Thursday, August 26, 2010


    One of the highlights of our Southern Africa trip was our stay at Kirkman's Kamp in the Sabie-Sands private game reserves next to Kruger National Park in northern South Africa. This place is a 5 star camp with nice cabins and great dinners every night. The service was high end, 5 star all the way. We took 6 game drives during that stay. The Kamp always assigned us to the same Landrover driver and tracker for each game drive. So we became well acquainted and friendly during our stay there. Ralph was our ranger in charge and driver. He was a local Shagaan tribe member and was very knowledgeable about the local animals and plants and just nature in general. It was great fun seeing all the animals close up and I have literally hundreds of great animal photos from this trip, but my intention is not to put those photos on this post right now. Instead I want to stick with my topic title above and describe one game drive in which Ralph expressed his knowledge about animal scat. We were traveling with a couple from Toronto who were naive about these game drives but just in general funny and jocular. Ralph decided to educate us about rhino scat. Apparently rhinoceros species often defecate at the same place again and again perhaps marking their territory. But sometimes both black and white rhino will use the same area and feel the need to mark on top of the others' markings. Ralph asked us if we wanted to hear his lecture on shitology. We laughed and of course said, Yes.  Ralph got off the Landrover and picked up some of the scat, broke it apart and explained to us the difference between the two species of rhino and how we can tell the species apart by their shit. We had got to laughing so much that we couldn't keep a straight face with this teaching episode. We named Ralph, "Professor of Shitology".
     But hidden in this laughable recitation by Ralph was actual true naturalistic information. The white rhino eats grass. It has a very wide mouth. In fact that is where its name came from, a misunderstanding. It was called the wide mouthed rhino which was misunderstood to be "white rhino". Hence its name.

 The mouth is broad and is shaped to break off grass in a grazing motion. A naturalist can look at the droppings of a white rhino and see the left over grass stems in it. The droppings are also lighter color when it dries due to the flakiness created by the grass blades. On the other hand, the black rhino has a narrow mouth because it browses shrubs and bushes as our deer do so its scat is totally different. The droppings are more homogeneous in consistency and are darker colored. Since the black rhino is much more aggressive than the white, this scatological identification in a rhino marking pile might actually be of use. So if you are ever hiking near rhinoceros, remember this caveat about the nature of their scat.

More photos of Ralph and our fun time together at Kirkman's Kamp: Below,  Our dinner in the boma.

                                          Ralph holding forth at dinner in the boma, Kirkman's Kamp
 I recently read the book, The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in which she describes something that our local white tailed deer do that I knew nothing about before reading her book. Apparently deer have glands on the back of their ankles which secrete a strong scent. They are called the tarsal glands. When male deer wish to mark their territory, they rub their ankles together to distribute this scent on their feet and ankles and then they crouch with their back legs forward and urinate on their ankle to distribute this scent in that locale. The author also cited a naturalist friend of hers that could distinguish the scat of the leopard frog and the other frogs as well as between the spruce grouse, and at least two other species of grouse. And she notes that these shit piles are pretty similar.

     I have a book titled What Bird Did That? A driver's guide to some common birds of North America by Peter Hansard/Buton Silver, TenSpeed Press, 1991. This book is a tongue in cheek analysis of common bird's droppings on the windshield of your car or when they defecate from the sky on a hard surface. Strangely enough you can actually identify the bird species by these splats, though color and consistency can be altered by their diet. Still they eat typical things at certain times of the year and therefore the splays on the windshield are typical. This book is no doubt tongue in cheek as evidenced by the Dedication reprinted below:
     "This book is dedicated to the memory of Arnold McLay, undoubtedly one of the world's most brilliant and dedicated collectors of ornithological dejecta.
     "Arnold passed away in August 1986 while attempting to bring to our headquarters a rare triple splay of the Wryneck, which he had managed to collect on his windshield, some two hundred miles away in Dunbar. Unfortunately, the splay had almost completely obscured his vision and in order to see properly, Arnold was forced to drive with his head protruding form the driver's window. Tragically, he was only five miles from his destination when the combined effects of exhaustion and excitement caused him to misjudge the proximity of an oncoming truck and trailer.
     "His decapitation, however, was not in vain. Arnold's windshield and its remarkable splay miraculously survived the collision. It is, thankfully, preserved to this very day in the executive boardroom of the Birmingham Ornithological Dejecta Society.
     "In keeping with Arnold McLay's unswerving devotion to the preservation and study of splays, a commemorative plaque underneath the windshield simply reads: "The Last Great Splay of Arnold McLay"
     "These words and that windshield are an inspiration to us all."
And yet when we get to the end of the Introduction we are tempted to see seriousness to the topic and the description of the splays of various birds. Indeed, according to the authors in 1988 New Zealand devoted two official postage stamps to a picture of two rare birds and their typical windshield splays. The authors claim that the purpose of this stamp issue was to determine if there were other areas in the country where these two rare birds were living. The authors claim that indeed within 6 months of the issuing of these stamps,  three new colonies of the kaka, one of these rare birds, were put under protection. Of course, there were no such stamps issued and this is made up. But the authors had me going, enough so that as a stamp collector I did search the Internet and even a catalog of New Zealand stamps to find these "interesting stamp issues." References are made to various "Dejecta Societies" and I was hooked in to looking up some of these "societies" to see if they really existed. A very funny book which is responsible for several belly shaking laughs.
       I hope you have enjoyed this report on scatological nature. Hopefully it didn't put you to sleep like the next photo, but rather made you alert and feeling satisfied like the second photo below.

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