Tales from Tanzania: Hunting the “little” Big Five — with a camera lens

The safari, which literally means “journey” or “voyage,” began when Europeans traveled into Sub-Saharan Africa. They came to observe and record the flora and fauna of Africa, but the tales of the unusual animals brought other travelers — those in search of adventure and danger. Originally when one went on safari, one went to hunt the Big Five: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and Cape buffalo, ranked not by their size but by their difficulty to hunt on foot.

The modern iteration of the safari still has shooting, but now it is from behind the lens of a camera rather than down the barrel of a gun.

While Dave is excited to see and shoot the Big Five with his camera, I am more excited to see the “little” Big Five, as I am calling it. These are some of the biggest, baddest invertebrates on the African continent. Though they are (relatively) small, they can be fierce!

1. Siafu Ants (Genus Dorylus)

Siafu, also known as Driver or Army Ants, can live in colonies of up to 20 million individuals. When there is a food shortage, the ants will leave their hill and form marching columns of up to 50 million ants, traveling at about 70 feet an hour and destroying everything in their path. While they can be dangerous if an animal comes in contact with these traveling columns, they also perform an important service: pest control. The ants literally drive (hence the name) all other animals, pests and people alike, away from their homes.

Another weird fact: These ants have incredibly strong jaws. In fact, you can break off their bodies and leave the head without the ant releasing its hold, so they are often used as a natural emergency suture which will hold for days.

2. Giant African Millipede (Archispirosterptus gigas)

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Over 15 inches long and 2.5 inches around, the Giant African Millipede is one of the biggest and most recognizable invertebrates around. Despite its name, millipedes don’t really have a thousand feet. They actually have around 256 feet (four legs per body segment multiplied by 64 segments on average = invertebrate math). In general, millipedes can make excellent pets but many species come with a slightly unusual side effect: when irritated, they secrete a cyanide-based compound. To humans, the secretions are only mildly problematic, usually resulting in discoloration or mild irritation of the affected skin. However, these same secretions can burn the eyes or exoskeletons of ants and other predators. In the case of the Giant African Millipede, their secretions taste and smell really bad and so it makes them unappetizing to predators.

Another weird fact: Millipedes have a symbiotic relationship (try finding that as an option for your Facebook status) with tiny species-specific mites living on them. The mites keep the millipedes clean and tidy and the millipedes give the mites snacks and a place to live.

3. Ghost Mantis (Phyllocrania paradoxa)

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All right. At 1.5 to 2 inches, these guys aren’t that big — but they are that awesome. Their superpower? Their camouflage. Ghost mantises are excellent little mimics. Living in dry areas on bushes and shrubs, the ghost mantis looks to all the world like a brown, dried leaf — even going so far as to rock back and forth slowly so they look more like a leaf blowing in the wind. As vicious little predators, their incredible camouflage helps them ambush unsuspecting prey with their spiked, raptorial forelegs.

Another weird fact: The closest living relatives to the mantid family are termites and cockroaches, both in the order Blattodea. All three had a common ancestor but developed independently.

4. Giant Walking Stick (Bactrododema episcopalis)

Just like the name suggests, this big bug looks to all the world to be a branch from the tree in which it hides. Stick insects are part of the Phasmid order, which comes from the Greek word “apparition.” They are aptly named as they can seem to appear from nowhere due to their ability to blend in. Although herbivorous, stick insects aren’t defenseless. Some species have spines on their legs, while others can spray irritating liquids at attackers. Yet others will regurgitate a nasty substance that will put a bad taste in a hungry predator’s mouth or reflex bleed, oozing a foul-smelling hemolymph from joints in their body. The giant walking sticks in Tanzania will average around a foot in length, but there is a species in Borneo that has been recorded at an incredible 22 inches.

Another weird fact: Some stick insect species can reproduce parthenogenetically (that’s a fancy word that means “without males”). A captive female stick insect can produce hundreds of all-female offspring without ever mating. In fact, there are some species of stick insects for which scientists have found no male specimens.

5. Goliath Beetle (Goliathus albosignatus, Goliathus orientalis)

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I saved the best for last.

I love beetles and not only do they have cool beetles in Tanzania, they have two species of one of my favorite beetles: the Goliath. These big, bad beetles can grow up to 4.5 inches long and 3.5 ounces in weight — about the same size, weight and shape of a box of regular, powdered Jell-O. Incredibly strong for their size, these burly bugs can lift up to 850 times their own body weight. For the average 200 pound man, that’s the equivalent of lifting 77 tons!

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Boxes of Jell-O. In case you weren’t sure what those looked like.

