Author: Simon Brown

31 March 2021: Photosynthesis without sunlight

An organism has been found that photosynthesises from light coming from hydrothermal vents 2400 metres below the sea. It is the first photosynthetic organism discovered that does not rely on sunlight.

As reported in a paper pithily titled ‘An obligately photosynthetic bacterial anaerobe from a deep-sea hydrothermal vent’ published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the green sulphur bacteria was found living near a thermal vent off the coast of Mexico called 9 North.

One of the paper’s authors is Professor Robert Blankenship from Arizona State University’s chemistry and biochemistry department. In an interview with Skip Derra (posted on the university’s website) , Blankenship said the bacteria uses a chlorosome complex which acts like a satellite dish to collect any light it can and transfer it to the organism’s reaction centre where the photosynthesis takes place.

Blankenship also said the discovery was important not just for what it meant for life on earth, but what it means for the search for life outside of Earth.

‘This shows that photosynthesis is something that is not limited only to the very surface of our planet,’ he says. ‘It lets you consider other places where you might find photosynthesis on Earth, as well as on other planets.’

As the original paper’s abstract reflects:

‘The abundance of life on Earth is almost entirely due to biological photosynthesis, which depends on light energy. The source of light in natural habitats has heretofore been thought to be the sun, thus restricting photosynthesis to solar photic environments on the surface of the Earth. If photosynthesis could take place in geothermally illuminated environments, it would increase the diversity of photosynthetic habitats both on Earth and on other worlds that have been proposed to possibly harbor life.’

Something for us science fiction writers to ponder.

Another amazing aspect of this paper is its relative obscurity: the paper was published in June 2005. If not for the heads-up in a recent post by Jerry Coyne on his website Why evolution is true, I doubt I would ever have learned about it.

29 March 2021: Hyenas, human exceptionalism and hubris

The late Australian philosopher and ecofeminist Val Plumwood was attacked and almost killed by a saltwater crocodile in 1985. The fact she survived three ‘deathrolls’ is down to her sheer determination to escape and a good amount of luck. Severely injured, one leg was exposed to the bone, she somehow managed to walk and finally crawl to the nearest ranger station, some three kilometres away.

In her essay ‘Prey to a crocodile’, Plumwood writes that during the attack ‘I glimpsed the world for the first time “from the outside”, as a world no longer my own, an unrecognizable bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death.

‘ … It was a shocking reduction, from a complex human being to a mere piece of meat.’

Saltwater crocodile. Courtesy of Creative Commons, photographer unkown.

Human exceptionalism is the belief that we as individuals and as a species are separate and superior to all other life on earth. It is a belief innate in almost each and every human, especially those belonging to so-called developed societies, that stems from our almost complete domination of the planet’s landscapes and ecologies. We are the world’s most numerous large animal, and our technology has enabled us to travel from the deepest abyss to the surface of the moon. Some aspects of our technology are overwhelmingly prolific and invasive: plastic, for example, is now found from the highest point to the lowest point on Earth’s surface and throughout our own food chain.

Human exceptionalism partly stems from the way we historically treat the animals and plants with which we share the planet. They are the resources we need to survive and thrive, and we reshape entire ecosystems to sustain industries that provide those resources in the cheapest, most efficient and in the greatest amount possible. This has been at the expense of vast swathes of rainforest, wetlands and temperate forests, environments essential to the health of life on earth.

But as Val Plumwood discovered, it doesn’t take much to reduce a single human being from a member of the planet’s dominant animal to just another source of food.

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In 2020, in the middle of South Africa’s first and strongest COVID-19 lockdown, I wrote a short story called ‘Speaker’ for a competition run by Sapiens Plurum, an organisation created to ‘inspire (humans) to aspire beyond what was humanly possible.‘

The competition’s theme was ‘how can technology increase empathy and connection?’ They wanted authors to imagine ways technology can improve how we relate to each other and bring us closer, even across species.

The idea for ‘Speaker’ came from one of those moments of serendipity – or perhaps synchronicity is a better term – when two ideas fuse to create a third idea. The first idea was based on the development of protein microchips, a scientific endeavour that had its research heyday in the 80s; one objective of the research was finding a way to help people suffering from brain injury to regain full health. The second idea is a personal fantasy, really to one day communicate with one of our hominin cousins, such as Homo neanderthalensis or H. ergaster. The fusion of these two ideas created the third idea: using linked protein microchips for communication between two modern species, Home sapiens and, in this case, Crocuta crocuta – the spotted hyena[i].

The story won the competition, and subsequently Sapiens Plurum asked Slate Magazine to consider publishing it. Slate agreed, and in January published it in Future Tense, a partnership between Slate, New America (a Washington-based think tank), and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and Imagination.[ii] Specifically, my story was part of series sponsored by the Learning Futures initiative out of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU.

Stories appearing in Future Tense have a ‘response essay’ written by someone who is an expert in the field or issue covered by the story. In my case, I was fortunate to have Iveta Silova, an expert in global futures and learning, write the response in a piece called ‘If Nonhumans Can Speak, Will Humans Learn to Listen?’

As an extra bonus, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College then arranged for an online discussion between Iveta, Punya Mishra, a professor and Associate Dean of Scholarship and Innovation at the college, and myself, on the creation of ‘Speaker’ and the issues covered by it and Iveta’s response. That discussion was recorded and subsequently uploaded to YouTube.

The discussion’s central issue turned out to be about human exceptionalism. As Iveta explains in her essay:

‘Today … we are forced to acknowledge that we are not so special after all. On the one hand, we wonder and worry whether artificial intelligence will become conscious, leading us down a dystopian spiral of human irrelevance. On the other hand, we see a major shift in scientific thinking about plant intelligence and animal consciousness, suggesting that the difference between human and nonhuman species is just a matter of degree, not of kind. Meanwhile, our hyperseparation from the natural world is threatening every species on Earth—including humans.’

Iveta goes on to write that ‘Overcoming the modernist assumption of human exceptionalism and reconfiguring our relationship with a more-than-human world is a complex and long-term project.’

In ‘Speaker’, linking humans with different species is an attempt to overcome human exceptionalism, but the exercise itself is fraught with difficulties, especially the hurdles imposed by our own innate prejudices and assumptions about what it means to be human in a world that seems to be so completely dominated by humans.

Spotted hyena. Courtesy of Creative Commons, photographer unknown.

And this is where our hubris kicks in. For the most part life on Earth is dominated by viruses, archaea and bacteria, but we are so coddled by civilisation that even if we understand this intellectually, it is usually impossible to acknowledge it instinctively. The current Covid-19 pandemic, for example, has demonstrated that for all our technological and cultural achievements, our entire civilisation can be put on hold by a virus so small that all the world’s Covid-19 particles can be contained a single soft drink can. It is well to remember that in ancient Greek tragedies, hubris comes before a great fall.

