Reliving a Memory is a work based on the 1950 diary of George Blakslee.
George took only a few photos of the fauna: mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and arthropods, some abundant, others rare, in the large area he and Gier mapped. Consequently, the animals in his slide collection are supplemented by pictures of others from various sources.
"March 21, 1950....The driver of the follow-up truck caught a thub, the largest I’ve ever seen."
"May 17, 1950....Soldiers were able to chatch 5 thub by time we arrived at camp."
"May 19, 1950....Continued on to SW, stopped twice, caught two thub which we gave to the guide and soldiers."
The dhub is a spiny-tailed lizard of the Old World genus Uromastyx, certainly U. aegypticus, probably of the subspecies microlepis. The specimen pictured is at least two feet long, and its tail is banded black and yellow. The tail of the dhub is considered a delicacy by the Arab of the desert, and the soldiers of George’s party tried hard to capture any they encountered, including digging into the burrows of this omnivorous reptile, much of whose diet is insects, especially locusts. Often it is an enforced vegetarian, for its clumsiness makes catching live mammals a rare event, although it is capable of surprising bursts of speed when trying to escape capture. Those of us who have eaten dhub report that the taste is very like that of chicken.
George did not photograph other lizards. They include the monitor Varanus griseus whose body is not flattened like that of the dhub, and attains a length of three feet, almost half of it tail. It eats anything, including a portion of the toe of a boot that comes too close, the bony plates of its jaws slicing easily through tough leather.
Another desert reptile is the sand skink, Skincus mitranus, small, not six inches long, limbless, and covered with large smooth, shiny scales. Insectivorous, it lives in sand dunes and can cover itself with a flick of its tail.
The horned viper that Gier and George extricated from the radio transmitter was probably Cerastes cerastes gasperetii. The typical sidewinder movement of the snake’s coils that George saw is good evidence that their intruder was a member of that family of snakes.
The other denizen of the desert George snapped is the jerboa or kangaroo mouse, Jaculus jaculus. The back legs are muscular and inordinately long, the bones fused into one. Its long tail has a plume of hair at the distal end. So equipped, it can cover ten feet in one bound to avoid its great enemy the fennec, Fennecus zerda. This tiny, light-colored fox with enormous ears was a favorite pet in Dhahran, along with hares, Lepus capensis undoubtedly the baby rabbit George mentions, (there are no rabbits native to Arabia) and hedgehogs Hemiechinus auritus.
Photograph by George Blakslee
"February 9, 1950.... Also one of the soldiers caught a Jerboa (Kangaroo Rat)."
Photograph by George Blakslee
Photograph by George Blakslee
The desert gazelle, Gazella subgutturosa subgutturosa was sometimes brought in as a newborn from the desert, its mother slain. Others were purchased from the Bedu. Keeping gazelles as house pets was eventually frowned on. Three species of gazelle exist in Arabia, one confined to the mountains of Oman. The species that ranged with the desert gazelle was the rheem. All are graceful and attractive, but their numbers have been greatly reduced by excessive hunting. Saudi efforts at restocking have been only moderately successful, but in Kuwait and Bahrain the herds are growing large. The saluki hound is mentioned twice in George’s diary.
"February 10, 1950....Krug shot at a gazelle (Rheem) Gazella subgutturosa marica with the .22 caliber and the saluki finally downed him so we had fresh meat for dinner."
"February 15, 1950....Soldiers let the saluki go after him. The dog chased the gazelle about 10 kilo - never got closer than about 20 feet. Finally got to a smooth spot and was able to get the gazelle with one shot. It was a question of either shooting the gazelle or losing the dog — he wasn’t about to stop."
Another ruminant is the oryx, Oryx leucoryx, already very rare in the fifties. In 1940, Tom Barger had an adolescent at his camp. Its habitat then was the Rub’ al Khali. Attempts to reintroduce it there and elsewhere have made some progress.
The Arabian wolf, Canis lupus arabs, may have hunted gazelle to supplement a diet of rodents and other small prey, but according to Colonel Dickson in The Arab of the Desert, often attempted and occasionally succeeded in getting away with a sheep or lamb from the Bedouin flocks. In 1940, George Maybee had a young wolf at Abu Hadriya. It snarled at everyone, including Maybee.
Photograph by Nestor John Sander
Many species of birds, both migratory and indigenous, are found in Arabia, more abundantly near the coasts and in the coastal mountains. In the plains east of the first camp the most conspicuous migrant was the black vulture, possibly Aegypius monachus, standing nearly four feet high, and the least visible was the shy hubara (lesser bustard) Chlamydotis undulata. Both were both common in 1950. Efforts are being made to restore the hubara to its former ranges. Although most hubara are migrants, a small number winter over. Prized as game, the hubara became rare. Work in game reserves now current is making progress in restocking the species.
