Doug Beetle is a Dung Beetle. Dung beetles are ecological giants because they perform a huge service for the planet. Every day hundreds of millions of animals poop, and dung beetles dispose of all that manure and feces. Dung beetles collect poop, live in it, raise their young in it, and recycle it into nutrients and minerals.
On Friday Wild Nature Institute's education coordinator James shared our children's book Juma the Giraffe and accompanying giraffe-themed learning activities with 15 children from 2care2share orphanage in Arusha, Tanzania. The following day the children visited Tarangire National Park and got to see beautiful giraffes in person!
Thank you to Mette and James for coordinating the education day. And thank you to Wild Nature Institute's donors for providing the funding that enables us to share our giraffe education program with these children. It is wonderful to see their happy faces and know we are planting the seeds of lifelong appreciation for giraffes.
Part of Giraffe Fun Day was playing sports in celebration of Tanzania's national animal. We supplied giraffe t-shirts and soccer balls for the children, and they had fun running around after an intensive morning learning about giraffes.
On Saturday about 1000 children from Kigongoni Primary School in the Tarangire-Manyara region of Tanzania celebrated a Giraffe Fun Day, organized by Wild Nature Institute and PAMS Foundation. The kids had a great time reading the Juma the Giraffe storybook, and learning about what makes these mega-herbivores so special.
The children also sang songs about giraffes, made giraffe masks and used them in a performance of Juma, and played sports in the afternoon.
We joined the festivities with Jill Erzar, a visiting scientist and giraffe keeper from Como Park Zoo in Minnesota. Jill is working with Wild Nature Institute scientists Dr. Derek Lee and Monica Bond to quantify growth rates of giraffe calves (thanks to financial support from Como Friends).
It was heartwarming for us, as giraffe-loving visitors to this country, to see so many Tanzanian kids excited about the giraffes in their own backyards. We are happy to support giraffe-themed education programs in the schools around the national parks where giraffes live, so people and giraffes can thrive together in the years to come.
Thank you as always to all of the sponsors of our Celebrating Africa's Giants community education program for giraffes, elephants, and rhinoceroses.
In September, Wild Nature Institute's Education Consultant Lise Levy conducted a training for teachers in several schools in the Monduli District of Tanzania. These schools are supported by the Denmark-based relief organization International Aid Services. The teachers had a wonderful day learning the hands-on activities for our Juma the Giraffe children's book, and the children will be receiving their very own copies of Juma and the activity book Twiga Na Rafiki Zake (thanks to IAS donors for printing costs).
Thank you to Lise for developing the wonderful activities and conducting the training, Mariam for organizing the training and fundraising to print the books, and to our Celebrating Africa's Giants program donors for supporting the development and distribution of our educational materials.
Seeing Spots: New Study Reveals the Giraffe Babies Inherit Spot Patterns from Their Mothers and Certain Spot Traits Improve Newborn Survival
50-year-old Hypothesis Confirmed with Modern Techniques
Giraffe spots are distinctive and beautiful, as shown by the popularity of giraffe patterns in fashion and design. But how giraffe patterns came to be and what purpose they serve in the wild was a mystery until this week. Dr. Derek Lee, associate research professor at Penn State University and principal scientist at the Wild Nature Institute published the results of a study today that revealed wild giraffe spot patterns are heritable, with elements of the pattern passed down from mother to offspring, and certain spot traits improved survival for newborns. Coats with complex patterns are found on many mammal species from anteaters to zebras, and these pelage traits are hypothesized to improve survival and reproduction by affecting predator and parasite evasion, temperature regulation, and social communication. This study was the first to examine complex mammal coat markings as individual traits that might have fitness consequences. Dr. Lee said, “Quantifying heritability and fitness consequences of mammal coat pattern traits will help us understand how and why complex coat patterns evolved in wild animals.”