Linked to that hubris is the assumption in the story that given the capacity to link our own minds with those of other animals, we will go ahead and do it. The story doesn’t engage with the ethical issues of communicating in such a way with another species. For example, what repercussions would there be for the recipient species? How do we stop the link resulting in one species overly influencing or even dominating the other? In fact, how would we even begin to estimate what impact there might be? And if the decision was made to go ahead and make the link, how do we deal with the issue of privacy? How do the two linked intelligences stop invading each other’s most private thoughts? Can thoughts be turned on and off like a tap, or would the link open a floodgate that would drown both parties in a wave of facts, emotions and random thoughts?

Perhaps most importantly of all, and in the context of ‘Speaker’ the most relevant, is how do we interpret those thoughts? How do we know for sure that our brains won’t ‘mistranslate’ the thoughts it receives, and vice versa? In the story this is handled with the ‘joking’ subtext, the way Akata and Samora try to find a way around their very different life experiences to reach a common understanding for the concept of humour, something humans but not hyenas possess (at least in the story).

And yet, despite all of these issues, I see linking with another species as a wonderful opportunity and a positive action at so many levels. In her responding essay, Iveta actually quotes Val Plumwood:

‘According to … Val Plumwood, we must reimagine “the world in richer terms that will allow us to find ourselves in dialogue with and limited by other species’ needs, other kinds of minds.” This is, she argues, “a basic survival project in our present context.”’

It’s time for humans to put aside their exceptionalism and hubris. Apart from the damage to the planet such an attitude encourages, it damages us, keeping us artificially apart from the rest of life on earth. We cannot flourish as a species by ignoring the fact that we, like spotted hyenas and saltwater crocodiles and for that matter centipedes and flies, are animals. We aren’t the endpoint of evolution, just one of its offshoots.

[i] An animal seriously misrepresented in human culture. The spotted hyena is an intelligent and extraordinarily social predator that lives in large troops dominated by females. And I do mean ‘predator’; despite its historic image as a scavenger, almost all its food comes from actively hunted prey and not from stealing some other animal’s kills.

[ii] The story can be found here.

04 February 2021: Family, community and conservation – a conversation with Dr Patricia Mupeta-Muyamwa

‘We need to codesign programs that move away from  disempowering communities and indigenous people to giving them the power to be  strong stewards of the natural resources and the lands,’ says Dr Patricia Mupeta-Muyamwa, Strategy Director for the African Indigenous Landscape program at The Nature Conservancy, a charitable environmental organisation with its base in the US.

Her job involves working with local communities to protect and nurture the natural environment. Patricia says she fell into the work more by accident than design.

Dr Patricia Mupeta-Muyamwa (Photo: Simon Brown)

‘I did my undergraduate degree in wildlife ecology at the University of Zambia in Lusaka, and in my last six months did an internship monitoring wildlife and vegetation in a national park. The job involved interacting with the park scouts, and after listening to their experiences I realised that it was people and not wildlife that was the problem, and I asked myself how do we empower people to make them better stewards of nature?

‘I did my Masters in conservation and tourism in the UK, and learned about different models of conservation. Because of the chequered history between national park administration and local communities, which left a great deal of animosity towards the state, my work promotes the importance of getting the rights to land and natural resources to the people that live closest to them.

‘Historically, African national parks and nature reserves were created for aesthetic reasons using an American model first developed for Yellowstone National Park.

‘Up until the 1990s, the state and not the local people ran national parks and conservation areas; it was a relic of Africa’s colonial past, and part of my work is to help address this injustice by reconciling local people so they’re a part of the conservation solution.

‘Local communities were forced out. People were seen as part of the conservation problem and not as part of the solution. For example, in South Africa national parks are still state run in a very centralised way; there are many communities around Kruger but few are getting any real benefit from it except a few people that find employment.’

Patricia says her long job title came from her work as it evolved.

‘A large part of the job is focused on protecting wildlife corridors spanning across parks, private and community-owned lands.

‘The work itself has three main objectives. First, giving land and resource rights back to the local community. Second, developing community skills to manage natural resources for example protecting and monitoring wildlife . Third, helping develop community opportunities for making a living from conservation, for example with tourism and programs that empower women.’

Patricia stresses this is a bottom-up approach. ‘A big part of my job is to consult with communities and their leaders to find the best conversation solution. I listen to their stories about living and interacting with the land.’

Patricia leads teams that are managing  four big landscape projects, one in Kenya involving 39 separate communities, two in Tanzania and one in Zambia.

Patricia with two young Hadza girls in Tanzania (Photo: Dr Patricia Mupeta-Muyamwa)

‘We’ll soon be starting a fifth one in Angola, based around the headwaters of the Okavango River.’

As an example of what these projects can achieve, Patricia cites the work done with a local partner Northern Rangelands Trust  with 39 separate communities.

‘Establishing wildlife corridors between these communities has been successful in increasing numbers of previously threatened animals such as elephants.

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Patricia was born and raised in Kitwe, a mining town in Zambia’s Copper Belt on the Kafue River, Zambia’s third largest river. This is also where she first met her husband Andrew, now a Maths Studies high school teacher. The two of them have fond memories of growing up in this small, quaint mining town.

‘My parents worked for a mining conglomerate. My father worked for 27 years as a human resources manager for a copper mining company. He was a real people person, and connected with people from all walks of life.

‘My mother was a teacher, training first in Zambia to teach home economics, but later she studied in Liverpool in the UK to become a Montessori teacher; and was the first Zambian to achieve this.’

Patricia grew up in a one-party state created by independent Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda. Following a period of instability, the 1973 signing of the Choma Declaration banned all parties except Kaunda’s own, the United National Independence Party (UNIP). He remained in power until he was ousted after being forced to hold multi-party elections in 1991.

‘Kitwe’s British-South African owned mining company was nationalised by the Zambian government, so I grew up thinking it was normal to grow up in a black-run black society. It was a source of pride for us that Zambians were in charge of the company.’

Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president (1964-1991) (Photo: Creative Commons)

Patricia says that even though she grew up in a one-party state, she only became aware of that as she finished high school.

‘But living in it as a child you don’t necessarily feel authoritarian measures, for example restricted access to the world outside Zambia. We were cocooned, but that didn’t feel bad. In some ways I would rather live in that state than what exists now. Things worked: there was  infrastructure that worked, equity for all seventy-two tribes and a sense of security. I believe Kenneth Kaunda was motivated for the greater good of society. He created an environment that allowed everyone  to  have access to healthcare,  education and employment regardless of background.

‘Kaunda created a system where we didn’t feel black, but Zambian. My father’s generation, which grew up under colonial rule in what was then Northern Rhodesia, was taught British, European and American history at school; my generation was taught pre- and post-colonial African history.

‘Kaunda led the way in institutionalising a Zambian identity. As a kid I didn’t really appreciate the gravity of this, but looking back now I see that it helped me navigate through life as a Zambian. Kaunda called this philosophy “humanism” – in the sense that the core values were about recognising our common humanity, and that we should always be aware that history was judging us and so be peaceful, respectful and good to each other.’

But things started to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

‘The economy was stalling and there were food shortages. Up to then the majority of Zambians had been politically passive; there wasn’t a lot of collective activism. The system that existed helped make it that way. But at that point the multi-party democracy movement challenging Kaunda was slowly taken up by the people.

