The Tet Zoo tour of Libya (part I)

So, I recently returned from a brief sojourn in Libya. The trip was led by Richard Moody, best known for his work on Cretaceous sea turtles; I was also accompanied by palaeornithologist Gareth Dyke and by a group of people interested in the country's geology.


Libya - officially, the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya - is huge: it covers nearly 2 million square kilometres and is the fourth largest African county. However, 90% of the country is desert, and the population is only about 5.7 million (of which nearly 2 million live in Tripoli, the capital). It's a land of spectacular sweeping landscapes, enormous vistas, rocky hillsides, wadis and deserts. The landscape isn't all that different from the wilds of Morocco - the only other north African country I've visited - but the towns have a totally different feel, as Libya lacks the long tourist tradition of that country. Visitors thus get none of the constant hassling they get in places like Morocco. While the country runs on paperwork, with everything being stamped in triplicate, signed and counter-signed, there's no strong military presence or anything like that, and we never felt uneasy or uncomfortable. Huge pictures of Gaddafi are everywhere.


As you might guess, I was in the country for palaeontological reasons, and specifically for Cretaceous dinosaurs and other reptiles. Libya has yielded various such fossils - simoliopheid snakes, pholidosaurid crocodyliforms, abelisaurid and baryonychine theropods and spatulate-toothed sauropods among them (e.g., Nessov et al. 1998, Smith & Dalla Vecchia 2006, Smith et al. 2006, Le Loeuff & Métais 2009) - but it's far better known for its spectacular Miocene mammals. Fossil horses, deinotheres, gigantic creodonts, sirenians and many others are known from the country. We did see fossil material, but I can't talk about it - sorry. Instead, and as is the Tet Zoo tradition, I want to talk about the wildlife I encountered. Libya has great wildlife - hey, just like all the other countries! - and I was thrilled with the success I had. I only travelled around in the north-west and west of the country, so didn't get to see any of the areas around the borders with Niger, Chad or Egypt [adjacent image shows the gorge adjacent to the old hilltop village Shek Gegesh].

Everywhere I went I was equipped with binoculars, digital camera, and a trusty field guide: for reasons I can't recall I opted to go with Mullarney et al (1999) this time, instead of Heinzel et al. (1995). The former is better for north African birds, being good at showing the local forms and subspecies, and it served me well. While I expected to see at least a few lizards, I figured there was no point in taking a herp guide to northern Africa because... because... THERE ISN'T ONE! Have I mentioned this before? Yes, of course I have.

Birds of the roadside


Immediately on leaving Tripoli airport, I saw my first 'special' local bird: a Black-crowned tchagra Tchagra senegala [image here from wikipedia (UPDATE: of a Brown-crowned tchagra T. australis)]. It was foraging among the grass on a roundabout. Mullarney et al (1999) doesn't show the tchagra occurring in Libya, but this is clearly wrong. Tchagras are long-legged shrike-like birds, but aren't shrikes proper. Instead they're bush-shrikes or malaconotids (and are hence close kin of the boubous we looked at back in January. For a good introduction to malaconotids see this article on Biological Ramblings).

True shrikes, however, were seen quite frequently: I saw numerous individuals sitting on telephone wires at the roadside, in trees, or even pursuing prey in flight. All were white-bellied grey shrikes of the sort I used to identify as the north African form of the Great grey shrike Lanius excubitor, L. e. elegans. However, great grey shrike systematics is now rather complex. 'L. e. elegans' and various grey shrikes once included within L. excubitor have recently been argued to represent a separate species: the Southern great grey shrike or Southern grey shrike L. meridionalis, of which L. m. elegans was supposedly one of about ten subspecies. L. meridionalis is not unique to Africa, but also occurs in France and on the Iberian Peninsula. However, elegans is still rather distinct compared to its supposed relatives within L. meridionalis, and as a result it's now been separated entirely as the Desert grey shrike L. elegans. Should you need to check out the voluminous literature on the splitting of the great grey shrike complex, check out Isenmann & Bouchet (1993), Panov (1995), Schön (1998), Sangster et al. (2002), Hernández et al. (2004), Gutiérrez-Corchero et al. (2007), Gonzales et al. (2008) and Klassert et al. (2008) for starters. The Steppe grey shrike L. pallidirostris is now separate too.