Dr. Anne Innis Dagg, the first giraffe field researcher in Africa, presented evidence in 1968 that the shape, number, area, and color of spots in giraffe coat patterns may be heritable, but her analysis came from a small zoo population. Forty-nine years later, Lee’s study used a new dataset and modern analysis to confirm Dagg’s hypothesis. The heritability finding was neither surprising nor original, but science advances through replication of studies and the slow accumulation of evidence. The novel aspects of Lee’s study were the use of image analysis software to objectively measure various traits present in giraffe coat patterns, and statistics to quantify the heritability and fitness consequences of the patterns.
The spot pattern traits of circularity and jaggedness of edge were passed from mother to offspring, and variation in the coat patterns of 258 giraffe calves significantly affected their survival during the first few months of life, suggesting spot traits may be associated with anti-predator camouflage. Coauthor Monica Bond, doctoral candidate in ecology at the University of Zurich and principal scientist at the Wild Nature Institute, noted “Survival in the wild is precarious, and any small advantage such as what these spot traits provided, can mean the difference between an individual’s life and death.”
Spot traits might also serve other adaptive functions such as social communication, kin recognition, or thermoregulation, and might be associated with other fitness aspects like survival or fecundity of older giraffes. Giraffe skin color is grey, but the spots that make up their fur coat markings are highly variable in color and shape. Because each animal’s patterns are unique and do not change with age, natural coat patterns identify individuals, so wildlife conservation researchers like Dr. Lee use the patterns to study animals without the need for dangerous and traumatic captures.
“Now that we know that genetic variation underlies spot pattern variation in giraffes it should be possible with the aid of the giraffe genome sequence to discover the specific genes that determine spot patterns.“ noted Douglas Cavener, Professor of Biology and Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Penn State Eberly College of Science, and coauthor of the paper. Lee said, “My hope is that other scientists will use the same tools to measure the traits of complex mammal coat patterns and this will advance our understanding of what these patterns mean.”
Giraffes are vulnerable to extinction with a 40% decline over the past few decades. The Wild Nature Institute is running the world’s largest giraffe research project in northern Tanzania, and their results are informing species conservation and the field of evolutionary ecology.
Lee DE, Cavener DR, Bond ML. 2018. Seeing spots: Quantifying mother-offspring similarity and assessing fitness consequences of coat pattern traits in a wild population of giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis). PeerJ. doi: 10.7717/peerj.5690.
Wild Nature Institute is happy to announce that all three of our “Africa’s Giants” children’s books are available for purchase online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Juma the Giraffe, Our Elephant Neighbours, and Helping Brother Rhinoceros teach ecological and social lessons for children ages 3-7. Your purchase supports efforts to study and protect these magnificent giants in the wild, and buys a version of the book in Swahili for an African child. To learn more about each book, visit africasgiants.org.
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The savannas of East Africa are famous as the home of big animals like lions, elephants, giraffes, hippos, and huge herds of wildebeest.
It is no surprise then that these savannas are the home to big spiders. The King Baboon Spider (Pelinobius muticus) lives in burrows in the grasslands of Kenya and Tanzania. It is a species of tarantula.
Tarantulas are the kings of the spider world. They are the largest known spiders that have ever lived. The largest spider in the world is the goliath bird-eating tarantula of South America. When its legs are spread out it can be one foot across, roughly the size of a young puppy.
King Baboon Spiders are not quite as big as their cousins in South America, but they can have a leg-span of 8 inches (20 cm). This makes them possibly the largest spider in Africa.
The King Baboon Spider spends most of its time in its burrow dug into the savanna. If you were a locust, worm, cricket, or mouse wandering by the burrow of this spider king though, LOOK OUT!
This spider is known for its aggressive behavior. It rears up on its hind legs, grabs its prey with its front legs and sinks its large fangs into its prey. It repeatedly jerks its head up and down into its prey, stabbing it with its fangs and injecting venom. The venom immobilizes the prey and liquefies its internal organs, making it easier for the King Baboon Spider to slurp up its meal.
