Articles on biology by Bevan Pank

My only claim to fame – or perhaps infamy – is for often writing on biology in analogical terms. For example, I described abalone as good "buddies" for a dive magazine, so that the reader can more readily identify with them. To help in promoting environmental protection, I consider it necessary to "sell" the magic of indigenous fauna and flora. This is because I was a marketing man – both locally and overseas – in the building industry, before becoming an amateur science writer.

Although only a weekend-diver, I was privileged to witness beauty seldom seen – except on television – by the average person. The closest was to be found in more easily accessible intertidal rock-pools. I therefore decided to write mainly on their tiny – but fascinating – inhabitants. My motive was to indicate that all creatures – whatever their size – warrant respect for their lifestyle and habitat. In my opinion, it is immoral, when we relative newcomers to Earth over-exploit marine invertebrate groups that have existed for over 500 million years!

MARINE BIOLOGY

Articles on cnidarians

  • Creatures that never age. We South Africans are morally obliged to never pollute our water, in case some amazing tiny animals deserving respect are killed. Known as hydras in fresh water and as hydroids in salt water, they succeed where we fail - by never aging!

  • Our magnificent corals. Anyone visiting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is struck by the beauty of its coral. A similar underwater kaleidoscope occurs in the Caribbean and many other tropical regions. However, there is nothing dull about South African corals.

  • The magnificent jellyfish. One day last summer, many visitors to a popular Cape beach had their holiday ruined by the intimidating presence of a huge washed-up jellyfish. It was the largest known species - a Root-mouthed Jellyfish - which averages 0,30 m, but can reach 1,5 m in diameter. The bathers did not realize that this species lacks stinging tentacles and poses no threat!

Articles on crustaceans

  • Beach hoppers, the sandy shore custodians. To people living on an unspoilt stretch of the Cape coast, the stink of rotting stranded kelp is a temporary problem. It is soon solved by beach hoppers. Commonly termed beach fleas, they are actually air-breathing marine crustaceans with modified gills and related to shrimps. Besides their role as "custodians" of the sandy shore, they also attract bird life to the region.

  • Majidae - The magic decorator crabs. There is magic in South African waters! Although difficult to detect, it occurs among seaweeds in countless rock-pools from the Cape Peninsula to Moçambique. We call this magic "Majidae" - A family name for the decorator crabs.

  • The smashing and spearing stomatopods. Come share a jug of navy rum and watch thy 100-gun British man-o’war set sail from fair Simon’s Town with proud ensign atop ye top gallants. its jacktars be warriors, but i hast a tale for thee of greater warriors that conquered ye false bay shallows nigh on 500 million years ago. Aye! They art bearers of weapons with ye fastest strikes on planet earth!

    • The weapons shrimp (order Stomatopoda).  Meet the world’s fastest striking animal in underwater combat! Its kind have been around for 135 million years and are "spearers" of the superorder Hoplocarida, which means "weapons shrimp".

  • The wonderful world of decapods. Did you know that the east coast rock lobster usually shares a home with an aggressive moray eel? It attracts the eel with a shrill "serenade", which is performed by rasping together certain body parts. So when a hungry octopus rolls up in search of a crayfish cocktail, the eel quickly comes to the rescue and zaps it! Such fascinating behaviour can be found in the wonderful world of decapods.

  • My friend Bluey the hermit crab. A true story.

Articles on molluscs

  • Animals with metallic teeth. All about chitons of class Polyplacophora.

  • In defence of abalone. Perlemoen or more correctly - abalone - are "nice guys" and do not deserve to be over-exploited. When trapping a large piece of drifting sugar-rich seaweed underfoot, they often wait for their mates to arrive and join in the sumptous meal!

  • Nudibranchs and sea hares. Ole! See the Spanish dancer with a gold, red and white mantle. It ripples with each graceful swimming motion. This is one of southern Africa’s most flamboyant marine invertebrate groups: the spectacular Opisthobranchs.

  • The harpooning cone shells. Although invertebrates in South African waters are seldom - if ever - lethal, some give a painful sting and need to be handled with protective gloves. This is especially the case with large cone shells much prized by collectors. In fact, two species from the east coast - fortunately rare - produce venom similar in effect to that of a cobra. Toxins vary in potency, but all cones produce them and employ the same delivery method through barbed harpoon-like teeth!

  • The limestone drills. Any commercial diver attempting to drill through limestone will know that it is not easy. Surprisingly, a special group of marine invertebrates have been doing this with panache for some 200 million years. they are known simply as "the drills".

  • Bivalve engineering

  • Getting to grips with limpets! Meet South Africa’s family Patellidae. commonly known as limpets, they inhabit our rocky shores and get up to all sorts of tricks. To best appreciate their amazing lifestyles, let’s imagine that their latest trick is the power of speech!