‘When I was sixteen I was apolitical, but then my dad took me and my older brother to my first political rally just before Kaunda left. It wasn’t simply an anti-Kaunda rally, but more about a wind of change. It was huge and exciting – there was a great desire for change – and when it came I was hopeful. Everything felt new and that at last we were going places and fighting for a better Zambia. There was a sense of entrepreneurship in the early 90s, and new markets were opening up. The mines were privatised, for example, and different assets were being sold, like the mining homes, and many Zambians became home owners for the first time.

‘But in the euphoria we forgot what Kaunda had done for Zambia. The current political system in Zambia is not as effective as the old political system. There is less equity and less access to health, work and education. The Zambian economy is on life support.’

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The future Dr Patricia Mupeta-Muyamwa in 1976 with older brother Chris, left, and younger brother Michael, centre (Photo: Dr Patricia Mupeta-Muyamwa)

The one great source of stability for Patricia is her family.

‘I come from a very strong nuclear family, which is not the norm for families in Africa. It is a central part of who I am. My husband, parents, siblings and my maternal grandmother have all influenced my life in different aspects.’

Patricia says her grandmother, Dorika, was independent, strong-minded, political and entrepreneurial. Born in the early 1920’s, she witnessed  her country move from a colonial to a post-colonial era.

‘She was a Kaunda supporter and freedom fighter from the colonial era. She later became a strong organizer in the women’s league of the United National Independent Party (UNIP).

‘Towards the end of the colonial period she accompanied her husband, a community development officer, to different postings all over the country. In one posting he was sent to a district in the northwest at the same time as the colonial authorities imprisoned Kaunda there; when Dorika saw Kaunda being taken for his daily walk she would go up and talk with him, much to the distress of the local British officials. During one encounter she was reprimanded by the District Governor for this action. She held her ground, and continued with her actions. This upset the Governor and he later transferred my grandfather  away from the district because of his “troublesome wife”.

‘During the time when there was a call for change from Kaunda’s rule, she said “No! No change!”’

Dorika and Bilson Muzi, Patricia’s grandparents, taken in 1963 at Kabompo, North Western Province, where Dorika upset local authorities by talking with the imprisoned Kenneth Kaunda. Patricia’s future mother is standing on the right. (Photo: Dr Mupeta-Muyamwa)

After her husband died, Dorika supported her family of eight children by selling bread and other baked goods from home and at the market.

‘With two other women she set up one of the first female trading markets in Kabwe, a small mining town in central Zambia; it’s still operating to this day.’

Patricia says she drew a great deal from her grandmother.

‘I admired the way she navigated through life and survived as a woman and as a leader. She did so much in her life and in her own way. The older she got the stronger she got, and she was a great female model. She really lived life in her own terms.’

Patricia’s father, David, was the biggest male influence on her life. ‘My love of reading came from him. I loved going into his library. I read his 12-volume encyclopedias over and over.’

Patricia says growing up she never gave her mother the same attention she gave her father.

‘I was a “daddy’s girl”, and she wasn’t in my “cool space” back then. Now I realise just how similar we were. She was a trail-blazer. She was the first Zambian to study and teach Montessori; that took a lot of initiative and courage.’

Perhaps the biggest influence her mother had on her life was her decision to send Patricia and her sister, Edith, to an all-female boarding school run by German nuns; one of the oldest and best schools from its establishment in the early 1900s. She remembers the school was run under a very strict regime.

‘I did not like it at all. The nuns worked us very hard. When I tell people I went there they ask me if my parents hated me! But in hindsight, the education I gained from that time was invaluable.’

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Patricia says she wasn’t really conscious of her skin colour until she travelled to the UK and, especially, the US, for study.

‘I’m not sure whether or not that was a peculiarly Zambian experience. I’ve heard very different stories about encounters with racism from other black people, many of them heartbreaking.

‘Up to then I never thought of myself as a “black” person. My first racist encounter was in the UK when I was in my early 30s, when a hobo at a train station yelled at me to go “home”. I was shocked more than hurt by it because for the first time I became truly aware that this society was different from the one I grew up in.’

She says that while studying for her masters at the University of Kent she felt she was living in a bit of a bubble because she was very familiar with the British tradition and culture that had been such a part of Zambia before independence.

‘Growing up in Kitwe I had many encounters with non-racist and progressive Brits. It wasn’t until I was studying in the US that racism really hit me.

‘Soon after I arrived at the town where I was going to study I started looking for accommodation and came across a poor black neighbourhood. I began to understand how a community placed like this, separated from better-off communities, institutionalised racism.

‘US culture was strange and interesting. I was living in a diverse and liberal university town in northern Florida, but you didn’t have to drive far from the town to find Confederate flags flying in front yards. It was a totally different society.

‘For the first time I felt and identified as “black”. I found myself gravitating towards black student unions and organisations helping black communities.’

Patricia was saddened to see great poverty in some black communities in the US. ‘I had seen poverty in Africa, of course, but here it was like the lights had gone out. There was a lot of hurt and anger in that tribe – a tribe I can relate to – but the hurt and anger also existed in the academic environment which was so different from my previous experience it threw me off guard somewhat.

‘What I also found interesting was the way the black community was divided among African Americans, Caribbeans and Africans. It could be hard to cross the divide, but I’m not sure how much that was due to my own naivety. The black student union had a good ethos, for example, but it’s leadership was African American, and they defined the union’s agenda and this is where a lot of the union’s energy was spent. I had to think about what it meant to be an African in this situation. My initial enthusiasm at being part of the union started to wane because I couldn’t see what my role might be.’

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Patricia says she identifies as Zambian but feels African.

‘I especially feel broadly connected to sub-Saharan Africa. African countries like Zambia, Kenya, Botswana and South Africa have more in common than not.

Patricia at the farm owned by her and her husband Andrew in the village of Chifwema, southeast of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. (Photo: Dr Mupeta-Muyamwa)

‘There is a connection around tradition, culture and how we think about family. There is a very strong “oneness” around family events that goes with a sense of community. This means there is still an especially strong tie in many countries between urban and rural communities; people working in the big cities still go back  to their families living in rural areas for important occasions.’

Patricia hopes those values will see sub-Saharan Africa through to a better future. ‘Right now, for example, that rural link for urban dwellers means many of them have a comparatively safe refuge during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Strangely, this isn’t what’s happening in Zambia, where the rush to urbanise seems to have cut many of those ties to the country. I don’t know the village where dad came from, for example.

‘Africa needs to reconnect to its core identity. I believe we lost this connection as we urbanised. My hope is that we will see those links repaired in Zambia and other parts of Africa.’

14 January 2021: An introduction to Mrs Ples

Mrs Ples is the oldest thing in my house. Although, to be honest she’s just a representation of the original Mrs Ples. And, to be even more honest, my Mrs Ples is only one-third the size of the original.

Mrs Ples has more than one name, and her history is, to say the least, turbulent.

But first, the big reveal. Mrs Ples is the oldest complete skull we have of Australopithecus africanus, a member of the great apes that includes us – the hominims. I bought the replica that now rests proudly on my bookshelf at the Cradle of Humankind in August 2018.

I think she’s beautiful.

