Winged robbers …… flies of a different sort

A large fly recently settled on a wall in Beacon Bay (EL) and was identified as one of the species of robber flies found in the region. With a wingspan of close to 25 mm, this species, Alcimus tristrigatus, was resting on a wall and may have been attracted to a body of water close by. When resting on the ground they can mimmick short-horned grasshoppers (a major prey item). The robber flies belong to the insect family called Asilidae and are generally recognisable by being  bristly and the top of the hairy head hollowed into a deep groove. Preying on other insects which are normally caught in flight, they are voracious and have powerful legs to subdue prey. Prey species include bees, wasps and grasshoppers.

robber fly

Robber fly (Alcimus tristrigatus)


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In the field with palaeontologist Dr Rob Gess

Museum scientist, Kevin Cole, recently spent time with Grahamstown palaeontologist, Dr Rob Gess. A field outing to road cutting close to Grahamstown proved to be an amazing meander back in time to the Devonian period (about 368 million years ago).


Dr Rob Gess

Passion and dedication on the part of Rob has resulted in some wonderful finds for science. Many years ago he had the foresight to collect a lot of rock separated out mechanically for a road cutting. This rock later revealed interesting fossilised extinct fish species, young coelacanths and the worlds earliest evidence of a scorpion. The interpretation of some of the science can be seen on display at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown (see photo below).


The display carries large colourful illustrations  ….. fish with armoured plated heads, lampreys (no bone in their bodies), spiny finned fishes (ancestors to sharks), lobed-finned fish, lung fish and fish with jointed armed appendages (see illustrations below).



Back in the lab at Rob’s office in Grahamstown rock specimens were presented and one of the samples clearly showed the pincer of a late Devonian scorpion (360 million years old) and another sample the fossil tail with the sting of the scorpion. At that time South Africa was part of a giant landmass known as Gondwana (which later split up into Antarctica, South America, Madagascar, India and Australia). This find represents the earliest land living (terrestrial) animal on this ancient landmass. This new species was named Gondwanascorpio emzanziensis (see photo below).

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Beaked whale update …. identification of the True’s beaked whale from Winterstrand

The whale stranded last year (19th October 2016) has been positively identified as a True’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon mirus) after the skull was macerated.  This was also confirmed after the teeth were surgically removed for identification by museum scientist Kevin Cole.


True’s beaked whale on the beach east of the seaside village of Winterstrand. Photo: Kevin Cole ELM

The whale was reported by members of the public to Siani Tinley of the East London Aquarium and a first investigation revealed a bloated specimen with innards expressed at the mouth. The first record for South Africa of the species was a stranding in 1959.

The unique marking of the whale was not visible as the skin had started to darken after the animal had died and been exposed to the sun for a period of time. The usual markings for the species is illustrated below.


True’s beaked whale – Reference: Whales and dolphins of the southern African subregion by Peter Best (Cambridge University Press 2007)

There have been no authenticated sightings at sea in the southern African subregion of these whales. Four stomachs examined for South African specimens stranded revealed a diet of unidentified fish species and 2 squid species.


Mouth part of the whale illustrating the  lack of any visible teeth. Photo: Kevin Cole ELM

A single pair of mandibular teeth are only visible in the adult male of this species. The teeth do not erupt in adult female and juvenile True’s beaked whales. The stranded animal recorded here was a female (also confirmed by the genital anatomy and presence of mammalian glands).

The macerated skull revealed a long, broad based rostrum and the two teeth removed were consistent with the dimensions of an adult female (2.4-3.1 cm).


Skull of the True’s beaked whale prepared by the East London Museum. Photo: Kevin Cole ELM


Mandibular teeth (a single pair) removed from the female True’s beaked whale at Winterstrand. Photo: Kevin Cole ELM

There is no accurate population estimate on the species in the world’s oceans (they occur in the northern hemisphere as well). One of the  threats to the species is the negative effect of loud sounds generated when seismic exploration takes place (in search of gas and oil). This may have caused the demise of this species as seismic activity was recorded in our oceans a few months before this animal stranded.

Dr Greg Hofmeyr, Marine Mammal Curator at Bayworld Museum (Port Elizabeth, South Africa) is thanked for sharing his knowledge on marine mammals and for his encouragement to document cetacean strandings.

Wojtek Bachara, a Ziphiidae consultant from Poland, is also thanked for his input on beaked whales.


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Common Brown Water Snake biting off more than it can chew …

Jimmy and Janet Calder presented the museum with a ‘double specimen’ when they deposited a juvenile Common Brown Water Snake (Lycodonomorphus rufulus) which had died attempting to consume a Tropical House Gecko on their property recently. The tail section of the gecko was still exposed on death and it is assumed that both species died as a result of internal injuries caused by the snake trying to consume a live gecko.


