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African Bats: Conservation in the Time of Ebola

A guest post by Jen Guyton

Banana bats (Neoromicia nana) are tiny, insectivorous bats. Their name comes from the preferred roosting habitat of this species – furled leaves of banana plants.

Banana bats (Neoromicia nana) are tiny, insectivorous bats. Their name comes from the preferred roosting habitat of this species – furled leaves of banana plants.

The last fragile wing finally came free from the threads of my mist net. I sank into the sand on the riverbank, took a deep breath, and tugged off my yellow deerskin gloves. Eight cotton bags wiggled as they hung from the line that tethered my mist net to a tree. We’d gotten a swell of banana bats (Neoromicia nana), tiny creatures, no heavier than a large grasshopper, that are thought to roost in the furled leaves of banana plants. They had come in low over the river like a pack of tiny, flittering wolves, hunting the gnats and mosquitoes that hovered in a veil over the water. I’d had to work fast, because the longer the bats stayed in the mist net, the more tangled they became. Some even chewed their way through the nylon thread, escaping in a flurry of teeth and leaving behind a yawning hole for me to mend, its edges fringed with fragrant urine. Now, I just had to wait for my subjects to leave me a few fecal pellets in the cotton bags so that I could analyze their diet.

I looked with relief at Kaitlyn, my assistant for the day, as we took swigs of our beers. I watched the net billow and catch the moonlight, shining silvery-black like a benighted spider web, and listened to the sound of elephants crashing their way through the dense riverine vegetation in the distance.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kaitlyn startle and look down. “I think something just peed on me,” she said, sounding perplexed. I shone my headlamp above her and was greeted by the glittering eyes and bulging cheeks of a large bat, hanging from the branch of the tree above us and happily chomping away on a piece of fruit. From the white patches below its ears and its fawn-colored fur I recognized it as an Epauletted fruit bat, a member of the genus Epomophorus.

A painting of the female Epomophorus wahlbergi that peed on Kaitlyn

A painting of the female Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus wahlbergi) that peed on Kaitlyn

I ran to grab my hand net, a long mesh bag on a circular frame with a handle. The bat was a dozen feet above us, and I didn’t have the handle extension sections, so I quickly duct taped the net to a mist net pole. I raised the net slowly, very slowly, sure that the bat would see me coming and take flight. But it continued to munch merrily, and it disappeared into the net with little more than a metallic peep! of protest. As I collected a fecal sample from it, Kaitlyn cleaned the urine from her clothes.

***

Little collared fruit bat (Myonycteris torquata) from Ghana, a species implicated in harboring the Ebola virus.

Little collared fruit bat (Myonycteris torquata) from Ghana, a species implicated in harboring the Ebola virus.

Stories like these have gotten me into trouble lately. “I study bat communities in Africa,” I’ll say, only to be greeted by wide eyes and mouth poised to speak the word that’s on everyone’s mind: Ebola.

Luckily, I work on the other side of the continent, thousands of miles from where Ebola has now taken almost 5,000 lives. My field site in Mozambique, on the southeastern coast of Africa, is safe from bat-borne diseases, as far as we know. But it’s no secret that bats have been implicated frequently in emerging zoonotic diseases – diseases of animal origin – that are now cropping up among humans: rabies in the Americas, Marburg virus in Africa, Hendra virus in Australia, and Nipah and SARS viruses in Southeast Asia are all harbored by bats.

The recent Ebola outbreak, too, has tenuous ties to our fluttering friends: scientists have found its antibodies in several species of West and Central African fruit bats. We can’t be sure, though, that they are “reservoir” species – organisms that consistently maintain a virus in their bodies without showing signs of illness. This would allow the bats to harbor Ebola, giving it the opportunity to spill over into humans. But, since we haven’t isolated live virus particles from the bats, all we know is that at some point in their lives,they were infected with or exposed to the virus that left its signature on their immune system.

So far, there’s no record of a bat transmitting Ebola to humans. Humans can get it from other humans, and we have solid evidence that people have become infected through ape carcasses, scavenged and eaten. People in parts of Africa eat bats too, but whether humans can catch the bug directly from bats is still a mystery. Some bat-borne diseases need to pass through what’s called an “intermediate” host – another species that amplifies the virus, allowing it to multiply and become more virulent – before humans can catch it. That is true of Hendra virus, which is found in Australian flying foxes. Contact with the bats poses little known threat to humans, but four people have died after interacting with sick horses. The horses, it seems, fed on fruits from trees where bats roosted.

