkey Vulture Cathartes aurea, a species that does not occur in Africa.
Although related to other hornbills, Ground Hornbills belong to their own family, the Bucorvidae. Apart from the Southern Ground Hornbill, there’s a second species, the Northern Ground Hornbill Bucorvus abyssinicus, that replaces it in similar habitat north of the Equator. It has a large, open casque on top of its bill, a yellow patch on the side of its bill, and blue and red (male) or entirely blue (female) facial skin. Unique features of the ground hornbills include not having carotid (neck) arteries, and walking on their tippy toes. They have very long, dense, impressive eyelashes, used to screen their eyes from the bright African sun.
Ground hornbills, as their name suggests, spend most of their time on the ground, preferring open savanna and grassland regions. They can fly up into trees, in which case they display their beautiful white primary wing feathers, that are usually hidden beneath the overlying black feathers. Their legs are much longer than those of other hornbills and together with their long necks this enables them to peer over tall grass. They walk on their toes to boot, with the ‘sole’ of the foot lifted high off the ground. The result is a stately step, that gives an impression of justified pride.
They are formidable predators, going out in hunting parties of up to 11 birds. Their long, curved bills are very strong. Their prey varies from termites to big tortoises and even mammals like hares. They use their bills to dig around in the ground in search of invertebrates, frogs, or the honeycombs and larvae of ground-nesting bees and wasps. They also regularly probe around in dung, especially elephant dung, to look for dung beetles or their larvae. Sometimes ground hornbills eat carrion too.
Unlike many other hornbill species, the Southern Ground Hornbill does not have a large hollow casque on top of its bill, just a raised ridge. The function of amplifying its call, like a resonating sound box, is carried out by its big throat pouch instead. In the male, this is entirely red; in the female it has a deep blue central patch. These colours emerge only on maturity; in chicks and juveniles, the bare facial skin is grayish. The inflatable throat pouch enables the birds to give a particularly deep, booming ‘hoom hoom hoom hoom’ call, from which they get their Afrikaans name ‘Bromvoël’ (roughly translated as ‘Boom Bird’). Their call can carry up to five kilometers. From a distance, the call sounds rather like the roar of a lion. To mistake a hornbill for a lion is not as silly as one might think – as a bird lover realized to his shock when under the impression that he was approaching a hornbill, he stumbled upon a lioness!
Although they inhabit open habitats, these hornbills do need trees. They roost up in the branches at night, and also nest in big trees. The nest is a large, open cavity or hollow, often at the top of large trees like Baobabs. Thus these birds need ample open ground in addition to very large trees, a particular habitat requirement that makes them vulnerable to human disturbance, like the felling of trees for wood or bush clearing for agriculture. But they will adapt and can live in open farm fields provided there are big trees nearby. Indeed, ground hornbills can flourish in rural areas with traditional light farming and livestock herding.
Ground hornbills roost as well as hunt in pairs or small groups. To maintain group bonds, they call, exchange food items and preen each other. They start hunting at dawn, and cover about 11 km (7 miles) per day. Sometimes they make use of bush fires, catching small animals as they flee from the flames. They will also catch small creatures disturbed by large animals like elephants, buffaloes or rhinos, and can often be found foraging in close proximity to these large mammals.
Other interesting behaviours include sunbathing with spread wings, or bathing by rubbing themselves against wet leaves and grass after rains. Sometimes they accidentally step in thorns, which they pull out with the precision grasp of their bill tip. Immature birds will play with each other at the roosts, doing a kind of jousting with their bill-tips, chasing each other or jumping on each other. The birds typically fly to and from their roosts while it is still dark, so as to try and keep their roosting places secret from potential predators.
Other than baobabs, ground hornbills will also nest in other large trees like Marula, Boer-Bean, Thorn (the larger species), Yellowwood, Jackal-Berry, Sausage, Fig, Bushwillow or Star-Chestnut Trees. They rarely use cavities in rock faces or earth banks. The female incubates her eggs alone. But she has help! The male, as well as other members of the family group, regularly bring food to her while she incubates. This is the largest bird species in the world that breeds cooperatively. Sometimes the female leaves her nest briefly for the sake of personal hygiene, leg-stretching, and to find some food for herself.
Although ground hornbill mothers always lay two eggs, it almost always happens in nature that only one chick survives. The chick stays in the nest for about three months, after which it joins the group. It stays in the group until it reaches adulthood, at about the age of 4 to 6 years. We still don’t know how long they live, but everything indicates that it is potentially quite long. They proliferate slowly – aside from the fact that they take long to mature, and that there’s usually only one breeding male and female per group, raising only one chick per breeding attempt, groups don’t even necessarily breed every year. Chicks are threatened by a number of predators, including cat and snake species. On average it takes every group a bit over nine years to successfully raise a single chick to maturity!
