Eastern Death’s Head Hawkmoth

These beautiful wings above belong to a hawkmoth – specifically, to an Eastern Death’s Head Hawkmoth (Acherontia styx). Hawkmoths (family Sphingidae) are known for their sustained and agile flying abilities, reminiscent of a hummingbird’s flight and giving rise to another common name, hummingbird moths. There are 12 species of hawkmoths in Egypt. (You can read about two others on the blog – the Convolvulus Hawkmoth and the Striped Hawkmoth). Like all hawkmoths, the Eastern Death’s Head Hawkmoth has narrow wings and a streamlined abdomen, aiding their fast flying.

Acherontia styx is also known as the Small or Lesser Death’s Head Hawkmoth. Globally, there are three species of Death’s Head Hawkmoths (Acherontia spp.), all named in reference to Greek myths of death. A. styx is named after one of the rivers that divides Earth from the underworld. The moths were given this name in reference to the skull-like markings, with two black spots for eyes, on the back of the thoraxes, in addition to their somewhat-gloomy coloring.

Adults have brown heads, dark thoraxes, and a yellow-striped abdomen. Their forewings are mottled brown, grey, and a reddish color. The hind wings are yellow with two black bands. Eastern Death’s Head Hawkmoths have a wingspan of 80 – 120 mm.

Eggs are laid, and the larvae (caterpillars) feed, on a range of plants – potato, aubergine, tomato, tobacco, olive, as well as Capsicum, Solanum, Datura, and Nicotiana species. The larvae are yellow/green with yellow lateral stripes and go through several instars. When mature, they dig under the soil to pupate.

And these critters get more interesting!

Death’s Head Hawkmoths can, if disturbed, rapidly expel air to emit a loud squeak, similar to that of an agitated mouse. And these hawkmoths are also known as bee moths because of their ability to safely enter bee hives and drink the honey. They do this with the use of a chemical camouflage; they mimic the scent of bees.

Another fun fact: A. styx was featured in the film The Silence of the Lambs. (A victim was found with a pupa of this moth in her windpipe and there is a scene with entomologists determining the species.)

Interestingly, Acherontia styx was, in a study published in 2022, a new record in Egypt. The previous study on Sphingidae moths in Egypt was completed in 2005.

References:

Abdelfattah Mabrouk Amer Salem. Lepidoptera of Egypt Part III: Revision of Family Sphingidae (Bombycoidea). American Journal of Entomology. Vol. 6, No. 1, 2022, pp. 7-13. doi: 10.11648/j.aje.20220601.12

Specimen of the Week 194: The Death’s-Head Hawkmoth

Blister Beetles

These colorful insects belong to the Meloidae family of beetles and are commonly known as blister beetles. There are around 3,000 different species of blister beetles worldwide, and 145 species known in Egypt. They earned their common name from their defense mechanism – a secretion of a blistering agent, cantharidin. Getting this on your skin would cause an irritating reaction, but cantharidin is also used medicinally to remove warts.

Like all beetles (Order Coleoptera), they have hardened front wings that meet in a straight line in the center of their backs. Meloids, or blister beetles, are elongate in shape and the sides of their body are parallel. The pronotum, the hard shield-like covering on their thorax, is usually narrower than the head, and the tarsal claws are split in two lengthwise. Blister beetles are often conspicuous, with outstanding and noticeable colors. This announces their toxicity to potential predators.

Blister beetles lay their eggs in masses under stones, in the ground, or on the food plants of the adults. The larvae are insectivorous and are predators of grasshopper eggs and immature bees that they consume after entering the nests. Adults can live three months or more and feed on the nectar and pollen of a diverse range of plants – from the amaranth, aster, legume, and nightshade families. Some blister beetles also feed on foliage, leaves, and flowers and can be destructive to gardens and crops. In Egypt, for example, Meloe rugosus is a pest on agricultural crops in the western desert and feeds on fava bean, wheat, peas, alfafa, and onion plants.