A colony of Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) from Nzerekore, Guinea, where many people have recently died of Ebola. This species has also been suspected of being the virus’ carrier. But this photo may be the proof of the bats’ innocence – despite spending several hours in the bats’ company and digging through their guano I have never become sick (PN).

A colony of Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) from Nzerekore, Guinea, where many people have recently died of Ebola. This species has also been suspected of being the virus’ carrier but so far no live Ebola virus has been isolated from any species of African bats.

All of this adds to bats’ undeservedly bad reputation. Their mystical association with vampires, nocturnal habits, their seemingly erratic flight pattern, a slew of spooky superstitions, and now a misperception that bats are unusually disease-ridden have earned them a less-than-exalted place in the human consciousness. In some cases, this negative image arouses persecution. In 2007, hysteria stemming from a Marburg virus outbreak in Uganda led to mass extermination of Egyptian fruit bats, leaving heaps of them piled on the floor of the forest. This wasn’t an unprecedented reaction – people have been slaughtering vampire bats in Peru since the 1960s in an effort to control rabies, and a few years ago, the four human deaths from Hendra virus in Australia led to widespread culling of flying foxes.

Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus wahlbergi) from Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique

Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus wahlbergi) from Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique

But does reducing bat populations actually help reduce the risk of bat-borne diseases jumping to humans? Surprisingly, the answer is: probably not. In fact, there’s evidence that it could make things worse. In Uganda, the fruit bat extermination led to a much larger outbreak of Marburg, which is closely related to Ebola, among humans. As it turned out, fruit bats recolonized the caves from which they’d been exterminated, and the new population had a much higher prevalence of Marburg infection than the exterminated one. We’re seeing a similar effect in the Peruvian vampire bats – rabies prevalence is higher in populations that are subjected to culling by a poison called “vampiricide”, which preferentially kills adult bats. That’s probably because killing adults removes individuals that have already been exposed to the disease, making them immune. That allows “susceptible” juveniles, with no immunity, to proliferate, and the infection spreads like wildfire.

Fruit bats like bananas – even when they are being measured, photographed, or otherwise molested by a researcher.

It’s not clear whether bats really are different from other animals that could potentially carry diseases, or whether we’re just paying more attention to them now; there’s currently a debate raging among scientists about whether bats are special as disease reservoirs. Some say yes. This may be because many bat species are very social, which would allow pathogens to spread easily. Or, it could be that bats have a long evolutionary relationship with some virus families. Some scientists hypothesize that it’s linked to bat physiology: an unusual immune system, or the remarkably high body temperatures that bats experience during flight, could play a role in their ability to survive infections and, in the end, become reservoirs of pathogens.

Others argue that the numbers just don’t add up and that bats aren’t any more disease-ridden than other mammal groups. Given that bat research is on the increase it could be the simple result of a twisted treasure hunt: the harder we look, the more we find.

What we do know is that bats are special in a lot of other ways, and they deserve a boost in popular image. They’re the only mammals that have evolved true flight. They’re also one of the few groups, along with some whales, shrews, and birds that use echolocation – the ability to “see” a landscape using reflected sound waves. The combination of flight and echolocation allows them to fill a special role as nocturnal predators of aerial insects, with the potential to suppress insects like mosquitoes or some agricultural pests that aren’t active during the day. That does us humans an important service, and scientists have estimated that bats save U.S. agriculture $53 billion dollars in pest control every year. The high diversity of bats – they’re the second most diverse mammal group after rodents – allows them to fill a number of other important roles in ecosystems, such as dispersing the seeds of rainforest trees or pollinating flowers, including the agave used to make tequila.

We don’t yet know as much about bats and their diseases as we should, but the little evidence we do have suggests that killing bats will actually worsen the problem. It also suggests that the same things that are driving some bats toward extinction are also driving spillover events. Deforestation, for example, forces bats to find new homes in cities and increases the probability of their contact with humans. And eating bats gives their pathogens even easier access to people. We can reduce those risks if we protect bat habitats, halt culling efforts, and convince people to stop hunting and eating bats. None of these are trivial endeavors, but we need to try. In the time of Ebola, bat conservation is more important than ever.

