Myth Busting a Hippo

I was amused to see that the Latin name for a hippo was Hippopotamus amphibius – it’s notoriety makes the second part seem rather redundant given that there isn’t a non amphibious hippo that it needs to differentiate from. In fact, there are just two species of hippo around today – this one (the common hippo) and the pygmy hippo (found in Liberia). Fossil records suggest there used to be several other types such as the Malagasy, European and several dwarf hippos (Indeed Wiki suggests that hippos were once found in the British Isles). Sadly both the common and the pygmy hippos are respectively classified as vulnerable and endangered by IUCN. Having only just met these impressive behemoths I am keen that future generations also have the pleasure of their company.

Here comes a problem though, because a lot of what I thought I knew about hippos turns out to be false. It could be that I am singularly uninformed but I suspect that the popular culture version of hippos isn’t as scientifically accurate as it could be. They don’t swim, they are the most dangerous animal in Africa, have no sweat glands, and they do not dance around to ‘Dance of the Hours’ wearing little pink tutus. (If you think I have gone a bit bonkers here you need to watch Fantasia – it will be 126 minutes very well spent).


Hippo sunset. Photo credit: Em

To unpack the serious revelations then let us first talk about the swimming thing. Or rather the lack of it. When you see hippos in a body of water with their little snouts poking out it would seem they are not floating around but rather standing on the bottom, in the mud. Sort of pretending to swim then. They can cross rivers and deeper lakes but they do this by walking along the bottom underwater and then bouncing up for air, and really, they tend to avoid deeper water. Considering that their closest relatives are the cetaceans (whales and dolphins) it would seem almost comical that swimming is not their forte. Certainly anyone who repeatedly saw the BBC1 ‘ident’ of the swimming hippos can join me in feeling a little mis-informed.


Yawning hippo. Photo credit: Em

Next up the accolade for Africa’s most dangerous animal is attributable to their land speed of 30km/hr, their large and powerful bite, and their complete unpredictability. They might seem like a gentle giant but that would be a seriously life-shortening mistake to make. Hippos grind their teeth to sharpen them and have pretty impressive canines and incisors for a herbivore because they use them for fighting. A male hippo can weigh more than 2,000kgs and swim at 8km/hr, helping him to hold a territory in water, in which his pod lives. A pod can be anything up to 100 hippos, though the pods we saw were more like 20 individuals. Almost all of a hippos life, from birth to mating and fighting, to eating and snoozing will be done in the water. In short, if you can see a hippo you should probably give it a very wide berth (incidentally the ‘yawn’ is actually a warning sign – you may be too close to a hippo for his comfort).


Double trouble. Photo credit: Em

For a beastie of this size living in Africa, not having sweat glands would seem to be something of a disadvantage. If they stay out of water for too long their skin can crack, however they are not as unprotected as they might seem. Hippos actually secrete something incredibly useful: sunscreen, which, being highly acidic, is also an anti-bacterial agent. This secretion has a red colour that was initially mistaken for blood.

Aside from the mind-blowing biology of these incredible creatures I was struck by their sociability. Bobbing on a boat nearby we watched as a youngster rested on the back of its mother in the middle of the group. We heard the low, nasal calls the group made to one another and watched the gentle ear flicks splash water over the pod. I can’t quite call them elegant, but there was something calming in watching them together, their little pink eyes squeezing shut against the last amber rays of the sun. Contented.




How much is too much?

Having had the absolute pleasure of visiting South Africa this summer (winter) I think it would be churlish not to allow my little blog to wander from the strict confines of South Devon for a few posts…

As a wildlife spotting destination you can’t go too far wrong with South Africa. Having spent some time in the north (more on that later) we ended up in Cape Town where we found the stunning Protea in flower.


Protea – the national flower. Photo credit: Em.

The size of a dinner plate with so many petal layers it is unlike any of my native flora and I was very sad not to have my macro lens to hand to capture the structures of the petals.

Don’t let the sunny setting fool you, this is a changeable time of year to visit Cape Town – most days were rainy and cold – including the day we went in search of the African Penguin.


Pair of Penguinos – Photo credit: Em

The Penguins can be found behind an unpromising looking car park, down what looks like a residential street. Perhaps at one time they were a slightly unusual neighbour to the local (human) residents but the introduction of a pay wall hopefully protects their vulnerable dune habitat from erosion and development. With their funny pink eyebrows and characteristic tuxedo jackets these are beautiful animals.