Southern Ground Hornbills face many threats from humans, habitat destruction being one of the main threats. Many of these birds die from eating poisoned bait farmers put out for jackals, caracals or other predators. Some are electrocuted on power lines. In areas with buildings they are sometimes directly persecuted by humans because they attack house windows – they see their own reflections and peck the panes to pieces under the impression that it is another, strange bird. This behaviour can be prevented by painting the windows, or by putting wire netting in front of them. A lesser known threat faced by these amazing birds is that of forgotten landmines in African regions where civil wars wreaked havoc. Because they probe deep into the ground with their sturdy bills, they are at risk of being blown up by buried land mines. Landmines are still found in large numbers in countries like Angola and Mozambique, remnants of wars that are technically over, but are still killing people and wildlife.
Being big, prominent, active members of savanna ecosystems, ground hornbills are considered a flagship species. When they thrive, it is a sign that the environment is healthy. Luckily, there are some wonderful projects that aim to help Southern Ground Hornbill population numbers, such as the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project.
The Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project is working to slow the decline by:
Harvesting and assisting the hand-rearing of redundant second-hatched chicks that dies of starvation in the wild nests.
Re-wilding of the hand-reared chicks by established groups in ‘bush’ training schools.
Reintroduction of these ‘rescued’ birds back into areas where they have become locally extinct, once the original threats in those areas have been mitigated.
Augmentation of non-viable groups in the wild.
Provision of artificial nests for wild groups with no or inadequate nests.
Research on genetics, behaviour and other important unanswered questions necessary for successful re-establishment.
Coordination of Awareness Campaigns, to educate the general public to the threats facing this flagship indicator species and to reinstate the bird into collective memory in areas where it has become locally extinct.
The map below shows coverage for OdonataMAP. There are records for only 1,101 of the 2,014 grid cells of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. That’s a little over half, 54% to be exact. And the table above the map tells us that only 182 grid cells have 103 or more records of dragonflies and damselflies! It is no wonder that we have been so shrill in encouraging all the OdonataMAPpers to submit their records. We have worked hard encouraging everyone with a photo of a dragonfly to submit it to the OdonataMAP section of the Virtual Museum. We have run monthly “Shoot the Dragons Weeks” through the summer months for the past couple of years. But we have a long, long way to go before we can come anywhere close to complete coverage and can make accurate distribution maps for all species.
We can’t wait forever to get distribution maps for species. We need them NOW. Conservation managers need to know where species occur, and where the most valuable sites for the conservation of dragonflies and damselflies are. Here is the Virtual Museum distribution map for a common dragonfly, the Orange-veined Dropwing Trithemis kirbyi.
The table above the map tells us that there are an incredible 1,476 photographic records of this species in the Virtual Museum, and that there are another 252 records that come out of the ADDO database. But the map is still pretty spotty. It is clearly full of what, in the biodiversity mapping trade, are called “false negatives”. These are all the places in which the species does occur, but which no OdonataMAPper has yet visited! What this map shows is the grid cells in which Orange-veined Dropwings have been reported. It is a presence-absence map. No attempt is made to show whether the species is common or rare. We cannot tell from this map whether or not a large proportion of the records at a site are Orange-veined Dropwings. So this map has lots of deficiencies, but the most important of these is that it is stuffed alarmingly with “false negatives”.
What are we going to do about this? This is the point at which some judicious statistical modelling comes to the rescue. There are dozens and dozens of “species distribution models” which have been invented to crack this problem. It is important to say this at the outset. Statisticians-in-training get taught: ALL MODELS ARE WRONG; SOME ARE USEFUL. In spite of this, lots of statisticians actually have a deep belief that their models show the truth. And many of the biologists who use statistical models have almost religious faith in their modelling.
So the map below is the output of a statistical model that purports to show the actual distribution map of the Orange-veined Dropwing. It is based on both the two maps above. The computer algorithm (ie the programme) makes use of the actual points at which Orange-veined Dropwings occur, but it also makes use of the overall database contained in the first map. So every single record in the OdonataMAP database has influenced this map to a greater or lesser extent.
The first thing you have to note about this new distribution map for the Orange-veined Dropwing is that you have to imagine the coastline and the borders of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. This is a draft and tentative map. Secondly, it is a model, so it is definitely not right. It is over to you to assess whether it is a useful “model” of the overall distribution, i.e. a distribution without the false negatives.
This distribution map looks astonishingly different from the presence-absence map above. For example, it is now shown to occur all over the arid northwestern parts of South Africa, especially the Northern Cape. KwaZulu-Natal seems to get down-played. What is going on? Amazingly, the new maps seems to be getting it right. A bit of detective work discovers that although coverage of the northwestern areas of South Africa is poor (this can be seen in the top map), a large proportion of the Odonata that occur here are of this species. Examining the date for Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal reveals the opposite. The top map shows that there is lots of data for many grid cells in these provinces. And many grid cells have records of Orange-veined Dropwing. But they form quite a small proportion of the total. So they are down-played. Time will tell whether the modelled map comes close to the truth. It certainly provides new insights into the distribution of this species.
