Scientifically Macabre – examining skulls and bones

From 1st July 2013

The start of a new week and I was hiking through the bush, fruitlessly trying to find the dwarf mongoose. To keep my mind occupied, I begun a rough outline for a blog post. It was going to be “The Sorabi Skull”, about the skull that I found last week. Then in a dramatic twist of fate, mid-thought and macabre-minded already, I stumbled across another skull! And not just that, a number of other bones in the immediate area, presumably from the same animal. Oh the excitement.

Now, as mentioned, this is slightly macabre. Getting excited over bits of a dead animal? My non-biological friends look at me weirdly when I show them the skulls I have at home (sheep, small mammals and a bird). However to me, bones – particularly skulls – are fascinating. I love taking apart owl pellets and otter spraints, identifying animals from the bones and comparing the different skulls. In addition, thinking about how an animal’s body neatly fits together with the skeleton, muscles, ligaments and tendons. It puzzles me when someone doesn’t find it even remotely interesting, but each to their own and all that jazz.

So, the Sorabi skull, i.e. my first South Africa skull this year. Oddly enough, this one wasn’t on the ground. In fact, it was hung in a bush. At first, I wondered as to a leopard perhaps eating in a tree and dropping it, but there were no branches above. Maybe someone else had found it, and just chucked it away, and it landed in a bush? The mystery remains. Even more so, to the species. I will admit to poor identification skills on larger mammal skulls – especially in a different country. 

The skull in a bush. Odd.


Back to the new skeleton, and it was a decent number of bones, I shall not lie. Not least that there was a complete upper skull and two lower jawbones. Now, I could identify this one – zebra! Jackpot! Why you ask? My undergraduate dissertation was on zebras, and I like to know as much as possible about a study animal, even if it is from a dead one. I even know what zebra steak tastes like (pretty good by the way).


This was definitely making up for the lack of dwarf mongoose. And the day got even better when I found two African Land Snail shells, followed by a tortoise shell! The tortoise isn’t fully decomposed yet though … desiccated thankfully. With any luck it will decompose completely and I can take a proper look at the shell without touching bits of dead tortoise. Now that is rather macabre.

To finish off, I hope that you either agree with me in finding skulls/bones/shells fascinating, or that you don’t judge me too much. And, it goes without saying, though I will say it anyway, that I don’t ever kill anything in order to gain the bones/shells. I just stumble across them in the bush (sometimes literally). Or in the case of owl pellets and otter spraints, I analyse them for ecological purposes. 


Also found since: an impala skull



Close Encounters, of the Jumping Spider kind

From 31st June 2013

Have you just read that title and shuddered? Me too. And I was the one that experienced it! Quickly, a preliminary foreword about my viewpoint and ability to deal with insects. Normally I am pretty good and can cope with most things – spiders, wasps, centipedes, etc. This is despite a couple of traumatic experiences, including a wasp whilst working at ZSL London Zoo that was very determined and reduced me to tears and hyperventilating. I still have a scar, and it was over four years ago.

However, one thing that is guaranteed to help you deal with shudder-inspiring insects/arachnids is working with children. You just can’t freak out about them then, because that would encourage them to do so and that isn’t a great introduction to nature. So I’ve got over most of these fears, even the wasps.

This weekend, I realised that there is something I may never get over. Jumping spiders. Spiders in normal form, yes, they are usually ok (UK house spiders excepting, because the ones in my house are huge!). In the bush, I came across a small jumping spider (species unknown currently), and I was ok. It didn’t jump much and besides, it was rather cute. About the size of my little fingernail. All fine.


Sunday however. I was at the nearest restaurant using their WiFi, and suddenly there was a spider on my laptop screen. Initially, I wasn’t freaked out, although it did concern me whenever the spider tilted its head to look at me. And then the spider jumped.

Not onto me thankfully, but onto my keyboard. I shuffled back on my seat, not daring to touch my keyboard. It kept looking up at me. My mind went into panic mode, my thoughts consisting of “Oh my word, it jumps … the spider jumps … it’s looking at me … it jumps … aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah”.

I was in luck, it scurried off my keyboard onto the table and down the table leg. I let out a sigh. But too soon, the spider was still looking at me and next thing I knew, it had jumped onto me. Oh my word, adrenaline and panic and freaking out. I struck out to get it off my leg, and with luck, it disappeared under the table. Out of sight, out of mind.


So, maybe you’re fine with arachnids and even jumping arachnids, and you’re thinking that I’m a complete wuss. Possibly. But we all have little fears, and I think this may continue to be one of mine for a while yet. Maybe I shouldn’t visit Australia, I hear that they have big jumping spiders there, on top of all the other poisonous creatures trying to kill you. 

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Moth Solo – A new adventure, the battery strikes back and return of the ermine.

I was first introduced to moth trapping in 2012 during my placement year with the Field Studies Council at Margam Discovery Centre (South Wales) when one of the tutors fixed the moth trap there and set it out. The species that sticks most in my mind was the Drinker moth, I was particularly impressed by its antennae. This year I took a short course in invertebrates, as one of a number of extra-curricular ecology modules that I took alongside my third year at university. It was run by Dr. Phil Ward – an expert on invertebrates and a county recorder in Radnorshire. He introduced different types of moth traps, and over two nights we caught a variety of different moths – including a gorgeous Poplar Hawkmoth (L.populi).

A weekend in mid-June provided a good opportunity. I had the time, the need and the space. I was house-sitting for a family friend at their Bed and Breakfast / self-catered Farmhouse in mid Wales – Glanoer in Bettws, Llandrindod Wells, and they were keen for me to do some casual ecology surveys. I’d previously found otter spraint at the stream running through the smallholding, which surprised and amazed them. This time I wanted to do something that I’d been hoping to do for a long time: moth trapping.

