By Raúl León Vigara and Alfredo Sánchez-Tójar
The chance of travelling to any place on planet earth and being able to both see and enjoy its diversity is always exciting and wonderful. Since its great biodiversity and cultural richness, the North of Africa offers lots of opportunities regarding that. Guided by those feelings, we went to the African continent.
Our first stop was in Kenitra, specifically in a great oak forest placed on sandy substratum, an exceptional scenario. The day began watching a red-necked nightjar (Caprimulgus ruficollis) and a little owl (Athene noctua lilith). We started to see lots of spur-thighed tortoises (Testudo graeca) which showed different both sizes and tonalities, a sight for us. Another very interesting reptiles showed up, such as the two species of Amphisbaenidae that appear within this area: the checkerboard worm lizard (Trogonophis wiegmanni) and the tangerine worm lizard (Blanus tingitanus), and, minutes later, another limbless reptile, the striking Koelliker’s glass lizard (Hyalosaurus koellikeri).
Beaming because of the observation of those animals, we kept enjoying when found a couple of mionecton skinks (Chalcides mionecton) and a Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus) which showed great size and both very contrasted and colourful design.
When we went deep into a Mediterranean dwarf palm (Chamaerops humilis) area, we were lucky to see a beetle belonging to the family Buprestidae, it was outstanding and amazing, decorated with metallic tonalities which gleamed under sunbeams. We were watching it in surprise till it lifted off.
At the end, we could see some common wall geckos (Tarentola mauritanica), Mauritanian toads (Amietophrynus mauritanicus), Sahara frogs (Pelophylax saharicus) and another bird species such as cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis), black kite (Milvus migrans), great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), Eurasian hoopoe (Upupa epops), mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus), Eurasian blackbird (Turdus merula), spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) and Eurasian chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs africana).
We saw some black-billed magpies (Pica pica mauritanica) showing their distinctive blue patch next to the eye on our way out from Marrakesh.
We started to slowly go to the south by crossing the Atlas Mountains in order to reach the oasis areas of Agdz and its surroundings. Before that, we got the trip-typical and -traditional wheel blowout. Due to the observation of progressive changes on both vegetation series and overall habitat when ascending in height, the crossing across the Atlas Mountains is very interesting. During a stopover, we saw some European rollers (Coracias garrulus) and a Barbary ground squirrel (Atlantoxerus getulus).
We caught sight of an interesting habitat nearby a river when went down from the mountains, it was surrounded by rocks and palms. We wanted to know its diversity, so we decided to stop by. We saw some individuals of Oudri’s fan-footed gecko (Ptyodactylus oudrii) sunning themselves close to the rock cracks, as well a non identified Acanthodactylus and a fresh Malpolon monspessulanum sloughing off.
Some more kilometres later, we stopped to sleep, but that agile gecko species, Ptyodactylus oudrii, as well as some spiders and the first typical African scorpion belonging to the species Hottentota franzwerneri, appeared before we set up our tents.
After we got up, realised that had slept nearby one of the most representative plants within the area, Calotropis procera. A little bit later we were on our way, saw the first Bibron’s agama (Agama impalearis), it was a subadult sunning itself on some stones in a village. Being glad about that early record, we kept enjoying watching birds such as the common bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus).
We got an astonishing oasis, plenty of vegetation, a wide river and ponds, we were delighted. We knew it was a possible blue-checked bee-eater (Merops apiaster) habitat and broadly wanted to see it. We found a male of Montpellier snake but, unfortunately, was dead, quite probably because someone had killed it; Böhme’s geckos (Tarentola boehmei), many Mauritanian toads and Sahara frogs were found in the damp places of this oasis. Besides several Bibron’s agama both juveniles and subadults, a big and colourful female was sunning itself, it showed blue head and red and yellow body. A little bit later, two males of that species were found several metres up on a cemented construction. One of them was carrying out the common “push up” movements that are used by this species to mark its territory to a possible rival male which, in this case, answered vanishing.
