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!

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.

Nubian Ibex

Last spring, while wandering through wadis, I was lucky enough to spot a Nubian Ibex. Many years ago while driving, I saw a small herd of ibex in the distance. We stopped the car to watch them, but they were too far away to truly appreciate. Not this time!

Nubian Ibex (Capra nubiana)

Nubian Ibex are strong and stout goat-like mammals, adept and agile at climbing through the rocky mountainous terrain they typically call home.

Both male and female Nubian Ibex have backswept, ridged horns that are “flattened like sword blades”, but they are longer and heavier in males. Their coat is a light sandy brown on their upper parts with a white belly and legs. Males, and some old females, have black beards. Nubian Ibex have a distinctive pattern on their legs, with black patches above and below the knee and a white patch above their hooves.

These animals are active in the early morning and late afternoon. Ibex are herbivores, eating grass, shrubs, roots, and Acacia, and they need access to standing water.

While I have not come across another more ibex, I have seen their scat in various places that I have wandered. The scat is pellet-shaped and consists only of vegetation (not fur or feathers as in carnivores).

Encounters with ibex in South Sinai are rare as the number of these beautiful mammals has been greatly declining over the years, due in part to illegal hunting (which is why I won’t say where exactly I was wandering when I spotted this one). They are listed as a “vulnerable” species on the IUCN Red List. Their survival is also threatened by competition with local livestock and feral camels, habitat loss and degradation, and the fluctuating availability and distribution of waterholes.

My encounter with a Nubian Ibex was indeed special and not one I shall ever forget!

References:

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

Butterflies in Sinai

Butterflies! I love them. I am enthralled by their process of metamorphosis. Over the years, I have raised dozens of them indoors and watched them grow and change from tiny caterpillars to delicate chrysalises to beautiful butterflies. Often I share this experience with my students, who are as fascinated as I am, learning along with them.

I am able to identify most of the butterflies I spot thanks to the book Butterflies of Egypt: Atlas, Red Data listing & Conservation by Francis Gilbert and Samy Zalat. You can download the book for free here. Many thanks to the authors for sharing this amazing resource!

Butterflies in Sinai

In the photo collection above, you can see:

Large Salmon Arab (Colotis fausta)
Grass Jewel (Chilades trochylus)
Small White (Pieris rapae)
African Babul Blue (Azanus jesous)
Saharan Swallowtail (Papilio saharae)
Dark Grass Blue (Zizeeria karsandra)
Desert White (Pontia glauconome)
African Caper White (Belenois aurota)
African Monarch (Danaus chrysippus)
Pomegranate Playboy (Deudorix livia)
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
Long-tailed Blue (Lampides boeticus)
Scarce Green-striped White (Euchloe falloui)
Mediterranean Tiger Blue (Tarucus rosaceus)

Spiders in Sinai

It wasn’t until I turned my camera lens from the desert blooms to the creepy crawlies that I got over my fear of spiders. Mostly. Big, hairy ones still freak me out. But the little ones I find around the local wadis and my own desert garden have grown on me and I think they are quite stunning! Luckily, none of these commonly seen spiders are venomous, but there are dangerous spiders in Sinai, like the rare White Widow Spider. Camel Spiders are not spiders nor scorpions, but rather in their own order of Arachnids.

Spiders in Sinai

In this collection, you can see:

Flower Crab Spider (Thomisus sp.)
Spitting Spider (Scytodes sp.)
Velvet Spider (Stegodyphus dufouri)
Hairy Field Spider (Neoscona sp.)
Pantropical Jumping Spider (Plexippus paykulli)
Giant Daddy Long Leg Spider (Artema atlanta)
Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia arabica)
Jumping Spider (Thyene imperialis)
Unknown Jumping Spiders (Family Salticidae)

You can learn more about the Green Lynx Spider at this post.

Flies in Sinai

Flies can be pesky for sure, but when you take a closer look, many of them are quite beautiful! Flies are in the order Diptera, which includes not only those pesky house flies but horse-flies, crane flies, fruit flies, hoverflies, midges, and mosquitoes.

Flies in Sinai

In this sampling of flies in Sinai, you see:

Top Left: Band-eyed Hoverfly (Eristalinus taeniops)

Bottom Left: Common Green Bottle Fly (Lucilia sericata)

Top Right: Hoverfly (Eupeodes corollae)

The other two images are unidentified fruit flies (Drosophilidae family).

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

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!

IMG_7147

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.

Egyptian Fan-toed Gecko 2

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.

Egyptian Fan-Toed Gecko_Wadi G'Mai (2)

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.