Why does the map for the Orange-veined Dropwing have three colours? There is lots and lots of orange. There is some light brown, and there is some dark brown. The clue to this is in the map below, called the “Baseline” map.
This is the computer algorithm’s version of the top map, showing overall coverage. In the grid cells in this map which have large circles, the new distribution maps are well-supported by the OdonataMAP data (and the circles in the species map are dark-brown and ought to be pretty reliable). Where the circles in this maps are tiny, the modelled distributions might be unreliable (and the grid cells are shown in orange), and the light-brown circles are intermediate.
There is lots of orange in the new map for the Orange-veined Dropwing. So the distribution across the Northern Cape is acknowledged by the model to be speculative.
The strategy for getting rid of the orange, and the speculation, is simple. We need more data from these regions. Looking at the “Baseline” map, it is clear that, besides the northwest, there are areas within the northern provinces that need data too!! We’ll unpack this more over the next few weeks.
In the meantime (this is written on 19 September 2019), we are desperately waiting for rain across the summer-rainfall region of southern Africa. The drought is currently so bad that there are hardly any dragonflies (or for that matter butterflies) in evidence. The OdonataMAPpers, and the LepiMAPpers, are having a hard time.
And, finally, here is a photo of the species that has been the topic of this blog, the Orange-veined Dropwing.
Dragons do exist, and they’ve been around for over 300 million years! They might not breathe fire, but they do have six legs, four wings, and extremely keen eyesight. These mini dragons are carnivorous insects known as dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera), belonging to the insect Order Odonata. In general, dragonflies are larger than damselflies, and perch with their wings held out to the sides; whereas damselflies have slender bodies and fold their wings over their body when at rest.
These beautiful insects are also important monitors of water quality. They are sensitive to environmental changes and play key roles in both terrestrial and aquatic habitats. They are predators as both nymphs (their larval stage) and as adults, feeding on a variety of prey including nuisance species such as mosquitoes and biting flies. Spending most of their lives underwater in rivers, streams, ponds, and lakes, their presence in aquatic environments is an excellent measure of water quality as they require clean water to thrive.
As adults, dragonflies and damselflies are expert fliers. They can fly straight up and down, hover like a helicopter and even mate mid-air! They are true acrobats of the air. There are few species in the animal kingdom that can match the Odonata for spectacular flying ability. Dragonflies have two sets of wings with muscles in the thorax that can work each wing independently. This allows them to change the angle of each wing and practice superior agility in the air.
In their aquatic larval/nymph stage, which can last up to two years, they prey on just about anything — tadpoles, mosquitoes, fish fry, other insect larvae and even each other! Dragonflies and damselflies are great helpers when it comes to mosquito control. A single adult dragonfly can eat hundreds of mosquitoes per day. It surely pays to keep these natural helpers around and thriving.
So how can you help to protect these amazing little dragons? Water is a scarce and valuable resource in southern Africa. With the recent droughts and climate change, this has become even more evident. We need to protect southern Africa’s water resources and manage them carefully for the benefit of people and wildlife. OdonataMAP, the Atlas of African Odonata, has the resources to help in this regard. One of the goals of OdonataMAP (and the other projects in the Virtual Museum) is to promote an appreciation of nature and biodiversity conservation throughout Africa. The Virtual Museum provides a platform for members of the public to contribute to biodiversity conservation projects by taking photographs of animals and plants in the wild and submitting them to the Virtual Museum. These very important records help us to understand the distributions of species in Africa, how they are being impacted by urbanization, pollution, agriculture, climate change, and what conservation actions are needed to protect Africa’s precious biodiversity.
The Animal Demography Unit has produced some of the most important and influential publications for the conservation of birds, frogs, reptiles, butterflies and other animals in the southern African region. The projects are all still growing, and we would like to extend the reach of these projects to as many people as possible.
OdonataMAP, a project funded by the JRS Biodiversity Foundation is the Atlas of African Dragonflies and Damselflies. OdonataMAP has a vast data resource available for all to use and we would love to collaborate with anyone in helping to protect and monitor South Africa (and Africa’s) water resources. For more information and to see how you can contribute, please visit http://vmus.adu.org.za and http://addo.adu.org.za.
And remember, we can, and should, all do our part to make our gardens and urban areas more wildlife friendly. Choose not to use poisons and pesticides in and around your home. Plant indigenous plants in your garden. Create a mini “forest” in your garden, by planting various layers of vegetation. Our wild neighbours have to continually adapt to the fluctuating conditions of human urban landscapes, but we humans can make better choices with the products we buy and what we flush down the drain, and to live more consciously so that we have minimal impact on the lives of the wildlife that we share habitats with. Together we can strive to live in harmony with nature and its incredible biodiversity. Plant trees, create natural ponds in your garden, avoid using poisons, put up owl boxes and bee hotels — — these are just a few simple things that we can all do to help our wild neighbours.