And yes, it’s reasonably likely that Mrs Ples is not Mr Ples, although the issue is not yet settled. When the original fleshy envelope holding her passed away, she was middle-aged, not bad going for someone from her time. Standing in her socks she was about the same height as a chimpanzee, and her brain was about the same size as a chimp’s as well.

But, unlike a chimp, she was bipedal. She proudly walked on two legs, occasionally retreating to a tree if something bigger than a hedgehog threatened her.

In her modern incarnation, she entered the world with a bang. Literally. The rock matrix enclosing her skull was blown apart by dynamite. It took a lot of work to get all the pieces together again.

At first, she was Plesianthropus transvaalensis; later, scientists discovered she was actually related to the Taung child, the first early hominin ever found in Africa, and already given the binomen Australopithecus africanus. So she lost her first official title and took up another; in honour of that first name, however, she has since been called Mrs Ples.

Her other name is her catalogue number, in this case STS 5, which indicates the fossil was found at Sterkfontein.

Despite being blown up, misnamed and constantly man-handled by grubby palaeoanthropologists, she is regarded with wonder by those in the know. In fact, when South Africa’s free-to-air broadcasting company aired a show in 2004 called Great South Africans, Mrs Ples made the list.

Not bad for someone who’s been dead for at least 2.1 million years.

Sadly, Mrs Ples was among the last of her kind. Soon after she was extinguished, so was her species. A sister species, A. sediba, lived in southeast Africa for a while longer, but it too eventually disappeared, probably the last of the australopithecines.

And for those who want to know what she looks like … here she is …

11 November 2020: Venomous statistics

Some Australians take perverse pride in the legion of venomous animals infesting the continent and its surrounding seas, from the very small members of the Irukandji group of box jellyfish[i] up to the very large mulga snake[ii].

On the face of it, Australia seems to have had the bum run when it comes to its snakes, spiders, ants, octopuses, cone shells and jellyfish, and this hardly exhausts the list of venomous creatures that call Australia home. On the face of it, if venomous wildlife is your thing then you should be calling Australia home, too.

(As an unpleasant aside, Australia’s venomous biota is not even restricted to its animals; I dare you to read this with the lights off: Australia’s venomous trees.)

If we exclude the 120 kg drop bear[iii], which is sometimes erroneously claimed to use venomous claws to subdue its prey, then the big three that dominate most conversations after a few beers at the pub are the inland taipan, the box jellyfish (particularly the sea wasp), and the Sydney funnel-web spider.

The inland taipan[iv]

For a timid and rarely seen snake, in recent years the inland taipan has garnered a fearsome reputation for itself. In fact, one of its alternative names is the fierce snake, but this is entirely due to its venom, milligram for milligram the most lethal of any of the world’s reptiles. It is often reported that the venom from a 110 mg bite, if carelessly (or maliciously) injected, could kill 100 adult men. The fact that the average dose delivered by an inland taipan is about 44 mg is rarely mentioned, although since this is still enough to kill at least 40 adult men it could be argued I’m being pedantic. Compare this to the most lethal member of the saw-scaled vipers[v], which can reportedly kill six adult males with the amount of venom it delivers with one bite. (We’ll be returning to the saw-scaled viper a little later.)

The chance of encountering the inland taipan, which inhabits that semiarid corner of hell-on-earth between Queensland and South Australia, is vanishingly small. Indeed, in Australia your chance of dying from thirst or a camel stampede is probably greater than dying from a snake bite from any species. It’s also worth noting that the inland taipan has been described as placid and reluctant to strike; of course, if cornered or mishandled it will not hesitate to bite with remarkable speed and precision, and more fool you.

The sea wasp[vi]

The sea wasp is another matter altogether, not because it is remotely vicious, but because it just doesn’t give a damn. All envenomations are accidental. The largest of the box jellyfish, it spends its life floating in the warm tropical waters off northern Australia, Papua New Guinea and Southeast Asia. Well, floating isn’t entirely correct. The sea wasp does swim, but not in the determined way that would get it a place in Australia’s Olympic swimming team; apparently at full pelt they can cover about six metres in a minute. In the right season and the right place, the chance of accidentally bumping into one of these almost transparent jellyfish is depressingly high. Beaches all along the northern, tropical shorelines of Australia have signs warning swimmers of the danger.

Sea wasp.
Photo Creative Commons

An adult sea wasp is made up of a roughly square-shaped bell about 30 centimetres in diameter; 15 tentacles trail from each of the bell’s corners, each of which can be up to three metres long and are covered in around 5,000 cells called cnidoblasts, each of which in turn houses a nematocyst, which is Latin for ‘this will hurt’.[vii]

Nematocysts are the business end of a sea wasp’s venom delivery mechanism. When its prey, usually prawns or small fish, brush against the tentacles, the cnidoblasts release the nematocysts. The nematocysts penetrate the skin of the victim like miniature harpoons and then release their venom. Despite having actual eyes, the sea wasp seems incapable of restraining the cnidoblasts from releasing their load if the tentacles accidentally brush against something which isn’t prey, such as a human. Since this means the sea wasp is missing out on a meal and must now spend what I assume is a lot of energy to rearm the cnidoblasts, this is a serious design fault. Admittedly, that’s small comfort for anyone writhing in the water in unbearable pain, but one can only imagine the cuss words going through what passes for a sea wasp brain.[viii]

According to one study[ix], a sea wasp carries enough venom to kill 60 adults, which considering its size compared to, say, the inland taipan, is some achievement. Nonetheless, most encounters with a sea wasp don’t end with a fatality. The quick application of vinegar to neutralise any nematocysts still attached to the skin, and ice to relieve the pain, is often all that’s necessary. Having said that, one study[x] shows that 8% of envenomations require hospitalisation:

‘Because of the rapidity of fatal C. fleckeri envenoming, the critical window of opportunity for potentially life-saving use of antivenom is much smaller than that for snake envenoming, possibly only minutes. Furthermore, from animal study data, it was calculated that around 12 ampoules of antivenom may be required to counter the effects of a theoretical envenoming containing twice the human lethal dose of venom.’

The lesson here is if you come across a sign at a beach that says beware of box jellyfish (or for that matter crocodiles) consider something marginally safer and decidedly less painful for your daily outing, like jumping off a cliff.

The Sydney funnel-web spider[xi]

I’m an arachnophobe, and this spider pretty well defines the content of my worst nightmares.

I readily admit I’m scared of vampires, malevolent ghosts, land sharks, Brussel sprouts and omelettes – for that matter, any food made mainly from eggs – but my fear of spiders is on a whole other level. Even if I catch a glimpse from the corner of my eye of the completely innocuous daddy longlegs a long shiver will pass down my spine. I don’t know what it is about arachnids that gets me all goosebumpy or triggers my fight or flight instinct (to be honest, my fly or fly-twice-as-fast instinct), but it might have something to do with spiders like huntsmen, wolf spiders, tarantulas and funnel-webs being so damn hairy. It just isn’t right; it’s as if they’d killed a dog or cat, skinned it and donned the fur. Then there’s the eight legs. Six legs on creatures such as ants and earwigs are hard enough to put up with, but eight seems a serious case of overengineering.

