Little Gems in the Wild

Wild Zambezi travel network partners • 18 May 2021

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There are so many wonderful and very interesting sightings for visitors to enjoy when they are experiencing the Zambezi’s wonderful wild places – and many fascinating stories to be told (as experienced pro-guides know very well).  

But … a safari is NOT just about the BIG FIVE large mammals.  Some of the smallest things (geckos, spiders, flowers, trees, plants, birds, insects, fish, small animals to name a few) are truly the most fascinating (either because of their unique behaviour, or because of some particular quality or property that is significant in some way).  

For this Wild Zambezi Blog feature, we sought inspiration from our travel partners and safari guides to showcase a few of their favourite LITTLE GEMS IN THE WILD.  We hope that our readers far and wide will really enjoy these stories:-

INDEX (click to link)

1. African Bush Camps – Joker Butterflies
2. Camp Mana – Jacana Dads
3. Rhino Safari Camp – A Foam Nest Frog in the bar
4. Tiger Safaris – The Southern Green Water Snake
5. Travel Portfolio – Antlions - tiny but voracious predators
6. Victoria Falls River Lodge - A very unusual sighting of an O’Shaughnessy’s Banded Gecko
7. Victoria Falls Safari Lodge & properties (Africa Albida) – Bushbuck and Fireball Lilies in the Victoria Falls Rainforest 
8. Zambezi Cruise & Safaris – The Dancing Jewel Damselfly

 

1. JOKER BUTTERFLIES
Submitted by African Bush Camps Mana Pools 

These beautiful Joker butterflies fill the surrounding areas of our safari camps in Mana Pools, and provide a gorgeous burnt orange hue among the Leadwood trees. 

Nobody is quite sure why they are called Jokers.  Maybe its the smiling pattern form visible when the insect has its wings open? 

But there's no doubt that these little gems of the African bush are cunningly designed.

They, along with other common species like the African Monarch, start their lifespans as brightly coloured caterpillars which feed on toxic plants. The caterpillars are somehow able to absorb these toxic compounds and this makes them distasteful to predators, even when they are adult butterflies. 

Bright colour contrasts (usually reds, blacks, yellows and whites) warn predators that these butterflies are poisonous, distasteful, or dangerous (this is known as Aposematic colouration).

Even more cunning, are some perfectly harmless and palatable butterfly species which deliberately mimic the bright colours of the toxic butterflies in order to trick predators into thinking they are also poisonous! (This is known as Batesian Mimicry)

However, the flight patterns of the mimics will give them away.  Monarchs have a slow, lazy flight pattern, whereas the mimic will have a faster, more nervous flight pattern.

Many butterfles (including Jokers) will flock in large congregations to wet soil or damp animal dung which is a rich source of nutrition for them. They suck up the fluids through their long probosces, extracting extra nitrogen and sodium to benefit reproduction - a natural feature called “mud-puddling”.  

The next time you see these flying jewels, you can appreciate their survival strategies and elegance. When you visit African Bush Camps on your next safari venture, keep a lookout for these smaller insects as they play an essential role in the ecosystem and will surely enrich your wilderness experience.              Back to Index
 

2. JACANA DADS
Submitted by Camp Mana (Sunpath Safaris) Mana Pools.

We are so used to hearing about how easy males of all species have life, that we begin to believe it. In fact, for most species, this is completely untrue.

African Jacanas are not only exquisite birds with unique anatomy adapted for life on floating vegetation, but the males are dedicated parents.

This species is one of the few bird species that has a polyandrous reproductive strategy. The female mates with a male, lays eggs and then abandons them in order to mate with other males and abandon them too.

The male is a single parent, incubating and protecting the eggs until they hatch and then protecting the chicks until they fledge. When the chicks are very young (smaller than the one in this photo) they hop onto their Dad’s back at the first sign of danger and he then hides them with his wings – all except for their extremely long toes which protrude below his wing.

WHAT A LITTLE GEM (the chick and the dad)!!!          
Back to Index

 

3. GREY FOAM NEST TREE FROG
Submitted by Rhino Safari Camp - Matusadona National Park, Lake Kariba

You have to look quite hard at this image to find the delightful little Grey Foam Nest Tree Frog (Chiromantis xerampelina) hiding in the bar at Rhino Safari Camp!   

Well, he's not legless, that's for sure (despite the level in the Johnny Walker bottle!).  These endearing little frogs, which grow up to about 90mm, have long, pliant legs with webbed toes which have adhesive discs at the tips, designed for climbing trees. They are often found in and around human settlements where lights, water, and refuse attract many insects.   

