Colours of Wildlife: An Outing with Deo

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An Outing with Deo

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Groenveld by Willem

On Monday the 25th of November I had a little outing with Makhudu Masotla, also known as Deo. I've known Deo for years, from the Polokwane Bird Club. He is a serious student of birds, having started out at the University of Limpopo. He now has a Master's degree and is currently based in Cape Town and working mostly with seabirds, having spent a year on the sub-Antarctic Marion Island, a breeding site for many oceanic birds including albatrosses, penguins and petrels; he's also been to the Seychelles and will hopefully still visit many more interesting locations to do research and monitoring. Deo has wider interests and recently, when he was back in the Polokwane region, asked me if we could get together for an outing on which to see some interesting plants, seeing as that's my big interest. He's also starting to get interested in reptiles. He didn't have that much time but we did manage to have a very fruitful morning out in a patch of veld not far from where I live.

We've had an extremely dry start to the rain season here in Polokwane. The veld became very dry and barren-looking. But just over a week ago, the rains started in earnest, and it has been amazing how the veld responded! In just a few days, grasses and herbs sprouted and flowers appeared. Here are only a few of the things we found.

The photo you see here, shows the veld in its very early stages of response to the rain. There is still much open soil surface visible, but lots of tufts of grass starting to sprout. Grassland is not just grass. In between the tufts of grass there is an amazing variety of small plants, herbs, bulbs, shrubs, succulents. The bigger trees and shrubs tend to be thorny, including for instance Spike Thorns (Gymnosporia), thorn trees of the genera Senegalia and Vachellia, and Sickle Bushes (Dichrostachys cinerea).

The trees were coming into leaf and flower, and some even had fruits. I was happy to find here a species I hadn't been able to identify before. Covered in fruit, it proved to be a Transvaal Saffron, Elaeodendron transvaalensis. Saffrons are related to spike thorns, but aren't thorny. Locally they're small and shrubby, but can become fine trees over 10 m/33' tall.

An amazing element of South African grasslands is what might be called 'underground trees'. Several species of several different families have evolved this growth form. Grasslands are harsh environments to live in. They often experience prolonged and extreme drought, heavy grazing and trampling from large herbivores, and occasional fires. To cope, some trees have retreated underground. These now have extensive woody growth, roots, trunks and branches, beneath the soil surface. The above-ground growth can sometimes also be tree-like, such as in the Guarri of the dry Karoo, but in moister regions experiencing frequent fire, the above-ground parts can be extremely reduced, to only a few twigs and leaves. This is the case with the plant you see here, an Elephant Root (also called Eland's Bean or Sumach Bean), Elephantorrhiza elephantina. This one is coming into flower, showing its brushy inflorescence, as well as a few new shoots bearing leaves. In this veld close to my house there are extensive 'forests' of these underground trees! The subterranean parts escape damage from drought, beast or fire, to resprout when conditions are favourable. Humans dig up the huge rhizomes, remove the bark and pound it to a reddish-brown paste that is used for dyeing and tanning leather.

Other grassland plants with extensive subterranean growth include a great diversity of bulbous and tuberous plants. Many dozens of species grow in our region. The bulbs and tubers sometimes quite deep under the ground store water and nutrients. Most of the species with such storage organs die back completely during the winter. Come spring, they sprout fresh new leaves and send out flowers to be pollinated, mostly by butterflies and other insects. We saw quite a few beautiful butterflies fluttering around.

Boophone by WillemBoophone Flowers by Willem
BoophoneBoophone Flowers

An especially noteworthy bulb around here is the Bushman's Poison Bulb (also known as Sore-Eye Flower), Boophone disticha. Part of the bulb protrudes above the ground, but is protected against fire by a thick covering of many layers of dead, fibrous leaves. The species indeed tends to flower after there have been grass fires. After a fire, there's lots of room in the veld for seeds to germinate, and there's a thin layer of ash and soot that is quite nutritious. The poison bulb rapidly flowers, makes fruits and sets seeds. Its inflorescence then dries out and detaches, becoming a big tumbleweed ball that is blown by the wind over the veld, scattering its seeds as it rolls. Without flowers, the species can be identified by its fan-like leaf arrangement. We were also lucky to find one with its flowers coming out, though the inflorescence is not yet fully developed. They will eventually form a big globe of bright pink-red extending above the bulb. This species is very toxic and was used by the San people or Bushmen as an ingredient of their arrow poison. It is also used in smaller doses (still a very hazardous practice) as an hallucinogen. In smaller doses still, it is used as a sedative, and as an anti-septic and pain-relieving dressing for wounds and swellings, and as a remedy for headache, pains and insomnia. Its multiple uses has led to this species being depleted in many places; fortunately it still occurs in large numbers in this particular patch of veld.

Ledebouria by WillemTiny Ledebouria by WillemCurly Ledebouria by Willem
Straight LedebouriaTiny LedebouriaCurly Ledebouria

An amazing group of bulbous plants are the Ledebourias. These tend to be small to tiny, with leaves often decorated with a variety of patterns with spots, stripes or intense colours, or interesting shapes or configurations. What is amazing is how many different kinds occur together with each other in the same veld. We found five or six different kinds, four of which I show here. The one with the spirally twisted leaves wasn't flowering, but I am fairly sure it is indeed a Ledebouria. That particular one has rosettes of a mere 2.5 cm/1 inch in height and width! These are modest and often very inconspicuous plants in the veld, but if you deign to take the time to look at them close-up, you will be rewarded with their charming, delicate beauty. Their overall diversity in the provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga is amazing, and some species, especially the larger ones, are handsome and worthy to grow in pots or in gardens.