Sydney funnel-web.
Photo Creative Commons

Anyway, of all the world’s spiders, the Sydney funnel-web ticks every yuck box: wears dog fur, tick; eight legs, tick; lives in a hole in the ground, tick; likes entering human households, tick; has more than two eyes, tick; has fangs long enough to pierce your toe nail to get to the vulnerable flesh underneath, tick; can kill you with single bite, tick.

Indeed, I cowrote a short story about the Sydney funnel-web with good friend, colleague and fellow-arachnophobe Sean Williams. The story, ‘Atrax’, must have hit a nerve with quite a few people: it won the Aurealis Award for best horror short story in 1999.

The Sydney funnel-web’s lethality can be put down to an extraordinary compound in its venom called δ-atracotoxin (sometimes referred to as delta-hexatoxin[xii]), which bizarrely is brilliant at killing its normal prey of insects, but in small doses causes no harm to mammals … with the single exception of primates. And humans, regrettably in this single instance, are primates. Why the venom should be so damn selective is anyone’s guess, and there have been a few.[xiii]

The other peculiar fact about the Sydney funnel-web is that the male’s venom is up to six times more toxic than the female’s[xiv]. The best theory to explain this is that the male goes wandering during the mating season looking for females and has to defend itself against hungry predators, as hard as it is to imagine any predator being so hard up it needs to feed on such an ugly, hairy and extraordinarily venomous assassin. Admittedly, this doesn’t quite explain why the venom is so effective against primates; I assume almost every human on the continent, like myself, would go to great lengths to avoid antagonising any spider let alone one that can kill you, and as far as I know, humans are the only primates to have made their home in Australia.

Ultimately, the venom’s ability to kill humans is just an accidental byproduct of its evolutionary development.

But, and this is a big ‘but’, no human has died from the bite of a Sydney funnel-web spider since an antivenom became available in 1981.

Most venomous versus most dangerous

And this is where we return to the saw-scaled viper. One of these smallish snakes, the largest will grow no bigger than 90 cm, may only be able knock off six fully grown adults, as opposed to the inland taipan’s potential 100 victims, but nonetheless, to my mind the viper is the more dangerous of the two snakes.

Before I set out my reasons for this, we should remember the saw-scaled viper and the inland taipan only have to kill you once to ruin your day, not six or a hundred times, which would seem – and please excuse the pun – something of an overkill. As far as the average human is concerned, a bite from either of these snakes will see your life flashing before your eyes.

And why do I think the saw-scaled viper is the more dangerous of the two?

First, your chance of encountering a saw-scaled viper on its home turf – anywhere dry in Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia – is dramatically higher than your chance of encountering the inland taipan on its home turf.

Saw-scaled viper.
Photo Creative Commons

Second, the saw-scaled viper is a much testier beast than the inland taipan, and seems inclined to bite anyone passing within striking distance, something the inland taipan is not inclined to do.

Third, your chance of getting good medical care through much of the saw-scaled viper’s range, let alone the appropriate antivenom, can be very small.

Indeed, the saw-scaled viper may be responsible for more human deaths than any other snake, whether we’re talking about other vipers, adders, taipans, cobras, rattlesnakes, kraits or mambas. It’s reported to be responsible for up to 90% of all snakebites in Africa.[xv]

But rather than picking on any one snake, it’s important to understand that snakebites are a serious health problem in most developing countries. According to the World Health Organization[xvi]:

‘Worldwide, up to five million people are bitten by snakes every year. Of these, poisonous (envenoming) snakes cause considerable morbidity and mortality. There are an estimated 2.4 million envenomations (poisonings from snake bites) and 94 000–125 000 deaths annually, with an additional 400 000 amputations and other severe health consequences, such as infection, tetanus, scarring, contractures, and psychological sequelae. Poor access to health care and scarcity of antivenom increases the severity of the injuries and their outcomes.’

It seems to me these statistics, which barely reflect the pain, misery and social desolation that can be caused by a snakebite, are the ones we should obsess over, rather than how many humans can be killed by a single and remarkably shy Australian snake.

One final point. On average, more Australians die each year from the stings and bites of ants, wasps, bees and ticks than snakebite, largely thanks to anaphylactic shock (and not prophylactic shock as I once tipsily declaimed). From 2000 to 2013, 27 Australians died from snakebite; over the same period, 32 Australians died from animals that fly and crawl around us every day of our lives without us giving them a second thought. In the same period, no one died from a spider, scorpion or centipede bite, and only three people died as a result of envenomation from a marine creature[xvii].

To put these statistics into proper perspective, horses were responsible for the deaths of 77 Australians between 2000 and 2010[xviii]. To make the perspective even sharper, consider that between 2000 and 2013, more than 21,000 Australians died in car accidents[xix].

By the way, in those same thirteen years, two people were recorded to have died from an unknown animal or plant. I’m betting it was a drop-bear.


[i] Genus Carukiidae.

[ii] Pseudechis australis.

[iii] Thylarctos plummetus – in my humble opinion, the best species name ever.

[iv] Oxyuranus microlepidotus.

[v] Echis carinatus.

[vi] Chironex fleckeri.

[vii] Disappointingly, and rather mundanely, nematocyst is Latin for ‘a cell with threads’.

[viii] In fact, sea wasps don’t have a brain as such, or anything else we might recognise as a central nervous system. But it does have something: ‘The box jellyfish’s nervous system is more developed than that of many other jellyfish. They possess a nerve ring around the base of the bell that coordinates their pulsing movements … ’ See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Box_jellyfish.

[ix] http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/769538-overview

[x] https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2005/183/11/prospective-study-chironex-fleckeri-and-other-box-jellyfish-stings-top-end#authors

[xi] Atrax robustus

[xii] For example, see:

https://theconversation.com/i-didnt-mean-to-hurt-you-new-research-shows-funnel-webs-dont-set-out-to-kill-humans-146406

[xiii] For an explanation that makes sense to me, see: https://biology.stackexchange.com/questions/8825/why-is-funnel-web-spider-venom-so-lethal-to-humans-and-not-so-much-for-other-mam

[xiv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delta_atracotoxin

[xv] James Cook University toxinologist Professor Jamie Seymour carefully lays out what makes one venomous animal more dangerous than another in the National Geographic documentary World’s Worst Venom, not only comparing and ranking the inland taipan with other snakes, but also including sea stingers, spiders, scorpions and many other venomous creatures. Well worth a look if you can get your hands on it. See:

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1132196/?ref_=rvi_tt

[xvi] https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/animal-bites

[xvii] https://biomedicalsciences.unimelb.edu.au/news-and-events/archive-news/professor-daniel-hoyer-and-dr-ronelle-welton-featured-academics-in-pursuit-article

[xviii] https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/wildlife/2016/03/here-are-the-animals-really-most-likely-to-kill-you-in-australia/

[xix] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_Australia_by_year

02 November 2020: Harrie and the Moon Dogs

A story for Harrie from Alison and Simon

It was a cold, clear Tuesday night. Harrie ate her dinner so quickly she was done by the time Maggie and Rachel were still munching on their third forkful.

‘I don’t think we gave her enough,’ Rachel said.

