Saturday, June 30, 2007

Hedgehog and more

This adorable little critter is called Emiechinus auritus, or long-eared hedgehog. It was caught by some Kuwaiti border police personnel, and I "adopted" it for a day so I could snap some pictures of it in daylight before releasing it at night. In the end I was glad I kept it longer because it is quite friendly and several other soldiers got to hold it, play with it, get their picture taken with it and make up nicknames for it. I released the hedgehog in an anti-tank ditch the following night, but it was attracted by the lights of our position so about an hour later we found it again eating Anthia beetles in the middle of the road. Eventually, we decided to drive out into a dark area of the desert and leave it there. This is definitely the neatest animal I have seen since the amphisbaenidae worm-lizard. This long-eared hedgehog is smaller than the ones I found dead or heard about from other people who have seen them before, and its spines are much softer too, so I think it must be a young one.

I can already hear the comments: "What? Another reptile?" Well, I had been trying to take a picture of one of the beautiful, blue-throated Trapelus persicus lizards for a while, but they are very fast. I finally got some pictures of one, but it happens to be an individual without any blue coloration! Is it a female, or an abnormal individual, or even a diferent species? I don't know, but I am guessing that it would be a female (a couple of synonyms are Trapelus blandfordi, and Agama blandfordi). If nothing else, researching these reptiles I've been seeing has made me realize just how many fascinating species roam this area. And I did ask about the desert monitor. According to the Kuwaitis I asked, monitors are not eaten (it is the Dhub lizard that is widely eaten), but many people kill them because they are considered to be aggressive and dangerous. The Kuwaitis also said that the monitors live in large numbers in small territories, which sounds strange considering that I have yet to see more than two in one place.

I have been seeing rather high numbers of larks lately and I took a few neat pictures, so my next blog post will probably be dedicated to the three most common species: desert bar-tailed, hoopoe, and crested larks. Besides for those, the birdlife is rather dull right now. I haven't even been seeing any shrikes lately.

Overall, Kuwait is still the boring place it usually is. One of the questions I always get from Kuwaiti soldiers is: "Do you like Iraq?" I guess I am expected to say no, but I immediately think of trees, rivers, lakes, orchards, and local people who don't live like spoiled kids. So I just give a diplomatic answer like: "It is pretty, but dangerous." The saddest thing is that Iraq really isn't pretty unless I compare it to Kuwait or some similarly blighted area (parking lots under construction, Superfund chemical dumping sites, etcetera). And while I am on the topic of locals: a while ago I wrote about a cleric who issued a ridiculous fatwa about women having to breastfeed their male co-workers. A similar, but more serious, issue has been at the forefront of Kuwaiti politics lately: The Assembly recently passed an amendment to labor law, saying that women may no longer work from 8PM to 7AM. There are exceptions for health workers (there just wouldn't be anymore nightshift nurses otherwise), the two female ministers (who probably inserted the language themselves), and select people who might be fortunate enough to obtain government permission. As far as I know, the amendment has not yet been approved by the Emir.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Reptile fun III - desert monitoring

During my latest long shift of desert duty, I got to take a picture of yet another significant reptile of the local desert. The Varanus griseus desert monitor is a fearsome predator - a more fearsome predator, in fact, than even the Vulpes ruepelli desert foxes that walk around the desert at night on the prowl for gerbils and food scraps. Gerbils? Food scraps? Yes, the desert monitor will eat them, but he'll also eat everything else, too. That meter-long lizard will hunt and eat the scorpions, hedgehogs, dhub lizards, and even the vipers and black cobras that live around here. The desert monitor is endangered, and I have seen fewer in the eight months that we have spent here so far, than in the two weeks that I spent here on my way to Iraq in the early spring of 2004. I don't know exactly why their population is so clearly diminished, but I am planning to ask the local border policemen tomorrow. The locals call this lizard Wurral.

This lizard is one that I caught and photographed a few months ago, but since I've been posting so many reptile photos I thought I'd add this one. It is a gecko known as Bunopus tuberculatus. This particular one looks ragged because it was halfway through its molt when I found it.

Most of the other lizards I found were too fast to be photographed, or I snapped a picture and couldn't come up with a name for them so I didn't put them up on my blog. But I hope this gives a good idea of just how many neat reptiles inhabit this desert.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Solstice, and other pagan goings-on

Jad recently e-mailed me a BBC article about Stonehenge, which depicted how thousands of people stayed up through the night just to have the dramatic sunrise moment blotted out by an inopportune cloud. They should have come out to the desert instead! We've been having 100% cloud-free opportunities for pagan worship. This eclipse of Venus by the moon would have been really neat at any Druid's party (thanks, Jad, for waking me up so I could take a picture):

Also popular with the New-Age crowd is this sacred dung beetle, Scarabaeus sacer, or perhaps one of its very similar relatives like Scarabaeus semipunctatus. These sacarabs have been coming out at night on the border by the hundreds. It's hard to think of them as cool, exotic bugs anymore since I am always trying not to step on them. So far, I have seen them roll a dead gerbil on two occasions, but I haven't yet seen one with a dung ball. I did find and dig up two of their hatched nest burrows last winter, which did not even have dung ball shaped cavities. I am starting to wonder if they are mainly necrophage species around here, but I have yet to find one underneath a dead bird.

Thanks again for the great package, Noelle! Of course, with the summer solstice and all these Noelle-ish happenings, I should have guessed I would soon hear from you again.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

More fun with reptiles!

