Author Archives: Mark

Horse of a Different Color

 

©2021 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

Zebra are making themselves painterly. Spreading out. Milling about. Closing the gap. Becoming a knot a knitting a… Tapestry. Abstract. Abstruse. Neither close nor distant on first glance and are they Herd (Indivisible) or Horse (Invisible)?

Or both?

That’s the trick of it.

And whether White Horse herd in shadow or a Dark Horse herd in light, even the predators (for whom disambiguation is their only business) struggle to get it right. There are too many decisions to make!

Which is the point of it.

Lioness furrows her brow (did those flashing lines give her a migraine?). Leopard stares and blinks, as if he cannot focus (has he had too little sleep?).

Jackal packs it in.

Wild Dogs loll their tongues and sit down on their haunches (they have to have a think).

White-backed Vultures (theyknow what it’s all about) repeat their mantra silently: circle, circle, wait… wait…  While spotted hyena (being opportunists) will let the Nile crocodiles first sort it all out.

Well, Zebra did not have to go to finishing school to learn that living is an art, that one alone is decoration and strength in numbers is the only way to save your hide. It is not wisdom, just a fact of nature there is great danger all by yourself. Those are the breaks. There’s little bending.

Going it Alone and Lonely never wrote a Happy Ending.

[To hear Mark’s broadcast of this story on Living on Earth, click here: Dazzle-Dazzle. ]

Field Note:

Zebra and wildebeest often herd together. Two reasons are given for the admixture. First, that zebra supposedly prefer to eat tall grasses and wildebeest the shorter species meaning they do not compete for forage. However, I have the photographic evidence to the contrary, wildebeest bending low to graze, then raising their heads to chew and what they are chewing? A mouthful of tall grasses.

It is also believed that zebra have more acute eyesight and wildebeest have a more acute sense of hearing, the zebra therefore being the first to see a predator coming, wildebeest more likely to hear them and in addition capable of recognizing the sound of the predator per se and also the distant alarm calls of other species signaling a predator’s approach. Important and complementary differences. Is any of this sufficient?  Probably not.

Now invert the proposition. What does a predator see: Many grazing animals in two convenient sizes, intent on grazing. Tempting. But also, a moving mass of stripes in at least five distinct tonalities (two for zebra, three for blue wildebeest). To human eyes, even when frozen in place in a photograph, the black and white of zebra, close together, even in small groups disguises how many individuals occupy the frame. Or even which way they are facing which is important because it is almost obligatory for predators to attack from behind. The blue wildebeest of the Maasai Mara with their curtains of shaggy hair laid out in dark brown, light brown, and bluish gray stripes accomplish essentially the same thing as a zebras black and white. Thus, zebra and wildebeest each create their own Razzle-Dazzle of confusion. Confusion causes delay. It takes a moment for the brain to resolve it. And delay can be a life and death difference if you are a zebra of wildebeest trying to get away.

I use the term “Razzle-Dazzle” advisedly. During the First World War, ships were painted in broad zigzagging stripes of different width and color. This was before radar and it made it difficult for spotters to estimate range. Maybe that is also happening here. How does a predator interpret the even more complex field of wildebeest and zebra together, their many tonalities and colors all milling about? Can that predator tell, how many, where they are facing, how far away they are, simultaneously?   All three data points are critical.  “Can I pick out one individual as I must? Can I execute my attack from behind, as is my preference?  Even at a dead run can I get there in time before my prey sees me coming and will have already run away?”

And could it be, in the mix of density and tones and shades and direction of stripes in wildebeest and zebra together, there is not only confusion but perhaps a complementary confusion. Can one or the other be more effective depending on the quality of light (cloudy or bright) and whether midday or dawn or dusk or night? Just as in their complementary combination of hearing and eyesight, do both species together make a better defense than either one alone?

It has been reported that zebra stripes discourage biting flies which has been posited as the generative cause. Perhaps the same applies to wildebeest and their stripes. True, insect bite may debilitate and can sometimes lead to demise but for an absolute determination of the purpose of stripes you only have to ask, would an ungulate rather be bitten by a fly… or by a lion?

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Cat Vanishes

 

Cheetah Climbs Termite Mound-9285   Cheetah Climbs Termite Mound-9297   Cheetah Climbs Termite Mound-9238
Cat Vanishes
© 2017 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

Out in the valley of the Maara, Cheetah is ready to rise. Yawns. Turns over belly up. Tucks her paws, cat-like, against the fuselage of her chest. That tail that is the length of her from hip to shoulder curls, and unwinds. And with the weightless grace of all her kind rolls, onto her paws and strolls in to the evening, that is day to her.