Adult blister beetles are seldom seen. Have you ever spotted one while wandering through wadis in South Sinai?

Desert Skimmer

Widespread in Africa and the Middle East, the Desert Skimmer (Orthetrum ransonnetii) is mostly found in hot, arid, rocky environments, like Sinai’s desert mountain region.

These dragonflies have almost completely black venation and completely transparent wings. (There is no amber color on the hind wings like in other species.) The males are blue, with an unwaisted body, and females are brown.

Because their larvae and nymphs are aquatic, Desert Skimmers are common at small flowing and standing pools of water, and particularly areas without a lot of vegetation.

Desert Skimmers are known to hang from vertical or sub-vertical rocks and walls. And if the weather is hot, they especially like to hang in shaded places.

Dragonflies are carnivorous, predatory insects, hunting on the wing for other flying insects, including mosquitoes, flies, butterflies and moths, and even smaller dragonflies. Their acute eyesight and strong, agile flight help make them some of the world’s most efficient hunters. Dragonflies catch up to 95% of the prey they pursue. And that’s good, because a dragonfly eats up to 1/5 of its weight every day.

Bedouin in Sinai, at least of the Jebeleya tribe, call a dragonfly a ghizlan غِزْلان

What do you call them in your native language?

Be sure to read the post about the Violet Dropwing where you can learn more about dragonflies’ amazing wings!

Pearl Plant

The distinctive yellow flower stalks and the pearl-like fruit of this desert shrub make it easy to recognize and remember. The pearl plant (Ochradenus baccatus) is quite common in the region and are spotted often on my wanders in the wadis near Dahab. In the springtime, they are buzzing with flying insects – bees, wasps, flies, hover flies, beetles, and more I’m sure. This shrub has been reported as one of the most important food sources for many animal species.

There’s one species in particular that the plant has a special relationship with – the Egyptian spiny mouse (Acomys cahirinus). The fruit – a fleshy, juicy berry – is attractive to desert animals. But when an enzyme in the flesh of the berries combines with what’s inside the seed, it creates a toxic “mustard oil bomb”, deterring most animals from munching on this fruit (and destroying the seeds in the process). The spiny mouse has adapted to this, however. They will collect fruits and bring them to a different, rocky area, one that is safer for them. There, the mice chew and eat the flesh, careful not to bite the seed which they then spit out, avoiding any nastiness and helping to disperse the plant’s seeds. One study suggests these safer places the mice choose are actually “the best places for young O. baccatus plants to germinate, grow and survive.” How’s that for some symbiotic behavior!

The Bedouin of Sinai have also found benefits of the pearl plant, using it in traditional medicine to cure joint pain. A bowl of water in which the leaves have been boiled is placed in a hole in the ground above which a makeshift tent is constructed. The patient then lies beneath its cover for 24 hours. Pearl plant is also used to cure aches and pains in a camel’s body except instead of boiling the leaves, the plant is placed on embers in a hole. In Saudi Arabia, the plant is used to lower blood cholesterol and to counteract malaria.

Recently, a friend and fellow plant-lover asked me if this species had separate male and female plants as she had noticed that some plants were full of berries, while others only had a few. In dioecious plants, only the plants that grow female flowers produce fruit. Date palms are a good example. It turns out, though, that the pearl plant is gynodioecious, meaning that some plants have only female flowers and some plants are bisexual, having both male and female flowers. This explains the phenomenon my friend noticed – two plants, side by side, both in full bloom but only one seeming to fruit fully.

I’ve always liked this plant’s Latin name, Ochradenus baccatus. Ochradenus comes from the Greek for “pale yellow” or “yellow ochre”, and baccatus means “adorned with berries”. It is also known as taily weed and shrubby or sweet mignonette in English and is called gurdhi by the Bedouin in South Sinai.

References:

Bailey, C., & Danin, A. (1981). Bedouin plant utilization in the Sinai and the Negev. Economic Botany, 35(2), 145–162.

