Giant Bullfrog (Pyxicephalus adspersus)

Identification

P. adspersus is the largest amphibian found in southern Africa, and the second largest frog species in the world. In Gauteng, males reach a snout-vent length of 245 mm and a mass of 1.4 kg (C.C. unpubl. data.), but in Eastern Cape and Free State provinces, they seldom exceed 140 mm (Du Preez 1996). In contrast to most other frogs, males are larger than females. The head is very broad. Two large bony spines, separated by a smaller spine, project upwards from the lower jaw. Several prominent, interrupted skin ridges are present on the back. Spade-like inner metatarsal tubercles are present on the heels, and are used for digging.

In adults the dorsum is dark olive-green, but may vary from brown to grey and even blue; short sections of the longitudinal skin ridges may be white or cream.

Pyxicephalus adspersus – Juvenile
Near Vanwyksvlei, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

In juveniles, a pale vertebral stripe is often present, contrasting sharply with the bright green ground colour. The abdomen is white to creamy-yellow, except in the region of the forelimbs where it is bright yellow in breeding males. Dark mottling may be present in the gular region of males (Du Preez 1996).

The advertisement call is a long, low frequency “whoop”, 1–2 s in duration and with an emphasized frequency of 200–250 Hz. By contrast, the call of P. edulis is much shorter (0.19–0.22 s in duration) with a modulated frequency that begins at c. 250 Hz and rises to 450–600 Hz in the middle of the call (Passmore and Carruthers 1995; Channing 2001).

Habitat

P. adspersus inhabits a variety of vegetation types in the Grassland, Savanna, Nama Karoo and Thicket biomes. It typically breeds in seasonal, shallow, grassy pans in flat, open areas but also utilizes non-permanent vleis and shallow water on the margins of waterholes and dams. Although they sometimes inhabit clay soils, they prefer sandy substrates.

Behaviour

The adults are fossorial, emerging from their burrows only during the breeding season. After heavy rain they congregate in large numbers at breeding sites. Successful breeding depends on the establishment of ephemeral pools large enough to hold water for at least 30 days. Continuous light rain does not seem to prompt emergence of the frogs, but when a downpour of at least 30 mm follows, within a few days, the first light spring rains, they emerge and move to their breeding sites (L.du P. pers. obs.).

P. adspersus is an explosive breeder, finding a mate and laying eggs within 48 hours. Spawning takes place during daylight, usually the morning after a heavy rainstorm. Adult males exhibit three size-related mating strategies, namely territorial, non-territorial (breeding arena) and satellite behaviour (Cook 1996).

Territorial males are larger than non-territorial males, and are site faithful, vigorously defending their territories against intruding males. Males jump at each other with open mouths, and when a male takes hold of the leg or arm of another he will often flip the opponent into the air. One battle, in which a male tried to flip another onto its back, continued for more than 40 minutes. Males often bear battle scars, sometimes even losing an eye (L. du P. pers.obs.) or dying from punctured lungs (C.L.C. pers. obs.).

Non-territorial males gather in a breeding arena or lek where males fight amongst themselves for favourable positions in the centre of the lek (Channing et al. 1994a). On one occasion, 20 calling males were observed within an area no more than 4 m2 (L. du P. pers. obs.). Females maintain a low profile as they approach the arena, with barely more than their eyes projecting above the water’s surface. The moment a female is spotted, she is intercepted by the closest male. Sometimes an approaching female dives while she is some distance from the arena and surfaces amongst the males where she is clasped by one of the larger males. Amplexus displacement, in which a second male displaces an amplexing male, is frequently observed in groups of non-territorial males.

The smaller adult satellite males are unable to defend a territory or fight for a place in the non-territorial breeding arena; instead they remain in close proximity to a territorial male, attempting to intercept females attracted to the territorial male (Cook 1996).

Amplexus takes place in water 2–4 cm deep and lasts for an average of 15 minutes. Oviposition usually occurs between 08:00 and 12:00, but may continue until 18:00. When spawning, the male pushes the female’s head underwater and she raises her cloaca above the water; thus the eggs are fertilized before entering the water (L. du P. pers. obs.). A spent female prompts the male to release her by shaking her head from side to side, and then moves away into deeper water.

Eggs numbering 3000–4000 are scattered in shallow water. Eggs are 1.1–1.3 mm in diameter, inside 4-mm capsules (Channing 2001). Small black tadpoles emerge from the capsules after 36 hours, and gather in schools. Over the next two days, schools fuse, creating larger schools until all the tadpoles form a single school. The tadpoles tend to congregate in shallow, warm water where they feed on algae, and complete metamorphosis 18–33 days later (Channing 2001).

Territorial males actively defend their offspring for the duration of their larval development. They scare off intruders by assuming an aggressive attitude and even jump and snap in their direction. If a school of tadpoles becomes isolated in a shrinking pool, the male will dig a channel through the mud to open water, thereby saving the tadpoles from desiccation (Kok et al. 1989). The channels average 3 m, but may reach 18.7 m in length (Cook 1996).

Adults spend dry periods in burrows, usually at depths of 0.5–1 m, depending on the type and humidity of the soil. For example, one male was found at a depth of 10 cm in clay (L. du P. pers. obs.), while others in sandy soil were found at a depth of 1.2 m. Adults sometimes excavate old crab holes to form their burrows (C.C. pers. obs.). After excavating the burrow, the frog sheds several layers of skin to form a cocoon that insulates it from the external environment, with which contact is maintained via the nostrils.

P. adspersus feeds on a variety of prey items including small birds, rats, snakes, lizards, insects, scorpions, crabs, slugs and other frogs. Branch (1976) reported that two adult bullfrogs had ingested no less than 17 newly born Rinkhals Hemachatus haemachatus, a venomous snake species. They have been observed attacking drinking birds such as Laughing Doves and Blacksmith Plovers (C.C. pers. obs.). The species exhibits cannibalism in the adult, juvenile and even tadpole stages.

Birds are major predators of bullfrogs. Records of bird predators include various raptors, for example, the African Marsh Harrier, as well as Marsh Owl, Saddlebill Stork, pelicans and egrets. Tadpoles are preyed upon by various predators, such as terrapins, the Nile Monitor Varanus niloticus, Rinkhals Hemachatus haemachatus, and several fish species, including Barbel Clarias gariepinus and Vlei Tilapia Tilapia sparmanii (in an artificial dam; C.C. pers. obs.).

The maximum longevity of a captive specimen of P. adspersus was estimated at 45 years (Channing 2001).

Advertisement Call

The advertisement call is a long, low frequency “whoop”, 1–2 s in duration and with an emphasized frequency of 200–250 Hz. By contrast, the call of P. edulis is much shorter (0.19–0.22 s in duration) with a modulated frequency that begins at c. 250 Hz and rises to 450–600 Hz in the middle of the call (Passmore and Carruthers 1995; Channing 2001).

Status and Conservation

Jacobsen (1982) reported that P. adspersus numbers were declining in Gauteng, North West, Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces which, at that time, constituted the Transvaal Province. Boycott (2001) declared the species to be extinct in Swaziland. Harrison et al. (2001) estimated that the area of its habitat and population sizes had declined by more than 50% over the past 100 years, particularly in regions subjected to extensive crop agriculture and/or urban and industrial development, including Gauteng, Free State and North West provinces.

