Tag Archives: dino j. martins

A fungus with eyes!

The Fungus with ‘eyes’….


A couple of weeks ago in northern Kenya I was out in the bush one morning poking through a pile of rhino dung. Black rhinos deposit their dung in large middens at regular intervals. This serves as an olfactory calling card to other rhinos in the area. It is also a magnet for many kinds of insects such as dung-flies and dung-beetles.


As I stood by the midden watching the coming and going of insects, I kept feeling something wet and sticky landing on me. I peered up into the branches of the fever trees above, but there were no culprits there.


I resumed watching the insects, and as I moved, the bombardment of wet globs grew ever more intense. Puzzled I looked around and then realised that it was coming FROM THE DUNG!




Peering close revealed the source of the drops. It was one of the most remarkable organisms on the planet – called Pilobolus. This is a kind of dung-fungus, which has the most bizarre and amazing strategy for dispersing itself.


The head of the reproductive structure – which includes the clear glass-like ball in the pictures below, uses the light as it swells to ‘focus’ just like a lens and point towards the light. This makes it function similar to that of our own eyes.







Eventually the pressure builds and the black spore mass (called the sporangiophore) is shot out at a fantastic speed. Even though all this action is taking place on a minute scale, the force with which the spore mass is ejected is one of the fastest movements in nature.


This action projects the spores onto the surrounding vegetation and even flies and other insects on the dung. This helps the fungus to disperse more widely. The spore mass that lands on vegetation is consumed by another browsing or grazing large mammal and dispersed in its dung, and the cycle continues. Even standing 2-3 metres from the dung midden I was still getting hit by the spore mass projectiles! This is an incredible feat given how tiny the fungus is – it would be like us jumping over 200 times our own height.


You can see some of the flies that were landing on the rhino dung around the fungus in this picture:





This phenomenon has been studied by scientists and even filmed using high-speed cameras. You can watch the projection of the fungus as it explodes the spore mass out in the video below made by scientists:


 [kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.youtube.com/v/TrKJAojmB1Y” width=”425″ height=”350″ wmode=”transparent” /]





Carpenter bee…

Dear All – sorry for not posting more often. Have been on the road with limited access to the internet. Here is a picture of a carpenter bee visiting some Thunbergia flowers in the evening light. These are one of the bees tha often feed late in the day even well into the dusk…More about incredible insects to follow soon!xylocopa-thunbergia-lr1.jpg

Pollinators hard at work!

Pollinators hard at work!


“One in three bites of food can be attributed to a pollinator”. This statement is often quoted by biologists around the world when talking about pollinators and their importance to our lives.


In Africa pollinators are primarily wild insects that travel between farms and natural habitat, and are extremely vulnerable to habitat loss and destruction.


Pollinators intimately link wild species with basic human livelihoods. The relationships between insects and flowers are at once ancient, beautifully intricate and correspondingly fragile.


These intricate and essential links between wild species, natural areas and food production were beautifully evident on a recent visit I paid to a farmer in Western Kenya. Lucy Murira grows a wide range of vegetables and fruits for her family. Her farm is located in the Nandi Hills nestled between tea plantations and forest patches. It is these forest patches that provide the pollinators for Lucy’s crops. Below is a short video showing some of the crops and pollinators on Lucy’s farm. (Please forgive the sloppiness of this video – it is my first attempt at doing this!)


 [kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.youtube.com/v/xIv6KJCmxEk” width=”425″ height=”350″ wmode=”transparent” /]


As mentioned in the video, one of the important and nutritious crops growing on this farm is ‘Njahe’ a local variety of blackbean. It is a verdant climber with lovely pinky-lilac flowers.





The main pollinators of the blackbean here appear to be wild bees, including these lovely, robust and fast-flying carpenter bees.





Without the pollinating visits of these hardworking bees, there would be no pods to harvest.





One of the other crops growing here that benefits from pollination is the butterbean. As Lucy says, these are really yummy (in fact one of my favourites!). Skipper butterflies and bees were pollinating the butterbeans on this farm. All of them need the patches of forest to survive.





Pollinators need a clean, safe and pesticide-free environment to survive. Lucy’s farm is filled with a huge number of different pollinating insects. Not only were pollinating insects thriving on the farm, we even found this little reed frog dozing among the tendrils of the butterbeans!





More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!


Male bees on patrol…

Male bees keeping watch on their patch of bush….


Dear All, Hello – have just been travelling through Western Kenya working on pollinators at various sites with groups of farmers. Its been amazing and I look forward to sharing some of the discoveries and photographs with you all over the next few days.


Yesterday I spent the day looking at insects in some mango farms in the Kerio Valley. During the hottest part of the day we decided to take a break and shelter in the shade while eating our lunch of (you guessed it!) mangoes.


As I settled down to the mango feast I noticed a loud buzzing sound drawing closer. Then a flash of yellow and black whirred by. A few seconds later it returned. At first I though, hmmm, this is someone after a piece of my mango. However, it kept circling the bush and showed no interest in the fruit.


 As I watched it closely, I realised that it was a male carpenter bee patrolling its territory. Looking out over the dappled bush I realised that there were literally hundreds of male bees doing the same thing – endlessly circling some prime spot in the hope of a female wandering by…






Every ten seconds or so it returned to hover in a sunspot in front of me.