As they inhabit arid climates, they have adapted to live months away from water during the dry season. They vary their skin colour to shades between white and dark brown in order to maintain a good body temperature. They also retain moisture in specially adapted skin pouches and lie motionless for long periods. If disturbed and forced to move, they lose a significant amount of water and may not be able to survive the rest of the dry season.

They breed in the rains, with the female releasing eggs onto a tree branch overhanging water. Up to 12 males then cluster around her and fertilise the eggs by producing sperm which they whip into a foamy 'nest' with their hind legs. During the wet season, you can find these little foam 'nests' everywhere. The foam insulates the eggs, keeps them moist and at a constant temperature and protects them from predators. The hatching tadpoles then fall from the nest into the water below, where they can grow and develop into adult frogs.

How clever is that?           Back to Index

 

4. SOUTHERN GREEN WATER SNAKE
Submitted by Tiger Safaris, Zambezi River, Chirundu 

The Southern Green Water Snake is a harmless snake that may be seen slithering near buildings, on lawn or around ponds.

It is a small green snake with a whitish belly and large eyes. Green Water Snakes are commonly mistaken for their more venomous counterparts like the Green Mamba or boomslang. (This is unlikely if you encounter one in the Zambezi Valley, as Green Mambas are mostly found in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe).

These little snakes average around 30 - 45 cm the largest recorded being about 1 meter. They favour damp environments like floodplains and swampy locations such as along riverbanks. These environments are essential as they feed mainly on frogs, lizards and even small fish. Smaller juveniles may feed on insects like locusts or grasshoppers.

These are placid snakes, and try to avoid interaction. Their beautiful colors serve as a camouflage and work incredibly well, making them very difficult to spot in a bush or on a patch of lawn. 

They reproduce in the warmer summer months, and may lay up to 10 eggs at a single time. Should you stumble upon one, please just stand still for a moment and allow it to wander by, or even relocate it to safely.  It will do you no harm at all.          Back to Index

 

5. ANTLIONS - tiny but voracious predators.  
Submitted by Harare-based travel planners, Travel Portfolio 

Anyone spending time in the Southern African bush cannot fail to notice that where there is sandy ground, it is often covered with hundreds of little funnel-shaped conical pits. 

These pits are among the simplest and most efficient traps in the animal kingdom.  They are created by the larvae of Antlions - tiny insect critters belonging to the large family Myrmeleontidae - to catch ants and other unsuspecting insect prey passing by. 

Adult Antlions look a bit like dragonflies or damselflies and are sometimes known as antlion lacewings. They are very feeble fliers, normally found fluttering about at night in search of a mate. They are less well known than their larvae, because their lifespans are shorter (they only live for about 3 weeks). 

The life-cycle of the Antlion starts with the adult lacewing female laying eggs in a suitable location after mating.  When the Antlion larvae hatch, each one digs a steep-sloped funnel-shaped pit trap in the sand about 5 cm deep and up to 7 cm wide. It starts with a circular groove, and then crawls backwards, using its abdomen as a plough to shovel up the soil and then throw it clear with a flick of the head.

When the pit is complete, the larva settles down at the bottom, buried in soil with only its pair of sickle-like jaws projecting above the surface.  Since the sides of the pit consist of loose sand, small insects like ants that inadvertently venture over the edge, lose their foothold, slip to the bottom, and are immediately seized by the lurking Antlion. If an ant attempts to scramble up the treacherous walls of the pit, the larva speedily flicks showers of loose sand at it from below, collapsing the sides of the pit and bringing the prey down again. 

The Antlion larva seizes its prey with its jaws, injects it with venom and enzymes, and begins to suck out the digestive juices. The dry carcass is then flicked out of the pit. The larva readies its trap once again by throwing out collapsed material from the center, and steepening the pit walls to the angle of repose.

Recent research has found that, when disturbed, Antlion larvae often "play dead" from a few minutes up to an hour to hide from predators.

When the larva attains its maximum size (which can be many months), it pupates, making a round cocoon of sand and silk spun from a slender spinneret at the rear end of the body. The cocoon is buried several centimetres deep in sand, and the insect undertakes metamorphosis into an adult for about a month.  It then emerges from the case, and works its way to the surface. After about twenty minutes, the adult's wings are fully opened and it flies off in search of a mate - the sole purpose of its short life span during which the female then lays eggs to restart the cycle.      Back to Index

 

6. O’SHAUGHNESSY'S BANDED GECKO - A very unusual sighting
Submitted by Victoria Falls River Lodge, Zambezi River, Victoria Falls 

Peter Dunning, manager of the Victoria Falls River Lodge's beautiful Island Treehouse Suites sent us his story of a very rare sighting.  "On 23 April I saw a beautiful gecko as I walked into my office at 7.00pm in the evening. I managed to get a quick photo of it before it vanished through a crack between wall and floor. As it escaped, this tiny creature (they grow to no longer than 58mm) made a curious mix of growl and hiss aimed very much as a warning to me.