Peters's epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus crypturus) from Gorongosa National Park

Peters’s epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus crypturus) from Gorongosa National Park

Mozambique Diary: Rescuing a Dragon

A guest post by Jen Guyton

In my lap was a specter, one of the most elusive animals in sub-Saharan Africa. I’d been waiting years to see it, and now it was weighing abrasively on my thighs like a sack of bricks stuffed into a giant pinecone. It wiggled and unfurled its roly-poly body just enough to reveal an eye like sticky caviar, its tongue whizzing in and out and reinforcing the illusion that this scaly orb was a dragon come to life.

Jen_Guyton_painting

But it was a warm-blooded, placental mammal, confirmed by the tiny body double that was furled in her grasp, suckling at the teats exposed on her underbelly. The mother and her pup were ground pangolins (Smutsia temminckii), one of eight species belonging to the mammalian order Pholidota, found only in Africa and southeast Asia. Though often called scaly anteaters, pangolins are unrelated to the Vermilingua, the suborder containing true anteaters. Actually, pangolins aren’t closely related to much of anything; these animals are unique, clinging to a long, isolated branch on the tree of life.

Safe at last – rescued from poachers, a Ground pangolin and her baby boy are going back to Gorongosa National Park to be released back into their habitat.

Safe at last – rescued from poachers, a Ground pangolin and her baby boy are going back to Gorongosa National Park to be released back into their habitat.

We were in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, and someone had told us about her. There was a man in a village across the river, the whispers went, selling her for the low price of 22,000 meticais (about $700 USD). Like rhinos, pangolins have fallen victim to a deeply-held misconception that their keratinous scales hold medicinal magic: that they can cure skin disease, reduce swelling, or even conquer cancer. I’ll tell you now: save yourself the money and the risk of jail time, and just chew on your nails – they are chemically and physiologically the same.

One day and a sting operation later, the pangolin was in my lap. Park rangers, working with the local police, arrested the poachers and rescued the animals. We were driving them out into the core of the park, where we’d release them, safely distant from grasping human hands. Though the pinecone plates of a pangolin’s back can and do stand up to being chewed on by lions, these animals are no match for a human that’s interested enough to simply pick one up and carry it off. Their only other defense is their smell, an indescribable odor that originates from a noxious acid secreted from glands below the tail.

I ran my hands along the pangolin’s scales. They were grooved and brittle-chipped, crooked and mud-splattered like fingernails that had seen many years of working with the land. In Asia, the scales of confiscated pangolins bear the circular scars of punches used for medicine. Even the artful hand of evolution, which had crafted this unique armor from a plush pelt, couldn’t save them.

Bipedal and armed with massive claws, a Ground pangolin could easily be confused with a carnivorous Jurassic raptor. But these gentle mammals feed exclusively on termites and ants, and their only defense is a thick armor of keratinous scales.

Bipedal and armed with massive claws, a Ground pangolin could easily be confused with a carnivorous Jurassic raptor. But these gentle mammals feed exclusively on termites and ants, and their only defense is a thick armor of keratinous scales.

As she unrolled herself from her fortress, a second head surfaced, tiny and pale. It was her male pup, the only one that will be born until he reaches sexual maturity in two years. He was born in captivity, a side effect of stress, and an unrealized bonus prize for the poacher. His scales were half-baked, pliable, and the dark shriveled stump of an umbilical cord poked from his round belly. He moved in the shivering stutters of an infant still unsure about the world.

As the pup crawled up my arm, the mother thrust out a hooked hand to right herself. Her claws, the length of my fingers, gripped my jacket like rusty nails and tore a gaping hole in the material as they bore into my side. I jumped, and she rolled back into a ball, her pup safely inside. These formidable sickle-claws are used to tear open termite mounds and ant nests, shredding the hard earth in search of scrambling adults and doughy larvae. The pangolin laps them up with its sticky-salivating tongue, longer than its own body and the longest relative to body size of all known mammals. Because pangolins lack teeth entirely, keratinous folds line their stomachs with inverse armor, grinding the insects to bits with the help of ingested pebbles.

Having spent a month in captivity, the pangolin, her baby tenuously clinging to her back. takes the first steps as a free animal.

Having spent a month in captivity, the pangolin, her baby tenuously clinging to her back, takes the first steps as a free animal.