In terms of its global distribution, P. adspersus does not appear to warrant threatened status. However, at the sub-regional level, the species has undergone severe population declines in certain areas, for example, >80% in the last 20 years in parts of Gauteng, and was therefore classified Near Threatened in the atlas region (Harrison et al. 2001; this publication).

The species is known to occur in the following protected areas: Karoo, Kalahari Gemsbok and Vaalbos national parks, and Karoo, Sandveld, Soetdoring, Willem Pretorius, Koppiesdam, Borokolalo, S.A. Lombard and Oviston nature reserves (Harrison et al. 2001).

Threats

Habitat loss due to crop agriculture and urbanization poses a major threat to this species. Adults migrating to, and juveniles dispersing from, breeding sites are often killed on roads. The use of insecticides and herbicides may also have a negative impact on breeding success, but requires further investigation (Harrison et al. 2001). The illegal collection of adults and juveniles for the local and international pet industries has contributed to population declines in urban areas.

P. adspersus forms part of the traditional diet of people living in certain parts of Limpopo Province where the species is now being commercially exploited. Large numbers of frogs are being indiscriminately and illegally collected at breeding sites and sold at butcheries (L.R. Minter pers. comm.).

Recommended conservation actions

Surveys to establish the location of additional breeding sites are needed, and long-term monitoring of at least some sites is imperative (Harrison et al. 2001). Research into limiting factors and the effects of herbicides and insecticides on aestivating adults and foraging tadpoles is recommended (Harrison et al. 2001).

In areas where P. adspersus is being sold as food, steps should be taken to ensure sustainable use and the enforcement of relevant conservation laws.

The longevity and slow development of individuals clearly indicate a need for sustained conservation strategies to preserve the natural structure of populations. Successful conservation of P. adspersus depends on long-term protection of suitable breeding sites along with sufficient surrounding habitat to maintain adult populations. Where long-term survival of a population is unlikely in the face of land transformations, translocation of tadpoles or newly-emerged juveniles to neighbouring localities may be attempted, but only as a last resort (Harrison et al. 2001).

This spectacular species certainly qualifies as one of the “Big Five” herptiles of the region. Conservation agencies should consider the ecotourism potential of the Giant Bullfrog.

Distribution

P. adspersus is widely distributed in the atlas region, mainly at higher elevations. It occurs in the northeastern part of the Western Cape, central and southern Eastern Cape, northern, central and eastern parts of Northern Cape, northern KwaZulu-Natal (except the low-lying parts), Free State, North West, Gauteng and Limpopo provinces, and at only a few localities in Mpumalanga Province. North of the atlas region, its range extends to central Namibia, central and northern Botswana and across the highveld of Zimbabwe (Poynton and Broadley 1985b).

P. adspersus and P. edulis are easy to distinguish from one another in the field by differences in their calls and reproductive behaviour. However, many of the morphological characters used to separate them in the past have proven to be too variable to be of diagnostic value (Channing et al. 1994a). While specimens with a snout-vent length exceeding 140 mm may be assigned to P. adspersus with some confidence, smaller individuals cannot be distinguished easily from P. edulis. Therefore, much of the historical data derived from museum and literature records had to be vetted conservatively. For example, records from northern KwaZulu-Natal were omitted from the species distribution map but retained in the genus map. Better knowledge of intra- and inter-specific variation is required before the distribution of these species in the atlas region can be accurately determined (Channing et al. 1994a; Channing 2001).

The atlas data are reasonably reliable given the problems outlined above, but are not comprehensive.

Banded Rubber Frog (Phrynomantis bifasciatus)

View the above photo record (by Nick Evans) in FrogMAP here.

Find the Southern Banded Rubber Frog in the FBIS database (Freshwater Biodiversity Information System) here.

Family Microhylidae

BANDED RUBBER FROG – Phrynomantis bifasciatus

Smith, 1847

Identification

Adult

Size: Females up to 65mm long. Males are slightly smaller

Phrynomantis bifasciatus is a distinctive and easily recognised species.

Phrynomantis bifasciatus – Near Hoedspruit, Limpopo
Photo by Allison Sharp

The body of Phrynomantis bifasciatus is somewhat elongate and flattened. The neck is relatively long and the head is narrow with a blunt snout.

Fore and hind legs are long and slender. The fingers and toes possess small, slightly expanded terminal discs. Webbing on the hands and feet is almost absent.

The skin is shiny and smooth and has a rubbery appearance. The colouration above is black, often with a dark golden sheen, and with broad bright red to cream bands and blotches. There are two widely spaced, parallel bands that run from the snout, over the eyes and down to the flanks. Another red band is present on the lower back. The sides and legs show smaller red to cream blotches.

Undersides are dark grey-black with white spots and blotches.

The eyes are black with dark bronzy mottling and the pupils are roughly circular.

The sexes are closely similar but males have darker throats.

Tadpole:

Size: length up to 37mm.

The tadpoles have a minnow-like appearance. The head is broad and flattened and the eyes are located laterally. The tail extends past the fins and tapers to a thin pointed tip.

Phrynomantis bifasciatus – Tadpole
Photo by Timo Paasikunas

Habitat

The Banded Rubber Frog inhabits a variety of bushveld vegetation types in the Savanna Biome, at altitudes of 50–1450 m. It appears to be adapted to living in hot, semi-arid environments. Breeding takes place in temporary pans and pools, flooded grassland and small, shallow dams (Wager 1965; Jacobsen 1989; Lambiris 1989a).

Breeding habitat – Bonamanzi Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Behaviour

This frog seldom jumps, but walks or runs. When disturbed, it inflates and arches its body, tucking its head in and raising its rump to accentuate the aposematic colours and markings. These frogs may be handled without ill effects, but if unduly alarmed or hurt, they produce copious skin secretions with an unpleasant odour. The secretions are a toxic irritant and lethal to other frogs confined in the same container. They are cardiotoxic, affecting the potassium channels in the membranes of human heart cells, and cause cell death within a short time (Van der Walt et al. 1992). In humans, prolonged skin contact, or assimilation of the toxin via cuts or scratches on the hands, can cause extremely painful swelling and other symptoms such as nausea, headache, respiratory distress and an increased pulse rate.

During the dry season, P. bifasciatus takes shelter under rocks or logs, in holes excavated by other animals, in termitaria, in holes in trees or under loose bark, in the axils of banana leaves and in drain pipes (Pienaar et al. 1976; Wager 1986; Lambiris 1989a). It often shelters with other frogs, lizards, scorpions and whip scorpions (Jacobsen 1989). Although this species is not a true climber, the expanded digits enable it to climb rock surfaces and tree trunks with ease.

P. bifasciatus breeds during spring and summer, after sufficient rain has fallen to produce shallow pools and pans. These frogs are opportunistic in that they will breed in the smallest bodies of water. For example, tadpoles have been seen in the water-filled prints of animals such as elephants (Channing 2001).

The eggs are light brown at one pole, 1.3–1.5 mm in diameter, and are surrounded by a jelly capsule that expands from 4 to 7 mm in diameter (Stewart 1967). Clutches of 300–1500 eggs are laid in a mass of jelly, c.75 mm across, that is attached to vegetation or sinks to the bottom of the pool. Tadpoles hatch after four days (Power 1927a).