In what can only be a strange coincidence, the last time I saw a gecko similar in such striking appearance was in May 2019. I have never seen one before or since, and the last sighting was also in my office. Two years ago, based on my photos, the gecko was identified as O’Shaughnessy’s Banded Gecko (Pachydactylus Capensis Oshaughnessyi)".       Back to Index

 

7. HIDDEN GEMS OF THE VICTORIA FALLS RAINFOREST
Submitted by Victoria Falls Safari Lodge (Africa Albida Tourism)

While the Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, is undoubtedly the main attraction for visitors, many delight in discovering some unexpected hidden gems found beneath the lush canopy of the "rainforest" created in the spray-zone of the falls.

Aleck Zulu, who is nature guide for the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge estate, says the flora and fauna of the falls, as well as its ever-evolving 250 million-year-old geology, are also fascinating.

A stroll beneath the towering waterberry, fig, ebony and milkwood trees, among others, will often give the visitor a glimpse of bushbuck, monkeys, baboons, warthog, as well as banded or slender mongoose and sometimes even a snake.

But Zulu says there are also plenty of rare animals lurking in the thick foliage - the civet, large spotted genet, white-tailed mongoose, water mongoose, clawless otter, porcupine, springhare and even leopard. 

While he himself has only seen leopard tracks in the rainforest, he relates that in 2019 a leopard killed a bushbuck and dragged it up a large tree next to the path to devour it  - much to the astonishment of passing visitors to the falls!

“One day up a tree we saw a boomslang (snake) trying to catch a gecko. The gecko ran and started to fall.  As it fell in front of us, the next thing to fall was the boomslang! The gecko was lying flat on the ground, the boomslang was lying on its side, and we were running away,” he laughs.

Zulu recalls a visitor who came from Russia, not to see the Victoria Falls, but to see the paddle frog, which at just 1.5cm in length is the smallest amphibian there, and is commonly seen in the rainy season.

Other small creatures include the insects … the spiders, such as the beautiful golden orb, the termites and the blister beetles, he says. 

There’s also a rich variety of birds in the rainforest, says Zulu, including endemic species such as the Schalow's turaco, green pigeon, green sandpiper, emerald cuckoo, Senegal coucal, African wag-tail and the red-faced mousebird among others.

Plants endemic to the Victoria Falls rainforest include wild date palms, African gladiolus, the fireball lily, Dr Kirk’s aloe, a type of lipfern and the pepper elder, while rare plants there are the red milkwood, lowveld milkberry, tasselberry, river nuxia, small-leaved kiaat and river climbing acacia.

In November, just before the rains, the brilliant red fireball lilies dot the forest floor, and come January and February, Zimbabwe’s national flower, the flame lily, blooms – showcasing two local icons side by side. Other special plants include the black arums, various fungi, mushrooms and maidenhair ferns.

Whatever the time of the year there is always something special happening in the Victoria Falls rainforest … its hidden gems await!            Back to Index

 

8. THE DANCING JEWEL DAMSELFLY
Submitted by Zambezi Cruise & Safaris

Often, during Zambezi Cruise and Safaris’ wilderness excursions, wildlife enthusiasts strike it lucky and see rarely photographed wildlife or wildlife behaviour. This is because we specialise in creating “magical land and lake experiences”. We create possibilities to see truly remarkable wildlife moments by providing wildlife viewing from both the water and the land. 

And, the Zambezi River basin is a grand biosphere where sightings of real wildlife gems are as frequent as they are spectacular. 

True gems to observe when on safari are these amazing Damselflies called Dancing Jewels (Platycypha caligata to be precise). As the name appropriately indicates, this little aerial insect is a real beauty.

While many of the small creatures can be called “hidden gems”, this Damselfly truly deserves this title. The Dancing Jewel, especially the female, is hard to see. Females have a dull colour (compared to the male’s electric-blue colour) and prefer to “hide” in the vegetation as opposed to the males which perch out close to water sources where they can be seen by females from a distance. 

Platycypha caligata, got its English name, Dancing Jewel, from the way the male “dances” in front of the female by hanging its legs and wiggling its abdomen, in a way that hints readiness to mate! At least that is how the courtship dance looks to us!

Of course, our Insect and Flower Photography Walks provide perfect opportunities to capture this insect in its natural environment. However, to get stunning pictures of this delightful insect, you need a bit of patience and a fair amount of “Photographer’s Urge”  - loosly defined as "a state of mind oblivious to few outside influences"!           Back to Index

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