Mantises in Sinai

Mantids in Sinai

Top Left: Giant African Mantis (Sphodromantis viridis)
Top Right: Desert Mantis (Eremiaphilidae sp)
Bottom Left: Cone-headed Mantis (Empusidae family)
Bottom Right: Egyptian Flower Mantis (Blepharopsis mendica)

The bottom two are in their nymph stage.

You can learn more about the Egyptian Flower Mantis in this post.

Beetles in Sinai

Beetles, forming the largest order of insects with nearly 400,000 identified species, account for nearly 40% of all insects. So I guess it’s no surprise that my collection of beetle images is one of my largest!

Beetles in Sinai

Here’s what you can see in this sampling:

Blister Beetle
Carpet Beetle 
Darkling Beetle
Red Palm Weevil
Seven-spotted Ladybug
Hairy Rose Beetle
Jewel Beetle
and a few unidentified beetles (the blue/green ones…can anyone help with an ID?)

Dragonflies in Sinai

A couple of months ago, my external hard drive malfunctioned and I lost thousands of my photos – mostly my pics of Sinai wildlife. Fortunately, my talented husband was able to recover a good chunk of the images. Recently, instead of wandering through wadis shooting new photos, I’ve been sorting and renaming all the recovered images. It’s a bit tedious and overwhelming, so I took breaks to put together different collections, like this one – Dragonflies in Sinai. I’ll be sharing some more of these over the next few weeks so stay tuned. 🙂

Dragonflies in Sinai

Top Left and Bottom Right: Violet Dropwing (Trithemis annulata)
Middle Left: Desert Skimmer (Orthetrum ransonneti)
Bottom Left: Slim Scarlet-Darter (Crocothemis sanguinolenta)
Top Right: Unknown

Burton’s Carpet Viper

Although I’m super excited to share this venomous viper with you today, I’m also super thankful that I don’t come across them more often on my wanderings. Why? Because “species in the genus Echis are responsible for the greatest proportion of all snake bite fatalities in humans.” (ARKive) Eek!

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This Burton’s Carpet Viper (Echis coloratus) was spotted in a wadi in Dahab, moving away from us – or we wouldn’t have been so excited to come across it! But it took its time crossing the narrow path in front of us and then slithering its way up the sunny rocks, giving us plenty of time to observe its beauty.

These vipers have short, stocky bodies and wide heads and can grow to lengths of 75 cm. Their backs are covered with a pattern of pinkish-grayish blotches that have a darker outline. They also have dark gray bands that stretch from the eyes to the corners of their mouths. Their coloration gives them excellent camouflage against the rocks.

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Called hayiah or um jenah by the Jebaliya Bedouin, these vipers are fairly common in South Sinai and can be found at elevations up to 2,000 m. They typically live in rocky mountainous regions, on steep slopes, ledges, cliffs, and in rocky wadis. They are nocturnal and crepuscular, active during twilight. But we spotted this one on the move at around 9 in the morning.

Another name for these vipers is the Palestine Saw-Scaled Viper. This name comes from their defensive strategy of rubbing their coils together to produce a strong hissing or sawing sound when approached, especially to deter humans as they don’t want to waste their precious venom on us. Other names include the Arabian Saw-Scaled Viper, Mid-East Saw-Scaled Viper, and the Painted Carpet Viper.

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Burton’s Carpet Vipers are unusual among vipers as they lay eggs, whereas their relatives give birth to live young. The vipers feed on small mammals, birds, lizards, and large invertebrates. They have long, hollow fangs that they can reportedly fold back against the roof of their mouths when not in use.

Seeing as this viper and its relatives are considered to be among the world’s most dangerous snakes, I will be sure to pay better attention when I set up camp in the desert!

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.

Palestine saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus) on ARKive.org

Egyptian Fan-toed Gecko

These little lizards have been showing their faces around my house and garden lately, so I’d thought we’d take a break from the buzzers and introduce the Egyptian Fan-toed Gecko!