‘Do you want more dinner, Harrie?’ Maggie asked.

Harrie shook her head, but wasn’t looking at either of her mothers. She was staring out the window behind them. The sun was down and only a pink light softened the horizon. Just above, where the pink became violet, she could just make out the twinkle of Venus, the evening star and the first light to appear in the night sky. It was one of her favourite things to look at with her telescope – but tonight she had other plans.

‘Are you sure you don’t want more food?’ Rachel asked, looking over her shoulder to see what Harrie was gazing at. ‘Remember, it’s a full moon tonight and it will be so bright it will be hard to see anything else.’

Harrie nodded. ‘I know. That’s why I want go out. I want to look at the moon.’

Creative Commons (photographer unknown)

‘That’s a good idea,’ Maggie said. ‘You haven’t looked at it through your telescope for some time; you’ve been too busy with Jupiter and Mars and Orion’s Belt – ’

‘Twenty-two nights ago,’ Harrie said, her voice very definite. ‘And point-two.’

‘Point two?’ Maggie asked.

‘Twenty-two-point-two nights ago.’ Harrie’s face scrunched up in thought. ‘Can you have a point-two night?’

Her mothers shrugged at the same time. ‘I guess,’ Maggie said. ‘You sound very sure of yourself, though.’

‘Uh-huh. The last time I looked at the moon through my telescope was when it was in its last quarter, and that was twenty-two-point-two nights ago.’ Harrie took a deep breath: that sentence was long even for her.

‘When does it come up?’ Rachel asked.

Harrie pointed to the side of the house opposite the window. ‘It should already be up. But the best time to see it will be … ’ Her voice trailed off and her face scrunched up in thought again. She moved her dinner plate out of the way, stretched out her arms and placed her straight hands on top of one another, palms inward. ‘That’s twenty degrees and the moon moves half-a-degree every hour and the moon is about here and the best time to see it is when it’s here … ’ She wiggled fingers to show exactly where the moon was each time she mentioned it.

‘So the best time to see it is when it reached the little finger on your right hand,’ Rachel observed, smiling slightly.

Harrie nodded, taking another deep breath.

‘You are very clever,’ Maggie said matter-of-factly.

Harrie sighed. ‘Yes,’ she agreed, as if it was a burden.

‘So, just to make sure I understood what you’re saying,’ Rachel said, ‘the best time to see the moon is about half-an-hour from now?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s about your bed time.’

‘Yes.’

‘Hmm,’ both mothers said at the same time.

‘But it has been twenty-two-point-two nights since I saw the moon with my telescope,’ Harrie pointed out reasonably.

Maggie and Rachel looked at one another. ‘True,’ Maggie said.

‘And in the life of five-year old, twenty-two nights is quite a long time,’ Rachel added.

‘Not to forget the point-two,’ Maggie pointed out.

‘Absolutely.’

The mothers fell silent as they considered whether or not to let Harrie stay up past her bedtime.

‘We could ask Banjo what he thinks,’ Harrie suggested. ‘Banjo?’

A young black-and-tan kelpie bounced into the room with more haste than dignity as his back paws skidded out from underneath him and he ended up sliding on his bum for the last two metres. He came to a stop right next to Harrie and gazed up at her adoringly, as if the whole tangled, embarrassing entrance had been planned.

‘One day he’ll grow into those large paws of his,’ Rachel whispered to Maggie. ‘Hopefully.’

‘Banjo, I have an important question for you,’ Harrie said, solemnly meeting the dog’s gaze.

Banjo barked once. Everyone in the family knew that meant ‘yes’, except when it meant ‘no’.

‘Do you think I should stay up late so I can see the full moon in my telescope?’

Again, Banjo barked just once, and Harrie turned back to her mothers. ‘See?’

‘Well, no arguing with that,’ Rachel said.

Maggie let out a small sigh. ‘All right, but just this once. You are not to take this as permission for you to stay up every time you want to go out and look at the night sky.’

‘Maybe once every twenty-two days?’ Harrie suggested.

‘Don’t push it, kiddo,’ Maggie said. ‘Now go and get some warm clothes on. The last thing we need is for you to freeze out there.’

Harrie grinned at her mothers as she left the table, then hurried to her room, eagerly followed by a scurrying Banjo who this time somehow managed stay upright on all four paws.

#

Although winter was officially over and spring had sprung, Harrie’s home town was high up in the mountains and it got cold there when the sun was down. But it did make for spectacular nights, when the stars and the planets danced across the black velvety sky.

Harrie loved looking up at them even when she didn’t have a telescope, but now that she could see them up close the night sky seemed twice as special. And the most special thing in the whole universe to see with a telescope was the Moon.

The first time she had looked through the eyepiece and the Moon suddenly swung into view it seemed to jump right out at her and she forgot to breathe for a long time, and when she finally did breathe out it came in a great big gush.

The Sea of Tranquility
(Creative commons: photographer unknown)

Harrie never got tired of looking at it. She knew all the big craters now – like Copernicus and Kepler – and all the big seas – like the Sea of Nectar and the Sea of Islands. But most especially she knew the Sea of Tranquility, because that is where the first humans who walked on the moon landed their spaceship, called the Lunar Module.

The night was getting colder and colder. But Harrie didn’t feel it. Even Banjo was getting cold, and tried snuggling up against her legs, almost tipping her over. But Harrie didn’t care. Her mothers were softly calling to her to come back inside. But Harrie didn’t hear them. Staring through her telescope at that great white globe with all its craters and seas and mountains was more important than being warm or going to bed.

One day I’ll go there, she thought. One day I’ll go the Sea of Tranquility and touch the dark soil and then look up and see Earth, and with my telescope I’ll find home and wave at my mothers and Banjo and everyone else I know.

Maggie tapped her gently on the shoulder. ‘It’s time, Harrie. We’ve let you stay up for a long while. Come inside now. Your cheeks are as hard and cold as ice.’

Slowly she drew back from the telescope. When she looked up into the sky again the Moon was still there but much smaller.

‘Still pretty,’ she said, ‘no matter how big it is.’

Maggie and Rachel stared up at the Moon as well. Even Banjo, who was wondering what everyone was staring at that seemed so interesting. There wasn’t a rabbit to be seen anywhere.

‘Look!’ Harrie said, pointing at the soft nebula of light that surrounded the Moon. On either side of it was a little light. ‘Are they planets or stars?’

Moon Dogs (Creative Commons:
photographer unknown)

Maggie laughed. ‘I’ve heard of them but never seen them before.’

Rachel and Harrie looked at her expectantly. ‘What are they?’ Harrie asked.

‘They’re called Moon Dogs. It’s so cold up there that the light from the Moon is being caught by ice crystals. They almost look like miniature moons, don’t they?’

Harrie sighed, a deep and immensely satisfying sound. She patted Banjo on the head and started back the house, the moonlight shining in her hair and on his fur.

She stopped for a second, looked back up at the sky, and said, ‘Look Banjo, Moon Dogs.’

Banjo barked once, meaning, ‘Yes, what else would they call them?’

