About Nicole

Nicole has worked for HMNS in some capacity since 1996, whether part-time, full-time or as a volunteer. She taught for seven years in public school, including four years in Fort Bend and a short stint overseas. While she never taught science, she was always the teacher called when someone needed to remove a swarm of bees, catch a snake in the playground, or get the bat off the ceiling of the cafeteria.

Tales from Tanzania: That’s no mint on your pillow

Some hotels leave mints on pillows. But in the African Serengeti, you get assassin bugs.

Assassin bug on a pillow

Not a mint.

Dave and I had been actively searching for invertebrates on our trip to no avail. The guides thought we were weird (crazy) from all of our questions about insects (as well as snakes and lizards). No one goes to Tanzania for the little things — they’re only interested in the big stuff.

So imagine our delight when we came “home” one night and discovered this AWESOME assassin bug on our pillows.

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David, with our non-mint, and our pillow.

Assassin bugs are awesome because they have specially adapted mouths, perfect for sucking “the goodie” out of other insects. They pierce through the exoskeleton of their prey and inject saliva into the body. The saliva liquefies the innards of the prey, which can then be sucked right out (like a smoothie!).

An assassin bug with its prey.

Not only are assassin bugs insect-smoothie-enthusiasts, but they’re great at defending themselves. They can spit their saliva into the eyes of those things that might try to eat it (birds) or accidentally disturb it (humans), causing temporary blindness.

Now tell me that’s not awesome.

The life cycle of an assassin bug

DISCLAIMER: We may have totally lied to everyone on the trip — and by, “We may have lied,” I mean, “We totally lied.” Knowing what the assassin bug can do, we decided to tell our fellow travelers that we found it outside our room rather than on the pillow. Why cause a panic? (But don’t tell the others.)

Kwa heri!

Tales from Tanzania: Wandering after dark & the trees that make elephants and baboons drunk

Jambo!

Now that we have a good Internet connection to the Internet (there aren’t a lot of Internet cafes in the middle of the Serengeti), I thought I should update you on our adventures!

The second evening in Tanzania, a brave few were fortunate enough to be taken on a late afternoon nature hike. We were in by dark, however, as we quickly learned that most of the adventures end promptly around 6:30 p.m. — when the sun sets. There are no fences at any of the places we overnighted and, as the animals — large and small — roam freely, you need to be in by dark!

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

We had several birders on the trip (a very helpful thing on a trip like this!), so as they were spotting their feathered friends, I was looking for smaller critters like this awesome matabele ant crawling across some acacia leaves.

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

Termite mounds are also abundant across Tanzania. Termites need water to make their mounds, so if they have no access to water, the termites can dig up to 100 feet down to find some. Lots of things here eat termites, including some people. When roasted, they have a nutty flavor.

I don’t know a lot about plants, so I was astounded to learn that there were that many varieties of acacia. On this trip alone we saw 16 different species — my favorites being the wait-a-bit tree and the whistling thorn acacia. I was also surprised to see aloe vera here. Rather than a squat little ground plant like we have in the U.S., the aloe here grows into tall, thin trees. Below, our guide is showing us the marula tree.

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

It supposedly has medicinal properties and can be made into an after-dinner liquor named Amarula that aids in digestion. The leaves of the tree “make elephants and baboons drunk,” and so the elephant is used as the label image on the bottle.

Kwa heri!

Tales from Tanzania: Blackouts, bumpy roads, and banana plantations

We arrived at the Kilimanjaro airport well after dark. There are no gates, so we deplaned onto the tarmac and walked in to get our visas. Everyone was in a chipper mood — we had arrived, we were up and moving around (which was awesome after two long flights), and we were ready to begin our adventure!

While waiting in line, however, the power went out and the terminal went pitch black. But this didn’t seem to faze the customs officials in the least. They all popped out their flashlights and went back to work (which led us to believe that this might be a fairly common occurrence).