We finally reached an appropriate site: far from the park’s perilous edges, the forest bulged above a tapestry of termite mounds. We set her gently on the ground, and waited.

Pup clinging to her back, she stood and sniffed the air, taking a few moments to orient herself to her new and safer home before choosing a bearing. Her scales clack-clacking, she ambled away on her hind feet like a drunken Velociraptor, tail out and claws curled against her chest. It’s hard to walk on all fours when you’ve got scythes for hands.

In Chinese mythology, pangolins are wayfarers. It’s said that they travel the world by digging through the core of it, tying the earth together with a vast underground labyrinth. In Cantonese, they’re called chun-shua-cap, “the animal that bores through the mountain.” I’d like to think she’s safely reached the Alps by now.

Text and artwork ©Jen Guyton 2014

If you would like to learn more about pangolins, and threats they face from the illegal wildlife trade, read a recent expository piece on the CNN website.

Safe under his mother's armor, a young pangolin will stay with her until his own scales are large and strong enough to provide protection from predators.

Safe under his mother’s armor, a young pangolin will stay with her until his own scales are large and strong enough to provide protection from predators.

Mozambique Diary: The House of Spiders

A guest post by Edward O. Wilson

The skeletal remains of the Hippo House, once a busy restaurant and observation point.  Orb weaver (Nephilengys cruentata) from the Hippo House.

The skeletal remains of the Hippo House, once a busy restaurant and observation point.

Each spider in the Hippo House was sheltered in a tubular retreat, a behavior typical of all species in the genus Nephilengys.

Each spider in the Hippo House was sheltered in a silken, tubular retreat, a behavior typical of species in the genus Nephilengys.

At the end of a long rutted road in the park sits a conspicuous artifact in the midst of wilderness. Built in 1970, the Hippo House was the vantage point, the antigo miradouro, from which well-heeled tourists, cool drinks in hand, watched wildlife herds as they grazed over the vast floodplain grassland below. Today the herds are back, but the house is a seldom-visited ruin. During the Mozambique civil war, almost all the buildings of Gorongosa National Park were torn down or blown away, leaving behind a few remnants scarred by bullets. The house had been reduced to a shell of its original self.

When I first visited the Hippo House, Mozambique was in the middle of the winter dry season. Other than along the watercourses, the vegetation of Gorongosa was brown and withdrawn. Insect life was still abundant, but harder to locate. I had been told that spiders, big ones, were abundant at the house, but I was quite unprepared for what I found. The interior of the ruined building was powder dry. Its floor, stanchions, and ceiling were windblown and coated with dust. No vegetation reached in from the outside, and except for a few small geckos resting on the pillars, there was no immediate sign of life of any kind. Instead, torn webs and long single threads of silk dangled from the ceiling like ghostly decorations in a haunted house. They swung gently back and forth in the occasional light breeze. No other movement or sound came from the seemingly empty space.

An unlucky katydid that flew into a web under the Hippo House is immediately killed and wrapped in silk by a female orb weaver.

An unlucky katydid that flew into a web under the Hippo House is immediately killed and wrapped in silk by a female orb weaver.

Where were the spiders I expected? Not one could be seen. But I knew they must be there someplace, alive, perhaps watching us. The idea of a hidden arachnid horde ready to rush out made me uneasy. Soon I saw something else: round objects plastered onto the ceiling. They were dusty and silent. My companions and I picked up a stick lying on the ground outside that was long enough to reach the ceiling, and tore two of the pouches apart. They proved to be silken egg pouches, undoubtedly made by spiders but now dry and empty; we were obviously not in the breeding season. The spiders themselves stayed hidden. Where were they? I grew more apprehensive.

We saw other, much larger, oblong pouches scattered over the rough eroded ceiling. At the tip of each was a circular entrance opening to a hollow interior. Using a flashlight and looking straight down the chamber, we could see what lay within. There at the rear of each pouch crouched a large spider, facing outward, its fangs, eyes, and the front of its tightly bunched legs visible. I wanted to see a specimen well enough to identify it, but hesitated. I was, to be frank, afraid of these crouched and waiting spiders. I suffer from mild arachnophobia. This spooky place was the setting of an arachnophobe’s nightmare.

The golden orb-weaver (Nephila senegalensis) is one of the largest spiders of Gorongosa. Its name comes from the beautifully golden coloration of its silk.