Green bright twinkles crossed the sky, the amazing blue-checked bee-eaters, as beautiful as we expected. We watched them both flying and sat on the vegetation during a long time. Nearby, the white wagtails (Motacilla alba subpersonata) fed themselves along the shore. Some nice boys who were surprised of our behaviour showed us a couple of Spanish terrapines (Mauremys leprosa) that showed blue striking eyes, non identified Acanthodactylus and a couple of juveniles of viperine snake (Natrix maura). A little bit further away, we found some more Spanish terrapines, Natrix maura and Acanthodactylus sp., the latter were meandering their tails as a decoy to avoid any danger when running away towards some bushes. More birds flew among the palms, common bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus), rufous-tailed scrub robin (Cercotrichas galactotes), Spanish sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis), desert lark (Ammomanes deserti), bar-tailed lark (Ammomanes cincturus), house bunting (Emberiza striolata sahari), Eurasian collared-dove (Streptopelia decaocto), European turtle-dove (Streptopelia turtur), laughing dove (Streptopelia senegalensis) and a common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis).
We decided to go from the orcharded areas of Agdz to the surroundings of Tata, seeing white-tailed wheatears (Oenanthe leucopyga) and black wheatears (Oenanthe leucura) on our way, and, when we saw the first dunes, we could not avoid the tempting of stopping by and walking on them in order to find out what kind of life was inhabiting them: small lizards belonging to the genus Acanthodactylus rapidly ran away, a big male of Bibron’s agama was found into a burrow and what looked as an old desert monitor (Varanus griseus) lay was also found. Suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by tens of dromedaries, it was a great experience to be among these giants and we felt almost as among dinosaurs that heavily walked while in quest for an oasis.
The sun was going down and, therefore, the nocturnal activity began. Though scant, it gave us a great surprise when someone shout “Cerastes!”. It was a juvenile of Saharan horned viper (Cerastes cerastes). Astonished, we looked at its outstanding way of slithering (“sidewinding”), its horn-like supraocular scales and all its desert adaptations. A little bit later, we found another individual of that species but, in this case, it has been recently ran over. Some hours later, none kind of activity was observed. We spent the night in a far off from populations place, a desert area with very singular acacias. We found a mantis belonging to the genus Eremiaphila, a fantastic creature, imagine a mantis that is adapted to camouflage itself on the ground of arid areas.
Very early in the morning, when we were about starting the long voyage from Tata to Assa, two bright and colourful dressed women came to us. They were mother and daughter who, by body language, said to us that needed to get a nearby village to visit the doctor. Thirty-five kilometres left to reach that goal, so the seven of us got into the car and moved forward. We dropped our new friends off at their destination and went on. The first Moroccan spiny-tailed lizards (Uromastyx nigriventris) started to show up not so later. We saw some of them at the beginning, but suddenly, we reached a plenty of burrows zone, the density of these saurians was fabulous, we saw lots of big and bright-coloured striking individuals that quickly went into their burrows when any danger appeared. They are amazing animals that show a striking contrast between black and bright either orange, yellow or green, even all them merged, such a wonderful animals. Some of the feathered animals that joined us were Barbary partridges (Alectoris barbara) and a greater hoopoe-lark (Alaemon alaudipes) in the presence of which we were completely blown away. We found the latter within a group of dunes where also inhabited Acanthodactylus sp. and Cerastes cerastes, the latter was detected by tracks on the sand. We also found out the presence of a nocturnal bird of prey by finding a pellet along a cliff.
When reached the surroundings of Assa, we found three run over snakes: an adult of Schokari sand racer (Psammophis schokari) with a juvenile of Uromastyx nigriventris inside the stomach, a Mograbin diadem snake (Spalerosophis dolichospilus) and a horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis). Few vehicles drove through this road but those three snakes were very unlucky to meet them. It is always very sad finding run over animals. During the night, we found both an Algerian sand gecko (Tropiocolotes algericus) and a juvenile of Cerastes cerastes that showed a very beautiful design showing dark sided head patches, in a mountainous area.
