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Gazelle February 2002

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Hajar Mountain Archeology Field Trip

Report by Gary Feulner

Wadi Qowr in southern Ras al-Khaimah was the traditional caravan route across the Hajar mountains and features a number of archeological sites of various ages. The DNHG field trip in mid-February visited a number of these, as well as the fort at Wahala on the mountain front in Fujeirah and the complex site at Harrah in a tributary of Wadi Hiluw. Nature lovers and romantics should be warned, however. The construction of large dams and major highways in this area has robbed it of its former sense of mystery as well as much of its natural beauty and charm. Wadi Qowr is not the place to take out-of-town visitors for a drive, unless they're particularly interested in archeology or engineering.

The first stop on the itinerary was the copper mine near Huweilat. This is best understood in connection with a visit to the National Museum of Ras al-Khaimah, where it is described and depicted. The site itself includes a large excavation and many traces of bright green copper minerals, but is otherwise obscure to the uninitiated.

The hilltop site of Rafaq-2, one of the best excavated of the mountain archeological sites, is easier to appreciate, if not to understand, since results of the archeological studies have not yet been published. Here one can see the foundations of closely packed structures, some wall-to-wall, a pattern not typical of most sites. Broken shells of Terebralia palustris, the giant mud creeper, were abundant on the slope below, as were potshards of various composition and design. The DNHG group speculated from its location, density and the absence of fields that it may have been a defensive refuge. Several flat, square basins were littered with the shells of freshwater snails and were presumably used to hold water for animals.

At Husayn, the group visited one of the UAE's best preserved rectangular defensive towers. We were able to examine this three-storey structure as well as a neighboring house and mosque. Ian MacGregor shared some of his own recent inquiries concerning the causes of failure in such structures, including: moisture damage and deterioration of the exterior mud brick at ground level, due to capillary action; water seepage through the rubble fill between the double layered walls; and failure of the mud brick at stress points such as the bearing points of cross beams. It was speculated that this particular tower may have remained intact for longer than others partly because its exterior mud brick is demonstrably harder and better cemented than most.

Near the mouth of Wadi Qowr, along the Oman border, is found the largest concentration of Hafit tombs (also known as Hafit cairns or beehive tombs) in the Northern Emirates. These cairns take their name from Jebel Hafit near Al-Ain, where the largest concentration outside Oman is known. They date from c.3000 BC. In Wadi Qowr, some 50 cairns in various states of preservation are set on gravel terraces and along several nearby ridges. We visited many of these. It stretched our imaginations to try to puzzle out the original architecture (if they were all the same) and the sequence of events leading to various states of collapse. Some, seemingly well preserved, are asymmetrical with a flat front and forward entrance and a sloping back. Others seem to show vestiges of a vertical wall (or vertical basal wall), while still others are roughly symmetrical piles of stones with suggestions of a higher entrance, sometimes marked by a lintel stone. In almost all, however, a more or less well preserved, elongated and corbelled central chamber can be seen.

The apparent development of a small UAE police checkpoint in this area may make visits to the Hafit tombs as a whole somewhat more problematic in the future. On the UAE side, the presence of several tombs is now highlighted by bulldozing of the surrounding gravel plains for future agriculture.

The fort at Wahala has seen better days, but a brief visit showed its size and the remains of its tall tower with a spiral staircase and, apparently, a central core.

The final stop for the day was at Harrah, near Hiluw, where several archeological 'generations' seem to be present. On one side of the wadi are both sunken foundations and above-ground stone-walled structures, all built with 'double wall' construction and some exceptionally well-fitted, as well as a very picturesque and well-preserved round watchtower and a large cemetery of oval graves. On the other side of the wadi are the remains of a recent mud-brick mosque and a large and elegant mud-brick residence, as well as the walls of a tobacco drying shed, now restored to use. Harrah was a copper mining site at some stage of its history, as evidenced by copper mineralization (here, blue) in the adjacent hillsides, copper slag and anvil stones. The latter are flattish stones against which the copper ore was finely ground by hand as part of the extraction process. From such use, the flat surfaces develop distinct central concavities, usually on both sides (and sometimes even on a third side). The group looked for anvil stones, but in vain until David Palmer and Geoff Cosson developed an eye for them and found several. With these as examples, we were able to find many more.

