Dead Sea Apple Tree

The Dead Sea Apple Tree (Calotropis procera) is one you are more likely to see growing in the coastal plains of South Sinai rather than the mountain wadis. They are easy to spot along the main roads and even in the main cities of Dahab and Nuweiba.

Called ‘ushaar ( العشار ) in Arabic, this is a small tree in the dogbane family. It can grow up to four meters in height and the bark is light brown and cracked.

The leaves are large and grayish-green in color and are a popular meal for the larvae, or caterpillars, of the African Monarch Butterfly (Danaus chrysippus).

The small flowers, which grow in clusters, are some of my favorite – small and white with purple tips. They bloom from May to November and are pollinated by Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa sp).

The fruits are large, bright green and inflated like a balloon.

The fruits were traditionally used by the Bedouin of South Sinai as floats for fishing nets and the fibers used to make skull caps as well as stuffing for cushions.

When they are fully ripe, the fruit bursts open, releasing hundreds of seeds with fine, long, white hairs. It is common to see the seeds floating through the air in springtime.

So common in fact, they starred in one my children’s books, The Flying Seed, which you can read and download for free at my Books by Habiba blog where you can find a few other nature-related titles.

Although beautiful, this plant leaks a milky acrid sap when broken that can cause possible irritation to the skin and, I’ve heard, vision impairment.

Calotropis procera is also known as Sodom Apple, Sodom’s Milkweed, Rooster Tree, and Rubber Bush and is one of many plants mentioned in the Bible and Quran.

You can find this plant, and over a hundred others, in my guide book, Wandering through Wadis: A nature-lover’s guide to the flora of South Sinai.

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?

Sinai Agama

A common critter to come across in the wadis, the Sinai Agama (Pseudotrapelus sinaitus) is known in Arabic as qadi sina’, or the “judge of Sinai”, due to a stance they take – raising themselves high up on their limbs and tilting their head.

Males take this stance when they sit in prominent look-out locations, defending their territory. Sinai Agamas also raise themselves up to avoid the extreme heat of the rocks. Notice that the toes are also not in full contact with the hot ground.

Sinai Agamas have triangular-shaped heads with large ear openings in line with the mouth. They are slender lizards, their body up to 10 cm in length, with long, thin limbs. Characteristic of this species, their third hind toe is longer than the fourth.

Their color varies greatly between the sexes and depending on the breeding season, during which time the head, throat, and neck of the males become a bright blue and females display several red-brick bands on their backs.

Sinai Agamas live in dry, rocky mountainous and hilly areas. They are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, and active in the hottest part of the day. You can often find them basking in the sun atop boulders, cliffs, and piles of stones. If you’re quiet and don’t make any sudden movements, I’ve found the agamas will stay put and let you admire them for a few minutes (which is one reason I have so many photos of these adorable lizards).

Maybe it’s because I spot them in cooler weather, when their metabolism is lower. Typically, apparently, when alarmed, the Sinai Agama will quickly run off. Unless the outside temperature is lower and they are incapable of sudden bursts of speed. Then their instinct it to stand their ground and attack their aggressors.

I came across a Sinai Agama in Wadi Beida once. He was a couple of meters ahead of me when I spotted him and stopped to take a photograph. He had noticed my presence and as I photographed him, his head turned more and more blue. He then turned and ran full speed at my feet, as if he was going to attack me. I didn’t move. Neither did he. After a moment or so, he turned around, headed back to the boulder he had come from, and went back to munching on ants as I continued to photograph him. It seemed he had accepted I was no threat to him and could carry on as usual.

The Sinai Agama that “attacked” me

Sinai Agamas feed on insects, mainly ants, and other arthropods, as well as plants. They are “sit-and-wait foragers” and agile climbers, darting off quickly to chase after insects when they spot them nearby.

Sinai Agamas are one of my favorite critters to encounter while wandering through wadis! What are yours?

References:

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

Baha El-Din, Sherif. (2006). A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Wikipedia: Sinai agama

Samwa

Samwa (Cleome droserifolia) is one of the most popular medicinal herbs in Egypt and a common one to come across in the wadis of South Sinai, including around Dahab. It also has one of the most beautiful blooms.

Samwa is an aromatic shrub covered in glandular hairs that give off a distinct scent, one that can sometimes greet you several meters from the plant. I find its sharp fragrance quite pleasant, but not everyone agrees with me.

Samwa grows in rocky, gravelly, and sandy desert wadis and plains. Older bushes are round and can grow quite large, up to 60 cm high.

Bedouin of South Sinai use samwa medicinally to treat a variety of ailments in both people and animals, including bee stings, internal and external infections, and diabetes.

When you stop to have a closer look at samwa bushes, you’re likely to encounter Green Lynx Spiders.

Green Lynx Spider with egg sac on a samwa bush

You can learn about samwa and more than one hundred other plants growing in South Sinai in my book Wandering through Wadis. Check it out.

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.

Golden Spiny Mouse

The small and stocky Golden Spiny Mouse (Acomys russatus), called fa’r abu shawk dhahabi in Arabic, is named for its spiny, golden-orange colored fur that runs from its head to the base of its tail.

They use this spiny fur as part of their defense system, erecting the spines to appear larger than they are to predators, which include birds of prey, owls, and snakes. They will also bite to defend themselves.

Its blackish tail is shorter than its body. They have black ears with a white patch of fur behind each ear. Their underside is pale-colored, their legs gray, and their feet pale with black soles. They have a distinct white spot below their eyes.

Golden Spiny Mouse in Wadi Gharba

Golden Spiny Mice do not make burrows, but rather live in rock crevices and among boulders. They are more strictly found in arid and rocky areas than their cousins, the Cairo Spiny Mice (Acomys cahirinus), which are also found in Sinai. Golden Spiny Mice are also diurnal and more likely to be seen during the day than their cousins.

These rodents are omnivorous and are reported to eat plant matter, seeds, dates, grains, and insects like moths and grasshoppers, but also spiders, scorpions, and dung.

I spotted the Golden Spiny Mouse in the video above in Wadi G’Nai and watching him try to get all the goodies out of the caper fruit was quite entertaining! These mice can even be found at the top of Gebel Musa.

Have you ever spotted one of these cute fellows in South Sinai?

References:

Fishman, B. 2000. “Acomys russatus” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 26, 2019 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Acomys_russatus/

Hoath, Richard. (2003). A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.