It kept this up for the entire half-hour break that we took for lunch. Four hours later as I prepared to call it a day, the same male bees were still at it, endlessly circling their little patches of bush in the hopes of wooing a lady carpenter bees’ heart…





Dear All – many thanks for the kind comments and I will respond to some of the questions soon. I just found and photographed the most incredible ‘creepy-crawlies’ in my house this evening.



As I was brushing my teeth, I noticed someone watching me quietly from the corner. The area around my sink is fairly sheltered and there are several regulars who hang out there: a cave cricket, moth flies, darkling beetles and a large wall spider. This evening I noticed someone new. It took me a while to register that there was someone there watching as the interloper did not move much.


I took at closer look and the little eight-legged fellow that peered back at me simply blew me away. Right there in from of my eyes was one of the most elusive and remarkable spiders in the world.






Everyone will be familiar with the typical spiders that construct webs and trap prey in them. This particular spider does things a little differently. This spider is commonly known as the Net-casting spider. Unlike most spiders who are simply content to sit and wait in their webs for some hapless bug to fly into it, these amazing spiders take the web strategy a step further. They weave a flexible net-liked web which they hold with the front legs. They do this dangling from a twig or some other promising perch. They support themselves using a scaffold of taut non-sticky silk that they lay down first. You can just see the lines of this scaffold in the corners in some of the pictures.


Enjoy the pictures of the Net-casting spider and I hope that you will be as amazed as I was…







When an insect wanders by, the Net-casting spider then throws the net over the prey! Truly, truly one of the most amazing spiders on the planet. 



Ants in the dust…

Ants in the dust…


The drought continues here on the plains. Today at midday I stopped by the harvester ant nest to check on how they were doing. While most of the other animals were resting almost comatose in the shade due to the burning heat, the ants were hard at work.








They were working hard at scrounging whatever they could find out on the parched, overgrazed grassland. The harvester ants typically feed on the seeds of grasses. They diligently collect these from the surrounding areas and carefully carry them back to their nest. However, at the moment there is hardly any grass around, let along grass seeds, as everything has been nibbled away by the voracious mouths of cattle. Despite their desperate attempts to graze, the cattle are still dying in large numbers.






The ants were still trying to find food out in the midday sun nonetheless. I watched them bringing back all manner of things to their nest. In these tough times beggars can’t be choosers. Here is schematic sketch of their nest in the dust…










They brought back tiny dried bits of grass, no more than mere wisps of dessicated leaves. A few lucky ants had found the odd large seed or tiny pod from one of the many herbs that grow hidden in clefts among the rocks where mouths and hooves can’t reach them. Some managed to find the odd wisp of grass seed that was tucked away in a rocky crack out of reach to hungry cows…







A few lucky ants even managed to catch the odd item of prey – though these were mainly hapless bugs who themselves had succumbed to the heat and drought.


After just a few minutes of watching them I was so hot and starting to feel dizzy from the glare. I walked away from the nest seeking scant shade and wondering how life just keeps on going even in the face of such adversity. I hope that we get some rain soon!


More from the wonderful world of bugs soon.

Primeval bugs…

Hello – many thanks to Dana and Uwe for the kind comments.Here are a couple of insects from one of the most amazing habitats in East Africa – the alkaline lakes in the Rift Valley. These lakes are fed by volcanic activity and steamy, alkaline pools that support large flocks of flamingoes. But it is not only flamingoes that these lakes support. If you look closely at the edges of the water where a salty crust has formed, you will see lots of insects running about. They need to keep moving as it is so hot and alkaline they constantly need to avoid either being cooked or dessicated. The brine flies breed on decaying matter at the edges and the tiger beetles, are aptly-named, the little ‘tigers’ who are the major predators of the water’s edge. It was interesting to see the female tiger beetles have to hunt as they carry the males around on their backs. The males are mate guarding – preventing the female from being hijacked by another male. They do this by holding on to her with their sharp mandibles!More from the world of bugs soon…lake_bogoria-lr1.jpglake_nakuru-lr1.jpgbrine-tigerbeetle-lr1.jpgcincinellids-nakuru-lr1.jpgbrine_fly-nakuru-lr1.jpg

Termites hard at work!

Termites hard at work at Lake BaringoDear All, Hello – greetings from the road here. Have been travelling through the Rift valley and Western Kenya looking at plants, birds and insects along the way. Many of you will be familiar with the massive termite mounds that are found on the East African savannahs and in the drylands. Here is a typical mound from the Rift Valley area near Lake Baringo.dino_termite-moundlr1.jpgIt has been really dry, and therefore most insect life is lying low waiting for rain. Driving through the Rift and the highlands there are clouds building and it looks like the rains are finally on their way at least for this part of Kenya.A couple of nights ago as I was walking by a termite mound I heard a strange rattling noise. Like any good entomologist I went over and investigated. Peering down into the mound the most amazing sight greeted me. Thousands of termites were lining the walls of the main tunnel.temites_baringo-lr1.jpgtermites_baringo-lr2.jpgThey trooped up in organized squadrons and settled down to work on repairing the mound. There were two different castes of termites present – the workers – who are the smaller ones in the pictures with pale bodies and the soldiers who are larger with their very big heads and jaws. It was the workers who did all the labouring while the soldiers stood guard. We often think of termites as a nuisance when they feed on wooden structures. However, they are the ultimate re-cyclers of the bush taking indigestible plant matter and converting it into nutrients with the help of fungi and other micro-organisms (more on this soon).Here is a video of a view into the termite mound and some close-up pictures of them too.[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/8OlhynnOdss" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]termites_baringo-lr3.jpgtermites_baringo-lr4.jpg