Cumberland Times-News

Bob Doyle - Astronomy

May 5, 2012

grazing animals at their most prolific in Africa

— Our last spring public program for Science Sunday at Frostburg State opens today at 4 p.m. in the Compton Science Center in Room 224.

“Grazers of the African Plains” will be repeated the next two Sundays, same time and place.

Please enter via Compton’s front entrance facing the large open area and old dorms. You are advised to park near the Performing Art Center. (Proceed through FSU’s main entrance on Braddock Road and turn right, passing Pullen Hall and reaching a large parking area in front of the large Performing Arts Center. Compton Science Center is behind and to the right of the Arts Center and its front entrance faces away from the Arts Center.)

Why consider Grazers in Africa? Reason: Our Science Discovery Center has a wonderful display of such grazers (plant eaters) on display that you can see at close range. Africa has the largest number of such majestic animals in the world.

Why Africa and not Asia? or North America? or South America? There are two factors: the climate and land forms of sub Sahara Africa and the reverence of the African people for most of their large native animals.

Our program will consider the African grazers or herbivores from the smallest to the largest.

Springhares are rodents that jump like miniature kangaroos, covering 10 to 13 feet in a single jump. They resemble rabbits but have shorter ears and very long back feet. These creatures are nocturnal as they are vulnerable to predators.

In Botswana, Springhares are the main wild animal in a Bushman’s diet. Springhares hide in their burrows during the day and emerge at night to eat.

At any one time, about three-quarters of the Springhare females are pregnant, usually bearing one baby per liter, three times a year.

A little bigger are the dwarf antelopes and gazelles. These include the Dik-dik (with small, sharp horns), Klipspringer (great vertical jumper) and Gerenuk (with giraffe like neck and slim body to stand on back legs to reach upper leaves).

These grazers have scent glands below their eyes that they run against twigs and branches to mark their territory.

The larger grazing antelopes come in a wondrous variety of horns, coats and social groupings.

My favorite is a Bongo with a deep brown coat with a number of vertical white stripes. They rest during the day and eat at night. Bongos have small groups of females with a single male. Old males are solitary.

The largest antelope is the Eland, with twisting horns over a yard long. The Lord Derby Giant Eland can weigh well over a ton. Herds consist of six to 12 females with one or two older bulls. Other males form bachelor herds.

The common Zebra is an odd toed hoofed animal and can be regarded as an African horse, but can’t be trained to be ridden by humans or pull a wagon. A Zebra family has up to six females, led by a mature male.

When this male reaches 16-18 years in age, he is gently replaced by a younger male half his age. The old male then lives alone.   

The biggest grazer is the African Elephant, up to 13 feet at the shoulder, with giant ears, scary tusks and weighing up to 6 tons. To keep their weight up, elephants have to eat up to 440 pounds of plant material a day.

Lady elephants are pregnant for 22 months, after which they suckle their young for two years. The finger like extensions at the end of their trunks allow elephants to pick fruit off trees, and catch peanuts thrown their way.

Their trunks can take in 20 gallons of water so they can spray down their backs.

EVENING SKIES THIS WEEK: Tonight’s full moon will be the brightest full moon of the year as the moon is near its minimum distance to Earth (221,800 miles from Earth’s center to moon’s center).

This will result in a minimum surface to surface distance of 216,800 miles. Only by taking telephoto pictures of the moon when closest to Earth and farthest from Earth will you be likely notice a difference in apparent size.

A few days ago, brilliant Venus reached its most northerly position in the western evening sky. The Maya who watched Venus carefully had observation platforms where they could note Venus’ setting or rising at its most northerly and southerly positions.

The Mayans knew that every eight years, Venus went through five cycles (1/2 of a cycle seen after sunset, other half of a cycle seen before sunrise).

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.

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Bob Doyle - Astronomy
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