Hidden in the tall grass is a termite mound. She knows the place. Has used it before. Looks back. looks again (to be sure no one is watching) and in her long legged stride, climbs the steep sides and sits, head high, unblinking.

In these flat lands height is mountain and redoubt. Vantage point is safety. Line of sight, command. Seeing first determines who will eat today and who will not and whom among the seen… will be eaten. The crocodile at water’s edge pretending to be stone; leopard dropping from an overhanging limb without a sound; lion stalking close and stealthy on the plain, for each and every one the eye is life or death.

With Cheetah? The eye alone is not enough. Like light itself, Cheetah is a thing of speed! Speed is Cheetah’s second sight. Speed in short bursts is her edge, bright and sharp. Her claws wear, dulled and blunted to the stubby nails of a dog. Her jaws are weak, just wide enough for the small things she can run to ground. With Cheetah the chase is everything.

Cheetah owls her head: One side. The other side. Back again, searching. Nothing found she takes her time, stretches as she climbs down (hind legs and tail in the air, her belly low). Blade thin, she slips into the night like paper through the slot.

At a distance her head appears again, a spotted mask of light and dark, her stare as orange as the afterglow, her eyes unwavering.

The land turns black and white.

The grass whispers.

Cat… vanishes.

Field Note:

Cheetah Bookends-2    Cheetah Bookends-0162
Cheetah is legend. For grace and speed and for beauty. Lithe and light she is lacking in the brute strength of the other great cats. Cheetah has her limits.

Cheetahs can only take small game – what they can both outrun and grab by the throat – and to do that they need a particular set of conditions. First and foremost space, but not just any space. Cheetah needs open space. And open space, thanks to human beings, is – like Cheetah – vanishing.

All around the Maasai Mara the land is being fenced in. Fences mean cattle and cattle are a head-to-head competitor of the worst kind. They take both grass and water from the game and in disproportionate amount – there are few grazing animals more inefficient than a cow, especially the rugged variety of the Maasai. The herders prize their cattle, and though their wrath is generally reserved for lions, they are instinctively wary of the great cats. Cows are wealth to Maasai, not just blood and milk and sometimes meat, but status. Fifty cows will always be better than twenty, one hundred better still. And for those who cannot afford cows there are goats, who chew the grasses right down to the root.

And every day more cattle.

And every day more fences.

Fences do not make good neighbors when Cheetah is your neighbor and that neighbor needs to roam.

Equally deleterious, Maasai are permitted to bring their cattle through the Mara for water during drought. Drought is now most or at least much of the time, and if the herder goes slowly, well, not his fault if the cows nibble along the way. The increasing number of cows, people, and lack of space and especially lack of water leads inevitably to conflict. A small shooting war is burgeoning in Kenya in the Laikipia as herders lash out at people they see as competitors for increasingly sparse resources.

Perhaps Maasai will learn to see their wealth as more broadly based than in cattle alone. But in order for that to happen, other means of wealth (and they do exist in Kenya) will have to be broadly shared.

But ultimately, if any part of the natural world is to survive there will have to be fewer humans.

Everywhere.

Including us, including here.

Cheetah in the Grass-9939

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African Wildlife Foundation is one of the premier African-run conservation organizations, whose mission includes local partnerships across Africa in an attempt to find ways that wildlife and people can coexist, each to the benefit of the other. To learn more visit: www.AWF.org

To hear my broadcast of Cat Vanishes, visit Living on Earth.  It’s the last segment in the program:  www.LOE.org

 

 

Standing Bear Comes In Peace

Standing Bear-6922

 

Eight feet tall…

At the edge of the Polar Ice seals and polar bears find their intersection. The seals are there to bear young. The bears are there to feed. I came to watch the show, above Svalbard, 571 miles from the North Pole .
I spotted Standing Bear lying down, flat out on her belly, as much of her body in contact with the ice as she could manage. Bears do that when overheated, or after over-eating. In this case both. One of those seal/bear convergences had recently taken place.

One Stuffed Bear...-6059

Resulting in one very well-fed, somewhat overheated sleepy polar bear. And in that the key to my encounter. For a hungry bear everything is business (and there were plenty of all-business bears that day). But Standing Bear had the luxury of all her basic needs well and fully met and as with people, it gave her license for higher order pursuits. Namely, curiosity.

On her nose and chin, the evidence of having eaten a seal-6628

There was still a trace of red on her chin and above her nose. She yawned and showed her teeth and her purple tongue. We were still a kilometer away and she looked briefly, then dozed off again. Clearly, the ship did not interest her. Something she had seen before.