The tadpoles are gregarious. They resemble Xenopus tadpoles, but lack tentacles and have deeper, pigmented fins (black or red). They are filter-feeders, maintaining their position in the water column by means of a rapidly undulating tail tip. Tadpoles usually reach metamorphosis after about a month, depending on the availability of food (Wager 1986), but may take 90 days in captivity (Power 1926a).

The adults feed mainly on ants, but also consume other Hymenoptera, termites, grasshoppers and spiders (Jacobsen 1982). The Hamerkop Scopus umbretta is reported to prey on this species (Channing 2001).

Advertisement Call

The call is a drawn-out trill, lasting around three seconds. The call is high pitched and melodic. Males usually call from concealed positions under vegetation or rocks, in holes in trees, the ventilation shafts of termitaria, or from the hoofprints of cattle (pers. obs.), but also from more exposed sites. Males begin to call when they are some distance from the water’s edge, but as the intensity of the chorus increases they move closer to the water, calling from exposed sites at the water’s edge or from emergent or flooded vegetation (L.R. Minter pers. comm).

Status and Conservation

Due to its striking colouration and appearance, P. bifasciatus is well known in the pet trade It was imported into Germany before 1931 (Channing 2001) and is presently offered for sale on the internet. Nevertheless, the species is common throughout its range and occurs in a number of national parks and provincial nature reserves. It is not threatened and no additional conservation measures are needed.

Distribution

This widespread species is distributed from the Democratic Republic of Congo, eastern Ethiopia and Somalia, south through East Africa to northeastern South Africa. Its range extends westward through northern Botswana and northern Namibia to southern Angola.

In the atlas region, P. bifasciatus is recorded from northern KwaZulu-Natal (north of 29°S), Swaziland, eastern Mpumalanga, Limpopo Province, northern Gauteng and the central and northern parts of North West Province (north of 27°S and east of 24°E). Historical records from Durban (2930DD) and Kimberley (2824DB) may have been based on accidentally translocated individuals. No further records were obtained from these areas in the course of the atlas surveys, and the historical records have therefore been omitted from the atlas distribution map.

The atlas distribution data are accurate, but incomplete in some areas such as the Northern Cape and North West Province.

Distribution of Phrynomantis bifasciatus. Taken from the FrogMAP database as at September 2021.
Further Resources

Further Resources

Virtual Museum (FrogMAP > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name)

More common names: Gebande Rubberpadda (Afrikaans)

Recommended citation format for this species text:

du Preez LH, Tippett RM.  Banded Rubber Frog Phrynomantis bifasciatus. BDI, Cape Town.
Available online at http://thebdi.org/2021/10/12/banded-rubber-frog-phrynomantis-bifasciatus/

Recommended citation format: 

This species text has been updated and expanded from the text in the
2004 frog atlas. The reference to the text and the book are as follows:

Bates MF 2004 Phrynomantis bifasciatus Banded Rubber Frog. In Minter LR
et al 2004.

Minter LR, Burger M, Harrison JA, Braack HH, Bishop PJ, Kloepfer D (eds)
2004. Atlas and Red Data Book of  the Frogs of South Africa, Lesotho and
Swaziland. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, and Avian Demography
Unit, Cape Town.

Forest Tree Frog (Leptopelis natalensis)

View the above photo record (by A. Coetzer) in FrogMAP here.

Find the Forest Tree Frog in the FBIS database (Freshwater Biodiversity Information System) here.

Family Heleophrynidae

FOREST TREE FROG – Leptopelis natalensis

(Smith, 1894)

Identification

Adult:

Size: Attains 65mm.

Leptopelis natalensis has large, bulging, orange-red eyes with vertical pupils and a blunt, rounded snout. The tympanum (ear drum) is conspicuous..

Leptopelis natalensis – Green colour form
Near Kosi Bay, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The colouration and patterning varies. They are often plain lime green above but may also be pale brownish with emerald green bands and blotches. The emerald green markings have fine black outlines. Plain, pale brown specimens can also be found. The underparts are off-white, while the underside of the legs are yellowish.

The skin is slightly rough above and more granular below.

They have elongate arms and legs. The hands and feet are well developed. Fingers and toes are long and equiped with large terminal discs to enhance their climbing ability. The fingers on the forelimbs are unwebbed while the toes on the hindlimbs have ample webbing.

There is no clear sexual dimorphism but males are slightly smaller than females.

Tadpole:

Size: Up to 50mm.

Tadpoles of Leptopelis natalensis are elongate and slender with a somewhat flattened appearance. The overall colouration is brown with variable beige mottling. The tail is roughly twice as long as the body and the upper and lower fins are almost of equal length.

Habitat

The breeding and non-breeding habitat of this species is Coastal Forest, Sand Forest and Coastal Bushveld/Grassland in the Forest and Savanna biomes. L. natalensis is usually found near swamps or pans in fairly dense, indigenous forest, although it occasionally occurs in habitats similar to those inhabited by Hyperolius pickersgilli, such as stagnant water marshes.

Habitat – Coastal forest at Mtunzini, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Behaviour

Most breeding activity takes place in summer once the rainy season is well underway. Males usually begin calling at dusk from exposed positions up to 3 m above the ground in the foliage of trees and bushes close to, or overhanging, water. The females are usually much larger than males. Amplexus is axillary. Amplexing pairs move down to the ground where the female excavates a shallow burrow near the water’s edge in which c.200 light-yellow eggs are laid. The female fills the burrow, disguising its location with leaves and twigs (pers. obs). About 13 days later, the tadpoles leave the egg capsules and move towards the water with jumping and wriggling movements (Wager 1965). The remainder of larval development takes place in the usual way.

Predators are thought to include birds, snakes and terrapins, while prey usually consists of large flying insects such as noctuid moths.

Advertisement Call

This species has a loud and unmistakable call that consists of buzzing and quacking noises. Vocalising males are hard to locate.

Status and Conservation

The major threat to L. natalensis is habitat loss resulting from water drainage, invasions of alien plants, and afforestation. In several areas in KwaZulu-Natal, Eucalyptus plantations have lowered the water table to such a degree that many pans adjacent to coastal dune forest have completely disappeared.

L. natalensis occurs in several protected areas, for example, Krantzkloof Nature Reserve, Mkuze Game Reserve, Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, and Twinstreams-Mtunzini Natural Heritage Site. It is fairly common within its range, but local populations are probably quite small. The species does not appear to require any special conservation action at present.

Distribution

Leptopelis natalensis is endemic to KwaZulu-Natal and the northeastern part of Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. It occurs along the northeastern coast from Sodwana Bay (2732DA) in the north to Manubi (3228BB) in the south. The atlas data is accurate and reasonably complete.

Distribution of Leptopelis natalensis. Taken from the FrogMAP database as at September 2021.

