The search is on to find out just how many hedgehog species call Egypt home.
by Richard Hoath
Almost exactly two years ago (March 2014), I wrote this column about a dead weasel I had found on the streets of Garden City. It was not an exotic piece. It was about how I had found my weasel, dead but very recently dead, scraped it off the sidewalk much to local bemusement, had taken it home and then measured and photographed it. Then, with research in mind, I had donated my weasel to the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) Biology Department, where it found a new home in the freezer. In death, my weasel had achieved a fifteen minutes of fame most weasels can only ever dream of. It was his (and it was very much a he) mustelid Warhol moment in the spotlight.
Fast forward two years, and my weasel has achieved not only a Warholian 15 minutes under the lights, but what amounts to a tinseltown Oscar in academic circles. He is key to a peer-reviewed article published in the journal Genetica entitled “Taxonomic Status and Origin of the Egyptian Weasel (Mustela subpalmata) Inferred from Mitochondrial DNA” by lead author Monica Rodrigues of the Universidade de Lisboa and others, myself included. It is a wonderful odyssey of natural history that should give heart to all those who make observations of the world around them, however insignificant they may seem.
I remember the day exactly. It was January 23, 2014, and I was coming back from the Arabesque coffee house on Kasr El Aini and I was avoiding a rather large brown cylinder on the pavement thinking it was what rather large dark cyl inders on the pavement normally are with street dogs around. But it was not what I thought, and I wrapped my freshly dead and newly found weasel in newspaper, photographed it, measured it — and it was big, very, very big and the following day took it to AUC. I was worried about AUC security, but no eyebrows were raised as the guards earnestly viewed the X-ray scanner, so presumably lots of people bring dead weasels on to campus.
Some days later I was contacted by Dr. Carlos Fernandes of the Centre for Ecology and Environmental Changes at the Universidade de Lisboa. He had a PhD candidate Monica Rodrigues, also of the University of Helsinki, doing DNA research on the Least Weasel of which the Egyptian Weasel was either a subspecies or, as generally recognized today, a discrete species. Did I have any specimens? Well I did, chilling nicely in the freezer, and I immediately got in touch with Dr. Arthur Bos of the AUC Biology Department who liaised with Dr. Fernandes and Monica Rodrigues. Arthur had two other weasel specimens even deader than mine and tissue samples were dispatched to Lisbon. I have very little idea of what happened to those samples once in the Portuguese laboratory. My knowledge of the natural world is based largely on what I can see — things with fur or feathers or scales or slime. What happens inside the myriad cells that make up the animals I so enjoy in the field remains largely a biochemical mystery to me, someone whose career zenith in Chemistry was a B at O level 35 years ago.
But again fast forward, this time to February 2016 and on the 22nd and the article by Rodrigues et al., was accepted and published. After detailed analysis (the keywords “Species status — Molecular systematic — Phylogeography — Mitochondrial DNA — Weasels” will give some idea of audience) the authors “suggest that the large size and characteristic sexual dimorphism of the Egyptian Weasel are likely to represent ecotypic variation, but genomic studies are required to clarify the extent of its functional genetic divergence.” In short, the Egyptian Weasel may well be a separate species to the hugely widespread Least Weasel Mustela nivalis but that further study is needed to ascertain just how genetically distinct it is.
So a dead weasel scraped off a pavement in Garden City has now contributed to serious published research and that should be heartening to any observant naturalist. But there is more. I e-mailed Dr. Fernandes to congratulate him, Monica and the team on their publication and already they have another research target: hedgehogs.
Hedgehogs are insectivores, an order of mammals that encompasses a hotchpotch of species from the ubiquitous shrews (Egypt has six species) to the exotic and often bizarre solenodons, tenrecs, moonrats and otter-shrews. Hedgehogs are large, spiny insectivores the upper parts encased in a dense armor of prickles. The underbelly is soft and vulnerable but most species can roll themselves into a ball where only the spines are presented to the attacker. Egypt has either two or four species depending on the taxonomists’ educated whim. The Long-eared Hedgehog is distinct. It is a small hedgehog up to 20cm in length and with a short tail of around 3cm and does have proportionately longer ears, clearly emerging from the spines. Unlike most hedgehogs, it does not roll into a ball but rather dashes from any threat. The Longeared Hedgehog seems relatively common in Egypt within its range in the northern Nile Valley, Delta and west across the northern Coastal Strip. Sadly it often appears in the pet markets, but makes an unsuitable, nervous and very shortlived companion. Resist.
The other Egyptian hedgehogs are more problematic. They are either lumped as one species, divided into three subspecies under the Ethiopian Hedgehog Paraechinus aethiopicus or each population is given full species status. Thus, the hedgehog from the North Coast from the western margin of the Delta west is known as Paraechinus deserti, that from the mountains of South Sinai is Paraechinus dorsalis, and that from the southern Eastern Desert is called Paraechinus aethiopicus. All three are very little known in Egypt, and I have never seen one in the field. The South Sinai Hedgehog was recorded as often found at the garbage dump and St Katherine’s in the early 2000s.
Dr. Fernandes is now trying to investigate the DNA of this hedgehog conundrum to ascertain whether we do have three distinct species or just the one. Just as with the weasels, he was asking for specimens for his research. Hedgehogs and roads have an unfortunate association. When it comes to roads, hedgehogs seem to have an almost suicidal affinity, but such roadkills are very useful scientifically. I would be glad to help. Sadly the opportunities for this task are much fewer. Much of the North Coast west from Marsa Matruh is now off limits due to the trouble in Libya. South Sinai too is restricted. While European Hedgehogs are resourceful beasts widespread though decreasing, in British suburbia the glitz of the South Sinai resorts is not suitable habitat and outside is largely no-go. And I have for years tried to get permits to visit Gebel Elba, but so far to no avail. Help with this project will involve more than a Garden City pavement.
On a lighter note, spring is springing despite the weather not really knowing which season it wants to support. Wave goodbye to the last White Wagtails. These dapper little birds, slim-line in gray, black and white and with tails that do indeed wag, will be off to breeding grounds in northern Europe. The good numbers of Lesser Whitethroats, a small warbler, passing through this spring will also have left.
And the breeders have started. The pair of Kestrels, small falcons that have been monitored at AUC over the past couple of years, have been active. As I write, the female has laid two eggs and the researchers are hoping for more. The cameras will be up and the cam a-camming. For humans, the New Year is traditionally ushered in on January 1. For nature it is really now. I get to celebrate both!
P.S, As of tonight, March 19, make that three eggs!