Colorful, floating, flying, festive and fun. I love balloons. The little ones you blow up evoke happy images of celebrations and the hot air ones that lift you high to soar over landscapes can pull you physically into a higher realm. Today I saw a hot air balloon making its way across the Tucson valley, framed by our iconic saguaros. It reminded me of the thrill of seeing the land from on high.
Recently both of us had a chance to climb into the big baskets and fly over Serengeti. Jeannette got a ride over the kopjes and plains where animals collect around the Seronera river. David got to float over the southern plains covered with vast herds. It was a rare treat to view one of our favorite landscapes aloft. The bubbly champagne breakfast can lift your spirits even higher!
Looking a gorilla or chimp in the eyes is – for most humans – a profound experience. Ape eyes are so enigmatic and it’s obvious that we have much in common in the way of facial expressions and behavior.
Do you like being stared at? Probably not. In most primates a direct stare is a threat, while looking down or away is submissive. Being able to read the eye movements of others is very important in social communication. This is easier to do if the color of the iris contrasts with that of the sclera – in our case, the sclera is the “white of the eye”. In other members of the hominid family (apes and us) the sclera is usually darker, but occasional mutants show a white sclera too. Why might it be an advantage to have a white sclera? Why do some people dye their sclera black?
Here is a fun quiz for all of you who think you know how to tell about a person or animal from the eyes. See if you can guess the owners of the eyes at left. (Answers below)
answers: orang, bonobo, human, chimp, gorilla
I just led a Great Ape safari through Uganda and Rwanda to see chimps, gorillas and many other primates. It was a thrill to look into the feisty eyes or a chimp and the calm brown eyes of a gorilla and feel the connection – kin – but not quite. I was especially aware of our differences because one of my guests had said at the beginning of the safari:
“I came on this trip in order to see our closest ancestors.”
“No.” I had to reply. “None of the great apes alive today are our ancestors. Our ape ancestors have been dead for over 6 million years.”
He looked puzzled but eager to understand. So let’s try to make it clear how we are related. First, we humans and all the monkeys and apes are primates. Primates are an order of mammals with binocular and color vision and grasping hands. Primates split off from the ancestral mammals about 60 million years ago and diverged into various kinds. Through fossils and DNA we can trace the ape line back about 25 to 30 million years. The “ancestral ape” had no tail and was larger and longer-lived than other primates.
The apes continued to split; gibbons and orangutans went their own special ways and the other ape line kept evolving too. By about 9 million years ago a gorilla line was established and the rest of the ape-like beings evolved into two major types: chimps and hominins. Today we have two living representatives of the chimp line – chimpanzees and bonobos. Since Neanderthals died out relatively recently, that leaves only humans as representatives of our hominin line – the upright walking apes. So apes are our relatives but NOT our ancestors.
Here is a family tree with the living apes that shows the very approximate times when we left the other primates. A family tree is like an African flat-topped acacia, whose gnarled branches separated long ago and all the little twigs of the canopy have been on earth for the same amount of time. We humans are not at the top of a tree like a pine, with all other creatures down below us. I think it is very important to realize that all living beings are at the same level, we are all survivors through time. Gorillas and chimps are definitely our surviving relatives, but not ancestors.
Everyone loves flamingos, those bundles of pink plumes on stilts. People on our safaris always want to find and photograph them. Here in Tanzania, at Arusha National Park near Mt. Meru, there are soda lakes where flamingos cluster. Flamingos are beautiful, yes, and are also highly evolved to exploit their unique habitats – lakes full of algae and small crustaceans. They feed with beaks upside down, straining this food from greenish looking water. The chlorophyll of the algae contains carotenoids, pink or orange compounds which are deposited in flamingos’ plumage. Lesser flamingos, who feed directly on algae, are pinker than greater flamingos who eat brine shrimps. The quality of their shallow watery ‘pastures’ constantly changes, so they flap from lake to lake in the rift valley seeking the best food. We used to live on a flyway between Lake Eyasi and Lake Manyara, and often at night we’d see and hear their honking V’s passing over. These strange birds do amazing group parades, chorusing while marching, and they build crusty crater-like mud nests in the middle of desolate caustic lakes.
Here I want to share a fact about these fascinating birds. Researchers in 20 nations spent four years on a project to sequence the entire genomes of 48 species of birds. One of the results is that flamingos are closer relatives to pigeons and grebes than to look-alikes such as egrets and storks. Another surprise was that the chicken seems to be way back there in the genome line, closer to the original bird stock than anything except ostriches. Studies on bird evolution continue to evolve!