The measure of a good day was that as the sun set behind the mountains, we were still pointing off to distant slopes and terraces at structures, trails and traces that required further investigation.

Unscheduled attractions during the day included several flowering Farfar trees (Tecomella undulata), well-spotted by Rosemary Leila and complete with several male purple sunbirds feeding on nectar from the blossoms; a tail-signaling dwarf rock gecko on the wall of the tower at Husayn; and a flock of about a dozen Liechtenstein's sandgrouse, flushed at high noon from among rocks at a low, damp spot in the center of the broad wadi. Two youths at Husayn were washing a camel with a hose at a large cistern. When they were finished, they led it off on donkey-back (the youths, not the camel) – a sight seldom seen in the modern UAE.

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Christine's Caterpillars

Old habits die hard. As a girl in Ohio, Christine Namour had raised Monarch butterflies (similar to the local Plain Tiger). So when she found a large and distinctive caterpillar in her Jebel Ali garden, it seemed only natural to take it in and see what would happen. She showed it first to Gary Feulner, who was able to identify it as the pale green form of the Oleander Hawkmoth - this from reference photos taken by Sandy Fowler and identified by Mike Gillett of Al-Ain. Christine put it in a shoebox with some oleander leaves.

Before too long it had changed color and one night began to weave a silken web. Christine watched in fascination. She only realized how long she had been watching when the kids intervened. "Mom," they reproached her, "We're hungry! Can you stop watching the caterpillar and make dinner?" Since then, however, the caterpillars have become a family pastime and Christine, Noel and Romey have raised quite a number of Oleander Hawkmoths and made some very interesting observations about the process. These are described below.

The pale green form is in fact the active form of the caterpillar. The head end can be extended and inflated to display large electric blue eye spots, presumably a threat or warning mechanism. While still small the green caterpillar is voracious. After about 14 days (presumably this depends to some extent on the available food supply) it reaches maximum size, slows down and turns a dark brown color with creamy yellow trim. It then seeks a quiet place, in a corner or under its food supply of oleander leaves, where it weaves a light, spider-like web above itself and becomes dormant. If the caterpillar is disturbed at this stage, it writhes vigorously but does not locomote.

After about 3-4 days, the dormant caterpillar sheds its dark skin from front to back, like peeling off a sock, to reveal the surface of the pupal stage, which hardens quickly. The color of the pupa is normally a glossy golden-brown, like a well-toasted marshmallow, but is sometimes pale yellow. The pupa "hatches" after about 3 weeks to reveal and release the beautiful adult moth, which has a camouflage pattern of greens, browns with pink accents. The adult moth is a night flier and Christine says that all hatchings so far seem to have been at night.

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More on Ginger

No one has offered any more information about the Acacia/ghaf-like "ginger" tree reported in the November Gazelle, but the tree in question has since been identified from samples by Prof. Loutfy Boulos, via Marijcke Jongbloed, as Sesbania sericea. Sesbania spp. Are occasionally used as ornamentals in Dubai (especially the shrubby S. aegyptiaca), and Philip Iddison pointed out a single Sesbania sesbana during his tour of the Al-Ain oasis during Inter-Emirates weekend in March. Marijcke adds: "I have a sesbania in my garden that people eat the leaves and flowers and beans of, but no one told me it tastes like ginger - but then I never asked what it tastes like! I may send Loutfy a sample to find out what it is (I tentatively identified it as Sesbania grandiflora from an Indonesian flora I have). In the meantime Gary Feulner, who first noticed the local "ginger" tree, has since been introduced to the real ginger plant -- a low, leafy species – in cultivations and along roadsides on the flanks of the Ecuadorian Andes, bordering the Amazon basin.