My Favorite Bear -6108

When we were within three hundred meters she rolled over on her side and took notice. She had seen the movement on the decks. As she approached, and by degrees, her eyes grew wide. I am all but certain she had never seen a human being.
Eye Contact-6621

Why did she cross the rolling sea ice to meet my eyes and hold them the way she did? To study all of us the way she did? Except for the greater similarity within the difference between us. PolarBearMorphism?

Drinking meltwater on top of the ice-7153

Polar bears are chess players. They can plan their activities (notably hunting) in multiple steps which means they can visual outcomes, a skill we assume animals do not have. But they do. I know this for a fact, and it is what makes polar bears in particular, dangerous. One of their hunting techniques is indifference, not even looking at their intended prey, and when they do, feigning greater interest in something else. Sometimes, they will hunt you, too. But not always. Because with intelligence also comes personality, and variations in attitude. I would go so far as to say that I “trusted” Standing Bear. Not enough to try to touch her, but enough to assume her primary interest in me (as is sometimes the case) was recognition. I have had the great privilege to spend time with almost a hundred polar bears. Standing Bear was and will likely remain my favorite of all time.
And looks, and leaves.-7336

The fieldwork for this story took place in Svalbard, with One Ocean Expeditions.

My prose essay, Standing Bear Comes in Peace, can be heard (or read) on PRI’s Living on Earth.

 

Close Encounter with a Tabular Iceberg

 

Tabular Iceberg, fragment of Larsen B-6853

Just off the Antarctic Peninsula at 63°0’58” S 57°40’52” W, I encountered a tabular iceberg [an iceberg that looks like a huge tabletop]. By the position, I believe it to have been a fragment of the Larsen B Ice Shelf that broke up in 2002. But “fragment” doesn’t do justice to what I saw. Picture New York’s Central Park, made of ice, and 120 feet high.

Tabular Iceberg, Leading Edge with Antarctic Petrels-7062

To give you an idea of the scale, the Antarctic Petrels soaring in front of the leading edge of the berg have a wingspan of one meter! In order to take a photo of an entire side, I had to wait until our ship had steamed some miles past. The tabular iceberg that just separated from Larsen C is many orders of magnitude larger than the giant pictured here.

My 20 days of fieldwork in the Antarctic was hosted by One Ocean Expeditions.

Field Note: Nursing Elephant Seals

Wallering Baby Elephant Seal-7695

“Baby face! You’ve got the cutest little baby face!”

How do we know that the young of other animals are young? There is a quality of voice, which tends to be higher pitched and less well articulated. Ungainliness is another characteristic (think about kittens on their first exploratory walk). Some research suggest that softened, rounded features are a major clue which, if we think about it, is or less confirmed by our own individual observations and experience.

None of this explains our sympathy.

Elephant Seal Family-4189

We are categorical unsympathetic to the young of insects, even those we regard as beneficial or beautiful. Many who would welcome a monarch butterfly landing on their hand would be reluctant to grant a monarch caterpillar those same privileges. Unless taught (or in the rare case where we directly observe) there is nothing about the caterpillar that tells us who or what it will become. Or even that it will “become,” as opposed to going through life, like an earthworm, exactly as it is in the instant – a caterpillar. There is above all, an innate lack of feeling on our part as opposed to our relationship to baby mammals. The majority of us love to see wild birds. But even so, newborn birds with their bulging eyes and reptilian necks don’t make us feel warm and cuddly.

And yet the when it comes to mammals the inverse is almost always true.

Bull Elephant Seal-4234

There is little to commend an adult male elephant seal in the way of aesthetics. Jabba the Hutt comes to mind, or perhaps some Kleptoparasitic politician. And yet the newborn of the species strike us in an entirely different way. We sympathize.

Why?

How to get to there:

South Georgia Island is nothing if not remote. Be forewarned: That makes the trip expensive. You can go to the Canadian Arctic or even Africa twice for the price of one good trip to the Southern Ocean. But the rewards are extraordinary.

Several tour companies can get you there. Before you choose one, get some idea of how many landings they intend to make, and how long they allow you to stay on shore. For most sites, you want 2 hours at a minimum, and as many landings are possible. Be forewarned: the big cruise ships lean towards a twenty minute drive-by in a Zodiac or the view from a mile off shore. Not the way to go. As a rule of thumb, you don’t want a ship with a complement of passengers much over 120 people.

I was hosted in the Southern Ocean by One Ocean Expeditions (WWW.OneOceanExpeditions.com) and I highly recommend them. It was indeed the trip of a lifetime.

The broadcast of my prose essay that accompanies this post can be heard on Living on Earth.