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Also known as the Common Fan-footed Gecko, Ptyodactylus hasselquistii is reported to be “the most abundant of all lizards inhabiting the lowland wadis of South Sinai.” You’ve probably seen them around. They are easily recognized by their flared or fan-shaped toes.

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Ptyodactylus hasselquistii by Todd Pierson, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr

The gecko pictured above was hanging out on my ceiling several weeks ago. Fan-toed Geckos are excellent climbers and can run easily across boulders, vertical rock walls, and cave roofs, as well as under ledges and overhangs. The geckos are able to do this thanks to thousands of microscopic toe scales – hooked, hair-like projections that allow the lizards to grip almost any surface.

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Called burs abu kaf in Arabic, these medium-sized geckos have flat, narrow heads, short and slender limbs, and long tails. Their color varies greatly depending on their surroundings, but they typically have dark bands across their back and tails. Fan-toed Geckos are generally nocturnal, coming out at night to forage on insects and arachnids, but they can also be active during the day, especially when the weather is colder and they can be found sunning themselves in a sheltered and safe location.

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Most lizards are usually mute, but not these geckos! They will make a chirping or clicking sound – tek, tek, tek – to communicate with other geckos. (In fact, during my afternoon nap today, I’m pretty sure I heard the one that my cat chased into the kitchen a few days ago. Poor thing is probably stressed and wanting to get back outside.)

Another fun fact: Geckos do not have eyelids. Instead their eyes are covered with a membrane that they must lick to clean and keep moist.

Want to know more? Head over to Mother Nature Network and read 12 Surprising Facts about Geckos.

Note: There is another species of Fan-toed Gecko in South Sinai – the Spotted Fan-toed Gecko (P. guttatus), which the guidebook says is the species found above 800 meters. There may also be several subspecies of Ptyodactylus hasselquistii, but this is still debated by scientists.

References:

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

Common fan-footed gecko (Ptyodactylus hasselquistii) on ARKive.org.

 

Ladybird Beetles

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Ladybird Beetles, or Ladybugs as I grew up calling them in North America, are quite well-known beetles, but some people may be surprised to learn that you’ll find these colorful beetles in the deserts of Sinai.

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Ladybirds are red, yellow, or orange colored beetles with small black spots on their wing covers. They have small dome-shaped bodies and six short legs. Contrary to popular belief, the number of spots do not indicate age but rather a specific species. Both of the beetles pictured above are Seven-spotted Ladybird Beetles (Coccinella septempunctata), one of the most common.

I have also seen Eleven-Spotted Ladybirds (Coccinella undecimpunctata), pictured below, on caper plants in the wadis around Dahab.

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Both the larvae and adults feed on aphids, small insects that suck the sap from plants. Ladybirds are therefore quite useful in helping to fight these pests in gardens, especially the ones in the mountains around St. Katherine’s, but also in my own desert garden. 🙂

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When threatened, adult ladybirds release a yellow substance from a joint on their leg that is distasteful to predators and convinces them to find their next meal somewhere else.

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The Bedouin in Sinai call Ladybird Beetles ‘uwaynat umm sulayman, or “the eyes of Solomon’s mother”.

In traditional folklore in some cultures, Ladybird Beetles are thought to bring good luck. Have ladybirds brought you any luck in the Sinai?

References:

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.

Seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata) on ARKive.org

Schokari Sand Racer

This past weekend we decided to wander along one of our usual routes, and I was treated to an unusual spotting – a sand snake! As we were walking, we passed a large dark boulder where I often spot agama lizards. I was just about to mention this to my friend when I looked down at the rock I was about to step on, suddenly realized that is what not a branch laying across it, and quickly had to swing around to avoid stomping on a snake. Eeek! I’m not completely comfortable with snakes apparently. But he was beautiful! A gorgeous golden-brown color with dark brown patterns. I wish I could share a picture of him, but I guess he was just as scared as me because he slithered away and hid beneath a rock.