Further Resources

Virtual Museum (FrogMAP > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name)

More common names: Natal Tree Frog (Alternative Common Name); Natalse Boompadda (Afrikaans)

Recommended citation format for this species text:

Bishop PJ, Tippett RM.  Forest Tree Frog Leptopelis natalensis. BDI, Cape Town.
Available online at http://thebdi.org/2021/09/27/forest-tree-frog-leptopelis-natalensis/

Recommended citation format: 

This species text has been updated and expanded from the text in the
2004 frog atlas. The reference to the text and the book are as follows:

Bishop PJ 2004 Leptopelis natalensis Forest Tree Frog. In Minter LR
et al 2004.

Minter LR, Burger M, Harrison JA, Braack HH, Bishop PJ, Kloepfer D (eds)
2004. Atlas and Red Data Book of  the Frogs of South Africa, Lesotho and
Swaziland. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, and Avian Demography
Unit, Cape Town.

Southern Pygmy Toad (Poyntonophrynus vertebralis)

View the above photo record (by Ryan Tippett) in FrogMAP here.

Find the Southern Pygmy Toad in the FBIS database (Freshwater Biodiversity Information System) here.

Family Bufonidae

SOUTHERN PYGMY TOADPoyntonophrynus vertebralis

A. Smith, 1848

Identification

Adult:

Size: Females up to 36mm long. Males are distinctly smaller.

A small squat species with an overall light brown or grey colouration. The skin is leathery and consistently granular or warty. The upper sides are fairly plain or may show irregular dark patterning. A thin vertebral line may sometimes be present.

A pale scapular patch is often present between the shoulders and is variable in size.

The tympanum (ear drum) is inconspicuous and partly concealed by glandular warts. The parotoid glands on the neck are indistinct and somewhat flattened.

Poyntonophrynus vertebralis – Near Carnarvon, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The undersides are noticeably pale with variable, bold black markings. The skin is leathery and quite granular, especially near the hind legs. The skin on the throat is fairly smooth and may be white or yellowish.

Poyntonophrynus vertebralis – Underside
Doornhoek, Eastern Cape
Photo by Zenobia Van Dyk

Tadpole:

Size: Up to 20mm

Tadpoles of Poyntonophrynus vertebralis have deep, oval-shaped bodies. Their tails are moderately developed and not as deep as the body. Additionally, the tail is slightly longer than the body and the upper and lower fins are of roughly equal length. The mouth is small and located ventrally near the front of the head. The eyes are situated to the sides on the upper front part of the head.

The overall colouration is dark with many fine golden speckles or spots.

Habitat

Poyntonophrynus vertebralis inhabits primarily the Nama Karoo Biome but is also found in parts of the Savanna and Grassland biomes. The species is largely restricted to summer-rainfall areas, but has been recorded in some parts of the Nama Karoo that are transitional between summer and winter rainfall.

It occurs on a variety of substrates, from brackish soils to gravels, in open sandy and grassy areas and in Karoo scrub. It takes refuge under rocks and logs, in mud cracks, deep leaf litter, and occasionally in the abandoned mounds of Trinervitermes termites, sometimes far from open water (De Waal 1980; H. Braack pers. comm.).

Breeding habitat in the Karoo includes temporary shallow pans, pools or depressions containing rain-water, and occasionally culverts and rocky pools in seasonal water courses (new atlas data). In the Free State, tadpoles have been found in roadside pools, small dams, quarries and rock pools along rivers (new atlas data).

Breeding habitat – Rain filled pool in the Nama Karoo
Near Carnarvon, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Behaviour

Breeding choruses of P. vertebralis develop from October to March. It is an explosive breeder, congregating in large numbers at temporary pools after heavy spring or summer rains (H. Braack pers. comm.). Visser (1979b) recorded thousands of specimens crossing the national road at Victoria West after rain. The call carries a great distance and a chorus produces a deafening sound (Du Preez 1996).

Males usually call from concealed sites near the water’s edge, but they will call from exposed positions when there is insufficient cover. In large breeding aggregations, males clasp other individuals indiscriminately, regardless of gender. Satellite behaviour, in which silent males intercept and clasp females that are approaching calling males, was observed at both Beaufort West and Middelburg (H. Braack pers. comm.).

Wager (1965, 1986) collected eggs at the beginning of March; this suggests that breeding occurs after mid-summer rains. The eggs measured <1 mm in diameter and were laid in double strands 2.5 mm thick. They were entangled amongst stones and grass 2–4 cm beneath the surface. Although Wager’s aquarium tadpoles completed metamorphosis after about one month, Power (1927a) recorded a developmental period of only 16 days. When feeding, Wager’s tadpoles showed a preference for the stems of aquatic plants rather than algae, whereas Power (1927b) observed tadpoles feeding on algae and mud at the bottom of a natural pool.

Adult frogs prey on termites, ants, aphids, fly and beetle larvae, adult beetles, and mites (Bates and Irish 2002). During large-scale emergences of P. vertebralis in the breeding season, many are killed by road traffic, and Suricates Suricata suricatta and Black Crows Corvus capensis have been observed feeding on the remains. Captive Suricates and Polecats Ictonyx striatus have also been observed feeding on these toads (H. Braack pers. comm.).

Advertisement Call:

The call is loud, piercing and insect-like. It is consistently repeated in quick succession and choruses can be heard from a great distance.

Status and Conservation

The Southern Pygmy Toad is not threatened. It is listed as of Least Concern in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

In the Free State, P. vertebralis occurs in Soetdoring, Krugersdift Dam, and Koppies Dam nature reserves (Bates 1997). It has also been collected at Oviston Nature Reserve and Mountain Zebra National Park in Eastern Cape Province. The species enjoys varying degrees of protection under provincial conservation legislation. It may have been negatively impacted by crop agriculture in Grassland-Biome portions of its range, whereas it is probably not threatened in karoid areas where land is used primarily for grazing. However, the Karoo is renowned for periodic outbreaks of the Brown Locust Locustana pardalina, and over-zealous use of insecticides could affect local frog populations. Monitoring of populations of P. vertebralis in protected areas is recommended. Additional information on the breeding biology of this endemic species is needed.

Distribution

Poyntonophrynus vertebralis is endemic to the atlas region, although recent records from North West Province suggest that it may also occur in southern Botswana. Its distribution follows that of the Nama Karoo Biome in the Northern, Eastern and Western Cape provinces and the southern Free State, but it also occurs in grassland and savanna at Kimberley, north of Christiana, and in the Free State. It occurs as far east as Maseru (2927BC) and near Masite (2927CB) in western Lesotho. Recent atlas records have extended the known western limits of the species as far as the Brandvlei district (3020AD) of Northern Cape Province.

Further north, the species has been recorded in two apparently isolated populations, namely, the Koppies area (2727BA) of the northern Free State (Bates 1995), and on the border between Limpopo and North West provinces (recent atlas data) where it appears to occur in sympatry with P. fenoulheti. The confirmed presence of P. vertebralis, based on advertisement calls (atlas data), supports Jacobsen’s (1989) identification of specimens from grid cells 2428AC and 2528CA. The latter identifications were previously considered dubious because these areas were far north of the known range (Jacobsen 1989).

With regard to the apparently disjunct distribution of P. vertebralis in the Free State, Bates (1995) reported the existence of two museum specimens from “Adonasfontein, Winburg”, a locality that cannot be traced. If the latter locality is in the vicinity of Winburg (2827CA), it will bridge the large gap between southern and northern populations in the Free State.

