DIURNAL

What does the word diurnal conjure up for you? For some it may relate to things which occur on a daily basis, such as reading the newspaper (or news online), writing in a diary or keeping a journal of some sort. Its roots are deeply embedded in Latin: dies (day) and diurnus (daily) became diurnalis in Late Latin, from where it moved into Middle English.

I tend to think of ‘diurnal’ in terms of creatures that are active during the day. Among these are:

Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis) colloquially known as a Dassie – they can be seen basking in the sun on large rocks, particularly during mornings and late afternoons.

Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), South Africa’s national animal, are most active in the early mornings and late afternoons.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) tend to hunt early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

Impala (Aepyceros melampus) are mainly active during the day, except during the hot midday hours, and ruminate at night.

Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) forage during the day from sunrise until shortly before sunset.

Given my recent interest in butterflies, this quotation from Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man is pertinent:

During the night colours are not visible, and there can be no doubt that the nocturnal moths, taken as a body, are much less gaily decorated than butterflies, all of which are diurnal in their habits.

A SOUNDER OF WARTHOGS

Warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus) are called thus because of the wart-like protuberances on their faces that really consist of bone and cartilage. You might like to look at them more closely the next time you get an opportunity to see them and note that the boar has two pairs (which they use for defense when fighting as these provide a cushion to the blows from the tusks of their opponent) while the sow sports only one pair of ‘warts’.

I was looking through a list of collective nouns recently and wonder if you already know that a group of warthogs is called a sounder of warthogs. As female warthogs tend to live in matriarchal groups, usually consisting of one or two adult females and their young, they ought to be called sounders. I have been unable to discover why this particular word is used.

Apart from the apparent facial warts, warthogs also sport white facial crests which, in the right light and angle, look a bit like tusks. The role of these is to make the animals look a lot fiercer than they are when threatened.

ANIMALS ARE WHAT THEY EAT

How often have you come across the saying ‘you are what you eat’? The context is usually a discussion (or lecture by a newly-converted-to-the-latest-fad-dieter) about the need to eat healthy food in order to maintain our sense of well-being. What we eat is frequently linked with every aspect of our health, ranging from the negative effects of certain foods on our health (the interpretation of these depends largely on the current perspective of the speaker) to the long-term impact on our mental health.  These days we are confronted with so many different choices of foods from all over the world as well as the temptation not to cook at all, but to rely on ready-cooked take-away foods. Obesity! Too much sugar! Empty nutrients! Meatless Mondays! We are bombarded with advice, scare tactics, recipes and suggestions … what are humans supposed to eat? Plenty of red meat, say some. No meat at all, others claim. Be a vegetarian – no, veganism is the answer. What are we to do? The trouble is that we have evolved to be omnivores – take a good look at your teeth.

What about wild animals that have no recourse to food imports, refrigeration, different cooking methods, gardens, supermarkets, delicatessens or restaurants?  How come they seem to keep fit and healthy with only grass, seeds, leaves – and meat – to eat? Their teeth provide a clue, for animals can be described by what they eat. Carnivores, such as Lions, eat meat.

Not all carnivores live on prey they catch but also eat carrion. Spotted hyenas are known as scavengers for this reason. They are quick to hover around the fringes while the Lions eat their fill after a kill.

As an aside: while you might not often see this in the wild, you may notice from time to time that your pet dog eats grass only to regurgitate it later. This is part of a natural process to clear parasites from their digestive system – no trip to the pharmacy for them.

English is a precise language and nowhere more so than in the sciences. There are specific names for everything: detrivores eat decomposing material, while folivores are animals that only eat leaves. Frugivores eat fruit. Generally speaking, plant-eating animals are known as herbivores. Included in these are South Africa’s national animal, the Springbuck.

Herbivores that specifically eat grass, such as Zebra, are grazers.

Browsers, like Kudu, also eat off trees and bushes.

Animals that eat seeds are called granivores; if they eat insects they are known as insectivores; mucivores eat plant juices; mycovores eat fungi; and nectarivores eat nectar. Omnivores, such as the Black-backed jackal, eat both plants and meat.

Then we get piscivores that eat fish, sanguinivores eat blood; and saprovores eat dead matter.

These are all part of nature’s way of ensuring that nothing goes to waste. What a contrast this is to the average human beings who lay waste to the environment in order to process food and then leave so much non-biodegradable waste in their wake!

Note: This post was inspired by Trevor Carnaby’s fascinating book, Beat about the bush: exploring the wild.

NATURAL PATTERNS

There are natural patterns all around us which both draw our attention and by which we recognise things, such as a zebra or a tomato plant rather than thinking these might be a bushbuck or parsley. I think we absorb the patterns we see in nature as part of our recognition of the world we live in so that we can appreciate our surroundings and understand what things are. Some patterns are subtle while others are bold, beautiful and quite remarkable to look at.

Think about spots for a moment. Look at the variety of spots that make up the coat of a leopard:

Then there is the pattern of spots on the belly of this African barred owlet:

Should you mention stripes in nature, I immediately think about zebras. You can see any number of these animals and you will recognise them as zebras, yet look closely enough and you will appreciate that while their pattern is familiar, no two zebras look exactly the same.

