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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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)

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.