On land a group of penguins is called a waddle. Photo credit: Em

The African Penguin used to be called the Jackass Penguin – not for any especially idiotic antics but for their donkey like laugh. I like the name African penguin better, especially since it is the only penguin to breed in Africa – it would seem to be entitled to the name. Unlike a lot of their relatives, the African penguin has to deal with extremes of heat instead of cold. It is for this reason that they are usually easier to look after in temperate zoos – and why they are quite numerous in captivity. This ubiquity is misleading though as they are listed as vulnerable by IUCN and populations have declined since 2008. Their key threats? A classic cocktail of habitat loss, food availability and disturbance. Specifically tourism.

That raises an interesting dilemma – If I had known about the impact of tourism on the colony would that have stopped me going to see them? The boardwalks overlooking the colony and nest sites were very well used, and we were but one of many tour groups that day. The noise, the pollution, the disturbance of the penguin seeking, camera toting humans must be quite considerable. And yet – the experience of seeing an animal up close in it’s natural habitat, smelling it even, it leaves a memory and creates an impression that lasts well beyond any article or indirect contact. If everyone left with a deeper appreciation for the unique African Penguin then I would be confident in saying yes, the impact is worth the risk. We know this probably isn’t true, but what if half left with a greater sense of the value and ‘special-ness’ of wildlife? A quarter? What kind of a value tips wildlife tourism into the red? We can subscribe to the mantra to ‘take only photos and leave only footprints’ but that ignores the impact we can have just by being there.

For me, having made the pilgrimage, I was content to sit quietly and watch. The weather put a lot of people off watching for long, retreating back into the bowels of their coaches. But, like the penguins, I stood outside a while longer. With the wind whipping inland from the sea the smell of the burrows was temporarily blown away. The waves rose up, showing surfing penguins through the brief glassy green window before breaking onto the white sand – the thin line where a raft becomes a waddle.


At sea a group of penguins is called a raft. Photo credit: Em

Watching two individuals step aside from the group they began mimicking one another. Then one stood still and the other walked around them in their slow shuffling walk. When they returned to face their partner the other one set off instead. It seemed like a pair bond ritual. As a monogamous species this could be a couple retaking their vows to reaffirm their relationship. I ducked out and left them alone on the beach – that is until the next coach comes along.



Pensive, from behind. Photo credit: Em


Summertime and the survey’n ain’t easy

Setting out the bat detectors again for the next round of surveys means I was up early to collect, check and deploy them all. Early so that I can finish sooner but also to try to avoid the stifling heat of the mid-day sun. What with traffic, a small detour round a road closure and some battery problems (always always take spare batteries on field work!!) I missed the cool morning and was working through the heat of the day. Everything about planning and risk assessments had gone out of the window – my water supply was getting hot in the car (and quickly running out), the suncream was acting as a glue, keeping seeds and bugs and dirt trapped on my skin and I was far too hot to wear my full leg trousers out to the survey points. Striding through long grasses and undergrowth without anything to protect my skin I felt a million scratches, bites and stings tingling my skin. While one nettle sting is painful it seems that a whole leg full numbs the pain – not that I recommend this of course, but after the first few the rest didn’t really matter. Thistle thorns, grass seeds and other burrs work their way down into my boots and prickle my feet with every step. Meanwhile the sun shines on, unflinching, unrelenting. I am exhausted and I still have two sites to go.

My last farm is something of a problem child. The first crop failed this year – a disaster for the farmer, no small part played by the unusually cold winter we had this year. On top of the loss of income from the cropping, the farmer now needs to use labour and products to return the field to use. He opted to spray it with herbicide, which will add a new field treatment to my survey plan (best made plans and all that…).

Sun-drenched fields. Photo Credit: Em

As I returned to my car after setting the last detector, a small piece of eggshell caught my eye. I’m not exaggerating, this was tiny. Creamy, with specks of brown, the shell finish was almost glossy. It crumbled in my palm, so thin and so delicate. Without knowing anything about shell colours I guessed wren. After a sneaky google it still fits the bill. A nice little extra today. Now I’m off to cool down.

Wren eggshell. Photo credit: Em


Messing About on the River

I don’t forget how lucky I am to live where I do, and with nothing on the diary I set out with the kayak and went for the river equivalent of a stroll.

Being on the surface of the water gives you a different perspective on the wildlife that lives there, you can sneak up on the sulky herons on the strand line. With their shoulders hunched and their beaks pulled in they look studiously unimpressed with the weather. Perhaps they prefer it drab and grey.