King Baboon Spiders need to worry about not becoming meals themselves. They are called baboon spiders because baboons like to eat them, as do many other birds, reptiles, and mammals of the savanna. The King Baboon Spider will aggressively defend itself by hissing and rearing up and waving its arms in a threat display. These spiders hiss by rubbing their first and second pairs of legs together. This behavior is called stridulation and produces a hissing noise the same way a bow rubbing across a violin string does.
One last fact about the Spider King of Africa: the largest King Baboon Spiders are actually queens. Female tarantulas are larger than male tarantulas.
Story by David Brown.
Wild Nature Institute teaches ecological and social lessons in Tanzanian schools with our Juma the Giraffe storybook. We focus on schools in communities adjacent to Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks, where we have been studying giraffes for 7 years. The goal is to inspire the next generation of Tanzanian giraffe conservationists.
Elephants strip off pieces of it for lunch, popping it into their mouths like giant potato chips. The hornbill makes its house inside of it, turning it into a cozy living room. Humans use the fiber from is bark as a material for making ropes, baskets, and many other items.
Welcome to the baobab tree, Africa's "green giant."
Baobabs are some of the oldest and largest trees on Earth. There are nine species of them – six in mainland Africa, two in Madagascar, and one in Australia.
The most famous baobab species is called Adansonia digitata. It is the baobab tree that grows across the savannas of Africa. It is named after a French botanist Michel Adanson, the first scientist to describe it.
This baobab can grow to be more than 25 meters (80 feet tall) and live at least 1500 years.
The growth form of the baobab (the way the tree grows) is called a pachycaul. A pachycaul is a tall tree with a thick trunk and relatively few branches. The baobab grows thicker as it gets older, and a mature baobab can be as much as 10-14 meters (30-45 feet) in diameter.
The baobab is deciduous, meaning that it loses its leaves for some of the year. The baobab is actually leafless for as much as 9 months a year, during the dry season. The branches of the baobab cluster at the top of the tree and look like roots when they are in their leafless state. This gives the baobab the nickname “the upside-down tree”.
From October to December the baobab produces large white flowers. These flowers attract fruit bats, which sip up the nectar the flowers produce and get pollen stuck to them. When a pollen-covered bat flies to the next baobab flower for its nectar snack, it pollinates that flower.
When the flower is pollinated it develops a large fruit around the seeds. The fruit drops to the ground where it becomes a menu item for elephants, black rhinos, and antelope like elands. When the baobab seeds are eaten they pass through the digestive system of their eaters. In the time it takes to be pooped out, the animal has moved some distance away from the parent baobab of the seeds.
The seed eater helps the seed become a new plant by giving it a home away from other trees where it hopefully won’t have to compete for water, sunlight, and growing space from other trees. If the seed successfully germinates and becomes established, then after a few centuries it may become a grand baobab like its parents.
Baobabs are very important parts of their savanna neighborhoods. They provide homes and food for many species of animals. The interior of the baobab stores water, a very valuable commodity in hot and dry savanna ecosystems. Elephants strip the bark off of the baobabs and eat it for its moisture. The baobab can usually regrow the bark, but the gashes of the elephants can leave scars.
Humans have a very long history with baobabs. Sometimes the massive trunks of a thousand-year-old baobab tree has a large hollow in it. Humans have used these hollows for livestock corrals, shelter from the sun, and sometimes even permanent homes. Many other animals use these hollows to nest and live in also.
Scientists study the largest and oldest baobabs across Africa. They have found that many of the largest baobabs appear to be dying off in the early years of the 21st century. Nobody is sure why this baobab die-off is happening. Could it be global warming causing increasing droughts, pushing the oldest and largest baobabs beyond what they can tolerate? The baobab scientists across Africa are trying to figure this out so that these essential ‘green giants’ of the African savanna ecosystems can survive the 21st century and beyond.
Story by David Brown. Photos by Wild Nature Institute.