This viper is the classic reptile that we see on the border at night. I am hesitant to identify it, although it looks like a close relative of the desert horned viper. This particular one is about two feet long, which isn't terribly large but still probably adult size. I also caught one about half that size. These poor vipers are the target of constant hassling by everyone from civilians to Kuwaiti and US military personnel. They are routinely being run over by trucks, beat into the ground with miscellaneous objects, captured for sale to the Scientific Center in Kuwait City, and even shot. I feel a little badly about having caught them, but they would probably be dead by now had I not snatched them up.

This little guy may not be terribly unusual, but he definitely won the "cute reptile competition." He is a gecko known in Latin as "Stenodactylus arabicus," that my turret gunner caught. He is about as long as a finger, and a fairly fast runner. I was at first surprised to find out that he wasn't able to climb walls, but then again there are no naturally ocurring smooth vertical surfaces for geckos to climb around here. Instead, they have little hands that look a lot like human hands. This gecko is the most fragile-looking of the many species of small lizards I have found around here.

And the greatest reptile I have ever found is this one: a Diplometopon zarudnyi worm lizard. I found it while looking for buried sand boas. These worm lizards burrow so close to the surface of the sand that they leave a little raised track everywhere they go. By following these tracks to their end I can just dig around the sand and pull them right up.
Worm lizards are technically known as Amphisbaenia. Amphisbaenia are legless lizards that live underground and tunnel through the substrate to find small prey (arthropods, whatever is available). I got a lot of information from the webpage, which is great but in Spanish. This species excavates its tunnel by moving its head from side to side, unlike its relatives which have shovel-shaped noses and move their head up and down, and those that have a recurved snout and swing and turn their heads. The only species that doesn't use only its head to dig is a Mexican one that has two tiny arms near its head and uses them to get the burrow started. To deal with underground life, worm lizards have a layer of clear skin over their eyes, a layer of keratin on their forehead, and their nostrils face back.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Playing with reptiles

The three weeks since I last posted a blog entry have been entirely swallowed up by interminable hours of dreary shift work in the heat, and a move to new barracks where we just now got internet installed. The best things I have done in the past three weeks are:

- I read a few books in Spanish.
- I bought an airplane ticket to Santiago, Chile, for when this deployment is over (I am planning to be in Chile from early November until January).
- I put an eighteen inch “Dhub dhub” lizard in the commander’s desk.

“Dhub dhub” (or “Dhub,”) is the Arabic name of a sort of whiptail lizard that is extremely common around here. Its genus name, I guess, is Uromastyx sp. It is a pretty impressive lizard that is completely harmless. In fact, it lives rather like a tortoise, eating vegetation, drinking little or no water, sleeping and hibernating in burrows, living a long time and growing slowly. Rather unlike tortoise, however, Dhub lizard are very fast runners, and hard to catch. Some of us have been able to outrun them, but I haven’t caught one yet since I am not much of a sprinter. This one was caught by an undisclosed friend, and I took this picture after we fashioned a little leash for it out of parachute cord, and tied it off to my couch (yes, I have a couch!).

After dark, I managed to sneak into the commander’s area , remove some pens and supplies from his desk drawer, and replace them with the lizard. Sadly, the command post’s air conditioner is a true blast freezer, chilling the tent to a quasi-arctic 60 degrees F (it is eighty degrees F inside my room right now, and about 118 degrees F outside). This caused the lizard to go into hibernation inside the desk, so when the commander opened it the lizard didn’t leap out. The effect was still quite worth the effort – according to people who were there at the time, the commander almost fell backwards over his chair in fright. Here is another Dhub lizard – this time a baby that is being kept as a pet by a friend:

Speaking of reptiles… I think this is the Arabian sand boa Eryx jakayari. We caught it at night, in the desert. Its eyes and nostrils are located on top of its head, so it can lay buried in the sand and still be able to see and hear, like an alligator in water. Also like an alligator, it will wait for a prey to come by, and emerge at the last split second to pounce. Since it is a boa, it will then crush its prey like a constrictor, and swallow it whole. When we caught it, it got scared and coughed up a half-digested young gerbil. It is a very fast little creature that kept trying to get away from me, but after a few minutes of harassing it so I could get its picture it calmed down and I could just hold it in my hand.

As always, I have been reading the news. As you probably have heard, seen and read, there are a lot of tragic events in this region of the world and others. However, they managed to be trumped in my mind by the idiotic Fatwa of a Kuwaiti cleric.

Doctor Ezzat Attiya (yes, I am talking about a guy who has studied for many, many years) has recently put out a religious edict saying that in order for a woman to work in a place where there are men, she must breastfeed the men. Yes, that’s right! According to this highly trained genius, if a woman breastfeeds a man, he will become her son in the eyes of God, and the man will stop having sexual thoughts about her. And no, he didn’t say that breast pumps were authorized for that purpose by Allah. In my neophyte opinion, that shows precious little knowledge of the male psyche and a worryingly low opinion of his deity’s intelligence. More worrying: the guy is in effect a government employee, because his university is part of a mosque, and all Kuwaiti Sunni mosques fall under the ministry of Awqaf and Islamic affairs. It is kind of funny to ponder some problematic scenarios, such as: what about royal family women who are government ministers? What about women who cannot produce breast milk? What if a woman ends up marrying a coworker after he has been declared her son?