Saturday, August 25, 2012

A white impala in the Kruger Park

Well, there we all are on our way to this year's dig, travelling up from Croc Bridge towards Lower Sabie, when we see some cars stopped up ahead.

Now sometimes of course you are the first to spot some amazing creature, or it steps out into the road with no one else around, just you and him. But for the most part, the first sign that you're going to see something exciting isn't a footprint or a sound, it's a traffic jam. You see cars stopped, your heart starts beating faster, you make haste slowly and as quietly as possible to where everyone's looking at... something. Then you try to decipher their body language. From which window are the camera lenses and binoculars pointing? Close to the road or hunkered down in the grass way off in the distance? Sometimes you wonder how the first person to stop ever figured out how that darker bit of bush, that flick of an ear, was in fact part of an animal. And most importantly, what is it?

There's a definite hierarchy. Massive philosophical divide between those who stop for birds and those who get annoyed at them. You won't get a traffic jam for any of the more common herbivores: impala, warthog, wildebeest, zebra, kudu. Impala are the default setting, so common they don't count when you're taking bets on what you're going to see first. They're so beautiful though, when you really look at them. The most elegant antelope. You stop if they're right in the road, a nice photo op, or if you're Communing with Nature and Appreciating the Ordinary. Some old Kruger hands who think they're too cool won't even slow down. Giraffes, maybe a few cars if they're nice and close. Likewise for buffalo, simply because they're Big 5. Hippo. They're not so common, but they look it because you always see them in water.  Traffic jams form for elephants, if only out of necessity. Rhino, definitely, because they're so rare. And they're a cause at the moment, a war.

And then the apex, the predators. Lions, leopards, cheetah, wild dogs. Everyone wants to see a predator. When we stop to see what the cars are looking at, I'm disappointed when I see the herd of impala calmly grazing all over the place, on both sides of the road, because that means it, the thing they're all looking at, can't be a predator. And that means it's got to be something less exciting, because what's better than a predator, right?

We stop behind the last car in line and slowly edge forward. Everyone in the minibus is craning their necks and peering between blades of grass to try and figure out what everyone else is looking at. And then I see it, something that looks a little different, right in the middle of the herd of impala. It is not a normal impala colour.

bushes with a pale blur

It resolves into something like the picture in the last post. "Um," I say. "Um. I think it's -" I didn't want to sound stupid, but I was pretty certain of what I had just seen. "A white. Impala." I can't tell you for sure if anyone went "Nah, can't be" or if that was just what I was expecting them to say, but then we moved forward a little more and-

white impala Kruger park

It is a white impala - and it's a young male. That makes him the African equivalent of that legendary creature, the white stag. Technically a boy impala is called a ram, as it's an antelope rather than a deer. (Deer have branched antlers and lose them every year, while antelope have unbranched, permanent horns. There are no native deer around here.)

white impala Kruger park

He also seems to be a true albino, with no pigment at all. His eyes are pink. There has been another white impala reported in the park, a female with black eyes.

white impala Kruger park

Here he is with a normal-coloured female.

white impala Kruger park

And here he is pretending to be a unicorn. I swear that was what it felt like. Like we'd spotted a freaking unicorn. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A legendary beast

I still don't quite believe this.


Here's a hint: What do thousands upon thousands of drunk students have in common with a couple of saints, Arthurian legend, Narnia, Harry Potter and... me!?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A new subspecies. Science!

Phytotaxa just published an article with one of my illustrations in it. It's a new subspecies, Euphorbia melanohydrata subsp. conica. This is the most complicated pen-and-ink drawing I have ever done - most of the time you can get away with just doing a little branch of the plant, but with this one I felt I just had to draw the entire thing, because it is absolutely surreal - like a baby Martian Christmas tree. The article is open access, so you can read the whole thing here.

All those tiny fractal branches and subbranches and live branches and dead branches and flowering branches were so much fun to do. As were the roots. And trying to describe the shape of the plant itself using only branchlet shapes for shading.

A bit of a closeup.

Did you know you can get your latest new-species news on Twitter? I'm not really a Twitter person, but this does strike me as slightly absurd in the best sort of way, so I'm all for it. Here's the Tweet that introduced the world to baby Martian Christmas trees.