The golden orb-weaver (Nephila senegalensis) is one of the largest spiders of Gorongosa. Its name comes from the beautifully golden coloration of its silk.

We selected one of the pouches and poked at it in and out, but the spider stayed tight inside. One of my companions then took charge. He tore open the pouch and shook the inhabitant out into a transparent plastic bag. At last I could see what had lain within. The spider was heavy-bodied, the size of a thimble. When it suddenly spread its spiny legs, its width almost tripled.

I had solved the mystery of the spider house, at least in theory. The creatures in the silken bags were orb weavers, members of the spider family Nephilidae, called golden orb weavers, and, I later learned from an arachnologist, the species is Nephilengys cruentata. Some species of nephilids and the closely related araneids hide in retreats next to their webs; others remain in the centers of the webs. But how could there be so many spiders of this one species crowded together? Why are there no other creatures of any kind? The explanation I believed to be immediately clear. The floor of the lower level of the spider house is a layer of concrete. The interior is abnormally dry. Because the lower level cannot be invaded by any vegetation, few if any other forms of insect or arachnid life can live there. Yet flying insects undoubtedly fly through the wide-open space of the lower level, in through one side and out the other. A few might settle there to rest. The fate of most or all is the same: spider food.

Orb weaver (Nephilengys cruentata) from the Hippo House.

Orb weaver (Nephilengys cruentata) from the Hippo House.

My imagination was roused by this bizarre little world, but more so by my own reaction to it. When I took the captured spider back to Chitengo Camp, I found I was unable to make a specimen of it. That would mean fishing the monster out of the cellophane bag and working it into a bottle of preservative. So I simply opened the rear window of my room and dumped my captive live onto the ground below, where it would at least have a chance of making its way to a tree or building and spinning a new silken retreat.

I remember vividly the incident that made me an arachnophobe. I was eight years old. It was late summer, and I was exploring a vacant lot near our house. There were several full-grown female orb-weaving spiders in the high weeds, likely the common garden spider (Araneus diadematus), sitting in the center of their webs. I could not resist getting close enough to see all the details of one spider’s body. When I was about a foot away, it began to jerk back and forth in a menacing manner. I thought it was preparing to jump out and onto me. I ran. If that were not bad enough, I soon afterward saw a movie, the name of which I have long forgotten, in which a man is trapped in a cave. Blundering around, he becomes tangled in spiderwebs that are hung all around. Spiders, really big ones, climb down toward him, and . . .

Aversions and phobias of this kind, with the latter an extreme response causing panic and cold sweats, can be imprinted with as little as a single brief episode. They are rarely caused by a frightening experience with a knife, a gun, an automobile, or any other modern contrivance that can injure or kill. On the other hand, they easily and quickly follow a frightening experience with one of mankind’s ancient perils: snakes, spiders, wolves, heights, running water, and closed spaces. During millions of years of human prehistory, it has paid in a major Darwinian way to have quick, decisive response to the things that can kill you.

So I have forgiven myself for the wavelet of fear and revulsion I felt about the harmless denizens of the spider house. Let me make further amends by stressing that people are mostly safe amid what remains of living nature. We conquered the man-eaters long ago by destroying almost all of the big predators willing and able to hunt humans. They survive in our stories and in our legends of monsters. We imagine them silently emerging from caves and swamps, easing up from unexplored depths of the sea, or drifting down unseen from above. Walk into or swim in any wild habitat remaining on Earth, maintain the same level of caution you would on a city street, and you will be far safer than in most urban environments. Use common sense: don’t swim with crocodiles; don’t paddleboard among seals where great white sharks have been seen; and above all, never, ever run up to a mother grizzly bear with cubs to take a better look. Your greatest risk in the wild is from insect-borne disease—malaria, dengue, leishmaniasis, yellow fever—and these can be deadly if untreated. But they are transmitted chiefly among people. They can be easily avoided, and in any case pose less risk to you than the mélange of pathogens passing directly from person to person in human settlements.

The scary but harmless spiders in the Hippo House, and all the other animal species of wild environments like those of Gorongosa, are instinct-guided. They rigidly follow life-and-death routines formed during millions of years of evolution. Their lives are finely tuned and fragile in ways that are blessedly unthreatening to human beings.