Other birds include several hawks. Trained hunting hawks (Falco sacer) are still owned by some chieftains, although conservationists have decried their use. Presumably some members of the royal family still maintain mews and handlers. Wild hawks of several species and owls, large and small, still search for game, mainly hares, rodents and small birds. The soldiers in George’s party tried in vain to reach an owl’s nest on a cliff face. Smaller birds, warblers, like the Arabian warbler, (Sylvia leucomelaena) bee eaters, among them the Blue-Cheeked bee-eater, (Merops superciliaris) and springtime flocks of wheatears, (Oenanthe deserti) along with the hoopoe. (Upupa epops) are found wherever water can be drunk. The Collared Pratincole (Glareola pratincola) was common in northern Nejd, as well as Hypocolius ampelinus.
The Arabian ostrich (Struthio camelus massaicus) which was extant in parts of Arabia during the nineteenth century has not been seen in the wild since 1930 when the last known survivor was shot. Ancient cliff paintings depict a hunt by spear-wielding horsemen and fragments of the thick egg-shell are still found occasionally. Recent attempts on the plains of Arabia to replace the vanished Arabian ostrich with the red-necked variant have had some success.
Of the invertebrates, the fauna includes many beetles, of which the most notable representative, because of its association with the religion of ancient Egypt is the sacred scarab, (Scarabaeus sacer) a dung beetle revered in ancient Egypt as a symbol of resurrection. It is common in Arabia, and the droppings of any mammal are a target for its attentions. Its olfactory powers must be strong, for only moments after dung is deposited a black beetle will fold its wings and drop heavily to earth near it, then proceed with the task of making a ball and burying it. Others soon appear and a rather large deposit will disappear in less than a half-hour.
Harmful to man are the camel tick, Myalomma dromedarii which, given the opportunity, will gorge itself on human blood and was a menace to our dogs, and the locust, Schistocerca gregaria.
Fortunately, the swarms of millions of locusts that crawled and flew over much of Arabia in 1940-41 were not present in 1950. Then windshields were obscured with body parts and a disgusting yellow liquid and radiators were clogged with the bodies of the flying insects. Wheels slipped and skidded while crushing the bodies of immature crawlers. All vegetation was stripped of leaves where the swarms passed. Some reptiles gained weight, however, with the transient surfeit of food, and many of the Bedu collected the insects in sacks and ate them like peanuts, shucking the wings and legs.
Along with beetles and ticks, other rather more fearsome-looking arthropods were the scorpions and the scorpion killers. The scorpion pictured is Buthacus yotvatensis negromaculatus. The big black one that rustled over the green raffia carpet of the tent one morning was not that species, but, because of its ebony hue looked even more menacing as it came toward my cot to be demolished by the heel of a brandished boot. We always shook our boots before putting them on.
The scorpion killer is a kind of camel spider, (solifugid) a fast-moving voracious killer of any other arthropod or insect. We saw them only in western Arabia. The one pictured is surely of the same family, but is not a close relative of the big black ones with scissors at the ends of long pedipalps that reached out and snipped off the sting of a scorpion, then ate its suddenly defenseless antagonist. We saw this drama repeated several times as we pitted them on the bare ground in the glare of a Coleman lantern after their release from glass fruit-jar prisons. Another memory is the 3 A.M. bloodcurdling shriek of Lloyd Owens as one ran over his face.
The most persistent and always annoying pest during the day was the fly, Mosca domestica and its variants. In spite of DDT and repellants the fly was eager, sometimes in hundreds, to suck up moisture from any exposed body part. The Bedu were much more tolerant of their attentions than we foreigners. Often they allowed flies to cluster around their eyes, with no attempt to brush them away. The considerable number of natives with diseased eyes may have been in part the result of this tolerance. Even tiny babies, their eyes ringed with kohl to prevent these attentions, were not exempted.
The attentions of this tormentor ceased for a short time during and after rain and were much reduced during the winter in the high desert where water froze in the canvas bags during the night. High winds and great heat made flies seek cover in sheltered, shadowed places, to our discomfort often the interior of a car or truck. Weather provided its own gamut of annoyances, but also gave us days when the air was pellucid and the sun’s warmth was comforting, days after a rain when the desert flowered. George recorded temperature, cloud cover, precipitation and wind speed during most of the time the party was in the field. His observations and other aspects of weather as it affected field operations are recorded in the next chapter.