The taxonomy of the “vertebralis group” (Poynton 1964; Poynton and Broadley 1988) requires revision to determine the exact ranges of the various species. An attempt should be made to identify morphological differences between P. vertebralis and P. fenoulheti in areas of sympatry, to assist in the identification of specimens from these areas.

The atlas data is accurate but incomplete.

Distribution of Poyntonophrynus vertebralis. Taken from the FrogMAP database as at September 2021.

Further Resources

Virtual Museum (FrogMAP > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name)

More common names: Suidelike dwergskurwepadda (Afrikaans)

Recommended citation format for this species text:

Bates MF, Tippett RM.  Southern Pygmy Toad Poyntonophrynus vertebralis. BDI, Cape Town.
Available online at http://thebdi.org/2021/09/19/southern-pygmy-toad-poyntonophrynus-vertebralis/

Recommended citation format: 

This species text has been updated and expanded from the text in the
2004 frog atlas. The reference to the text and the book are as follows:

Bates MF 2004 Poyntonophrynus vertebralis Southern Pygmy Toad. In Minter LR
et al 2004.

Minter LR, Burger M, Harrison JA, Braack HH, Bishop PJ, Kloepfer D (eds)
2004. Atlas and Red Data Book of  the Frogs of South Africa, Lesotho and
Swaziland. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, and Avian Demography
Unit, Cape Town.

Eastern Ghost Frog (Heleophryne orientalis)

View the above photo record (by A. Coetzer) in FrogMAP here.

Find the Eastern Ghost Frog in the FBIS database (Freshwater Biodiversity Information System) here.

Family Heleophrynidae

EASTERN GHOSTFROG – Heleophryne orientalis

(FitzSimons, 1946)

Identification

Adult:

Size: Males attain 35mm; Females up to 46mm long.

Heleophryne orientalis
Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve, Western Cape
Photo by Trevor Hardaker

The body of Heleophryne orientalis is flattened, enabling them to shelter under rocks and in narrow crevices. They possess large, bulging eyes that feature a broad horizontal line and a smaller vertical line (The pupil is vertical). This gives the eye a crossed appearance. The tympanum (ear drum) is not visible.

The colouration and patterning is somewhat variable. The base colour ranges from beige to olive green with darker brown blotches, spots and bands. A band between the eyes is usually present. The undersides are white.

Adults develop asperities (small, rough protrusions) on the skin at several places, including the fingers, arms and chest.

They have fairly long arms and legs. The fingers and toes are also elongate and have spatulate tips and large discs to enhance grip on slippery surfaces. The feet are well webbed allowing Heleophryne orientalis to be strong swimmers.

Males are smaller than females. Breeding males develop swollen forearms, loose skin on the back and spines on the chest and inner fingers.

Tadpole:

Size: Up to 60mm.

Tadpoles of Heleophryne orientalis are broad, flattened and very streamlined. They are equipped with powerful tails and large sucker mouths. These are adaptations to prevent them from being swept away in fast-flowing torrents. The oversized sucker-like mouths also enable them to leave the water and climb vertical rock surfaces.

The overall colouration is yellow-brown with variable mottling. The tail is slightly longer than the body and the upper and lower fins are of roughly equal length.

Habitat

The Eastern Ghost Frog is confined to patches of Afromontane Forest surrounded by moist Mountain Fynbos (Moll et al. 1984). The average rainfall at these sites ranges from 600 – 3000mm per annum (Boycott 1982). Here Heleophryne orientalis inhabits perennial mountain streams in forested ravines and gorges. They prefer streams with cold, clear water that is often tea-coloured due to tannins from decaying vegetation. These streams often slow to a trickle in the dry season but can become swift-flowing torrents on the wet season.

Habitat – Marloth Nature Reserve, Western Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Heleophryne orientalis is often found near waterfalls and cascades, on wet rock faces, in rock cracks and in caves. The tadpoles may be found beneath submerged and partly submerged rocks in swift- and slow-flowing streams and in rocky pools.

Habitat – Marloth Nature Reserve, Western Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Behaviour

Heleophryne orientalis breeds in early summer when river and stream flow is reduced. This is from mid-October to mid-December with the peak during November.

Calling takes place during the day and night. Males call from various sites inside or adjoining the water, such as from under rocks and from caves and crevices. They may additionally advertise themselves from exposed positions such as lichen-covered boulders near waterfalls and cascades.

Unlike most of the other Heleophryne species, the males of H. orientalis appear to form breeding aggregations, at least during peak periods. Several individuals may be found calling within close proximity to one another.

Egg laying in H. orientalis happens largely outside of the water, yet always in moist environments. Often the only available moisture is a thin layer of water seeping over the substrate on which the eggs are laid. This differs from the egg-laying habits of the other Heleophryne species which lay their eggs while completely submerged in water. Between 114–191 eggs, are laid in clutches in damp moss-covered places between boulders, or under small rocks in the streambed.

Tadpoles feed on algae growing on submerged surfaces in streams and pools. They find shelter under loose pebbles and boulders when disturbed. Their colouration closely matches that of the water and the substrate on which they feed.

Heleophryne orientalis – Tadpole
Marloth Nature Reserve, Western Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Advertisement Call

The call is a short, high pitched whistle repeated every couple of seconds.

Status and Conservation

Heleophryne orientalis is not threatened. It is listed as of Least Concern in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

H. orientalis occurs abundantly in forested ravines and gorges on the southern slopes of the eastern Langeberg Mountains and is under no threat. The species occurs in several private and public protected areas such as the Grootvadersbosch and Marloth Nature Reserves.

Distribution

Heleophryne orientalis is endemic to the Western Cape Province of South Africa. It occurs along the eastern Langeberg Mountains, from near Montagu in the west to the Gouritz River in the east. The Eastern Ghost Frog has been recorded at altitudes ranging from 215-500 m/asl.

The atlas records are reliable but incomplete. Heleophryne records allocated to H. orientalis (as presently defined) were based on the range of H. purcelli orientalis as recognized by Poynton (1964) and Boycott (1982). What remains to be determined are the eastern limits of the range of H. purcelli and the western limits of the range of H. orientalis. It is unlikely that the distributions of the two species overlap.

Distribution of Heleophryne orientalis. Taken from the FrogMAP database as at August 2021.

Further Resources

Virtual Museum (FrogMAP > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name)

More common names: Oostelike Spookpadda (Afrikaans)

Recommended citation format for this species text:

Tippett RM, Boycott RC.  Eastern Ghost Frog Heleophryne orientalis. BDI, Cape Town.
Available online at http://thebdi.org/2021/08/05/eastern-ghost-frog-heleophryne-orientalis/

Recommended citation format: 

This species text has been updated and expanded from the text in the
2004 frog atlas. The reference to the text and the book  are as follows:

Boycott RC 2004 Heleophryne orientalis Eastern Ghost Frog. In Minter LR
et al 2004.

Minter LR, Burger M, Harrison JA, Braack HH, Bishop PJ, Kloepfer D (eds)
2004. Atlas and Red Data Book of  the Frogs of South Africa, Lesotho and
Swaziland. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, and Avian Demography
Unit, Cape Town.