We have spotted these sand snakes before, maybe three or four other times, in wadis near Dahab. The first time we saw one, in 2010, it was my husband who almost stepped on the snake. That time though, the snake stayed still long enough for us to take a few photos. And we were able to identify it as a Schokari Sand Racer (Psammophis schokari).

These snakes are long and slender; they can grow to a length of about 1.5 meters. The patterns and colors of Schokari Sand Racers can vary a lot, ranging from a light sandy-gray with pale patterns to strong, dark contrasting colors.

[UPDATE] Since writing this post, I’ve encountered more Sand Racers and, not being as startled, was able to get some new pics.

Schokari Sand Racers live in sandy and rocky deserts and prefer places with good vegetation. They are most common in coastal areas. During times of bird migration, these snakes might be found on nearby trees and bushes. Here they wait to feed on the small songbirds that are flying through.

Schokari Sand Racers are found throughout the Sinai peninsula and are actually one of the most common snakes in Egypt.

Notice the dark stripe that runs from the snout, past the eyes, to the back of the head.

And there’s a reason they’re called Sand Racers – they can reach speeds up to 16 kph when chasing prey! The snakes typically eat lizards, small birds, rodents, and other snakes. After grabbing their prey, they release a venom that immobilizes the animal before swallowing them head first. Despite being venomous, Schokari Sand Racers are generally not a threat to humans as their main defense is their speed. I’m grateful for that. 

Have you come across snakes during any of your wadi wanders? How did you – or  how would you – feel about such an encounter?

References:

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

Schokari sand racer (Psammophis schokari) on ARKive.org

Arghel

This is one of my favorite times of year to wander through the wadis of Sinai. For many reasons. Because of recent rains, the wadis are bursting with tiny green baby plants right now. I always enjoy stopping to discover what plants come up first after the rains, and what they look like when they’re so young. Fascinating! For me. 🙂 Another reason I love this time of year is that the arghel plants are in bloom – and they give off such a delightful fragrance!

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Some wadis, like Wadi Kid, are lined with arghel plants (Solenostemma arghel), called harjal in Arabic. If you are lucky enough to walk through one of these wadis in November, it will be a joy for your senses! Often you will smell the flowers before you turn a corner and see the plant.

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Harjal is an evergreen shrub in the dogbane family. The plants grow up to 1 meter high and 10 meters in diameter. They live in gravelly, sandy, and rocky soils usually at the edge of wadi beds. Here’s a picture of a large harjal plant growing near Wadi Connection in Dahab:

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The leaves are greyish-green and their white flowers grow in bunches. The fruits are purplish-green, oval shaped, and can grow up to 5 cm in length.

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When they are ripe, they turn yellow and dry to a light brown. They split open, releasing dozens of tufted seeds that are blown by the wind.

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Bedouin in Sinai use this plant for medical reasons, as do many people throughout Egypt. Sadly, this plant is endangered due to over-collection for sale at herb shops dealing in medicinal herbs. Locally, the stem and leaves are used to treat a variety of ailments – infected sores and cuts, coughs and colic.

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I’m not the only one attracted to these fragrant blooms! Butterflies, bees, and other pollinators are drawn to the flowers’ sweet nectar. In the picture below you can see two orange Painted Lady butterflies – the species I see most often on the harjal flowers – and a Brown-veined White butterfly.

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Painted Lady Butterfly (Vanessa cardui)

Striped Hawkmoth

I promised – to those of you follow on Facebook – that my next post would be about this magnificent critter that I found on a basil plant in my garden –

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– as he was indeed the inspiration for getting back to work on this blog, and so today is all about…hawkmoths!

Unfortunately, I do not know – yet! – exactly who this bright green caterpillar is, but I do know that he (or she) is in the Sphingidae family of moths. Moths in this family are commonly called hawkmoths, sphinx moths, or hornworms.