In the bird world, the African scops-owl makes good use of stripes to help it blend into its environment.

Patterns of ripples are created when water or wind pass over sand, or water runs through sand:

I find the patterns of spirals and cracks present in wood are especially beautiful and interesting:

 

BUFFALO THORN

The Buffalo Thorn (Ziziphus mucronata) is more commonly known in South Africa as the Blinkblaar-wag-‘n-bietjie (shiny leaf wait-a-bit). A strange name for a tree, you might think, yet it is a very apt one. I find Afrikaans names tend to be so in their descriptiveness. The etymology of the scientific name for this tree is interesting, coming as it does from the ancient Greek zizyphon, which they got from the Arabic zizouf, which – of all things – was a name for the mythical lotus! It became known as zizyphum in Latin. The species name mucronata is also Latin, the meaning ‘pointed’ doubtless referring to the thorns.

Speaking of thorns: these trees are not to be tangled with as the two thorns at the nodes make extricating yourself from it rather tricky – you can easily become entangled in passing if you are not looking where you are going – as one thorn faces backward and the other faces forward. Look at this photograph and you will have a clearer understanding of why you will probably have to wag-‘n-bietjie (wait-a-bit) before getting free. One thorn is straight, while the other is slightly hooked and, although they are fairly small, I assure you that these thorns can be vicious enough to tear into your flesh if you are not careful!

The blinkblaar (shiny leaf) part of the name is easy. You can tell from the photographs above and below how shiny the leaves are. Both photographs are of young trees that have self-seeded themselves in my garden.

The minute golden-green flower clusters are borne in tight clusters above each leaf and are rich in nectar that attract birds and bees. I can only imagine the buffalo part of the English common name is derived from a thought that only a buffalo could walk through a thicket of these trees unscathed.

 

EARTH DAY 2020

Does one say ‘Happy Earth Day?’ Can it be a happy Earth Day when the planet is mantled by an unseen enemy that has brought the world’s population to its knees, caused hunger, uncertainty, fear, suspicion and concern to the fore on a scale that no climate change warnings, earthquakes, tsunamis or volcanoes have managed to do? The spread of the COVID-19 virus has isolated us, caused us to look inwards, to contemplate where we are, what we do and to question our future.

There is much to celebrate and Earth Day is an opportunity to focus on those good things: biodiversity, water, clean(er) air … life, living, loving, and caring for and about others – these are aspects that the down time the virus has brought to us. Time to think about the food we eat, where it comes from, what we eat, how much food we really need, how to be innovative about making meals from food we already have at home instead making a needless trip to the local supermarket.

The internet abounds with ideas on how to cook / bake with ever fewer ingredients; how versatile other ingredients can be as substitutes for those we have run out of. Are we eating less / more healthy food / snacking less? Those with gardens appear to be appreciating them more – I certainly do – and have greater empathy for those who do not.

Earth Day this year is one of contemplation and appreciation. As we have been housebound for 27 days now I look back with a sense of nostalgia to various trips we have undertaken to game reserves in South Africa – at the time, never doubting that we could return whenever we had both the time and the resources to get there. The virus had other ideas.

We do not have to travel very far to observe Cattle Egrets as flocks of them follow the Urban Herd around all day and many fly over our garden at the end of each day on their way to perch in one of the tall trees near the centre of town.

Ostriches are always a delight to see in the various game reserves we have visited in the country. We used to see a lot more being farmed around here – South Africa provides 60% of the ostrich-meat supply market despite farmers having to battle with problems such as drought and avian influenza – which has made these birds very familiar over time. They are still wondrous to see in the wild.

Now we can only imagine and remember the joy of driving round the corner of a dirt road to meet an Elephant and her calf walking towards us.

When will I see a Waterbuck again?

Or Impala grazing in the rain?

Or a Lioness looking at me contemplatively?

These and all the other birds and animals will still be there when we are ‘free’ again. I remain thankful for that.

Enjoy Earth Day in your own way.

MUD, MUD, GLORIOUS MUD

So sings the hippopotamus to his fair hippopotamus maid in The Hippopotamus Song by Flanders and Swann:

Mud, mud, glorious mud

Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood

So follow me, follow

Down to the hollow

And there let us wallow in glorious mud.

Hippos spend up to sixteen hours a day wallowing in rivers or waterholes –– submerging themselves to keep their bodies cool during the day.

Elephants also cover themselves with mud not only to keep cool, but to protect their skin from parasites. It is enjoyable watching elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park either rolling in mud or squirting it over themselves.

Rhinos also use mud to cool their bodies as they have no sweat glands. As with elephants, a thick layer of mud both helps to protect the rhinos from biting insects and traps parasites that might otherwise burrow into their hide.

Buffalos like a mud bath too. They also use mud as a protection from parasites.

Closer to home, every summer we witness the trials and tribulations of the Lesser-striped Swallows that build their nest from globules of mud.

Mud or dust can be important for humans too: geophagy is the habit of eating mud or dust to augment a mineral deficient diet. Some people feel the need to eat a fingertip of dust every now and then for this reason. This craving to eat earth is also known as pica, and may be an indication that young children have an iron deficiency.