Another weird fact: Beetles comprise the largest order of insects, Coleoptera, with 350,000 to 400,000 named species. This makes up 40 percent of all known insects and 30 percent of all known animals.

You know what’s even cooler? Scientists estimate that there could be 750,000 to 4,000,000 species of beetle that haven’t been named or discovered yet!

While I can’t be certain that I will get to see any of these critters in the wild on our trip, I am certainly hopeful that I will be able to return with photographic evidence of our encounters! Check back with Dave and I in early December and we will share some of our best photos from the trip.

Bugs are Amazing!

Well, it’s officially summer here in Texas and Houston is literally buzzing with insect activity! I don’t know about you, but I have about 18 mosquito bites and I’m sure there will be many more to come. Bugs are everywhere now and this is the best time of year for them.

People always ask me why I’m so interested in bugs and why would I want to work with them for a living. Most people are so concerned with how gross or weird they are to see how amazing they can be. The more I get to know them, the more I want to know – they just blow me away! Hopefully you will feel the same. I wanted to share some amazing insect facts with ya’ll so maybe while you’re out and about this summer, you’ll think a little differently about our little friends!

First thing’s first, Arthropods are the phylum that insects belong to and includes all of their close relatives like arachnids, crustaceans, and myriapods. There are an estimated 1,170,000 known species on earth. Those are only the ones we know about; there are probably millions more waiting to be discovered!

Of these, about 1,000,000 species are insects, which account for more than half of all known living species on earth…that’s amazing! Scientists believe that there are up to 9,000,000 more species that have yet to be discovered, OMG.

So lets compare that with some other animals shall we? There are 5400 species of mammals, 10,000 species of birds, 8200 species of reptiles, and somewhere around 6000 species of amphibians.

3 - Hi YA YA!
Creative Commons License photo credit: robstephaustralia

The largest order of insects are the beetles with 350,000 species making them the most abundant animal on earth. In fact, 1 in every 4 animals is a beetle! Coming in second are butterflies and moths, with 170,000 species. The largest insect (heaviest) is a beetle called the Goliath Beetle. They can weigh 4 ounces, which is as much as a quarter pound burger (meat only.) The longest is a walking stick from Southeast Asia measuring 22 inches.

Think insects all have short lifespans? Think again. Cicadas can live 17 years underground before becoming adults, ant and bee queens can live for decades and one type of wood boring beetle emerged as an adult after being in a bookcase for 40 years, yikes!

The loudest insect is an African cicada. We are used to hearing cicadas during the hot summer days. I heard cicadas in Costa Rica that were so loud I thought they were birds at first! The African cicada can produce sounds that have been recorded at 106.7 decibels. In comparison, a jackhammer produces about 100 decibels.

grasshopper chomping on my leg hair
Creative Commons License photo credit: slopjop

Most people know that Monarch butterflies migrate pretty far, but did you know that locusts travel much further? They have them beat by a couple thousand miles. They have been known to travel nearly 3000 miles one way! One species even flew from Africa, across the Atlantic ocean to South America; now that’s amazing! They also win in terms of the largest swarms. The largest swarm was recorded in Africa in 1954. It was so huge it covered an area of 77 square miles. That’s kind of scary.

Insects are pretty amazing fliers. They were the first animals to take to the air, about 200 million years before the first birds. Dragonflies are up there, having been clocked at 36 miles per hour, but the horsefly can reach speeds of more than 90 miles per hour! A hummingbird can beat its wings about 60-80 times per second,  pretty impressive. A tiny fly called a midge can beat its wings up to 1000 times per SECOND, that’s unbelievable.

When it comes to foot racing, we do have a super star, right here in Houston. The American cockroach(big one with wings) can reach speeds of 3.4 miles per hour. Now that doesn’t sound fast, but in human terms, it would be like one of us running 400 miles per hour. The Australian tiger beetle is the fastest clocking in at 5.6 mph, which is the equivalent of 720 mph for a human.

European rhino beetle taking a walk on a concrete mixer
Creative Commons License photo credit: e³°°°

All insects are of course very strong, being able to carry or move things many many times their own body weight. A well known beetle, the rhino beetle can carry up to 850 times its own weight. That would be like an average guy, maybe 175 pounds, being able to lift 150,000 pounds. Good luck with that!

So see, insects are pretty darn incredible. It may even make you feel better to know that out of the million species of insects that exist on earth, less than 1 percent are considered to be pests or harmful to humans. The vast majority live in tropical regions like Asia, Africa, and South America, with the highest concentration in rainforests. I could go on and on about the feats of insects, but I’ll save some  for another time. Until then, I hope you all can learn to appreciate the most incredible, beautiful, and diverse life forms on our planet. Happy bug watching!