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.

Desert Plant Adaptations (III) ~ Drought-escaping Plants

I’ve written about two general strategies that plants employ to survive in desert habitats – succulence and drought-deciduousness. Today I’ll introduce the most successful adapters to life in the desert – drought-escaping plants. Plants escape drought in one of two ways. They either survive only as seeds or they use taproots.

Annuals are plants that wither and die during the dry seasons but not before completing their life cycle, sometimes in just a few weeks. Their seeds are covered by a thick protective coat and are dispersed, only to wait underground as part of the desert’s “seed bank”. Contained within their seed coats are certain chemicals that prohibit germination. The seeds must wait for rain to wash these chemicals away before they can sprout. These are the plants that amaze us here in Sinai when our desert sands are suddenly covered in green after a spring rainstorm. These are also the plants that are so important to the Bedouins’ herds of goats and sheep. Some of these annuals that survive dry seasons as seeds include Astragalus spp., Artemisia spp., Diplotaxis spp., and Tribulus spp. and are pictured below.

Using taproots is also a successful strategy to avoid the problems associated with drought. A taproot is a very thick and long root that grows directly downward. Think of a carrot. The taproot is the main central root which other smaller roots grow off of. The long taproot allows the plant to reach water stored deep underground, providing an almost constant source of water. The taproots of Convolvulus lanatus, pictured below, and Artemisia monosperma are also covered with a thick bark that helps the roots to withstand the withering caused by wind.

You can learn more about these desert plants in my book, Wandering through Wadis: A nature-lover’s guide to the flora of South Sinai.

Desert Plant Adaptations (II) ~ Drought-deciduous Plants

It’s been longer than I had planned, and I’m not sure where the time went (well, a lot of it went to waiting for a new computer when my old one bit the dust), but I’m finally back with more information about how the plants in South Sinai have adapted to survive the harsh desert conditions! In the first installment of this series, I talked about succulence, the ability of plants to store water in their leaves, stems, and/or roots.

Lycium shawii, Desert Thorn

Today, I’ll discuss drought-deciduous plants. Instead of storing water like succulents, these plants use a different method to deal with drought conditions. During the dry seasons, they drop their leaves, allowing them to save water that would otherwise be lost during transpiration (similar to sweating in humans).

Because these plants don’t have their leaves to make food in the summer, their stems take over the photosynthesis process. (More on this in a future post.) Drought-deciduous plants also slow down their metabolism, making only enough energy to keep the plant alive. This means when conditions for growth are favorable again, the plants don’t have to start from zero. They’re already idling and ready to go, if we think in car terms; they don’t have to turn the ignition on first.

Lycium shawii, or Desert Thorn, is one example of a plant that is completely leafless in the summer. (It also has succulent leaves, so more than one adaptation to help it survive.) And because I don’t hike in the summertime, I don’t have photographs of this plant without leaves. But here’s a pic of their beautiful lush leaves:

In my next post, I’ll discuss the most successful adapters to life in the desert – the drought-escaping plants – so be sure to follow the blog or the Facebook page so you don’t miss out!

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.

Wild Mustard ~ Jahag

During the recent Christmas holidays, I spent a day with my family on a desert safari near Wadi Arada. This area has already been blessed by winter rains, so I was thrilled to see some of my favorite plants already sprouting – and in bloom!

P1040059

P1040058

This is a type of wall-rocket (Diplotaxi acris), a wild mustard in the cabbage family, called jahag or yahag by the Bedouin. It is one of the species that appears shortly after seasonal rains in desert plains.

IMG_2765

It is an annual plant with alternate, serrated-edged leaves that grow out from the base in a rosette formation. The leaves are juicy and peppery-flavored and make a tasty addition to a fresh salad. Of course, the goats, sheep, and camels like to graze these greens as well.

IMG_2881

The four-petaled flowers, also edible, are white to pinkish-purplish in color. There is a related species in Sinai, Diplotaxi harra, that has yellow flowers.

Bir Safra Area (53)

Have you ever seen jahag on your desert adventures? Have you ever tasted it?

To learn more about the flora of South Sinai, check out my book, Wandering through Wadis.

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