BDInsight – July 2021

During the most recent BDI Citizen Scientist Hour, Les Underhill gave a talk on the current status of OdonataMAP, the Atlas of African Dragonflies and Damselflies. The talk focuses on the progress of the project in Africa and, more specifically, within South Africa. The talk reports on the progress of the “Online atlas of dragonflies and damselflies of southern Africa”. We make suggestions on optimizing our Odonata fieldwork next summer and Les also talks about how together with the Freshwater Research Centre (http://frcsa.org.za/), OdonataMAP data are being used to influence conservation policy to help protect dragonflies and damselflies. You can view the talk here: 

New maps  for the “Online atlas” will be produced soon. If you have records not yet submitted to OdonataMAP please submit them via the Virtual Museum at http://vmus.adu.org.za/. It is a quick and easy process and you can rest assured that your records will make a difference for Odonata conservation! We make regular updates to the FBIS system of the Freshwater Research Centre.

The full set of  videos of the presentations at the Citizen Scientist Hours (125 of them!) can be found on our YouTube Channel. If you would like to be sent the emails containing the Zoom links, send an email to Itxaso Quintana (itxaso@thebdi.org), and she will add you to the mailing list so you can stay up to date with all the upcoming BDI events!

The Virtual Museum

This is a story of three winters. Virtual Museum submissions always drop in winter, when there are hardly any butterflies and dragonflies, etc, about. Then, there is also the winter of the third wave of Covid, and the weariness and uncertainty that comes with that. And the third winter is political insecurity, and the fears and worries it brings. In the light of the these three winters, it is a remarkably good achievement that July 2021 was the third best July for the Virtual Museum!

We need to wait until September before the weather in the southern end of Africa warms up enough for the smaller creatures to start putting in a reappearance. So, August is a good month to upload backlogs of records to the Virtual Museum. On an annual basis, the total to the end of July 2021 is 3% upon the total to July last year.

Somehow, being involved with citizen science projects such as the Virtual Museum will help us through the stresses of our times. We cannot give way to despair. Biodiversity needs us.

Biodiversity enthusiast! ….The BDI interviews citizen scientist Lucky Okpanachi Atabo

Please tell us a bit about yourself, your background and what you do:

My name is Lucky Okpanachi Atabo. I am a young Nigerian and an active volunteer and advocate for various contemporary societal issues like biodiversity and environmental conservation. I am an undergraduate in Biological Sciences and currently in my final year.

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

The term ‘citizen science’ was very much alien to me up until, when as an intern, I was privileged to listen to a scholar present the details of his research on what he titled “Citizen Science and Urban Ecology“. It was right there in that lecture room that I was able to see and comprehend how much good can be achieved from the work that citizen scientists do especially in species conservation. The passion for citizen science was ignited in me from that moment and this was precisely in the year 2019 while I was interning at A.P Leventis Ornithological Research Institute, Jos, Plateau State.

Common Themis Forester – Euphaedra themis – Photo by Lucky Okpanachi Atabo

What has been the highlight for you? 

Being out in the field putting in my effort to achieve the objectives of citizen science has helped to shape how I view and respond to environmental issues. Within this short time, I have come to see that real changes can be made practically and consistently. I began to use my photos and storytelling to drive a message into the minds of people closest to me and then spiralling up to larger audiences. This way, I’ve been able to spread the message of conservation and it gives me so much joy to see a change in the attitude of people towards these issues. Realizing that the people around me are becoming positively conscious of their decisions thrills me intensely.

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

Being a citizen scientist has taught me that every decision I make as a person will impact on the world one way or another. Being a citizen scientist has also shown me that with a bit of effort from everyone, we can achieve great changes.

Common Citril – Ceriagrion glabrum

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

Citizen science to me simply means everyone is needed. No matter who you are (Writer, photographer, physician, journalist, etc.) or where you are, you are important and your hands are needed on deck.

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

Recently, I started the ‘new species everyday’ challenge for myself. Knowing that I have a limited time to spend here on campus, I try to record as many new species as I can within my grid cell. So, I make sure to take a walk around and within the university’s small biological garden to catch any new species flying or walking around. So far I’ve been able to build a good species list including some very interesting sightings. Anywhere else I visit even on very short durations, I try to atlas as many species as I can.

I’m also hoping to help inspire more people with similar passions to join in the work that is needed to cover more ground in Nigeria and Africa as a whole.

Laughing Dove – Streptopelia senegalensis

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

Personally, I consider citizen science as the healthiest way to have fun. My happiest moments are times spent outside either watching birds or photographing these very cute and adorable species. This has improved me a lot physically and mentally. I always say that being out in natural places makes me feel reborn. I really wish more people will plug into this as a means to stay fit and sharp.

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

You can only go on to protect a species when you’re sure that it is there. I regard citizen scientists as the torch bearers of conservation; we light up the tunnel so everyone can see, and by everyone, I mean the ordinary people as well as powerful stakeholders like government bodies or NGO’s.

Common Dotted Border – Mylothris chloris chloris

What are the challenges you encounter as a citizen scientist?

Being out mostly in wild and isolated places exposes one to certain risks. I always try to use my sixth sense whenever I am out in the field or I make sure I have a good knowledge of any area I plan to visit. This has limited me in terms of data coverage but for now safety is key

The photos that I take are usually taken with my mobile phone and it is pretty challenging and disappointing, especially when there’s an interesting species either moving too fast or at a distance too far for cell phone photography. Hopefully, I’ll save up enough money to buy a good camera and continue to snap it and map it! 🙂

Aegocera rectilinea
Tigertail – Ictinogomphus ferox

Garden Ecology: Colonisation and Succession

Garden Ecology: Colonisation & Succession

Good afternoon, naturalists! Time for an update on Operation Feed the Birds, and a few new insights into garden ecology. 

Let’s begin with the birds. 

Since my first blog post, the two bird feeders have been kept busy, entertaining visitors around the clock. One of my neighbours has a very active feeder, and I suspected that the birds from his garden would locate this hot new local food source quickly. And yet, their speed still surprised me! Within exactly 1 hour and 5 minutes (yes, I did spend an entire day by the window with my binoculars), a male and female cape sparrow were furtively darting to and from the tree feeder. The first few birds were extremely wary; if a hinge creaked, or a dog barked, or if I so much as breathed, they were off like a flash. 

Cape Sparrows and a Cape Weaver vying for a spot at the feeder.
Cape Sparrows and a Cape Weaver vying for a spot at the feeder.

As the day wore on, though, the birds began to grow accustomed to the noises and sights of the garden, and by the end of the first week they barely flinched if I opened the door. My species list for the cottage slowly continued to climb—I began seeing birds at my feeder not previously observed in the garden. Southern Masked Weaver, Pin-tailed Whydah, and (miraculously) a single Southern Grey-headed Sparrow began to make regular appearances. (I have dubbed the sparrow “Jack.” He hangs around now, always on his own). 

Jack, the Southern Grey-headed Sparrow.
Jack, the Southern Grey-headed Sparrow.

Needless to say, since those first few days, the feeders have become a veritable hive of activity. Laughing Doves and Red-eyed Doves, chests puffed out, strut importantly below the feeders, collecting seeds and filling the air with their burbling coos. A hot-headed Cape Turtle Dove chases off Laughing Doves that come too close, and even the Cape Robin-Chat now makes regular appearances, perhaps sensing safety in the presence of so many birds.