Articles on fish

  • Lighting the ocean depths. Blowing across the darkened Sinai Peninsula, a Khamsin wind covered military jeeps with dust and ruffled the waters of the Gulf of Aquaba. Although the "six-day war" of 1967 was over, Israeli troops still patrolled the coastline south of Eilat. Spotting a faint green glow beyond the coral reef, they believed it to emanate from raiding frogmen and lobbed grenades. Many of the dead were washed ashore, but their eyes continued to blaze with eerie light for several hours. This was an encounter with the magnificent flashlight fish.

  • Tickbirds of the ocean. Just as tickbirds remove parasites from cattle, so certain animals perform the same service - and much more - on fish. Known as "cleaners", South Africa is proud to welcome two of the greatest - the Cleaner Shrimp and Cleaner Wrasse!

Articles on the marine environment

  • Diving the Cape Peninsula. Well beyond the kelp beds in Smitswinkel Bay, the skipper has dropped anchor on Rockeater. It rests at 35 metres on the sandy bed with four other wrecks, forming an artificial reef. There you will find soft corals, sponges, fishes and the spectacular gas-flame nudibranch.

  • The Whale Dance. Describes the anatomy and postures of the Southern Right Whale.

  • The magic of Danger Beach. Consider the situation at Danger Beach, so named on account of its rip tides when the waves are large and only attract surfers.  It lies near St. James station, which is a 50-minute train journey from the city of Cape Town and less on the motor expressway.  In spring, the lush lawn with its paved path to Danger Beach gradually gives way to a psychedelic mass of yellow and white daisies.  Then suddenly appears the wildness of a huge wave-beaten stretch of sand set between a low but wide rocky shore.    

  • The Amazing Bristle-worms. About polychaete worms that are found on rocky shores.

TERRESTRIAL BIOLOGY

Articles on plants

  • Common-sense gardening. About success in windy coastal regions with indigenous plants.

  • Proteus learns his lesson. An analogy on Proteus - an ancient Greek - taking the form of the sugarbush Protea repens, to help in uplifting a poor community.

  • Ed finds his roots. Ed – or more correctly – edulus is actually a succulent species of the genus Carpobrotus and is indigenous to the south-western Cape coast. Commonly known as the Hottentot or sour fig, C. edulus is easily recognized by its fleshy three-sided leaves and yellow daisy-like flower.

Articles on insects

  • Beneficial flies. Did you know that many flowers on the Cape Peninsula cannot pollinate, unless they are members of a 'guild' which attracts a particular fly? Did you also know that another fly is partly responsible for ridding many beaches of smelly kelp? So although we regard flies as pests, these two flies help to beautify the region. Hence eco-tourism benefits, which in turn strengthens our economy.

Articles on birds

  • The Lonely Otter. Neither the Russian nor South African birds were prepared to confront a hissing otter. Instead, they consulted some recent visitors from north of the Limpopo River. These were the Largerstriped Swallow, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Diederik Cuckoo and Redchested Cuckoo. "Since your countries are democratic," they advised, "you have no right to persecute little Otto". Little? He measured 1,5 metres and weighed 18 kilograms! "Otto leaves you alone", they continued, "he only asks for the right to catch a few crabs here or go fishing and never complains when we make a noise". The local birds then hung their heads in shame!

  • The Winged Blockade. What an incredible sight! The brave blockade-buster unsteadily flip-flopped his way with waving arms to the nest site. "Kek-kek-kek", he shouted in imitation of a Peregrine Falcon. When the Plovers gave their characteristic "tink-tink-tink" warning, he responded with the falcon’s threat call of "chik-it, chik-it, chik-it" and then all hell broke loose.

  • The Evening Dress Parade. About African Penguins. The guided-missile strike craft was fighting a raging southeaster in false bay, but all was calm at Foxy Beach in the Boulders Coastal Park. Many youngsters smartly dressed in black and white were staring expectantly out to sea. They were observed by a large group of overseas visitors, who had come 40 km from Cape Town to witness what some even regarded as the highlight of their South African tour. This was the explosion of submerged black torpedo shapes!

PLACES

  • Hiking the False Bay Champagne Trail. With raucous cries of indignation, sea gulls weave between plumes of salty spray from waves crashing against the Muizenberg catwalk. A rainbow tunnel lit by reflections off the silvery sea invites us to taste the champagne-like air. It is spring and mighty Cape rollers have scoured the beaches. This is the time to hike the 22 km champagne trail.

  • South Africa's village of ecosystems. About the various ecosystems to be found in and around the little coastal village of Glencairn on the Cape Peninsula.

 

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