The water erupted in a burst just ahead of me. Breaking the surface a cormorant emerged, fish in beak, droplets falling from its wing tips to its tail. Up close it’s quite a stocky bird, it’s tail more of a wedge and it’s bill a fairly substantial weapon. Given the presence of a large-ish boat the cormorant recovered itself quickly enough and flew off to an emerging sand bank.

Early though I was, it was shaping up to be a very hot day again and the double assault of the sun and salt water was prickling my skin. Turning home, this time against the tide, I paddled slowly, admiring the colours in the hills – it’s a lovely time to be in Devon.


BioBlitz Bugs

I will freely admit that I like to include wildlife in my day, everyday, I have not kept pace with the 30 Days Wild Blogging, such is the way of things sometimes. If you are too busy noticing, enjoying and relaxing to write a blog then so be it. What with this lovely weather we are having at the moment, it seems a shame to sit indoors and watch that blinking cursor taunt you…

Nonetheless, last Saturday I participated in what must be the ultimate #30DaysWild of activities – a Bioblitz! For the uninitiated this is a short, focused period of ecological surveying designed to produce a ‘list’ of the species present. It draws on experts from a range of fields to identify the rare and easily confused species but is also a great way for anyone to get involved as there is a great deal of work involved in surveying even the smallest of areas.


Clennon Lakes, Photo Credit: Em

I took part in the Clennon Lakes Bioblitz, near Torquay. This rich wetland habitat is an absolute paradise for surveying, including lakes, grasslands, woodlands and open fields. It was fantastic to meet some local experts as well and to learn more about survey  methods, ID tricks and recommendations for field guides (more to follow in a future blog post). I especially enjoyed sweep netting and investigating the teeming trays of insects that we caught. Here are a few of my favorites:


Yellow ringed dragonfly, Photo credit: Em


Crab spider, Photo credit: Em


Spider with parasitic wasp larvae, Photo credit: Em


Ground beetle, Photo credit: Em

And the find of the day? Theridiosoma gemmosum – a ray spider that is rare in Europe and Britain. For what it’s worth this is a really tiny spider so maybe we have been overlooking it for a while?


30 Days Wild: Day 12 – Horseshoes

Stop press people – big news! We have Horseshoe bats on the detectors! This is extremely exciting as it is the species that I set out to survey so their presence is, if not entirely unexpected, it is somewhat of a relief. The exact locations of their maternity and hibernation roosts is something of a closely guarded secret – to protect them against disturbance. But thankfully, when they are out foraging it can be relatively straight forward to get them on a detector – if you live in Devon that is. This is the Greater Horseshoe – the biggest bat you are likely to see in the UK (outside of a zoo). It is found all across Europe and is relatively common on a global scale, but here in the UK it has a very restricted range – covering the south-western corner of the UK up as far as South Wales and across as far as Hampshire-ish. Naturally the bats do not respect administrative boundaries so it’s something of a wobbly patch but you get the general idea.

They roost upside down – in classic bat style, hanging from the ceiling like little bat baubles. Their thin skin wings fold around their bodies hiding their fur – unlike crevice dwelling bats where the fur is visible and, if ID-ing, can be a useful guide.

Greater Horseshoes are not the first bats to emerge in the evening. If you can still see and are debating whether or not it qualifies as ‘dusk’ any bats you see are probably pipistrelles – the least picky of the bats. The ‘pips’ do not need old buildings, crumbling cool mines or ancient tree cavities to roost, they can cope fine with modern architecture (providing they can find a way in). The house on the other side of the close from us has bats in the roof. These are most definitely pips and they may well be the ones I say flying around outside my house in a previous blog post.


Horseshoes in Devon. Photo credit: Em (and AnalookW software – thanks Analook)

As I mentioned (here in my blog post) the visual representation of bat calls using the AnaBat detectors and AnalookW software helps you to ID the bats as they tend to have fairly distinct shaped calls. This graphic is of the horseshoe that my detector picked up over the weekend. With a flat, long call and static frequency there is only one other bat that makes a call like this – the Lesser Horseshoe Bat. Thankfully, it does so at a different frequency (around 110kHz). The shape of the bat call tells us something about the bat and how it navigates (remembering that these vocalisations are for echolocation). The constant call at a static frequency matches the larger, heavier, slower body of the horseshoe – they need a picture of the environment at a coarse scale if you like. The smaller bats call at a range of frequencies and break up their calls into smaller segments as they navigate more cluttered environments – information at a finer scale.