06 April 2020: Possible new date for arrival of Homo sapiens in Australia

In an earlier blog I mentioned a letter to Nature that suggests up to 2% of the Papuan genome originated ‘ … from an early and largely extinct expansion of anatomically modern humans (AMHs) out of Africa.’

If correct, this is important because it pushes back the earliest currently accepted dates for the human occupation of Australia (well, Sahul back then) beyond 50,000 – 60,000 years.

New evidence for a possible earlier date has now come from a site near Warrnambool, a town on the southwest coast of Victoria, where scientists have been investigating a site at the mouth of the Hopkins River. In a paper from CSIRO, it is described as an ‘erosional disconformity of last Interglacial Age’ where the shells of edible molluscs and transported stones were discovered.

Hopkins River mouth

The mouth of the Hopkins River. (Photo from Warrnambool local government website.)

It is not known for sure whether humans or animals such as seabirds made the formation, but the site has been confirmed as a midden, and evidence for fire damage to the stones suggests they may have been used to make a hearth.

Thermoluminescence analysis of the stones, together with independent stratigraphic evidence, suggests the hearth could date back between 100,000 – 130,000 years.

If true, not only does this double the possible dates for the earliest occupation of the Australian landmass, it also considerably pushes back the earliest currently accepted dates for the first successful emigration – an emigration resulting in living descendants – of AMHs out of Africa by as much as 20,000 – 50,000 years.

(The research was presented to the Royal Society of Victoria by, among other academics, Jim Bowler, who discovered Mungo Man in 1974. The Guardian’s Paul Daley wrote about the paper and interviewed Bowler in March last year. Also, see this from the Royal Society of Victoria’s own website.)

30 March 2020: Walls

I live in a compound in the Johannesburg district of Fourways, a favourite location for expats, the white middle class and the growing black and coloured middle class. Our compound is surrounded by a 2.5-metre wall topped with a ring of metal spikes and electric fencing. Our townhouse abuts the north wall. East of our house, and still in the compound, is a children’s playground and a tennis court; before the current lockdown, most weekdays I heard small children laughing and shouting in the playground, supervised by parents and nannies. I like that about where I live: it’s a community, with all age groups.DSC07154

When I call it a compound, I’m sometimes corrected by locals. ‘It’s a complex, not a compound,’ someone will say. Or, ‘It’s a gated community.’

I get that. ‘Compound’ sounds like a kind of prison, except in this case it’s built to keep people out, not keep people in. Having said that, there are times when it feels like we are being kept in, especially early in the morning when I look out north and east and see glimpses of what appears a less restrained city draped across the Gauteng landscape.[i]

But whether you call them compounds, complexes or gated communities, they are small villages separated from the rest of Johannesburg by walls and wires and gates and guards. These compounds have, as Lynsey Chutel wrote in Quartz Africa, ‘created pockets of development – ranging from middle class suburbia to opulence – walled off from South Africa’s socio-economic reality.’

Compounds are not as old as apartheid, and nor is it true to say they are the spatial descendants of apartheid geography[ii], but as Chutel points out there is a direct link in the mentality behind the construction of compounds and their popularity as places to live in cities such as Johannesburg: ‘The prevalence of gated communities may also reveal what South Africans think constitutes middle class life. As it did under apartheid, it often means avoiding the poor unless they are servants, nannies or gardeners.’

As more and more black and coloured South Africans join the country’s middle class, compounds like the one I live in can be seen as the expression of economic rather than racial division, where the better off are made to feel more secure by being separated from the poor, the unemployed and the underemployed. The fact that a large number of well-off South Africans are white can blur the distinction[iii], but compounds are ultimately the concrete expression of an economic divide, and an expression of what I think is the single biggest stumbling block to a more united, more progressive and ultimately wealthier society: the unwillingness to tear down the walls. I don’t see this simply a physical problem, but more importantly, a deeply psychological one.

When I lived in Phuket, one of the things that struck me about Thai society was how the rich and poor lived cheek by jowl. A drive along Thepkrasatree Road would have us passing a palatial estate sandwiched between a two-bedroom concrete box and a refugee camp filled with tin shacks, all of them spouting television aerials and satellite dishes. It wasn’t that the family living in the palatial estate liked living next to a refugee camp, or for that matter that the refugees in the camp liked being constantly reminded of how little they owned, but that there were no 2.5 metre walls and electric fences reinforcing the division. The rich, the aspiring middle class and the desperately poor tolerated each other.

Thai society isn’t without its problems, including crime and violence, but the different classes seem more willing to share common ground, and more than willing to accept the poor becoming middle class and the middle class becoming rich. In Phuket, unlike Johannesburg, divisions aren’t fanned by a history of oppression on one side and fearful insecurity on the other.

Compounds are most common in Gauteng Province, especially its two main cities: Johannesburg and Pretoria. Divisions certainly exist in cities like Cape Town, but I didn’t see many examples of whole communities being fenced off from the world outside.DSC07729

What strikes me most about South Africa and its people is its sheer potential. South Africans I have met are hardworking, smart, confident and optimistic at heart. The country has natural resources aplenty and for its size a large but not excessive population for Africa (around 60 million people in a state somewhat larger than New South Wales). The people genuinely value democracy, freedom, education, initiative and creativity. It seems to me that all the important elements of a successful society are in place; the fact that it is not yet a successful society speaks to its recent history and the scars it’s left behind.

I have to stress that these are impressions on my part, and I’m an interloper. I come from a wealthy, predominantly white middle-class background from a land far, far away. I am a member of the most privileged class of human beings that has ever lived. I have no right to give advice to anyone who lives here, to all those who have struggled through decades of repression and fear, let alone to the new generations that came after the end of apartheid – the ‘Born Frees’. I also know how hard it is to talk about a society as rich and complex as South Africa’s without making generalisations, some of which are unfair to all those who struggle every day against any division, racial or economic.

But I cannot help feeling that greater progress in South Africa cannot be made until there is genuine social and economic freedom for everyone, and I cannot help feeling that will not occur until the walls come down.

[i] The thing you notice most of all about Johannesburg is all the trees. For a city that has grown in South Africa’s Highveld, dry rolling plains that resemble the dry rolling plains around Canberra and Yass, there’s an awful lot of perpendicular vegetation. It’s sometimes claimed that Johannesburg is home to the world’s largest artificially created forest, and I can believe it. A lot of the trees are introduced – eucalypts, lillipillies, jacarandas – but the city still manages to look very African, as if at any moment the traffic weaving along the streets inside the forest could be replaced by herds of wildebeest.

[ii] Where ‘apartheid willfully set out to beggar the Black community for the benefit of the White.’ https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/johannesburg-segregated-city

[iii] https://mg.co.za/article/2016-08-04-00-figures-suggest-sa-has-the-highest-concentration-of-wealth-in-the-hands-of-a-few/, and see https://businesstech.co.za/news/wealth/133164/south-africas-skewed-income-distribution-when-measured-by-race/

10 January 2019: A tale of unrequited love

dsc01509 (2)

Southern masked weaver in our back yard, Johannesburg

What follows is a tragedy. Admittedly, a minor tragedy in the scheme of things, but one that played out in front of AJ, our daughter and myself at our home in Johannesburg just after Christmas. It involves a hardworking bird called a southern masked weaver and its failed attempt to win a mate.