At dawn, we realized an Algerian sand gecko (Tropiocolotes algericus) had spent the night sheltered under one of our tents, moreover, we also realized the kind of place where we had slept. It was a mountainous landscape inhabited by cactus-like spurges belonging to the species Euphorbia officinarum as well as other curious plants. We decided to go on by that mountain road, even if it had been advised against by the local people, and observed an adult male of Bibron’s agama sunning itself on a spurge, as well as desert wheatear (Oenanthe deserti), grey shrike (Lanius algeriensis) and some unidentified both scorpions and solifuges. We soon realised the road, as it was called by our map, was a doubtful practicability path and it was time to back down. On our way back, we met by chance a shepherd who had his both house and odd appearance goats there.
Now, our goal was to reach the area of Tarfaya and its dunes. However, before covering all the kilometres until our destination, we found a juvenile of ocellated skink (Chalcides ocellatus) and several African green toads (Bufo boulengeri) at the surroundings of Assa.
It was already night when we got the sand of Tarfaya. It is an unique and fascinating experience walking through huge dunes at night when one is observing hundreds of animals tracks on the sand. Several insect species were active, among them, the great carabid Anthia sexmaculata and many darkling beetles, as well as rounded-shape dune cockroaches that quickly burrowed themselves into the sand. Two big and beautiful spiders belonging to the genus Cerbalus also walked around there, as well as an endemic scorpion of this area, Buthus bonito.
Suddenly, something more voluminous was running across the dune, it was a helmethead gecko (Tarentola chazaliae) showing big eyes and broad fingers to be able to walk on the sand, it is undoubtedly one of the most both well-known and beautiful geckos inhabiting the Maghreb. Delighted by that sight, we eagerly seek after the Saharan sand viper (Cerastes vipera) tracks and, finally, a great adult peculiarly slithered (“sidewinding”) in front of us. We heard the defensive sound generated when it rubs its body side scales each others, as well as its unthinkable way of burrowing into the sand. Amazing! Undoubtedly, it was one of the animals that most amused us during the trip. A wonderful night.
Next day, golden fringe-fingered lizards (Acanthodactylus aureus), common wall geckos (Tarentola mauritanica) and the Schokari sand racer (Psammophis schokari) were observed..
Many birds were observed among the bushes at the surroundings of the marshes: little egret (Egretta garzetta), grey heron (Ardea cinerea), cream-coloured courser (Cursorius cursor), common ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula), dunlin (Calidris alpina), Caspian gull (Larus cachinnans), lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus), sand martin (Riparia riparia), barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), red-rumped swallow (Hirundo daurica), common house martin (Delichon urbica) and spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa striata).
Being euphoric because of all the observed diversity, we went to the area of Tantan where we met other reptiles that both wished finding the most and are considered as tropical relictual: the puff adder (Bitis arietans) which is very impressive because of its appearance and because one can feel Africa’s power when in front of it, and the brown house snake (Boaedon fuliginosus) which shows a beautiful blueish iridescence and undoubtedly was one of the most interesting trip finds, it was amazing seeing it so close. It is very exciting to be in front of two snake species that are also distributed within the African tropical area. Bibron’s agamas were also observed while sunned themselves. Some helmethead geckos and a desert hedgehog (Paraechinus aethiopicus deserti) appeared actives that night.
Each time we either touched an amphibian or trod in wet places, we carried out the necessary protocol to avoid a very dangerous Chytrid fungus, Batrachochytridium dendrobatidis . That fungus cause massive extinctions on amphibians populations, therefore we disinfected all the equipment each time handled amphibians by using the appropriate antifungal: plastic containers, boot soles, etc., plus we also used disposable gloves to handle amphibians. That is why is very important to not move amphibians from one place to another, though it was an small distance, because doing it we could be spreading out that lethal fungus. In sum, if handling amphibians is necessary, it will be crucial both to follow the appropriate protocol (equipment disinfection, disposable gloves using, etc.) and to leave the individuals in the same place that were found.
We all can both collaborate and help out with amphibians conservation by carrying out the protocols against the spreading out of that lethal fungus. Please, follow the protocols, they are easy, avoid more massive amphibians wiping out. Thanks.