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Seafood 'Take-Away'

Report by Gary Feulner

The presence of seashells in the UAE mountains has been the subject of much speculation by observers. Some occurrences may be attributable to beach sand "imported" for lime content or fertilizer. Others, sorted by species, seem to have been eaten. This is true even at inland sites such as Mileihah, south of Dhaid. Research has shown that some intertidal species such as the large mud creeper Terebralia palustris can survive for months out of water. It may be, however, that even more perishable species could be preserved and transported alive to inland sites using traditional methods. Prof. Dr. Angela von den Driesch, a paleoanatomist at the Institute for Paleoanatomy at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, recently visited the UAE as part of an archeologicial field team, and alerted us to research demonstrating that oysters had been carried alive to areas north of the European Alps in Roman times, a journey of probably several days.

It has been shown that oysters (and therefore perhaps many other bivalves and gastropods) can stay alive for up to 24 days if they are transported at low temperatures (but not below freezing) and closely packed so that the shells cannot open. When a living oyster is taken out of the water it closes its valves, in which enough sea water remains to enable the animal to survive with reduced metabolic activity. Higher temperatures in the UAE might reduce survival times significantly, but even so, this would seem to allow molluscs to be transported and consumed fresh at most UAE sites where they have been found, few if any of which are more than a 2-3 days' journey from the coast. On site, they could have been stored in shade and/or water to keep them cool.

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Trip around the new Zoo site in Mushref

On January 25th Dr. Reza Khan hosted a trip around the site in Mushref where the new zoo is going to be constructed in the near future. A few carloads of DNHG members turned up at the entrance to Mushref Park. This park has been in existence a decade or more, while the area that is going to house the zoo was fenced only about five years ago. Many ghaf trees were transplanted from other parts of the emirate to line the main thoroughfares. It is amazing that these adult trees have taken root and are growing. Strips of about ten meters on both sides of the main track are being irrigated and have been planted with locally common trees, as well as a few introduced species. Due to the drought there were not many annuals in evidence, but we did see some nice specimens of Monsonia nivea and Neurada procumbens. Another annual we saw was Polycarpaea repens. Of the perennials special mention must be made of a huge stand of intermingled Ephedra aphylla and Pentatropis nivea, both unfortunately not yet in flower. Lycium shawii was in full flower, as was Leptadenia pyrotechnica. One bush of 'arta' (Calligonum comosum) showed both the pretty red and white flowers and a few of the red lanterns, but due to the drought, the full glory of the 'firebush' could not be witnessed. Birds were in evidence in a good variety - from bulbuls, bee-eaters and babblers to shrikes and even a few raptors. One of the younger participants was able to pick up a nice owl pellet with a complete little rodent skull in it.

Reza patiently lifted any boards and bits of rubbish that could hide critters, and managed to show us a black scorpion. Of rodents and reptiles we only saw tracks.

The walk through the grounds was very pleasant, especially because the flowering Acacia ehrenbergiana filled the air with a wonderful scent.

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News from the QNHG

Marijcke Jongbloed gave a talk to the Qatar Natural History group on Feb. 6th. In the following weekend her hosts showed her at least half of the country! On Thursday there was a trip to the northern end of the peninsula to look at the famous rock art. On many of the coastal jebels (all of 20 meters in height!) the rocks are covered with engraved symbols and pictures. The pictures are mainly of boats (most likely the pearling fleet, since the best pearling grounds are offshore right opposite the site), with only an occasional animal (crab, turtle) or other figure (man on a donkey). All the other "art" consists of cups in double rows of seven or in rosettes around a middle cup. There are literally hundreds of these and no one is certain what they mean. Since many of the groups of cups are arranged in the exact same way as the mancala game that is still being played in the region, it has been speculated that people sat on the jebels waiting for the pearling fleets to come in and whiled away the time playing this board game. However, some of the rows of cups are cut out in rocks that are on a 45 degree slope, and the counters of the game would not stay inside the cups. Others are very tiny and could only contain seeds or grains of sands. There are also some deep pits with a twenty cm diameter and up to 30-40 cm in depth. One basin is a meter or more across and about 25 cm deep. Were they containers? Do the cups represent some way to keep accounts of the pearl harvest? Very intriguing and mysterious. The carvings have been tentatively dated from between 1000 to 1600 AD and are completely different from any kind of rock art that is found in the mountains of the UAE. Some articles that I read mentioned that Oman had similar carvings of boats.