The Greater Horseshoe Bat populations in the UK have been recovering in recent years, though this has not always been the case and it is thought that the Europe wide population is as low as 1% of the population in the 1950s. This is largely due to increased intensification of agriculture (or whatever euphemism you prefer), resulting in fewer insects as prey, habitat for roosting and barriers to migration. This bat, like all UK bats, is a protected species in the UK, you need a licence to handle, disturb or manage bats – this is for their protection and  it is important that those who are in a position to support the local bat populations do. That’s why I am so pleased to be surveying with three local farmers who love and appreciate their bat tenants. And just in case you were wondering, my detectors are passive and do not disturb the bats so I am not harming them by recording their voices.


PS I am not on commission from Analook or AnaBat but I am extremely grateful for the loan of these detectors from the Devon Bat Project and Devon Wildlife Trust to support my project work.

30 Days Wild: Day 10 – Garden Wildlife

As is so often the case, the inspiration for this blog comes from our modest sized garden in South Devon. While I was eating my lunch outside in the sunshine, the buddleia behind me was providing a sizeable buffet to several brightly coloured caterpillars. I am not in any way bothered by this – the buddleia could do with being taken down a peg or two and it will take something far hungrier to make a dent on the aggressive growth plans of this fast growing plant.

It seems to be the caterpillar of the mullien moth (Shargacucullia verbasci) and will grow up into a brown moth with a skill for impersonating twigs – take a little look at some photos (on another blog) if you don’t believe me. This is quite a remarkable change of strategy – from using warning colours in the pupae to cryptic body outlines and camouflage in the adult – isn’t nature amazing?

While I have my camera in my hand I spot a bee with bulging pockets. Unlike me, this bee is clearly working hard today.


Bulging Bee Pockets. Photo Credit: Em


30 Days Wild: Day 9: I do pick ’em.

Navelwort. This is a pretty ugly name. I don’t want to over sell this plant but really the name sets the expectations rather low so there’s really only one way to go from here. Thankfully it is quite pretty.


Navelwort in it’s preferred habitat. Photo credit: Em

This plant grows in the dead spaces – between little gaps in walls, between the pavement and nearby wall, on the upended roots of a fallen and dying tree, even on a decaying log. With less competition for space the small succulent disc shaped leaves can grow comfortably. If that was all that you had to go on you could confuse it for the marsh pennywort. Thankfully the flowers are suitably different – the navelwort produces spears of flowers, a bit like floxgloves. The marsh pennywort’s flowers are below the leaves, tiny and inconspicuous.


Navelwort flowers. Photo credit: Em

The belly button reference in the name isn’t random, the leaf really does look like a navel. Something that helped me when IDing this little plant in the field – keep an eye out for it – it is in full flower at the moment and looks like little waterfalls down the wall.


30 Days Wild – Day 8: Field Work

Today was all about ecology. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I am starting a survey of Greater Horseshoe Bats in West Devon and tonight will be the first night of data collection. To make sure I can interpret the data correctly, I have also completed surveys of the habitat and vegetation immediately around where the detectors have been placed. I am particularly interested in the impact of fine scale habitat features such as wildflowers, hedgerows and animal dung. What this means is a series of transects, some quadrats, a 20m length of fluorescent guy rope and counting cow pats. It’s a glamorous job but someone has to do it. So here you are – this is what field ecology looks like:

Covering six different survey sites across three farms there is a lot of leg work involved.  Swimming through waist high grasses, climbing steep fields and lugging the kit across river and valley I definitely did an honest day’s work today! Despite being overcast, it has been close and warm today and if it hadn’t been for all the flies this would have been a nice day for shorts and t-shirts. Of course I can’t be too upset about the flies – after all a fair few of them may end up as bat breakfast – the very reason I am surveying in the first place.  Still, I wish they wouldn’t fly in my ear.

Using a 20m (pre-measured) rope as my guide I surveyed regular quadrats within  the radius of the detector. If I encountered a hedge I sampled the size, density and diversity at regular intervals. If I encountered dung I made an estimate of the percentage cover of the survey area and if I encountered grazing or fallow land I surveyed the wildflowers.

The bat data collection is done by some very clever detectors, loaned to me by the Devon Wildlife Trust as part of the Devon Bat Project. This work will help us to learn more about these enigmatic little mammals but is just a drop in the ocean compared to the amazing work these people do with farms, local communities and their partners. Meeting with, and speaking to, the land owners has been a wonderful experience and has filled me with hope that in the hands of these custodians our wildlife is valued, respected and protected.

I’m looking forward to getting the detectors back next week to see what we have!


PS – look what was just around the corner of my survey site – I am on the edge of Poldark country here (aka Cornwall).


Mine. Photo credit: Em