Cubitermes sankurensis

Cubitermes sankurensis

Peer reviewed paper series

Dangerfield, J. M. (1990). The distribution and abundance of Cubitermes sankurensis (Wassmann) (Isoptera; Termitidae) within a Miombo woodland site in Zimbabwe. African Journal of Ecology, 28(1), 15–20.

Early in 1987 all efforts to finish my doctoral thesis seemed fruitless. The data were in and the structure agreed with an array of supervisors delivering comments and instructions all taken on board. I recall that the first few chapters were written and re-written any number of times before they were deemed satisfactory. The process was rigorous and arduous as each chapter was given painful birth. I was over it.

A choice was needed to fight or flee the adversity. Such moments happen to everyone at points in their lives. I don’t recall the exact day but the decision happened to cease prevarication, lose the perfectionism excuses, and push the thing over the line. It worked. Within a couple of months my thesis was submitted for approval and for the first time I realised what can be done when the brain actually pays true attention to a task.

Much later I also found out that you couldn’t force this focus. It comes on its own when it’s good and ready. Uncannily, but only if you let it, focus arrives in plenty of time to meet deadlines.

The problem with the burst of energy on my thesis was that I finished it. Now it was time to find something to do with all the education.

NHM South Kensington

The Natural History Museum in South Kensington is a true wonder. It has some startling public galleries with homages to the Victorians who established and built its edifices and its reputation. You can feel very small standing beneath the blue whale skeleton and minuscule in front of the marble statue of Charles Darwin.

What the public don’t see and very few visitors will know is that the building also houses biological specimens from every corner of the globe. These vast collections are all immaculately curated and stored in thousands of drawers and jars in rooms that smell of naphthalene. This wealth of biodiversity is the raw material for systematics, the branch of biology that deals with classification and nomenclature.

Among these many specimens are termites.

For a week in the late summer of that thesis year my eyes were glued to a microscope trying to find the teeth on the left mandible of major soldiers. Thanks to an uncanny alignment of the stars my immediate future was to be as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zimbabwe, the opportunity of a lifetime. And what else could a soil ecologist study in Africa than termites. They have, after all, eaten the continents architectural heritage and ruined any number of crops.

So here in the corridors that the public don’t see, I was doing my homework, cramming for a taxonomy test like no other and, thankfully, meeting some taxonomists who would be a huge help when it mattered.

My focus was the fungus growing species, the Macrotermes, whose soldiers have mandibles big enough to be sutures on wounds and whose workers build mounds literally the size of a house. So it was inevitable that the first research was on the soil feeding species Cubitermes sankurensis that was not on my homework list and builds soccer ball sized homes.

‘The distribution and abundance of Cubitermes sankurensis (Wassmann) (Isoptera; Termitidae) within a Miombo woodland site in Zimbabwe’ is not the most erudite contribution to ecological science ever made. In fact, it is a huge surprise that it was published at all.

A few mounds were mapped and the number of termites estimated by correlating mound dimension with the number of termites counted in soil cores taken from a sample of mounds. Around 1,000 termites per square meter, the numbers said but what this actually meant it was hard to say. There was no evidence at all really.

It is hard to know how many peer-reviewed papers are like this one. Nothing obviously wrong and yet little, if any, knowledge gained.

There were plenty more termite mounds to measure and later work produced more useful information than no obvious pattern between vegetation structure and the distribution of termite mounds.

By the way, for those sharp-eyed naturalists the header image is, of course, not Cubitermes but a species of Odontotermes, a fungus growing genus, that needs the wide vents to keep the fungus garden moist.

Millipedes in Zimbabwe

Millipedes in Zimbabwe

Peer-reviewed paper series

Dangerfield, J. M., & Telford, S. R. (1991). Seasonal activity patterns of julid millipedes in Zimbabwe. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 7(2), 281-285.

This is a cute little paper, one of the first to come out of a brief but very fruitful collaboration with my colleague and friend, the late Steven Telford.