Weaver birds, as their name suggests, weave intricate nests. They are a family of birds mostly native to sub-Saharan Africa, with some species living in tropical Asia.

According to Weaver Watch, one of their number, the red-billed weaver or red-billed quelea, ‘ …is one of the most abundant bird species in the world and its post-breeding population has been estimated to be 1.5 billion birds, leading to its nickname “Africa’s feathered locust”’. Since it readily eats crops, this makes the red-billed quelea a serious threat to subsistence farmers.dsc01471 (2)

Most weaves, however, are harmless. They are beautiful birds, small and compact, and during mating season (September to January) the males are brightly coloured, brilliant architects and hardworking builders.

Since arriving in South Africa six months ago, AJ and I have admired weavers and the intricate nests they make, and were planning to build a feeder and bird bath to attract to them to our home. Then to our surprise, on Boxing Day, AJ and daughter (visiting from Australia over Christmas) noticed a southern masked weaver starting a nest hanging from a branch about halfway up the jacaranda in our backyard.

In fact, by the time we noticed its existence the nest had already been started: the first central ring of long fronds had been weaved together, and an inner lining of fern (or possibly jacaranda) leaves laced in to help make the nest more comfortable.

As we watched over the next two days, the weaver worked virtually non-stop on building the new home. Its skill, agility and determination were remarkable, and the product of its labour a thing of beauty. I wouldn’t be surprised if our distant ancestors learned to weave from watching these little birds at work.dsc01478 (2)When the male has finished building the nest, a female flies in to assess its suitability. While the male of the species is a brilliant architect and hardworking builder, the female is a severe critic and, occasionally, expert demolisher. If she doesn’t like the nest, she will often tear it to pieces; the male will then start again, or choose another location to build a completely new one.

Three days after first noticing the nest in our jacaranda, we left home for most of the day. When we returned, the nest was gone, its ruins laying on the lawn below the tree. At the time AJ theorised it was a young male, new at the game, and a female had let it know in no uncertain terms that its efforts weren’t good enough. But then we remembered that there had been a brief but violent storm while we were out, and it seems likely this was what brought down the nest.dsc01537 (2)

Sadly, we didn’t end up with a happy couple residing in our backyard and raising a new brood of southern masked weavers. On the plus side, male weavers usually build a series of nests; we can only hope our male successfully found at least one female willing to put up with his efforts and share with him a clutch of eggs.

15 September 2018: The not-so-big (but still mightily impressive) ten

Last weekend, AJ and I went camping at Pilanesberg National Park. Well, I say camping. Our tent had a refrigerator in it. And a kettle. And power points for our mobile phones.

20180907_180854

Extraordinarily rough camping conditions prevailed at Pilanesberg.

Anyway, together with some fellow teachers from AJ’s school we went comfortably camping at a park famous for providing visitors the opportunity to catch sight of the Big Five: Cape buffalo, elephants, leopards, lions and rhinos.

While we did manage to see a line of lying lions in the distance – we needed binoculars to find them – for the most part the Big Five managed to elude us.

This is probably because AJ and I decided to forgo the chance of getting up before sunrise and braving subzero temperatures to tour the park in an open truck. Those who did make the effort not only managed to see the Big Five but cheetahs as well. However, they were cold. Very cold. Their fingers snapped off trying to focus their Nikon 70-300 zoom lenses.

We, on the other hand, got up at a civil hour, had a hot breakfast, and entered the park about 9.30 am, courtesy of the generous school librarian and his huge red ute. Although most of the predators and large herbivores had by then decided to migrate to warmer climes, we did see plenty of impressive wildlife, including kudus, wildebeest, zebras and giraffes.

DSC07334

Grey heron.

And our fingers didn’t drop off focusing our zoom lens. Not just because it was warmer, but because our camera decided to stop working, forcing us to rely on the cameras on our mobile phones.

In fact, we didn’t really have to leave our tent to see some very impressive locals. Our camping site had been colonised by a several groups of impala, vervet monkeys, chacma baboons, banded mongooses, hornbills and helmeted guinea fowls.

The impala were the most impressive of all. They’re magnificently streamlined antelopes with a colour scheme designed by an Italian fashion house. The males sport magnificent horns shaped like ancient Greek lyres. The effect is somewhat spoiled when the males start practicing for the rutting season by pretending to come to blows and blowing through their noses, sounding like a parcel of agitated pigs with head colds.

DSC07332

Impala cleaning his nose in preparation for a good snort.

The funniest sight is watching the normally docile guinea fowls suddenly scatter, running one way and then the other. AJ said the bird reminded her of a fusty old women from the 19th century picking up her skirts and pelting down the street.

The vervets spend most of their time high in trees or sitting like sandstone statues on the roof line of the campsite’s restaurant. They look down on their fellow primates with aloof disinterest.

DSC07308

Vervet practising aloofness.

One of the highlights of the expedition was totally unexpected. We came across the ruins of an iron age kraal not far from the park’s entrance. The area’s fenced off, and if the main gate’s red light is flashing – meaning something like a lion or leopard or elephant is also touring the ruins – you’re advised to stay out. On this occasion we were the only visitors.

The kraal was built by the Tswana chief Pilane, hence the name of the park. The ruins are well signed, giving a brief history of the kraal and what the various buildings and spaces were used for. The kraal’s main lookout provided wonderful views of the park. It reminded AJ and me of some of the ancient hill forts on the border of Wales and England we visited in 2010. Although those hill forts weren’t surrounded by thorn trees. I managed to get one long branch wrapped around my left leg. It took some doing to disentangle myself, and the small wounds made by the thorns itched for hours afterwards.

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Warning outside the iron age kraal.

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The kraal itself!

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View from the kraal lookout.

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Thornbush.

A second highlight was the visitor’s centre, where people can eat and drink on a wide deck overlooking the bush. A large salt lick is placed not far from the deck, drawing giraffes, zebra and wildebeest, although when we were there only one giraffe, the biggest, got to enjoy the lick. He’d tolerate other giraffes having a go, but didn’t hesitate kicking any wildebeest who came for their turn. The zebras were pluckier than the wildebeest, but no more successful.

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A giraffe. Not a zebra or wildebeest.

The landscape between Johannesburg and Pilanesberg is eerily familiar. Geographically and botanically it’s very similar to the Southern Tablelands, especially the stretch between Canberra and Yass. It’s not surprising, I suppose: South Africa and Australia were once joined at the hip. The soft landscape is covered in grasses and acacias and other plants adapted to a hot, dry climate. True, South Africa has lions while Australia has sheep, and South African kopjes are rockier than Australian hills, but nonetheless …

The similarity even extends to bushfires. Pilanesberg hosted its own bushfire the week before we arrived, and large parts of the park were black and ash grey, again strangely familiar to anyone from inland New South Wales.

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Bushfire damage.

It’s not like AJ and I are looking for similarities, but perhaps a little homesickness makes you look for them instead of the differences.

In October, we hope to make our way southeast to Durban for a few days, stopping over at the Drakensberg on the way.