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Nature Notes: Don’t Kick This Ball

By Richard Hoath

And so once more it is World Cup time, the quadrennial fest of triumph and heartache as the world stops nightly to watch grown men running round a field chasing a ball. As I am sure everyone is aware, the 2014 finals are hosted by Brazil. Here in Cairo, this year’s tournament seems quieter than most I can remember. Perhaps people have been more preoccupied with political events here and elsewhere. Perhaps people are tired of a seriously discredited FIFA mired in corruption charges and scandal. Perhaps the troubled recent past of Egypt’s own soccer scene and the absence of the national team once more from this biggest of stages is a factor. Or perhaps it is the fact that North Africa is only represented by those regional adversaries Algeria.

For me, the Cup is certainly going to be a muted affair. My native England was at the World Cup. I watched them as they lost 2-1 to Uruguay, and more specifically to Luis Suarez, as they were kicked out in the group stages for the first time since 1958. But one facet of the 2014 World Cup does retain its fascination. The mascot.

Seen at all the matches, it does what all mascots do. It bounces along the touchline, introduces the teams, amuses the punters at halftime and is a generally jovial sideshow to the sport. You may have seen it, a portly figure in Brazilian colors with a long snout and a curiously bright blue helmet-like thing on its head. Most mascots are of big and powerful beasts: the Russian Bear, the British Lion, the American Eagle. But this is a rather different mascot. It is an insect-eating edentate – it is a Brazilian Three-banded Armadillo. It is an inspired choice.

The Brazilian Three-banded Armadillo is one of only two species of three-banded armadillo, the other being the Southern Three-banded Armadillo. Like all armadillos, it is covered with a chainmail-like shell of hardened skin. For most armadillo species this is sufficient protection from most predators, but the Brazilian Three-banded Armadillo is one of the very few armadillo species that can wrap itself in a tight ball of armor that is all but impregnable. Sadly it is a highly endangered species found only in the dry lowland areas of northeastern Brazil far from the steamy rainforests of the Amazon. Its habitat is now heavily denuded and cleared.

The choice of the armadillo as the World Cup mascot is inspired because in doing so, Brazil has chosen to raise interest and concern for conservation in this threatened habitat, and that I applaud. Sadly it has probably come too late to save another denizen, the world’s rarest bird: Spix’s Macaw. This is now probably extinct in the wild.

Egypt has no armadillos but the armor-plated insect-eating niche is filled by the hedgehogs, of which we have two species here. The slightly larger species is the Ethiopian Hedgehog Paraechinus aethiopicus with a total length of up to 26cm including a short tail. It is found in widely separated areas, and each population has been recognized in the past as a distinct species. There is one population along the north coast west of Alexandria, another in South Sinai and a third from the southeastern-most corner of the country. They differ subtly in face and spine pattern, and most authors now treat each as a subspecies of the Ethiopian Hedgehog.
The second species is the small Longeared Hedgehog of the northern Nile Valley and Delta and extending across the northern Western Desert. It is distinguished by its longer, more prominent ears. This species has unfortunately made itself popular in the pet shops and animal markets. While undeniably cute they do not make good pets – resist.

The defining feature of hedgehogs is their coat of spines. While the unrelated armadillos are protected by toughened hide, the upperparts of hedgehogs are covered by an extensive and formidable coat of spines up to 1.5 cm long. But its soft belly is unprotected. So the hedgehog has developed exactly the same technique as the completely unrelated three-banded armadillo and curls up in a ball – in the Ethiopian Hedgehog’s case a particularly tight and impenetrable ball – presenting the assailant with a seamless sea of intimidating spines. This is an effective deterrent to predators such as foxes, jackals and cat species.

The other type of spined mammal found in Egypt is the porcupine, represented by the Crested Porcupine from west of Marsa Matrouh in the Western Desert and by the Indian Crested Porcupine from North Sinai. The porcupines are rodents and completely unrelated to the hedgehogs; they are much larger and bear much longer and strikingly black and white spines. They cannot roll up like hedgehogs but instead reverse at their attacker confronting it with the longest spines of the back and tail. This is famously effective, and elsewhere in their ranges porcupines can see off predators as large as lions and bears.

Similar techniques to those developed by the armadillos, hedgehogs and porcupines are found elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Doubtless many will be making their way to the Red Sea coast this summer, and the coral reefs there are home to the Porcupinefishes. Red Sea species range in size from the Orbicular Burrfish at 15 cm and the rather larger Yellow-spotted Burrfish to the Black-spotted Porcupinefish, which comes in at a whopping 80 cm. Most species are rather box-like in form with prominent pectoral fins and large eyes (most are nocturnal). All are covered with spines that are either rigid as in the burrfishes or erectile as in the porcupinefishes and balloon fish. When threatened, most species have the ability to inflate themselves by sucking water into a chamber near the stomach. As the fish inflates, the erectile spines erect and the potential predator is confronted by a highly spinous and very unappealing ball — not dissimilar to an underwater hedgehog.

The Porcupinefishes are related to the similar Pufferfishes, which share the ability to inflate but generally lack large spines though the skin is often tough and prickly. One species of Pufferfish Tetraodon fahaka is found in the Nile.

The England side call themselves the Three Lions from the team badge. Their mascot: the Lion — powerful, regal, magnificent, proud, “Lord of the Jungle” blah blah blah. And we last eight days into the tournament. My second choice was Cameroon after my travels there last summer. Cameroon call themselves the Indomitable Lions. Their mascot also the Lion — powerful, regal magnificent, proud, Lord of the Jungle blah blah blah. They lasted a day less.

My money is on Brazil now as the home favorites. Their mascot: an unassuming, virtually toothless insect eater that potters around one of the most threatened habitats on the planet. It has got to bring me more luck than the

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