It reads like it was squeezed out of the smallest amount of data possible, then imbued with youthful enthusiasm and naivety. Which is exactly what happened.

Steve and I worked together in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Zimbabwe in the late 1980’s. It was a time of transition from old colonial times to a more modern independence for the country and long before the University conferred a doctorate for being the president’s wife. Apparently, use of the ‘Dr’ moniker lends gravitas even without completing the research or writing a thesis.

Back then there were still a few old timey academics wandering the halls musing on the number and size of parasites you could find in an elephant carcass or the physiology of crocodiles that leaves them in a near death oxygen debt after a charge to catch prey. We had access to these singular minds and to their eccentricities but not the rocking chair in the corner office that was always reserved for lunchtime siestas.

Steve was a fine zoologist who knew a great deal about the mating behaviours of frogs, particularly the painted reed frog, Hyperolius marmoratus, and he was very popular with the students who liked his teaching style and his up to date eccentricities. Many an hour was spent shuffling cards on a makeshift table under a marula tree having first taught the honours class how to play.

For a long time, we had just said hello or had an occasional brief exchange in the tearoom. Then one day Steve invited me to help on a field trip he was planning for his third-year zoology students to the Zambezi Valley. I think I said ‘thank you, happy to help’ but in hindsight, I should have rained gratitude from the heavens.

We stayed at the Rukomichi Research Station and messed around with some field work of various types and I had my first real elephant encounter. Steve was after some ecological insights and techniques so we taught sampling specifics (the how to do it) and some of the statistical logic (how many samples do you need to make an inference) for dung beetle numbers.

Moving nearer to the Zambezi, the students marveled at, and Steve commented on, the zoology of the prolific wildlife in Mana Pools where the warden’s office was flanked by rhino skulls. And everyone played cards.

It was idyllic.

Inevitably there was science talk. What, why and how questions about everything from the impenetrability of jesse bush to the mating system of impala — territorial males holding harems in case you were wondering. And then millipedes because I had already clocked them as a fascinating option for a soil ecologist to work on given they were prolific, huge, diverse and, most importantly, barely studied. The fact that their mating habits were readily observable did it for Steve.

We conjured up any number of hypotheses about their ecology and evolutionary biology and started to test many of them in the lab and on many a field excursion. Foraging activity was one of the behaviours we observed and this paper came from the first data we collected.

It was obvious that these animals were seasonal, holding out deep in the soil during the dry season and emerging after the first or sometimes the second major rain event in October. They walked around on the surface after rain stopping to eat and mate. Then as the soil dried they sheltered in shallow burrows or under the wooden blocks we scattered through the miombo woodland and degraded habitats in our study area.

The seasonal pattern of abundance was refined in later work but this first graphic was pretty close.

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Probably the most interesting number from this work was 30.6%, our estimate of the proportion of annual leaf litter fall consumed by millipedes.

How did we get from a graph of activity to food eaten? Activity plus density multiplied by the amount of food eaten per animal compared against the annual litterfall. It takes a lot of information to get to even a vaguely useful number. It was easy enough to publish observations it takes much more to make them helpful.

I continued to watch these animals walk around after rain for nearly a decade. Several more papers followed that we might get to later, but this one was the start of something that only happens occasionally. A professional relationship that was truly synergistic and produced far more than it should.


Steve passed away in Mozambique a few years after I moved to Australia. We had stayed good friends but lost contact and I was unable to find out any of the circumstances. It is a regret and a sadness. Part of the reason for revisiting some of our work is to remember him.

Message of hope

Message of hope

There is a book that contains a message of hope. It says that if you live your life a certain way then good things will come to you. All that you have to do is believe in the message.

Many people have read this book and gained faith. They live their lives according to the message and they are happy. Good things happen to them and their happiness is contagious.

In the usual nature of things every now and again a person reads the book and finds a different message. They understand the way to live but they cannot find happiness. They do not see why everyone is not living this certain way and it begins to upset them greatly. Soon their dislike for all other ways of living turns them sour. Now they hate everyone not like them, sometimes even those who are living according to the message and are happy.