I was keen to get going on some solo moth trapping, but was lacking something vital – some equipment. But the moth county recorders of Radnorshire came to the rescue and were kind enough to lend me two traps for the weekend, as well as discuss the best spots to place the traps. And so, I was ready to go.

The first night commenced, and I was doubtful. It was raining, windy and cold. Not a good start. I awoke bright and early, keen to check the traps but worried I hadn’t caught anything. My fears were unfounded. True, it was a low number, but I was thrilled! The two traps revealed 8 moths. Including three Hawkmoths! Two Poplars (L.populi) and a new one for me, the Elephant Hawkmoth (D.elpenor, photo below), which was absolutely stunning.


And so to the second night, the dreary weather was repeated though it was slightly less windy. However, only one trap this time. Although the light had been working on one I went to bed, the battery had evidently died not long after. Perhaps in retaliation for being stuck out in the rain all night?

Again, I was not disappointed. Another 6 moths! No Hawkmoths this time, but some gorgeous moths nonetheless. One thing that struck me was the White Ermine moth (S.lubricipeda, photo below). I’d caught one on both nights – not the same one, I’d kept the first one until after the second night to ensure that. What intrigued me was that the second individual was in exactly the same spot on the moth trap as the previous one. Was it that the spot was preferred by that species? Had the first individual left a mark there of some sort, perhaps a pheromone or scent? Very mysterious – if you know of a potential answer, I would be very interested to hear.


To finish off, before I end up rambling about moths for ages, my aunt was delighted to have identified moths to add to her smallholding species list, and was astonished by some of them – particularly the Hawkmoths and the White Ermine. The county recorders were pleased, this was the first moth recording in that area for at least thirty years, if not more. Although I’d not caught any species of special excitement, they were very glad to have recordings at all and are keen for me to do more trapping when I’m next visiting. Of course, I will happily oblige. Lastly, I’m satisfied that I’ve done my first solo moth trapping and can’t wait to do more!

NB: If you’re interested, the identification book that I used was The Concise Guide to Macro Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Martin Townsend and Paul Waring, published by British Wildlife Publishing, and identifications were confirmed by the county recorders.

PS: I know it doesn’t fit exactly but I am rather proud of my post title here, and feeling slightly geeky.

A favourite from the moth trapping: Clouded Border (L.marginata)

Clouded Border, Lomaspilis marginata


The first day

From 24th July

I’ve had my first full day here in South Africa, and crikey, already there is so much to tell. I shall attempt to keep it brief and focussed on the main events, though I may occasionally go off on a tangent.

The first evening here was a great reintroduction to SA. Five of us (myself, the researchers and two of their friends) had a braai out on the back verandah. And what better way to get back into the culture of SA than a braai. Pork fillet and chicken sizzled, whilst a mix of tasty vegetables were cooked up. As an exhausted and weary traveller, I was excused from helping out though of course, I still offered to. I sat on the outdoor sofa, snuggled under the spare duvet and generally enjoyed life. The sound of the SA accent was music to my ears, and I thoroughly enjoyed the squeaky accompaniment of bats as they swooped through the verandah in search of a very different type of meal.

Bed was a welcome affair and I believe that I zonked out fairly quickly. After catching up on some sleep, it was into Heodspruit quickly to stock up on food and essentials. For me, this immediately meant two things – chocolate and biscuits. Now this sounds rather sad I admit, but I’ll explain these specific ones aren’t available in the UK.

I feel I should share something that made me chuckle. As we drove into Heodspruit, we passed a road sign. You’ll know the type I mean – triangular with a red border with a simple black picture inside, it may be related to the road or another warning. This one contained a picture of an animal. Now, the last one of these animal signs that I’d seen had been in the UK, near the RSPB Ynys-hir Reserve, and it had been a frog (or toad? Hard to tell from a simple picture!). This had amused me in itself as I’d not soon one like that before. So imagine my delight and amusement to see an elephant warning sign on the road. Somewhat different! Luckily (in terms of driving safety), I was assured that the elephants are quite rare to see on the road.

The journey back to the reserve also provided something new – a vervet monkey ambling across the road, seemingly uncaring to a car hurtling towards it. Of course, we drove around it, though it didn’t seem to even notice that it had been in our path.

So to the work reserve, where almost immediately I saw my first few impala as they dashed across the road in front of the car. They bring back fond memories of my first visit to SA as they were a frequent sighting during my stalking of zebras (there will definitely be a later post about zebras, I am slightly obsessed). Once in the reserve, we set off on foot to find the study animal – dwarf mongoose. Instead our first sighting was something rather larger – a female kudu off in the trees. Now these are fab animals, such delicate features.

We did manage to find the dwarf mongoose, but I shan’t go into details as they will fill a number of future blog posts, being the main study animal and all. Suffice to say, I was introduced to the habituation process and I fell in love with them, they are such endearing little mammals.

On the way back out of the reserve we drove past another animal that contrasted to the small dwarf mongoose – a giraffe. And a very placid one at that, it just stood there, munching away and calmly gazing at us. A certain two people reading this blog are likely to be very jealous of this close run-in, and I won’t lie when I say that my heart skipped in excitement. Two years since my last wild giraffe, then one on my first day and so close!

It has been a great start, and what I’ve written here is just skimming the surface of what I could write, but I’m trying not to bore you with the ALL the details. One other thing, dinner is being cooked currently (taken in turns each night) and it is cottage pie. Except, it is with ostrich rather than beef. So, I don’t know what kind of pie it is … but it’ll be delicious that’s for sure.

I’ve not learnt any Afrikaans or other local languages yet, so I’ll just say, so long and thanks for all the fish!