Doves and sparrows feeding on seeds spilled from the feeders
Doves and sparrows feeding on seeds spilled from the feeders

Broadly, the sheltered feeder receives more visitors in a 10-minute period and experiences a faster overall decline in seed level than the open feeder.” 

Clearly, in terms of use, the feeders are a success. At least twice a day (and more often if I can), I sit by the window with a timer, a notebook, and a pencil, and record the birds arriving at each feeder in a 10-minute block. At the end of the day, I measure the level of seed in each feeder. Already, patterns are emerging! Broadly, the sheltered feeder receives more visitors in a 10-minute period and experiences a faster overall decline in seed level than the open feeder. 

Though the pattern of use for the tree-sheltered feeder versus the open feeder is intriguing (and we will explore it further in a future blog), my thoughts over the past few weeks have been equally preoccupied with the garden itself. And that brings us to our next set of ecological concepts in this blog series: colonisation and succession

What do these words (which sound like they belong in political history) have to do with birds in a garden? 

To answer that question, we first need to understand how a garden ecosystem forms. 

Let’s start with an example. 

Imagine that you are on a volcanic island. A volcano erupts, lava flows over the land and into the ocean, and as it cools, new, bare rock is formed. It has never had any plant life on it; it has never been inhabited by any species—it is new, untouched, and barren. As rain falls, and the wind blows, and the sun continues to shine, life slowly begins to arrive.

Pioneer species…are organisms with seeds or spores that can travel long distances by wind or water.”

These are pioneer species; organisms with seeds or spores than can travel long distances by wind or water. Things like algae, fungi, and lichen, which spread across the bare rock, slowly breaking it down. And as these species spread, some die off, and wind and water deposit more and more living material. Microorganisms continue to break down these layers of “stuff,” over time forming the rich, organic matter that makes up soil. 

Primary succession. Rock is colonised by pioneer species, which create soil for the growth of grasses and larger plants, ultimately creating a climax community.
Primary succession. Rock is colonised by pioneer species, which create soil for the growth of grasses and larger plants, ultimately creating a climax community.

Once soil is present, new species are able to move in. Grass, which takes in its nutrients from soil, spreads over the land, and displaces the pioneer species. As the grass grows, it continues adding material and nutrients back into the soil, making it deeper and richer, and paving the way for bigger plants, like shrubs.

Primary succession…describes the succession of species and events that build on one another to create an established, living community”

This pattern of moving in, enriching the soil, and making space for something new continues, eventually allowing massive organisms like trees to take root. And we have only considered the plants—imagine what else comes along with this growth! Insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, and more, all thriving on what once was empty rock.  

This process of moving from bare rock to a flourishing ecosystem is called primary succession. It describes the succession of species and events that build on one another to create an established, living community (in ecology, this is called a climax community). 

Now, imagine that a fire sweeps through our climax community, burning through all of the vegetation. You might think we are back to square one! But in reality, we have an advantage: the soil stays behind. And after the fire, it is thicker and richer than ever before.

Secondary succession…tells us which species colonise a landscape after a major natural disturbance, and the order in which those species arrive.”

Because of this, fast-growing plants are able to colonise the soil much more quickly than the first time around, and a climax community once again takes shape. This process, called secondary succession, is the one that is of interest to us. It tells us which species colonise a landscape after a major natural disturbance (in our example, fire), and the order in which those species arrive. 

Secondary succession. Climax community is disturbed, rich soil remains and nourishes new plant growth, climax community is re-established.
Secondary succession. Climax community is disturbed, rich soil remains and nourishes new plant growth, climax community is re-established.

Now that we understand the concepts of colonisation and succession, we are ready to take our ecological knowledge into the garden.

Most gardens are disturbed ecosystems, transformed by a series of human interventions.”

Though it may come as a surprise, my typical suburban garden is actually a disturbed ecosystem. The disturbance was not a fire, like in the previous example, but rather a series of human interventions. 300 years ago, this little patch of earth in the suburbs was not part of a “suburb” at all! Rather than fence lines and homes, this region was characterized by vast expanses of sandy soil, sparsely covered with native shrubs and trees. It sat in the heart of a biome called the Cape Flats Sand Fynbos. 

The Rondebosch Common, one of just a few dedicated areas of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos conservation.
The Rondebosch Common is one of just a few conservation areas for Cape Flats Sand Fynbos. Photo: Karis Daniel

The growing human population within the city of Cape Town took its toll on the land. Heavy ox wagons struggled to travel across the deep sand, and in the early 1800s, authorities introduced alien plant species from Australia in an attempt to stabilize the soil. Though the sand was effectively stabilized, it came at a heavy cost: the original Cape flats sand fynbos ecosystem was overrun with non-native species, and was pushed to the brink of extinction. 

A map of the Cape Peninsula from 1893, showing the vast “sand flats” expanse east of the city. High resolution image available here, from the University of Cape Town Libraries Digital Collections.

In Pinelands, where I stay, thousands of non-native pine trees were also introduced in the late 1800’s to control the shifting sands. Over the next 100 years, the area subsequently served as a brick-making business, a camp for the British army, a set of hostels for bubonic plague patients, and, eventually, a township. 

Who will colonise the land once fynbos is present?”

It isn’t hard to see how human influence has “disturbed” the area—in fact, disturbance seems a mild term for the radical change inflicted on the landscape! My little garden is not a true case of secondary succession; though it is primarily sandy soil, there is some plant growth. But as we slowly clear the alien trees and plants and begin to introduce native vegetation, it will be fascinating to see what non-plant species come back.

An Olive Thrush perched in a non-native Australian Brush-cherry tree (Syzygium paniculatum) in my garden.
An Olive Thrush perched in a non-native Australian Brush-cherry tree (Syzygium paniculatum) in my garden.

Who will colonise the land once fynbos is present? Will new birds arrive? New insects? Which will come first, and pave the way for others? Where will they come from, and what seeds will they carry with them? The questions are expansive and inviting, and for me, learning their answers is one of the most exciting prospects of “re-wilding” a garden. 

For those of you who also enjoy these sorts of questions, here are a few more to consider: 

  • Do you know the “disturbance history” of your garden or city? 
  • How have you witnessed landscapes changing over your lifetime?
  • Where can you see the principles of succession at work? 

If you have a succession story to share, leave a comment on this blog or send us an email—we would love to hear it!

Until next time, happy exploring!

Further reading 

History of Pinelands: The Garden City of Pinelands, South Africa

The Cape Flats Sand Fynbos

Primary & Secondary Succession explained

History of the Cape Flats

Cape Sparrow (Passer melanurus)

Cape Sparrow identification

Identification

Cape Sparrows are small, boldly patterned birds that are sexually dimorphic; in other words, males and females look different to one another. The key differences are in their heads: males have black heads with a broad white ‘c’ shape running from the eyes to the throat, and in females, the head is grey, and the white ‘c’ less distinct.

Male Cape Sparrow identification.
Male Cape Sparrow. Desire & Gregg Darling, Addo Elephant NP, Eastern Cape. 23 March 2014. BirdPix 7096.
Female Cape Sparrow identification.
Female Cape Sparrow. Fanie Rautenbach, West Beach, Western Cape. 26 August 2012. BirdPix 416.