Text Copyright © 2014 by Edward O. Wilson, Photographs Copyright © 2014 Piotr Naskrecki

Read more about the biological complexity and restoration of the fascinating ecosystem of Gorongosa National Park in “A Window on Eternity”, a new book by E.O. Wilson, with photos by P. Naskrecki (Simon & Schuster 2014).

Tarantulas, known in southern Africa as baboon spiders, may look frightening but are generally harmless. Their main line of defense is not their venom, but tiny urticating hairs that cover the entire body.

Tarantulas, known in southern Africa as baboon spiders, may look frightening but are generally harmless. Their main line of defense is not their venom, but tiny urticating hairs that cover the entire body.

Piotr Naskrecki and Edward O. Wilson in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.

Piotr Naskrecki and Edward O. Wilson in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.

 

A view from the other side

 A guest post by Kristin

The very first solifugid that I ever saw. When I posted this photo on Flickr, the always hilarious Brandi Schuster commented, “Solifugid. That sounds like the noise that I would make if I ever saw one of those fuckers in real life.” [Canon G10]

The very first solifugid that I ever saw. When I posted this photo on Flickr, the always hilarious Brandi Schuster commented, “Solifugid. That sounds like the noise that I would make if I ever saw one of those fuckers in real life.” [Canon G10]


“So, are you afraid of solifugids, too?” my husband asked, questioning me about my life long fear of spiders while writing his first book, The Smaller Majority. Now, I am not your stereotypical girl, revolted by and fearful of insects of all types. I love insects and pride myself on knowing more about them than most laymen. Consequently, I really didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know what a solifugid was, nor did I want to add any other arthropods to my shameful “eek!” list. Picturing something like an amblypigid, I replied, “Pfft, sheesh, phuff, no, of course not. Just spiders.” Little did I know.

The first time that I ever saw a solifugid was in South Africa in 2009. Long after nightfall, our group had finally made it to our accommodations – a research station in the hills of Cederberg. The mattresses were stained and soaked with things unholy, and bats were roosting and pooping in the rafters of the kitchen, but the real problem was the spiders. Big, hairy, and speedy.

Spider-free living. Hey, if I believed it, that was all that mattered. [Canon G10]

Spider-free living. Hey, if I believed it, that was all that mattered. [Canon G10]

It began to dawn on me that I couldn’t stay in that room, but we were hours away from any alternative. As I began to wrap my head around this puzzle, I heard commotion outside one of the rooms. Piotr was gasping things like, “Oh boy!” and scrambling for his camera gear in a way that suggested that he’d found something really “cool”, and our friend Maciej was pounding on the door, yelling in his thick Polish accent, “Corey! There’s a solifugid coming into your room!” The doors didn’t meet the floor, you see. Of course they didn’t. There was enough of a gap that the mouse-sized, spider-like thing that we stood staring at was able to skitter under Corey’s door without even ducking its head or pausing at chewing on a grasshopper.

The Verandah. Doesn’t it look delightful? Note the interesting choice to install a screen on a door that doesn’t meet the floor, and the lack of a screen on the window. [Canon G10]

The Verandah. Doesn’t it look delightful? Note the interesting choice to install a screen on a door that doesn’t meet the floor, and the lack of a screen on the window. [Canon G10]

So, I finally learned: solifugids look like a cross between a bleached mouse and a spider, and they live in dry regions in South Africa. Also, charmingly, they are carnivores. I slept in the car that night and the following morning we paid the spiders for our room and board. It wasn’t until 2 years later that my solifugid lessons resumed, at graduate level.

Again, I was in South Africa. Again, I was in Cederberg. Again we were staying in the type of accommodation that makes biologists “oooh” and “ahhh” and walk around, poking into corners with a junky’s avarice. Make no mistake- Cederberg is one of my favorite spots on the planet. It’s gorgeous and fascinating. It just needs some screens, and I’ll tell you why…
One evening, as the entomologists set out to see what could be found in the darkened crevices of the mountains, I deferred, pulled a couple of chairs to the middle of the verandah, poured some wine, made a snack plate, put my feet up, and opened a book.
It wasn’t long, maybe only a half hour of sipping, reading, nibbling, and pausing to feel the warmth of everything right, before things changed. A cat emerged from an unlit corner and as I leaned forward with an “Oh, hey kit…tie…”, I saw that it was stalking something. A mouse? I thought hopefully, naively. No, this was Africa. The cat was not chasing a mouse. What it was batting at looked like a mouse, to be sure. A large, bleached mouse that began to run like the wind. I froze, recalling platitudes- it’s more scared of me than I am of it; it wants to avoid me; it won’t climb my chair, or the walls, then lose its grip on the ceiling and fall down the back of my shirt collar…
As I was trying to calm myself with this mantra, the solifugid raced directly to my chair, and attempted to climb a leg. I jumped to stand on the chair- though, I couldn’t but note, nowhere near as quickly as the solifugid was moving. Supposedly, they can run over 6 inches per second, which earned them one of their common monikers- wind spiders- but I’m here to insist that when feral cats are chasing them, they easily set new PR’s.