Hate is a powerful emotion that is hard to shake. It festers as prejudice and explodes as anger. Occasionally such hateful people are so angry they resort to violence to calm their senses and their faith justifies any action as just.

Time passes and people all over the world read the book with its well-written message of hope. Millions of readers adopt the certain way but there are a few who misunderstand and let hate develop and take root. As the message spreads about one third of all inhabitants at any one time are living this message of hope.

Now suppose that when the book was written there were only 100 million people around to read it and perhaps only a few hundred individuals who misinterpreted the message and became convinced that all non-believers deserved to die. These troubled souls were spread far and wide; they did not speak to each other and felt isolated and alone.

Today there are 7,520,642,839 people in the world. There are tens of thousands of misreads when readership is in the billions. More than enough people to talk amongst themselves and get organized.

They decide to convert everyone to their interpretation of the message. For them purity is important and there can be no other interpretation than the one they have. Of course very few people listen because the certain way has made them happy and there is no room in it for hatred.

The misreaders become more and more agitated. They plan actions that will make everyone listen and they embark on a crusade, a trek to the place where the message began to make people listen, with force if necessary. As they gather to demonstrate they clash with police. Many are injured and some killed from both sides of the readership. It is not long before the violence has escalated into a all out war that the misreaders have no hope of winning being small in number and lacking resources compared to the majority.

The misreader leaders are captured and put on trial where the majority convicts them of crimes against humanity. It is messy and levels of happiness decline.

In a substantive way the book and its message are depleted. The book is still read and the message of hope heralded but every now and again a misread still happens. The accumulated history of misreads have asked a question that some among the faithfull find disturbing. It takes only a little while for a new generation of misunderstanding to emerge and organize around a hatred for the certain way and a cycle is born.

Game theory explains it and a human tragedy is created by it.

And just to trick your brain out of its innate prejudice, remember that the book is the bible.

An example to us all

An example to us all

A youngster, Teagan, is on the train heading into Sydney central station on a warmer than average Sunday afternoon. She is bored and winding up her siblings in every way possible. After a lengthy game of kicking the seat, she encourages them all to sing rap songs.

Now the sister is probably about seven. She knows the words are rude or at least not what she is supposed to sing, but Teagan eggs her on anyway. Soon a few choice expletives and sexism are delivered in a Californian drawl.

Their father, who smelled like he had had a few for lunch, turned around from a couple of seats further down the carriage.

“Watch your bloody mouth,” he said, in a half apology to himself.

It’s a classic of course and it followed any number of hollow threats to put an end to the unruly behaviours of seat kicking, risky trapping of the small feet in the moving backrest, and random exploration of all adjacent carriages.

This man had no control over his children. And they did not respect him or any of the other adults in the carriage. He had no authority over their actions and they were playing him like a fiddle knowing just when to push and when to pull back to avoid the inevitable rapid escalation that would happen behind closed doors. Out in public where society sets rules against any physicality, he was impotent.
Teagan is one annoying child. But my guess is that there are many more like her. Kids who are lost for want of structure and, dare I say discipline, to focus their young and agile minds onto matters that excite and engage them whilst teaching respect and a sense of self-reliance. In short, giving them the skills to take personal responsibility.

Now I know that you agree with this. And I also know that you think it sounds pompous and old-fashioned. It repeats the laments of parents from all previous generations and sends us on the road to “Victorian Dad” made famous in the irreverent Fizz comic book of the 1980’s. Such conservatism is not what the modern world needs or wants.

Perhaps. We are certainly far more liberal than at any time in history. We allow ourselves and our offspring so much behavioural latitude that personal boundaries are blurred or lost. For a child, this is a huge problem.

It is easy to blame Teagan’s father for his inattention and failure to control his brood. But it is also easy to see why he can’t.

Teagan meantime is learning a suite of skills in manipulation, emotional control and timing that will stand her in good stead in the future. Unfortunately, that particular skill set finds its easiest expression in ignoble practices.

She could, however, do exceptionally well in politics.