Colours of Wildlife: Winter Herping in the Wolkberg

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Winter Herping in the Wolkberg

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!"

Woolly Bottlebrush

On the 18th of July 2020, and on the 1st of August, 2020, I was on another two outings with my friend Ruan Stander seeking interesting reptiles. This time we were closer to home, and they were just day outings. The first was to Hwiti Mountain, and the second started out close to Zion City Moria, moving deeper into the Wolkberg close to Haenertsburg later. Both of these regions are in the northern parts of the Wolkberg Mountains, Hwiti being quite high up, the other outing starting a bit lower in the foothills and then later moving up close to the crest of the mountains.

The first outing took us to Hwiti Mountain, a rather rocky peak, though not very steep, in the Houtbosdorp region. This is about as far north as the Wolkberg mountains go. Ruan has a very specific kind of environment in mind when seeking reptiles, one with lots of rocks and lots of crevices between them. Many reptiles live in these crevices, squeezing themselves into very narrow clefts to evade predators. Then again, many reptiles also live under rocks lying on the ground; they're well-protected there also, and the ground under the rocks frequently retains moisture and attracts insects and other invertebrates like spiders, scorpions, centipedes, silverfish and woodlice, that constitute reptile food. Interestingly, on this outing we found incredibly large numbers of a specific kind of bug ('bug' here used in the entomological sense as a member of the order Hemiptera) that we found almost exclusively in flat crevices between rocks. There must have been millions of them! But I don't know if any reptiles eat them; we didn't find reptiles associating with them, and like some other bugs they might be highly distasteful. I haven't yet been able to determine their ID.

When we arrived on Hwiti, first thing I did was do push-ups! This was a challenge I was taking part in, to raise awareness of mental illness, the challenge being to do 25 push-ups a day for 25 days. Ruan joined me and both of us did 30 push-ups on top of the mountain. Then we were off hunting our reptiles! I of course also looked at the plants; in such rocky places, one gets characteristic plant species also. I found some of the things I were expecting but not others. Many species of succulents were in evidence, especially several species of Crassula. We also found interesting trees, particularly the beautifully-flowering Woolly Bottlebrush, Greyia radlkoferi, of a plant family that only occurs in South Africa.

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Now for the reptiles we found! First here you see Ruan holding a very young Southern Rock Agama, Agama atra. Agamas are wonderful lizards that are related to chameleons and also to iguanas. Several species occur in South Africa. They like dry, rocky and/or sandy regions. They're bold and active, and often eat ants. Adult males of several species often develop blue heads, which they show off to each other with a bobbing display similar to the push-ups we did! For this in Afrikaans we call them 'Koggelmanders' which roughly mean 'mocking-men'.

The next photo shows a little Van Son's Gecko, Pachydactylus vansoni, that we found under a rock. This beautiful gecko species is quite common in north-eastern South Africa, in rocky places in different habitats at a wide range of altitudes.

The next photo shows Ruan holding a spiky Transvaal (or Common) Girdled Lizard, Cordylus vittifer. These use their spiky scales to wedge themselves into crevices making them difficult to extract, but we use a crowbar to lift the rocks or pry them apart so we can get the hapless lizards out!

On Hwiti we also found these relatives of the girdled lizard, the Transvaal (or Northern) Crag Lizard, Pseudocordylus transvaalensis. Here we put the male and female side-by-side for comparison purposes. The male is larger, brighter and with a much wider head, hosting his powerful jaw muscles. It can not only deliver a painful bite, but also expand its jaws to wedge itself firmly inside a crack.

In a fine photo of Ruan's, here we have a Woodbush Legless Skink, Acontias rieppelli. These small legless lizards are found in soft earth under rocks or bits of wood. They are totally blind and lead lives burrowing in the soil and eating small invertebrates. Their front-and-rear-ends look similar and may confuse a predator into biting the tail, when going for the head, allowing the skink to escape with relatively minor damage.

Wrapping up Hwiti, here we have a little snake, a Southern Brown Egg-Eater, Dasypeltis inornata. Sadly, this one had a rather deformed head, perhaps as a result of an injury suffered when young. It seemed healthy, though, and must have still been able to feed. Egg-eaters are specialists feeding on, you guessed it, birds' eggs! They have toothless jaws that can open extremely wide, the jawbones dislocating, allowing the snakes to engulf eggs several times as wide as their heads. They have projecting bones at the rear of their throats that, once an egg has been completely taken into the mouth, pierce the shell allowing the contents to drain into the snake's belly. The empty, collapsed shell is then regurgitated and the snake retreats to digest its comparatively huge meal. These small snakes are utterly harmless to humans.

Our outing to the Zion City region was two weeks later. We started in some hills above a lumber mill. These are dry and rocky, and again we found interesting succulents and other rock-loving species. A notable find was a Bushman's Poison Bush, Acokanthera oppositifolia. It has beautiful white flowers clustered in masses around its twigs. The sap of this extremely poisonous bush or tree has been used by the Bushmen or San People to make their poison arrows. But we found on it another critter making similar use of it – a Milkweed Locust! These big locusts absorb the poison sap from the bush, suffering no harm but making themselves too poisonous for anything else to eat. They are fearless and can be easily approached and photographed. We explored the spot above the mill and then later drove deeper into the mountains where it was higher and much moister.

We found again some of the typical rock-loving reptiles of our region. Here are some beautiful common flat lizards, Platysaurus intermedius intermedius. These are social lizards living in small colonies. The adult males are bright green with orange tails, which they display to each other, the brightest and largest individuals being the most dominant. For comparison, I photographed an immature male, starting to come into its colours, with a little succulent, an Anacampseros, beside it.

We found some legless skinks here as well, this time Cregoi's Legless Skink, Acontias cregoi. This is not a rare species, occurring in much of Limpopo Province.

For me the find of the day were these beautiful little geckoes, Methuen's Dwarf Gecko, Lygodactylus methueni. This species is restricted to the Wolkberg Mountains. They live in rocky places and also the walls of houses, where they feed on insects attracted by lights. Its clinging toes allow it to scale smooth surfaces. This gecko is still common, but its small range renders it vulnerable to environmental destruction. Its ability to adapt to human structures counts in its favour. It is closely related to the Cape Dwarf Geckoes that are abundant in my own garden, but don't enter my house (where I have tropical house geckos instead).

Well that was our two outings, just two quick trips to do some reptile-and-environment surveys! I hope to participate in many more of these.

PHOTO CREDITS: Acontias rieppelli, Platysaurus belly, Dasypeltis inornata, and Van Son's Gecko, by Ruan Stander. Other photos by me.

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