There are over 1,450 species of Sphingidae moths. The larvae, or caterpillars, of hawkmoths are hairless and have a “horn” on the posterior end.

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Striped Hawkmoth (Hyles livornica)

And while I do not know which caterpillar was munching on my basil plant, I do know who was bending over backwards to eat the tips of desert lavender. That is a larva of the Striped Hawkmoth, Hyles livornica.

It was early spring 2013 and we had had a wet winter in Dahab. There had even been a hail storm in November. So the desert plants were flourishing in the wadis!

On one early morning wander, we came across an area lush with fresh green asphodel, lavender, and sorrel. And crawling across the sandy wadi were the most amazing caterpillars I had seen in Sinai! Dozens of them. Some of the largest were as long and thick as my index finger. They were happily munching on all the nearby herbs.

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Like all caterpillars, these Striped Hawkmoth larvae go through several stages of development, or instars, and their colors and patterns can change quite dramatically at each stage.

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Hawkmoth caterpillars will burrow into the soil or gravel or hide among the rocks to pupate and I have never seen that stage of development. But about a month after we saw the caterpillars, we discovered the adult Striped Hawkmoths. They were busy feeding on the dhafrah (Iphiona scabra) flowers.

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Sphingidae moths are known for their rapid flight and ability to hover in midair while they feed. They use their long proboscis (mouth parts) to reach the nectar in the flowers. Male moths are typically smaller than females. Both are beige with white stripes. Their hindwings, not seen when the wings are at rest, are pink and edged with black and white.

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a Striped Hawkmoth, attracted to the light in the tent during a spring safari

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Dahab was blessed recently with several good rainstorms and young desert plants are already poking their heads through the sand. Let’s hope the plants start to thrive again and that we have beautiful green wadis to wander through this coming spring. The butterflies and moths would be happy with that, too!

References:

Striped hawkmoth ~ ARKive

Hyles livornica ~ Moth and Butterflies of Europe and North Africa

Hyles livornica ~ Wikipedia

Violet Dropwing Dragonfly

Being some of the largest insects you’ll come across as you wander through the wadis, dragonflies are often spotted. There is not a lot of easily-available information about dragonflies in Egypt, at least not in English. One report from 1980 claims that at least 52 species of dragonflies occur in Egypt. And, like for other flora and fauna, Sinai boasts the most exceptional species.

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Dropwing dragonflies, those in the Trithemis genus, are named for their habit of lowering their wings upon landing.

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This beauty is a female Violet Dropwing (Trithemis annulata). The males of the species appear purple or violet, hence the name, due to a powdery blue substance on top of a bright red body. The males also have red veins in their wings. The females have a yellow-brown body and no red in their wings. Both have a yellow- or amber-colored patch at the base of the hindwing.

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The female Violet Dropwings are the dragonflies that I spot most often, both in my desert garden and out in the wadis. As far as I know, I’ve never seen a male. Like all dragonflies, their life cycle begins when eggs are laid in water, meaning you are most likely to spot them near fresh, still water. Wadi G’Nai is often buzzing with these dragonflies!

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Dragonflies have two sets of wings that they use to fly upwards and downwards, backwards and forwards, and side to side. They can also hover! And see those dark cells in the wings that are circled in the photo above? They are called pterostigmata. They help form a thicker, heavier section of the wing. This helps stop vibrations and allows the dragonflies to glide.  Amazing, right?

I have always loved dragonflies. For their size. For their colors. For their flight. And now I also love them because they visit my desert garden and strike poses on my aloe plants. And they sit still long enough for me to get my camera and take some pics. If you’ve got your own photos of dragonflies in Egypt, consider joining the Biodiversity in Egypt or the Wildlife of the Sinai Peninsula mission on Project Noah. Let’s see how many different species we can document!

References:

Notes on dragonflies in Egypt

Violet Dropwing ~ ARKive