A storm passes over the top of a mountain in Cederberg at the end of a scorchingly hot day. This place is worth every degree and every arachnid above my comfort level. [Canon 7D, Canon 14mm]

A storm passes over the top of a mountain in Cederberg at the end of a scorchingly hot day. This place is worth every degree and every arachnid above my comfort level. [Canon 7D, Canon 14mm]

The cat was in hot pursuit, so rather than struggle to grip my chair legs and race up to tangle itself in my hair, the solifugid bolted to another dark corner of the porch. Other than seeing the shadowy figure of the cat racing and pouncing, I had no idea where it was. I looked behind me at the door to our chalet. It wasn’t more than 3 feet away, but I didn’t feel confident that I could make it before the solifugid did, wherever it was.

Then suddenly, there it was, scrambling up the side of the wall and toward me without losing any of its breakneck speed, the cat trailing it along the floor. I may have screamed, I don’t know. What I do remember was cursing Piotr in my head- while trying to convince me that there was no need to sleep in the car during that first encounter, at the Spider Chalet, he had absentmindedly assured me not to worry, the solifugid wouldn’t climb anything. It was said with the distracted air of a man telling his wife that yes, he has noticed her haircut and likes it, so I should have known better.

Glorious Cederberg. [Canon 7D, Canon 14mm]

Glorious Cederberg. [Canon 7D, Canon 14mm]

As it passed over the door and zoomed back toward the floor, I knew that I had to act. I jumped from the chair and made for the door. The solifugid reversed course and came straight for me. I jumped back up on the chair (I learned later, when relaying this story to Piotr, who seemed to see it more from the solifugid’s perspective than mine, that they seek safety in shadow, and the shadow that I cast as I moved, intent on my own escape, made me an unwitting attractant.)
Confused, it turned to dart back toward the shadows again, and this moment’s hesitation allowed the cat to get a good whack in. The solifugid reared up and presented the cat with its enormous, open jaws, and lunged. The cat jumped backed, stunned and impressed. With another lunge for good measure, the solifugid took advantage of the cat’s reverence for its display and zipped into the dark. The cat followed, slowly- back in stalking mode- and I made my second jump from the chair, frantically fumbled the door open, and burst into the cabin, eyeing the gap fretfully and wondering why it wasn’t a priority anywhere in Cederberg to fashion doors to meet the ground.

I sat in the middle of my bed and aimed my headlamp like a sentry at the screenless window, which opened directly onto the verandah that I had just fled, and waited for the others to return from their night collecting. I tried to shut the window, but the heat was unbearable. After a day of baking at well over 114F in the sun, the cabin needed all night to cool down. Hours passed. Finally, I laid back. I opened a nearby book and exhaled. Cue something, of course. It was the cat, jumping in the window. Why? On the tail of the solifugid again? Why else would it have come in? This is what I had to assume. War rules.

I will never know if the cat, which soon exited through the kitchen, came in because it was chasing something. But what I do know is that entomologists can stay out in the dark for eons and, when they return in their exultant state, don’t think to wonder about overturned chairs, scattered snacks, and splayed books in the middle of the porch. They walk right by with their containers and baggies held up for rapturous inspection, like urbanites immersed in their cell phones, and seem startled to see you awake and upright, just before dawn- “Oh, hey baby- what are you doing up?”

Compared to a solifugid, this tiger spider (Argiope australis) seems like sweet, harmless bunny. [Canon G10]

Compared to a solifugid, this tiger spider (Argiope australis) seems like a sweet, harmless bunny. [Canon G10]