The Little Guys
Corinne Kendall— 8 March 2010 — in East Africa Project Share
I love the little guys – the insects, the spiders, the millipedes, even the ticks. It is these small invertebrates that go unnoticed by the masses but which have the power to show us behavior just as complex as the largest mammal and for me at least, remind us of how we got into this mess in the first place. Most children don’t go out and watch elephants playing in their yard. Instead, as a child growing up in the densely packed city of New York, I grew up watching the slugs that seemed to erupt from nowhere after a heavy rain. In my few days in Nairobi, I noticed the same was true there as slugs – giant ones longer than your finger – seemed to take over the front yards of each Nairobi villa. In the Mara, the insects and spiders are many to choose from, especially at night when the lights attract them to the human domain. Even now I sit watching a jumping spider with impressively fuzzy pedipalps (or front arms, if you will) launch itself from one spot to another.
Last summer my days were longer and the light was shorter, so I rarely saw the lodge at night. As a result, I didn’t really notice the tiny tunnels, which seem to scatter the lawn around my tent. This field season with a bit more time to appreciate the little guys, I found myself staring intently into a hole in the ground. Bits of silk lined the edges and I knew at once what lay beneath, but would she let me see her. I plucked a sprig of grass and crouched down over the hole. I wiggled the grass gently over the burrow and sure enough a spider emerged. At one point, she came all the way out of the hole with the grass in mouth. She pulled furiously, trying to bring her “prey” back in the hole. After a moment of joy and slight exclamation, I let her back in, loosening my grip on the green stick. I soon went back for my camera. Macro in one hand and flashlight in the other, I tried for a photo. She wasn’t having it. Finally with the assistance of a small crowd of Masai staff that had gathered to see what the Vulture Mama was doing playing in the grass, I was able to get my shot. One person with the flashlight; one person luring her out with the grass; camera now steadily in two hands, I got a clear view of her. Zooming into the photo in the viewfinder, I pointed out the spider’s not two but six eyes and her magnificent chelicerae, which she had been using to grab the grass. The Masai seemed impressed and I soon found myself teaching a mini-spider course before we all went back to our real jobs.
A few nights later, I sat in the chairs along Talek river, admiring the stars with the guests. The moths were upon us, including the giant hawk-mouth aptly named for its huge size and remarkable for its brilliantly orange eyes that glow in the lantern light. The moths fly gently and although a flutter across your ear can be a bit startling, they are totally harmless. I’m not sure if I can say the same for the dung beetles. With their hard shells and irregular flight patterns when they run into something they hit it hard. I often hear the crunch of a dung beetle as it bangs into a light or hits the edge of a chair. On this particular evening, the dung beetle managed to just miss the back of a guest’s head and then to careen sideways into a side table. At the dismayed look of the tourists who had grown tired of the buzzing, I grabbed the dung beetle and held it gently upon my hand. It started crawling and I allowed it to walk one hand to the next and so on. As the guests watched in awe, I set the beetle down on my pant leg, where she (no horns or obvious male markers) wandered around quite happily for nearly thirty minutes. As our conversation progressed, I looked on as the dung beetle gave itself a bath, bringing its huge front legs up to its tiny mouth, it moved the legs around the front of its face, just as a kitten might do after a good meal.
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