K.C. Burns. Seed Dispersal: The Blind Bomb Maker. Current Biology, Volume 22 (Issue 13), 2012, Pages R535-R537. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2012.05.014.

White-crowned Black Wheatear

If you are wandering through wadis in South Sinai, it is almost guaranteed that you will see, or at least hear, a White-crowned Black Wheatear (Oenanthe leucopyga). They are resident in the rocky deserts and common around settlements and oases. The Bedouin call these birds baqa’a’ بَجَعاء

Adult birds’ approximate length, from the tip of the bill to the end of the tail, is 17 cm. They are mostly black, with a white crown, rump, and tail. Juveniles, and sometimes females, have a black crown, as seen below.

Wheatears are passerine birds. Birds in this order are sometimes called songbirds or perching birds. Their toes are arranged in such a way, three pointing forward and one backward, that facilitates perching. Wheateats eat mainly insects and have a loud, varied song. One book, Birds of Eastern Africa, describes the song as “high, loud, happy, short, fast whistles”. I think they definitely have a beautiful song. Have a listen. How would you describe it?

Tero Linjama, XC341760. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/341760

According to the authors of Gardens of a Sacred Landscape: Bedouin Heritage and Natural History in the High Mountains of Sinai,

White-crowned Black Wheatears build their nest in three stages. Small smooth rocks are placed in front of the nest to prevent snakes from entering (or, according to one informant, to warn of a snake’s presence by the noise of their disturbance). The nest is then covered with small stones, and finally the nest is layered with twigs. The birds are present all year long in wadis and around houses, feeding on insects (including ants and spiders); one Bedouin told us that in summer they also feed on black grapes. They often become very tame, and are welcomed by Bedouin as one of the ‘birds of happiness.’

Zalat and Gilbert (2008)

Seeing and hearing them in the wadis definitely adds some happiness to my wanders!

Ashwagandha

I had already published the third edition of Wandering through Wadis when, last April, we came across several plants in Wadi Kid that we’d never seen before in the wild. Ashwagandha was one of them.

Ashwagandha is a well-known plant and is one of many names given to Withania somnifera, which grows here in Sinai. There is a related species that is also native to the area – Withania obtusifolia. To complicate matters a bit, there seems to be have been some debate recently as to whether W. obtusifolia should be classified as a subspecies of W. somnifera. Which exact species I have photographed here is a mystery to me, but let’s learn about ashwagandha.

Withania is a genus of plants in the nightshade family. Of the 23 species, two – including W. somnifera – are considered economically important and are cultivated in various regions around the world for medicinal uses. In Ayurveda medicine, ashwagandha is used as a medicinal herb and dietary supplement. Other names for W. somnifera include Indian ginseng, poison gooseberry, and winter cherry…but I’ll stick to using ashwagandha (until I can confirm the Arabic name).

Ashwagandha is a drought-tolerant evergreen shrub that grows in dry, stony soil and can grow to be between 35 and 75 cm tall. The branches are hairy and grow out radially from the central stem. The leaves are dull green, generally egg-shaped, and 10 – 12 cm long. The flowers are small, green, bell-shaped and grow in clusters; the ripe fruit is orange-red.

Sadly, a 2020 article in the Egyptian Journal of Botany reports that of the 8 threats the authors categorized plants as facing, Withania somnifera is subject to seven: over-collecting; habitat loss; clearance for agriculture, mining and quarrying; disturbance by cars and trampling; urbanization; tourism; and climatic change and environmental conditions. Even though ashwagandha is apparently a common plant in Egypt, after reading that list of threats, I feel lucky to have come across these plants in the wild. I had seen them before as my husband had them growing in his permaculture garden. He tells me that ashwagandha seems popular with Egyptian gardeners and farmers these days. Have you come across ashwagandha in your wadi wanderings? Or have it growing in your garden?

Leaf Morphology: Arrangement

Since my guidebook was intended for nature-lovers, not necessarily plant specialists, I took care to define and explain the technical terms used in the descriptions of the plants in my book, choosing simpler English synonyms when possible. But it’s not always possible. So I thought it might be helpful to dedicate a few blog posts to delving into some of these technical terms a bit more, deepening our understanding and looking at some specific examples from our desert plants. And I thought I’d start with the terms used in leaf morphology.

In botany, morphology is the study of the size, shape, and structure of plants. Plant biologists use these characteristics for the descriptions, classification, and identification of plants. Having some understanding of these different characteristics will help you to recognize and identify the plants you see while wandering through wadis.

In leaf morphology, one of the key characters studied is leaf arrangement, the number and placement of leaves along the stems. This arrangement of leaves is called phyllotaxy and we’ll talk today about four general categories – alternate, opposite, whorled, and rosette – although there are various levels and ways of categorizing these patterns.

Leaf morphology (Debivort) CC BY-SA 3.0

A node is the point where the leaf emerges from a stem or twig, and arrangement is always regular.

In the alternate pattern, sometimes called spiral, each leaf or leaflet grows from a different node.

In the opposite arrangement, two leaves or leaflets grow per node, on opposite sides of the stem.

If, in this opposite pattern, the successive leaf pairs grow at right angles, it is called decussate. These perpendicular pairs of leaves are typical of plants in the mint (Lamiaceae) family, like the ones pictured below.

In the whorled arrangement, three or more leaves or leaflets are connected at one node. Blepharis attentuata, pictured below, grows whorls of four leaves.

When the leaves of the plant emerge from the base in a whorled arrangement, spreading out in a circle, it is called a rosette.

Understanding the various patterns of leaf arrangement will help you to understand plant descriptions that you read in my book and other sources. And if you come across a plant you do not know, take note of its leaf arrangement (Photos are a great way to document this.) because it could be an important characteristic to consider when identifying the plant. In the next few posts, we’ll learn about other key characters in leaf morphology that will help us identify the plants.

One of my favorite desert plants is the caper bush; its leaves grow in an alternate pattern. I also love germander (Teucrium sp), both for its delicious fragrance and its neat geometrical leaf pattern. Do you recognize these leaf patterns in any of your favorite desert plants?

Darkling Beetles

Even if you spot no other critter while wandering through wadis, you are almost guaranteed to see at least one darkling beetle, likely scurrying across the sand to find safety under a desert plant.

Darkling beetles are what we commonly call the beetles that make up the Tenebrionidae family of beetles (Order Coleoptera). There are more than 20,000 species of darkling beetles worldwide. In Egypt, there are about 400 different species, around 120 of those can be found in Sinai. I believe most of the darkling beetles that I have photographed belong to the Adesmia genus, but I have not been able to narrow down the identification any further.

Though most darkling beetles are dark in color, they are actually named for their nocturnal habits. A few beetles are colored or patterned, sometimes with red. Many of the larger species, like the ones pictured here, are flightless. The elytra (the rigid, forewings) are fused.

The domed shape of these darkling beetles, particularly those in the Adesmia genus, remind the Jebeliya Bedouin of donkeys. They refer to them as ‘uwir al banat, or “newborn donkey for girls”. 1

Darkling beetles are common in desert areas, where they fill an ecological niche as plant scavengers. They are generalist omnivores though, meaning they can feed on a wide variety of plants and animals. As both larvae and adults, they feed on fresh or decaying plant matter like leaves or rotting wood. They will also eat fungi, dead insects and larvae. You will find darkling beetles living under logs and stones, in termite and ant nests, in plant debris, and in the dry dung of animals.

I always enjoy coming across these beetles while I’m wandering. They are entertaining to watch as they scuttle out of the way or over rocks. They are a good reminder that I am not alone out there, that there is a variety of wildlife surviving in our desert wadis.

On a lunch break in Wadi Lebba a few years ago, a darkling beetle was brave enough to approach our picnic spot so I shared a bite of orange with him.