On the other hand, it was also a very good day in terms of birdwatching: a huge common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), cream-coloured courser (Cursorius cursor), crested lark (Galerida cristata), desert lark (Ammomanes deserti), bar-tailed desert lark (Ammomanes cincturus), Northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe), black-eared wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica), red-rumped wheatear (Oenanthe moesta), melodious warbler (Hippolais polyglotta), house bunting (Emberiza striolata sahari), plus a striking bird, the Temminck’s lark (Eremophila bilopha) which we observed for a long while. Ticks joined us in this area more than in others.
We saw cream-coloured coursers again as well as black kites (Milvus migrans) and long-legged buzzard (Buteo rufinus) at the surroundings of Guelmim. We also found a Northern elegant gecko (Stenodactylus mauritanicus) that showed these amazing eyes and feline design, a horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis), a male of Bibron’s agama, some African green toads, fat tail scorpions (Androctonus mauritanicus), many beetles and a gerbil belonging to the genus Gerbillus. We also saw a widow spider (Latrodectus sp.).
Several big Chalcides polylepis were observed close to Sidi Ifni.
Our next destination was Agadir, specifically the area of Souss Massa National Park. During the night, several herps showed activity: Tarentola chazaliae, Tarentola mauritanica, Bufo boulengeri and one of the most dune-inhabitant adapted skinks, Chalcides sphenopsiformis, striking slender reptile that shows pointed snout and great ability to burrow itself in few seconds.
We saw many interesting birds at dawn: little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis), great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo maroccanus), cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis), squacco heron (Ardeola ralloides), white stork (Ciconia ciconia), glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), marbled teal (Marmaronetta angustirostris), Barbary partridge (Alectoris barbara), Eurasian oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), Eurasian thick-knee (Burhinus oedicnemus), grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola), dunlin (Calidris alpina), curlew sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea), sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis), black tern (Chlidonias niger), woodchat shrike (Lanius senator), black-crowned tchagra (Tchagra senegala), European goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), European greenfinch (Carduelis chloris) and European serin (Serinus serinus). We also saw some both Acanthodactylus sp. and Tarentola mauritanica. Flying came along a typical North African mantis (Blephariopsis mendica) which shows beautiful features.
The time to come back to the north was coming. We went again to Kenitra as the last stop, there we met again old friends such as the spur-thighed tortoises, the checkerboard worm lizard, the Mauritanian toads and a quite big viperine snake.
We did not want to come back, but we had got a deadline and a ferry to take from Tangier to Iberian lands. The time was coming for us, for a group of friends that were fascinated and glad of living this experience, not to say bye but see you soon to the diversity of this area of the Maghreb.
As a final thinking we should say:
– Again, we realised that the animals activity is something impossible to foresee, it is simply a matter of being in their habitats to get some chances of finding them.
– The local people we met were extremely kind and nice with us, as inviting us to their houses, bread or tea, as helping us changing the wheel, showing us animals, giving tips to us, etc. Their smiles and kind behaviour explain everything. We have got to learn a lot from them. Thank you.
– The Moroccan herpetofauna still shows many conservations problems (habitat loss, road knocking over, direct kills because of aversion, individuals plundering due to animal trade, etc.). We would like to boost both carrying out and taking steps to mitigate individuals loss.
Way of acting:
– Not a single animal was moved from its original place . All found animals were snapped and then, EXACTLY left in their original places.
– Every time there was need, that is to say, every time we either handled amphibians or visited suspicious places, the protocols against the spreading out of the Batrachochitridium dendrobatidis fungus that affects and wipes out amphibians were carried out.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: We are indebted to the local people we met during the trip, to Gabri Martínez because of his advices, to Juan Pablo G. de la Vega because of lending us his GPS, to Javier Gállego because of his photography tips, to Octavio Jiménez Robles because of lending us equipment, to Laura Pérez Zarcos because of the identification of our spider pictures, to the Animal Biology Department of the University of Granada because of lending us equipment, to our families and, of course, to them, to those amazing creatures that make our life happy…