On Friday there was a trip to the Inland Sea, a very long and winding Khor that cuts into the "base" of Qatar from the east. The drive to the khor is quite spectacular, along wide sabkhas at the foot of very high and very white dunes. Unfortunately many cars have left wide swaths of tyre tracks. It would have been great to see this area when it was still pristine. The sight of incredibly blue water between the white dunes was marvelous. On one side huge white sand dunes drop steeply to the edge of the water, while on the other side striated pink and brown rocky hills of Saudi Arabia line the coast. On an island in the middle of the khor was an osprey nest that is certainly more than 14 years old (the time when my hosts first saw it) - it has reached a height of several meters! The ospreys were sitting on the nest as they do every year. Other seabirds were herons and cormorants, while flamingoes were active in another inlet.

Of plants we saw only salt bushes, of reptiles one agame, but we did find various tracks that showed there was plenty of small wildlife around: jerboa, gerbil, fox, lizards, small desert birds, but no snake tracks or cat tracks.

My hosts have invited DNHG members for a sightseeing weekend, so if anyone is interested, please contact one of the committee members and we will see about organizing such a trip.

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Yusuf Thakur, wildlife filmmaker

The DNHG meeting on Sunday March 3rd featured Yusuf Thakur with two of his nature films. Yusuf gave us some background information on how the films were shot and then showed "Endangered Dugongs" and "Jewel of the Mangroves", two wonderful films.

Yusuf Thakur is a filmmaker based in the United Arab Emirates. A qualified filmmaker with a degree in film direction, he has been producing Wildlife Documentaries for the last nine years. He heads Visual Effect and Graphics, a project studio based in Sharjah. To date he has produced five Wildlife/Nature documentaries, which have been shot, edited and directed by him. His latest" Endangered Dugongs" is an educational tool for children. His other recent films are the "Jewel of the Mangrove", featuring the White-collared Kingfisher, which breeds in the Khor Kalba mangrove forest, and "Kalba, a vital habitat" based on the mangrove eco-system.

Yusuf has to his credit the following Wildlife Film Awards:

  • International Wildlife Film Festival, U.S.A. (Merit Award for Biological Info)
  • Jackson Hole Film Festival, U.S.A. (finalist)
  • Charleston International Film Festival, U.S.A. (finalist)
  • Earthvision, Japan (finalist)
  • Cineciencia, International Scientific Film Festival, Portugal

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Shelling at Jazirat Al Hamra

by Colin Paskins

On Friday 25 January I visited the beach at Jazirat Al Hamra. This is on the road to Ras Al Khaimah, about half way between UAQ’s "Waterworld" and RAK city. The western part of the town is disused – probably a haven for snakes, scorpions rats etc. The East, and the part near the main road, are occupied.

There is a tarmac road to the west side which leads to a long beach which is undeveloped and unspoilt except for the usual debris, presumably discarded or lost at sea. On the day I was there, there was a good crop of brand new pencils and some boxed ball point pens!

There’s a good variety of shells, the highlights for me were a perfect paper nautilus, albeit small at 65mm, the largest cypraea (cowrie) Grayana I have found, at 72mm just above the 70 quoted in "Seashells of Eastern Arabia", and the elegant Ficus Subintermedia.

The best parts of the beach are the very West end, and the Eastern part close to the coast guard station. That used to be fenced off, and the Guards made sure you did not enter, but the fence is gone and the Guards did not come out. This end was the source of all the specimens mentioned above.

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Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan