Desert Mantis

Camouflaged against the stones and gravel, desert mantises (Eremiaphila spp.) are so cryptic that they are difficult to spot unless they are moving.

They are well-adapted to arid habitats, and there are 31 different Eremiaphila species recorded in Egypt.

Desert mantises are voracious ambush predators, waiting patiently until their prey is spotted and then pursuing their victims quickly and grasping them with their spiked forelegs. Because their hunting relies heavily on vision, desert mantises are diurnal, or active during the day. They are very flexible, able to move their heads without moving their whole bodies, allowing a large field of vision.

Although flightless, adult desert mantises have small wings, as seen in the magnified inset below.

Have you spotted desert mantises on your wadi wanderings?

Huntsman Spider

I have not been able to photograph a huntsman spider yet, but a friend in St. Katherine has and generously shared her pictures so I could write a post about this beauty!

This is a spider in the huntsman family of spiders (Sparassidae), specifically Eusparassus walckenaeri. There are 33 spiders in the Eusparassus genus, and they can be found in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Peru. Huntsman spiders are known for their incredible speed. In fact, it’s because of their lightning speed that the Jebeleya Bedouin call them beraira.

These huntsman spiders are large with flat bodies that are dark brown to orange-brown in color, with a pattern of spots and chevrons. The bodies can be from 1 to 2.5 cm in length, with the females being larger. The legs have dark bands of color and, although the legs of most spiders are perpendicular to their bodies, the legs of huntsman spiders are not. Their legs are angled and twisted in such a way that they move with a sideways crab-like motion. (Huntsman spiders are sometimes called giant crab spiders.)

Huntsman spiders are nocturnal hunters and feed on small and large insects, especially cockroaches, so a spider would be a welcome find in your home! And there’s no reason to be afraid of them; their venom won’t hurt you.

While these spiders may be imposing hunters, they are, of course, prey to other animals, especially to a family of wasps known as “spider wasps” (Pompilidae). A female spider wasp uses its venomous sting to paralyze a spider and then drags the spider to her nest or burrow. There, she lays an egg on the spider, which is anesthetized but alive. The wasp larva hatches and proceeds to feed on the spider, saving the vital organs for last, until it finally spins a cocoon and eventually emerges as an adult wasp.

These huntsman spiders can be found in open ground, but I have never spotted one in the wadis. They can also be found indoors and I’m pretty sure I have seen (some species of) huntsman spiders scuttle through the communal seating area of a camp in Ras Sidr. Have you spotted these huntsman spiders in South Sinai?

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

Giant African Mantis

While you’re more likely to come across an Egyptian Flower Mantis in the wadis of South Sinai, Giant African Mantises are more often spotted in cultivated gardens.

Also called African Mantis or Bush Mantis, this species (Sphodromantis viridis) is a popular pet around the world. They are native to West Africa, south of the Sahara, so are an introduced species here in Sinai.

I am always so excited to find them in my desert garden. And while I don’t keep them as pets, I have been known to hand-feed them flies that I have swatted inside my house.

Like all mantises, they have a triangular head and forward facing eyes that give them binocular vision, a great advantage in catching prey. Their color can range from bright green to dull brown and are often cryptically-colored to match the background of their habitat. Females can grow up to 10 cm in length and males are always smaller. As adults, both have distinctive white spots on their wings, which you can see in the photo below if you look closely.

Males will frequently become victims of sexual cannibalism, being eaten by the females prior to, during, or after copulation. A few days after mating, the female will produce one – or several – ootheca, or egg mass.

The eggs are laid on a twig in a frothy, foam-like substance that then hardens. After three to six months, up to 300 nymphs can hatch from a single ootheca.

Mantises develop by gradual metamorphosis, molting six to nine times or more. Each time they molt, their hard exoskeleton splits and a soft-skinned mantis pushes itself out. This allow for a larger exoskeleton to grow. As they wait for their new skin to harden, they hang upside down and are quite vulnerable to predators, particularly birds. The time range between molts is usually nine to fifteen days and the mantises will eventually become adults and develop wings.

Besides lacking wings, the abdomens of nymphs are folded, but they are still skillful ambush predators, waiting quietly for prey to approach.

They are general predators, eating all types of arthropods – mosquitoes and gnats when the mantises are small and moving on to larger critters like bees, moths, grasshoppers, and crickets as they grow. They will even eat other mantises.

They have grasping front legs to catch and hold their prey and extremely strong mouth parts.

An interesting side note: praying mantises may have had religious significance in Ancient Egypt. It might have been believed that the mantises served as guides to the deceased on their journey to the afterlife. And in one excavation in Luxor, a small clay coffin was found that held the remains of a praying mantis wrapped in linen.

Have you spotted a Giant African Mantis in Sinai?

Blister Beetles

Blister beetles, in the Meloidae family of beetles, earned their name from their defense system. They secrete a caustic chemical, cantharidin, which is an effective repellent for predators and can cause blisters on the skin when the beetles are handled.

The bodies of blister beetles are usually long and slender and often bi-colored. Their antennae are threadlike or beadlike.

Blister beetles use their strong jaws to chew the flowers and foliage that they feed on.

Mylabris sp.

The bright red and black pattern on the blister beetle pictured above is a warning sign of their toxicity to predators.

Mylabris sp.

Flower Crab Spider

Crab spiders are abundant in my desert garden at home and can also be spotted out in the wadis. Belonging to the Thomisidae family of spiders, they earned their common name from the way they extend their front pairs of legs in a crab-like fashion.

Female Flower Crab Spider (Thomisus citrinellus) on a flower bud of a caper bush.

Flower crab spiders belong to the genus Thomisus and there are about 150 species worldwide. They earned their name from the fact that they are ambush predators, sitting and waiting motionlessly in or nearby flowers for prey to approach. Today, I will introduce you to the Flower Crab Spider Thomisus citrinellus.

Female Flower Crab Spider (Thomisus citrinellus) on horsemint (habaq) flowers.

Like all crab spiders, the males are much smaller and differently-colored than the females. Female spiders can vary in color – I’ve seen both yellow and white – and the color may depend or change according to the surrounding vegetation. They range from 5 – 7.3 mm in size, whereas males grow from 2.1 – 2.6 mm long. Females usually have dark spots on the points of their abdomens. The first two pairs of legs are longer and thicker and have spines. On the first pair of legs, there are four distinctive dark bristles, often seen as dots in the field. These dark bristles distinguish this from other similar Thomisus species.

Female Flower Crab Spider with a male riding piggyback.
Male Flower Crab Spider (Thomisus citrinellus) on a caper flower.

Flower Crab Spiders prey on a variety of insects – flies, hoverflies, bees, and sometimes other spiders.

Thomisus citrinellus with prey (hoverfly).
Thomisus citrinellus with prey (fly).
A white female, with a male riding piggyback, preying on a yellow female.

Flower Crab Spiders do not build webs, but they will spin silk thread to use as a drop line or to fold leaves into a tent-like structure where they can hide in ambush. Eggs are also laid in a silk dish covered with a lid.

Thomisus citrinellus with silk folding a leaf of a caper bush.
Thomisus citrinellus with its silk drop line visible.
A baby Flower Crab Spider (Thomisus citrinellus)

Common Black Scorpion

In all my time in the deserts and wadis of South Sinai, I have encountered scorpions only twice. And that’s okay with me. They kind of creep me out, just like their arachnid cousins, spiders, used to. But I’ve learned to love spiders and so maybe one day I’ll feel differently about scorpions too. Indeed, I was simultaneously freaked out and fascinated when we encountered this Common Black Scorpion (Nebo hierichonticus) in a wadi last spring.

Common Black Scorpions can grow up to 11 cm in length, not including the tail. Their color ranges from light or reddish brown to dark brown with their legs and large pincers being slightly lighter in color.

I was relieved, once I was able to identify this scorpion, to learn that while their venom is quite toxic, causing hemorrhage and necrosis to small prey, their stings are generally harmless to humans, being compared to the sting of a honeybee. The scorpions prey mainly on big insects and spiders and sometimes on small vertebrates like geckos.

Common Black Scorpions live in and under big stones and rocks or in cracks and burrows in deserts and arid mountainous regions.

Sinai is home to a variety of scorpion species, including two of the most dangerous in the world – the Arabian Fat-tailed Scorpion (Androctonus crassicauda) and the Death Stalker (Leiurus quinquestriatus). You can also find Egyptian Pillar-tailed Scorpions, Egyptian Sand Scorpions, and Large-clawed Scorpions in Sinai, although this list is not exhaustive.

The Bedouin of South Sinai “have devised their own version of a primitive vaccine that is believed to provide their children with immunity against venomous stings of scorpions and wasps.” The process of immunization differs among tribes, but for the Jebaliya tribe, it involves collecting, roasting, and grinding a spider wasp and a young Death Stalker scorpion along with a bit of sugar. To this powder, spit from someone believed capable of passing on their immunity is added. This mixture is then given to a child sometime before they eat their first solid food.*

References:

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

Jericho Scorpion – Nebo hierichonticus – Mahmiyat.ps

Grasshoppers in Sinai

Four pictures of grasshoppers in Sinai.

Grasshoppers belong to the order Orthoptera, which also includes locusts and crickets. Worldwide, there are more than 20,000 species in this order. In this image, you can see:

Black Cone-headed Grasshoppers (Poekilocerus bufonius)
and
Egyptian Grasshoppers (Anacridium aegyptiacum)

The Cone-headed Grasshoppers are very common in the wadis around Dahab, both in their black adult phase and their pale/yellow colored nymph phase. And are often seen mating, the large female carrying the smaller male on her back.

Crimson-speckled Flunkey

I just love the common name of this moth – Crimson-speckled Flunkey is so much fun to say!

Crimson-speckled Flunkey
On a Trichodesma plant.

This moth (Utetheisa pulchella) belongs to the Erebidae family and can be found in dry open spaces in the Afrotropical ecozone in North Africa, the Near East, and Central Asia.

Crimson-speckled Flunkey

Their wings are white with small black spots between larger bright red one with an irregular black border. Their heads and thorax areas can be cream- to yellow-colored with the same pattern as the wings.

Crimson-speckled Flunkey
A dead specimen, perhaps a meal for a mantis or a spider.

Crimson-speckled Flunkeys fly during both the day and night, making them easier to spot than only night-flying moths. I have seen them in various locations in South Sinai, on a variety of plants.

Crimson-speckled Flunkey
Crimson-speckled Flunkey

The larvae, or caterpillars, eat a range of plants. In Sinai they most likely eat the leaves of Trichodesma and Heliotropium plants, as well as others. As they eat, the caterpillars accumulate a large amount of alkaloids in their bodies, making them unpalatable and toxic to birds. Their colors serve as a warning sign: They are dark brown or gray with orange lines across each segment. They have lateral white lines along their bodies and tufts of grayish hairs. I have never seen the caterpillars, at least not that I recall, but I found the image below on Wikipedia.

Have you ever spotted these moths or caterpillars on your wanderings?

Wasps in Sinai

Wasps are insects in the order Hymenoptera, which also includes sawflies, bees, and ants. Wasps such as hornets are social and live together in a nest. But most wasps are solitary. Wasps can be predators and pollinators. Some are parasitoidal, meaning they lay their eggs IN or ON other insects. The larvae eventually kill the host insect. Solitary wasps often do this to pest insects, so can be a beneficial pest control for crops. 

A collection of images of five different wasps in Sinai.

Pictured here are a handful of the different wasps in Sinai:

Sand Wasp (Bembix sp.)
Caterpillar Hunting Wasp (Delta dimidiatipenne)
Carrot Wasp (Gasteruptiidae family)
Oriental Hornet (Vespa orientalis)
Thread-waisted Wasp (Ammophila sp)

Bugs in Sinai

Not all insects are bugs. True bugs form the order Hemiptera and include such critters as cicadas, aphids, planthoppers, leafhoppers, and shield bugs. Most bugs feed on plants, using their sucking mouth parts to get at the sap.

Here you can see a nymph of a Lygaeid bug, a Bagrada Bug, Milkweed Bugs, a Black Watermelon Bug, and a Shield Bug nymph.

Bugs in Sinai