The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos is a wonderful film produced in 2008 by Disney. If you missed the TV presentation maybe your library has it. This link tells you more about the film.
I’m looking at two huge dormant volcanoes that grew out of the stretched and splitting rift valley floor. This is the view from above the house where I’m staying with friends just outside Arusha – known as the safari capital of Tanzania. Mt. Meru rises steeply above the city and Mt Kilmanjaro dominates the land 50 miles to the east.
These two mighty mountains impress me with their majesty and moods. We get to see them frequently because the international airport was built halfway between them in order to avoid their massive effect on wind and weather. We got to know these two while writing guidebooks about them for Tanzania National Parks years ago. In addition to their uplifting views and challenging climbs they shared secrets too, their shy wildlife like bushbucks and plume-tailed colobus monkeys, their forests, canyons, ponds, streams and falls of butterflies as well as water.
I’m especially fond of Mt. Meru, a blown out cone (similar to Mt. St. Helens) almost 15,000 ft high and very steep. You can just make out the torn side at the right of the mountain in the picture. Mt. Kilimanjaro is more bulky and going bald in the warming climate, its ice cap melting. Kili is Africa’s highest and the world’s highest free-standing mountain at 19,340 feet above sea level. Kili is actually composed of three cones – broad-shouldered Shira, the eroded peak of Mawenzi and indented top of Kibo with its crater and ice-fields.
I’m not a lover of hikes in high cold places. However, the plant and animal life on these rift valley mountains is abundant and extremely attractive. Here are some pictures to give you glimpses of life on the mountains.
Can’t afford a safari to Africa? Easy solution, go to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. We just spent a whole day there, at a fraction of the cost of a day on safari in Africa. And what a lot we saw: wildlife galore, maybe not in its natural habitat but in great variety and totally visible and easy to photograph. We were especially charmed by the mother cheetah and her four cubs, two of the last living northern white rhinos, gazelles, giraffes, oryx, warthogs, elephants and other typical animals of the African plains. Moreover, we saw animals that you would not see on most safaris, rare forest dwellers such as lowland gorillas and okapi, and so many kinds of birds and forest creatures from the world’s tropics – all healthy and housed in spacious enclosures in ‘natural’ social groupings.
Safari clients often say to us, “Don’t you hate to see animals in captivity? I could never go to a zoo after this.” We say, We LOVE zoos, especially now when zoos are so involved in conservation and captive breeding. While at the Safari Park we also visited the research institute, and were impressed by all the work going on; saving the egg-cells of old rhinos, freezing tissue samples of rare animals, breeding 165 endangered species, and supporting field research in over 35 countries.
The park was packed with families, riding the trains and the safari trucks or just strolling the grounds; a wonderful learning experience for kids. David’s childhood visits to a local zoo were the most exciting and memorable events in his young life. Zoos help fuel young minds for learning and caring more about animals.
Check out this amazing zoo and its older relative, the downtown San Diego Zoo, a bit commercialized, but both state-of-the-art facilities whose well-treated captives are ambassadors for the natural world.
“Any fool can be uncomfortable in the bush,” explained Howard, as he prepared delicious margarita drinks. “Personally, I always travel with the necessities.” We presumed that meant not only his margarita mixing skills but his little coffee press among other things. Howard was indeed a world traveler – an American raised in Australia, a wildlife biologist in Tanzania, where we met him.
“Are you really moving to Tucson Arizona?” he asked us. “Yes, we’ve bought into an intentional community there.” “Well then” said Howard, “you must meet my parents and visit Ruby, our ghost town.” And thus with taste and ease he created a bridge between our Tanzanian past and our American future.
Not long after we landed in Arizona we met Howard’s parents and visited Ruby. Love at first sight; we were hooked.
Ruby is an abandoned mining area being reclaimed by wildlife. We can camp by a shriveled or full lake near the sand dunes of the former tailing piles. These days the ghosts of Ruby are silent at night. From our campfire we hear only the owls and poorwills and the songs of coyotes. The stars have the sky to themselves and it’s the silence, the beauty and the wildlife that has made Ruby ghost town so important to our own survival. Here we come to free our shuttered senses from the assaults of urban ugliness, traffic, phones and the internet. At Ruby we soak in the subtler pleasures of nature and experience, that joy that only fools comfortable in the bush can claim.