Though facial colouration and pattern separate the two, both male and female sparrows have pale grey bellies, dark blackish bills, and a rich chestnut-brown rump and wings.

Male Cape Sparrow showing chestnut rump and wings.
Male Cape Sparrow showing off its chestnut-coloured rump and wings. Jorrie Jordaan, Redhouse, Eastern Cape. 8 May 2016. BirdPix 31189

Cape Sparrows are vocal, and as for many birds their repertoire consists of variations on three basic types of sound: song, contact call, and alarm.  

You can listen to each by clicking on the links above.

Habitat

Cape Sparrows eat a wide range of foods, and so are able to inhabit a variety of habitat types. They are common and often abundant in dry savanna, dry, shrubby woodland, agricultural land and orchards, as well as residential gardens and parks. These birds cope well in human environments and are often regular visitors to garden birdseed feeders. Within the Western Cape, Cape Sparrows may also be seen foraging in the intertidal zone along coastlines.

Examples of Cape Sparrow habitat.
Examples of Cape Sparrow habitat. Top L & R: urban/agricultural; lower L & R: dry, shrubby woodland.

Distribution

The SABAP2 distribution map for Cape Sparrow shows just how widespread these birds are!

Cape Sparrow distribution map.
SABAP2 distribution map for Cape Sparrow, downloaded 15 June 2021. Details for map interpretation here.

Though common across most of southern Africa, they are considered near-endemic. An endemic species is found only in southern Africa, and nowhere else in the world; a near-endemic species is almost confined to southern Africa, with a few populations along or just outside of border lines. The Cape Sparrow occurs sparsely in parts of Botswana and southern Zimbabwe, as well as the southwest of Angola.

Behaviour

Though sparrow behaviour and interactions are fascinating to explore, we will limit our scope to behaviours which are relevant to finding or identifying Cape Sparrows.

Cape Sparrows are gregarious, meaning that they are usually in pairs or groups.  

Flock of Cape Sparrows.
Small flock of Cape Sparrows. Jorrie Jordaan, Redhouse, Eastern Cape. 8 May 2016. BirdPix 31189

They often perch conspicuously on top of things—fence posts, bushes, trees, or rooftops. On the ground, rather than walking, they commonly use a “hopping” gait characteristic of many sparrows.

Cape Sparrow demonstrating "hopping" gait.
Female Cape Sparrow hopping in a garden. Karis Daniel, Alfalfa, Western Cape. 19 August 2020. BirdPix 126929

Cape Sparrows usually nest in colonies, with males and females working together to build messy, globe-shaped nests lined with feathers. Nest colonies are common in bushes and trees (often acacias), and within urban environments, individual nests may be built on infrastructure such as fence posts and gables.

Examples of Cape Sparrow nests.
Two examples of Cape Sparrow nests. L: nest behind a road signpost. Karis Daniel, Montagu, Western Cape. 14 September 2020. BirdPix 130732. R: nest in a residential garden. Dewald du Plessis, Bloemfontein, Free State. 4 August 2007. BirdPix 23794.

Further resources

Species text in the first bird atlas (1997)

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name)

More common names: Gewone Mossie (Afrikaans); Moineau mélanure (French); Kapsperling (German); Passero del Capo (Italian); Gorrión de El Cabo (Spanish)

Recommended citation format: Daniel KA 2021. Cape Sparrow Passer melanurus. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2021/06/17/cape-sparrow-passer-melanurus/

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Eurasian Oystercatcher

The Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus breeds in Europe and Asia. Most move south for the northern winter. Most remain in soutern Europe, some migrate to northern Africa, and tiny numbers reach the southern end of Africa.

Identification

This is the only black and white oystercatcher that occurs anywhere on the African continent. As its name implies, it breeds in Europe and Asia, and travels to Africa as a migrant.

All photographic credits at end

There are other species of black and white oystercatchers, but they occur in North and South America and in Australia and New Zealand.

This is the call.

Habitat

Whereas African Black Oystercatchers occur on both rocky and sandy shores, Eurasian Oystercatchers prefer soft, sandy or muddy substrates. So they are mostly found at lagoons and large sandy estuaries. This young Eurasian Oystercatcher, at the Gamtoos River Estuary in the Eastern Cape, is in classic habitat for the species.

Distribution

On the Atlantic Ocean coast of southern Africa, they have mostly been recorded at Walvis Bay Lagoon and Sandwich Harbour in Namibia, and at Langebaan Lagoon in South Africa. Along the Indian Ocean coast, there are many suitable estuaries and lagoons from about Plettenberg Bay, eastwards through the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, and in Mozambique. But they can turn up anywhere along the coast.

SABAP2 distribution map, downloaded 11 June 2021

Two subspecies of the Eurasian Oystercatcher have African connections. The normal range of the western subspecies ostralegus is outlined in green in the map below, and that of the eastern subspecies longipedes in red. The difference between the two subspecies are subtle; longipedes has a slightly longer bill than ostralegus. On this map, breeding areas are shaded yellow, and non-breeding areas in blue. Neither subspecies normally reaches southern Africa. The western subspecies ostralesgus occurs along the coastline of northwest Africa. The eastern subspecies longipedes migrates as far south along the eastern coast of Africa to Tanzania. It is thought that the birds reaching southern Africa (including Namibia) are longipedes, arriving along the east coast of Africa. In reality, we don’t really know!

Page 46 in An atlas of wader populations in Africa and western Eurasia, published in 2009 by Wetlands International

Breeding

In broad brush terms there is a huge difference between the two subspecies; during the breeding season ostralegus is (traditionally) on saltwater coastlines of the oceans of western Europe, and longipedes on freshwater margins of lakes and large rivers of the interior of the eastern half of Europe. This is shown on the map below. But, from about the middle of the 20th century, ostralegus started breeding inland in agricultural landscapes, even 100 km from the sea, where they feed on earthworms, rather than on molluscs.

Gallery

The pictures below are selected from the BirdPix section of the Virtual Museum.

This is probably the largest flock of Eurasian Oystercatchers south if the “normal” nonbreeding range shown in the map above. This flock of about 20 birds was at San Sebastian, Vilanculos, Mozambique.

This is the experience you are on the lookout for; a Eurasian Oystercatcher in a flock of African Black Oystercatchers. Keep looking. This was at Walvis Bay Lagoon.

Further resources: A selection of papers

More common names: Bonttobie (Afrikaans), Huîtrier pie (French), Austernfischer (German), Ostraceiro (Portuguese), Ostrero Euroasiático (Spanish)

Photographic acknowledgements: Most of the photographs in this identification guide are in the BDI/FitzPatrick Institute Virtual Museum. They are used here with permission of the photographers, who continue to own the copyright on these images. Top image: Alan Collett, BirdPix 143367. Identification image: Dave Rimmer, BirdPix 58147. Habitat image: Gregg Darling, BirdPix 104255. First gallery image: Georg Jacobs BirdPix 99051. Second gallery image: Maans Booysen, BirdPix 102228. Third Gallery image: Les Underhill BirdPix 1415.

Recommended citation format: Underhill LG 2021. Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at http://thebdi.org/2021/06/14/eurasian-oystercatcher-haematopus-ostralegus/