Ledebouria by WillemCrassula Capitella by Willem
Wavy LedebouriaCrassula Capitella

There are many succulents also in the veld. Succulents have fleshy stems or leaves which act as water-storage organs, allowing them to survive periods of drought. Local succulents vary from the large aloes, growing to 6 m/20' tall, to tiny ones like this Crassula. This individual might be a form of Crassula capitella. The one here is just starting to grow, blessing in its little heart the abundant spring rains. It grows to about 15 cm/6" in height, and lives for just one or two seasons. It flowers, dies and dries out, and scatters its fine seeds to the wind. The seeds germinate easily and so a new generation arises.

Duvalia Polita by WillemEuphorbia clivicola by Willem
Duvalia PolitaEuphorbia clivicola

Another succulent that I particularly was looking out for, was this, Duvalia polita. It doesn't look like much; these stems are tiny, at most 4-5 cm/1.6"-2" in length, and well-disguised amidst the tufts of grass. Duvalia is a carrion flower species, and I hope to soon be able to find some of its charming flowers in the wild, to photograph. I have some flowering at home, but it's always better to find the flowers in their natural environment. Duvalia polita also is a plant with significant underground growth. Each tuft of stems sends out subterranean runners, that emerge several inches away to form new tufts. This plant shows several such tufts, which likely all started out from a single plant. The connecting runners might still exist, or might have disintegrated so that the tufts are now completely separate plants. This is a form of vegetative propagation; the plant also propagates from seeds, which have tufts of white 'hairs' allowing them to be carried far by the wind. The plants are extremely thinly scattered, individuals or clumps as far as I can tell being separated by hundreds of metres. There's likely only a very small population of them in this particular patch of veld.

The succulent we really wanted to find, was this, Euphorbia clivicola. This is a species that only grows close to Polokwane, and the veld we explored is one of its main distribution sites. I'm not going to tell you where it is, since unscrupulous collectors might use the information to go there and remove them. As it is, they're having quite a hard time, much of their habitat having been lost or degraded, and the species is in danger of extinction. We found a few ones like this which were rather small; the species can become a big, cushion-like mound of finger-like succulent stems all pressed close together.

Euphorbia trichadenia by WillemMillipede Assassins by Willem
Euphorbia trichadeniaMillipede Assassins

The genus it belongs to, Euphorbia, is one of the largest genera of plants, containing perhaps as many as 2 000 species, mainly in tropical parts of the world, but with many weedy species also in temperate regions. They vary from herbs to shrubs to trees and most kinds in South Africa are succulent. This one you see here is very different from clivicola. It is Euphorbia trichadenia or the 'hairy gland' Euphorbia. The fringy things you see here are the bracts around its inflorescences. This one has finished flowering and is making its three-valved fruit capsules. The capsules will 'explode', shooting out the seeds, when mature. Euphorbia trichadenia is another mainly subterranean plant, making big, round tubers that are often buried quite deep, from which thin stems grow out each spring, bearing small leaves and flowers. This species, at least, is very widespread and abundant, though because of its small size very few people ever notice it.

Though we were looking out for plants, we also were looking out for any other kinds of wildlife. The veld supports numerous species of bird, and we heard some of the charming little Coqui francolins (small partridges) calling. Also giving their territorial calls were Neddickies, tiny insect-eaters, and Lesser Honeyguides. We seemed to have disturbed some nesting Brown-Crowned Chagras, shrike-like birds with handsome rufous wings. We left them alone then! Deo being interested in reptiles, we turned over a few rocks, but didn't find much, except for some skinks, both a regular kind that has legs and all, and a small, wriggling, legless skink. Skinks are lizards of which many species occur in South Africa.

We came across signs of mammals such as steenboks and hares, but didn't see any. The day was a good one for invertebrates. I've already mentioned the butterflies, and we also saw some beetles (including beautiful green tortoise-beetles), praying mantises, grasshoppers and bees. Millipedes of a number of species were out; they are 'rain bugs' in that they're mainly active when rain has fallen or is coming. We were sad to find this millipede who had fallen prey to what are called Millipede Assassins, Ectrichodia crux. They are members of the Assassin Bug family, the Reduviidae, of the order Hemiptera, the bugs and their relatives. Millipede assassins occur all over South Africa and feed exclusively on millipedes. This is unusual because millipedes contain toxins in their bodies. Only a few things can tolerate feeding on them – hedgehogs and civets, among the mammals, being some.

All in all, for a short outing, I think it was quite rewarding. Deo and I chatted a lot, and both of us agreed that it was wonderful just to have the opportunity to get out in a bit of wild nature so close to town. We were sad though to see so much rubbish that people were unthinkingly dumping in the veld. We South Africans in general still need to develop more pride in the treasure of biodiversity that we've been blessed with, and the will to take good care of it.

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