This is a good natural history record and Bayworld museum herpetologist, Werner Conradie, would like the gecko specimen to be sent to the University of the Western Cape as they are undertaking research on this species. He is thanked for confirming the species names. Tropical House Geckos are able to change colour – those individuals living close to lights which are on all night are usually very pale and sometimes appear translucent. The illustration below shows several pads under each toe which are divided down the middle of the toes into about five pairs. Each toe has a retractable claw.


Original tails are longer than the body length and have 6 rows of backward pointing tubercles. They can reach a length of between 60-90mm.

The Common Brown Water Snake is a constrictor and can reach a length of up to 700 mm. The specimen illustrated below is a juvenile and these nocturnal and terrestrial snakes prefer moist habitats.

They are harmless to humans. Sometimes they are confused with other species such as the Brown House Snake. Females lay a clutch of 6-23 eggs which take about 2 months to hatch.

Kevin Cole

Reference: A guide to the reptiles of southern Africa by Graham Alexander and Johan Marais (Struik Publishers 2008)

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Media story on cetacean strandings


Busy year of whale, dolphin strandings

By Barbara Hollands –

January 16, 2017

Principal scientist at the East London Museum, Kevin Cole is the go-to person when dolphins and whales are found beached or stranded along the East London coastline – and last year was the busiest on record, with the deaths of nine of the mammals.


EYE TO EYE: East London Museum’s principal scientist, Kevin Cole, examines the eye of a stranded 22m-long fin whale at Cove Rock beach in June last year. The mighty marine mammal was one of nine whales and dolphins that died along the coastline surrounding East London last year. The mammals became stranded between Bhirha River and Yellow Sands resort Picture: SUPPLIED

The deaths occurred between Bhirha River in the west and Yellow Sands resort in the east, and included five whales and four dolphins.

Cole said discharges of sewage close to the city, noise pollution, increased discharges of metal and chemical pollutants, diseases and collisions with boats could have been responsible for the fatalities.

“Our area is heavily polluted, with sewage outfalls close to East London [and] there is increased traffic and barotrauma [injuries from increased water pressure], caused by the seismic testing of marine beds for gas and oil along the KZN coast,” said Cole.

The seismic testing took place off KwaZulu-Natal early last year.

The year’s first case was the death of a pygmy killer whale, a species seen rarely in the region. It was found stranded at Bhirha. The last case was the death of an Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, found stranded at the mouth of the Nahoon River in November.

The pygmy killer whale, which was pregnant, had died from an ovarian cyst, while it was unclear why the bottlenose dolphin died. Young long-beaked, common dolphins, two humpback whales and a rare Cuvier’s beaked whale also died on our shores. In June, the stranding and death of a 22m fin whale at Cove Rock was the first on record in the area.

The deaths were particularly poignant for Cole, who developed an interest in marine mammals on his first visit to Port Elizabeth’s Bayworld as a child in 1972. He has completed post-graduate studies in marine biology and conservation.

Cole recalled a battle to save a whale last year: “I spent six hours in the water with the animal and mid-afternoon, at high tide, tried to encourage it to roll into deeper water a few metres away. The whale was exhausted after numerous attempts [to save it]. Considerable fatigue and possible damage to internal organs later caused its death.”

Being affiliated to Bayworld, the scientist works with marine mammal curator Dr Greg Hofmeyr, who curates the largest marine mammal collection in the southern hemisphere.

“Formal investigations, necropsies [autopsies] and collection of material have been extended under the Bayworld permit to me at the East London Museum. The East London Museum can respond to strandings that Bayworld cannot attend to,” Cole said.

He emphasised that marine mammals, alive or dead, were protected by law, meaning members of the public were not permitted to interfere with a stranding or remove marine mammal material from a beach.

“I am saddened by the unnecessary mortality of whales and dolphins due to our negative influence on the oceans,” he said. “As with most people, there is a connection with whales and dolphins and I have responded emotionally to that mammalian connection when dealing with strandings, especially when the animal has been alive. Intuitively, one senses that dolphins and whales have an advanced communication and a sociable structure that we can learn from.”

Cole will present a talk about the strandings at a Friends of the Museum and Border Historical Society meeting tomorrow at the Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer hall at 7.30pm. All are welcome and there is no charge. —


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Male loggerhead turtle rescued from Chintsa West


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Juvenile Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin predated on by a shark

On Wednesday 9th November 2016 the museum received a number of calls from the public that a dolphin had washed ashore at Nahoon Mouth (East London SA). The specimen was retrieved by the Aquarium and frozen for further analysis.


Museum scientist Kevin Cole later identified the cetacean as a juvenile male Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops aduncus). These dolphins are regularly sighted along the coast.

Bite marks were noted on the body of the dolphin – belly area (below and behind the left flipper), below the dorsal fin and below and back from the right flipper. The predatory species has not been ascertained yet. It is also not confirmed whether the animal was predated on after death (due to other causes) by a shark species.



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