After boarding small buses, we headed for the hotel. It was dark on the way, but with the help of the stars, we could just make out the silhouette of mountains. (To be fair, the driver said they were hills, but to a Houstonian like me, they were mountains.)

On the way to the hotel, we were all treated to an “African massage (which is what they call a long drive on a bumpy road)” before arriving at the hotel at around midnight local time.

In the morning, we met our drivers for the duration of our stay. Stephen, my driver that first day, told us that Arusha, the closest town, meant “cloudy” in Swahili. This proved an apt name as we could barely make out Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance through all the clouds as we hit the road.

We spent the day traveling, stopping periodically to investigate this or that as we made our way to a second hotel just outside Lake Manyara National Park. The journey taught me that road markers are just suggestions, really … no need to actually pay attention to them.

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Courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

We stopped to have a beautiful and delicious lunch at a banana plantation. Lunch felt like home because of all the butterflies. The butterflies, of course, didn’t recognize me, but I definitely recognized them from their relatives living in the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

Courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

Courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

 

After settling in at the hotel, we listened to a talk from our guide Robert (and we’ll talk more about him later, because he definitely needs his own post!), ate a delicious dinner, and then went for a nature walk with a select few, where we learned about the flora and fauna on the top of the crater.

No luck seeing a nyoka (snake) yet, but we were told that there are cobras around — so keep your fingers crossed.

Kwa heri (see you soon)!

Tales from Tanzania: So, why do zebras have stripes, like, for real?

Today we saw dozens of very photogenic zebras. This got David and me talking: What came first, the zebra or the stripes?

baby Zebra

There are plenty of theories as to why the zebra has stripes – some more fantastical than others.

According to one African tale, the zebra was once pure white. One very hot day, the zebra went down to a watering hole to drink, but the watering hole was being guarded by a baboon bully who didn’t want to share. The zebra and the baboon got into a fight over the water and during the course of the fight, the zebra backed into the baboon’s fire and tripped. The hot branches left black scorch marks on the zebra’s hide.

While that tale, and others like it, are certainly fun to hear, they aren’t terribly scientific. So what says science?

One popular theory posited is that the stripes act as camouflage, but zebras graze in the open in relatively short grass. The stripes aren’t really making them blend into much of anything.

Another theory is that the stripes make it harder for a predator to pick out an individual from the group. Scientists originally believed that the stripes, when viewed at a distance, would simulate heat waves. Thus, that close-up would be confusing, because all the zebras would blend together. In reality, lions are the main predators of zebras and they generally hunt at night. A zebra’s stripes would, in fact, make them more distinct and visible in the moonlight.

The flip side of this theory says that the stripes help zebras recognize individuals in the larger group. This is actually supported by research, which shows that captive zebras prefer standing next to a patterned wall rather than a solid colored wall, but not 100 percent understood.

A relatively new theory that seems to have some merit is that the zebra’s stripes make excellent fly repellant. Cattle (and zebra too) are more susceptible to illness caused by the tsetse fly, which bite as a reaction to movement and dark colors. In fact, the tsetse fly prefers to bite through dark clothing even when a light, bare arm is available.

To test this theory, one study looked at horsefly bites on horses. They set up five “targets” for the horseflies — one black, one white, one grey, one with horizontal stripes and one with vertical stripes. The great target and the target with the vertical stripes had the least number of bites.

Why? The horsefly, like most insects with compound eyes (including the tsetse fly) has the ability to see polarized light. This improves their ability to see solid and dark colors, allows them to “see” heat signatures and enables them to track moving objects (especially dark ones). Because of these specially adapted eyes, the zebras’ stripes would make them disorienting to the horsefly. The stripes, hypothetically, break up the shape of the zebra and make it harder for the fly to focus in to bite.

While this all sounds great in theory, scientists haven’t conducted these same tests on actual zebras in Africa, but they are pretty positive the results would be the same.

Kwa heri ya kuonana!