If you’ve not spotted a darkling beetle on your wanders yet, watch the ground a few meters in front of you on your next hike. Or stop for a break near some plants. If you’re quiet, you might even hear them scrambling around.

References:

1- Zalat, S., & Gilbert, F. (2008). Gardens of a Sacred Landscape: Bedouin Heritage and Natural History in the High Mountains of Sinai. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Blackstart

It’s been awhile since I’ve featured a bird on the blog, so today let’s meet the Blackstart (Oenanthe melanura), called bal’ala by the Jebeliya Bedouin.

Blackstarts are common resident birds in South Sinai and are relatively unafraid of humans so there’s a good chance you’ll come across one in your wanders and maybe even get a chance to spend some time in their company. You might be serenaded by their song:

David Marques, XC82635. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/82635

These birds have bluish-grey to grey-brown plumage with darker colored wings. They are named (Oenanthe melanura) for their black tails, which they tend to have fanned out. In classical Greek, mela means black and oura, tail. Their bodies can be up to 14 cm long.

Blackstarts live in rocky wadis, deserts, and mountain slopes, where they can often be seen hopping around on the ground, feeding on insects.

Blackstarts are monogamous and pairs remain together in their breeding territory throughout the year. The female builds the nest, a shallow cup made of grass and leaves, in rock crevices and lines it with hair and fine plant material. She will lay 3 – 4 eggs, which are blue with reddish brown speckles. The eggs, if they aren’t preyed upon by a Golden Spiny Mouse, hatch after about 13 days. Both parents feed the chicks, which fledge, or grow flight feathers and are ready to learn to fly, after 14 days.

Camel Spider

Camel spiders, sun spiders, barrel spiders, wind scorpions – all of these common names for Galeodes arabs are misleading as these fascinating critters are neither spiders nor scorpions but rather solpugids, a group of arachnids in the order Solifugae. More appropriately, they are also commonly known as Egyptian Giant Solpugids.

You may have heard of them; camel spiders have been the subject of many urban legends about their size, speed, and appetite. Despite knowing that they posed no threat to me – they are not venomous but can inflict a painful bite – seeing my first one last weekend in Wadi Kid still kind of creeped me out, partly because it was as big as my hand!

Camel spiders can grow up to 15 cm long. They have eight legs, as do most arachnids, plus two large pedipalps, or sensory appendages, in the front that look like legs. (The one I spotted was missing its front right leg.) These pedipalps have a “friction-based adhesive quality” that allows the them to grasp their prey and climb smooth surfaces.1 Camel spiders have one pair of small eyes on the top of their heads and, with their eight legs, can move quite quickly – up to 16 kph!

These solpugids are voracious predators and eat insects, rodents, lizards, and even small birds. Their favorite prey are grasshoppers though. Camel spiders have two powerful chelicerae, or jaws, that they use to chop or saw their prey into a pulp. They begin by partially severing the neck, using one pair of chelicerae to hold the prey and the other to cut. Alternating the movements quickly between the two pairs of chelicerae, they continue along the whole body. At the same time, they use regurgitated digestive fluids to liquefy the flesh and suck up the nutrients. (And if this doesn’t sound too horrifying to you, visit the first link in the resources given below to read about their mating practices!)

These two distinctive jaws give rise to the name used by the Jebeliya Bedouin for camel spiders – abu hanakain, the father of two mouths.

Solifugae, the order these camel spiders belong to, means those who flee from the sun in Latin. These solpugids often seek shade from the intense desert sun in a person’s shadow and may seem to be “chasing” a person, but really all they want is a break from the heat.

Have you spotted any Egyptian Giant Solpugids during your wanders through South Sinai?

Resources:

1 – Bittel, J. (2017, August 9). Camel Spiders are Fast, Furious, and Horrifically Fascinating. Smithsonian Magazine.

National Geographic – Camel Spider

Aly, D. & Khalil, R. (2011). Wildlife in South Sinai. Cairo. Funded by the E.U. in cooperation with G.O.S.S.