A Little owl Athene noctua was also seen sitting on the top of a telephone pole, as is typical. Unlike the little owls of northern Europe, this was a pale, greyish bird, and I suppose this means that it belonged to the subspecies A. n. saharae. House sparrows Passer domesticus occurred wherever there were buildings, and Laughing doves Streptopelia senegalensis (another first for me) were frequently seen [one shown here, photographed in Tripoli]. No Collared doves S. decaocto though: I saw these in Morocco, but they only occur in the extreme north-west of the country and don't (yet!) occur elsewhere in northern Africa.

Creatures of the wilderness: wheatears, lizards and hyraxes!


As was the case in Morocco, wheatears were abundant and seen on numerous occasions. However, while the wheatear I saw most frequently in Morocco was the White-crowned wheatear (or White-crowned black wheatear) Oenanthe leucopyga, I mostly saw the Black wheatear O. leucura in Libya, a new species for me [two Black wheaters shown here, photographed in Nalut. I know it's a terrible photo; better ones are to follow]. Whereas - in Morocco - White-crowned wheatears were only encountered in desert areas, generally away from civilisation, Black wheatears seemed to frequent towns and villages just as much as the wilder places. I also had fleeting glimpses from the road of what might have been Desert wheatears O. deserti: never got to see these in the field so couldn't be sure. I did see two White-crowned wheatears as well.

Brown-necked ravens Corvus ruficollis were seen in the more remote regions; Common ravens C. corax were seen in a few of the towns.

Near the Wadi Ghan dam (south of Tripoli) we had our first glimpse of a wild mammal: a small, stocky, dark brown, tail-less animal that quickly scurried away and vanished down a burrow or into cover under rocks. I saw these animals twice and the sightings were so brief that I couldn't even get a look at them in my binoculars. It was initially suggested that these animals might be marmot-like ground squirrels of some sort, but this wouldn't work as Africa lacks short-tailed ground squirrels entirely. The only possibilities seemed to be gundis or hyraxes. After seeing the creatures on a second occasion (this time in a rocky gulley where large boulders provided lots of cover) I became convinced that they were rock hyraxes. Gundis all have short, but still obvious, tails, and the only species that occurs in northern Africa are light brown, not dark brown. Cape rock hyraxes Procavia capensis do occur in parts of Libya, so this is what I saw. Wow.

Incidentally, Libya also has sengis (the North African sengi Elephantulus rozeti), mole rats (Palestine mole rat Nannospalax ehrenbergi), and a baboon. Leopards, cheetahs and striped hyaenas are also supposed to occur in the country, though leopards are listed as possibly extinct and the presence of cheetahs is uncertain. Lions are locally extinct.


What with the geological theme of the trip, there were a lot of roadside and quarry stops. Evidence for feral dogs was common at such places, and dogs were often seen out in the wilderness or at the edges of towns [dog track shown here]. Libya also has neat insects, and I photographed many big, black beetles, large grasshoppers and a type of big, long-legged ant. Painted lady butterflies were everywhere. At the Ra's al Lifa quarry (we stopped here to look at the Upper Triassic Al Aziziyah Formation) I spent a while watching the several kestrels that were using the vertical, cliff-like quarry walls. It seemed that at least some of them lacked any spotting on their dorsal surfaces, so they had to be Lesser kestrels Falco naumanni. However, when they started calling this identification was shown to be incorrect: sometimes, harsh sunlight glinting off plumage is enough to throw you astray. Both Lesser kestrels and Common kestrels F. tinnuculus occur throughout coastal north-western Africa.


Lizards were around, but were unfortunately few on the ground. I had all-too-fleeting glimpses of a couple of lacertids, but did manage to get good photos of a small lacertid at the old granary site of Qasr Bu Niran [shown above]. The configuration of head scales (particularly the huge supraoculars) leads me to identity it as an Acanthodactylus (in which case I owe Richard Hing an apology). Numerous small, arch-like storage buildings made Qasr Bu Niran an interesting cultural stop, and as with so many of the places we visited it had phenomenal panoramic views. I found a small artiodactyl astragalus at the site. I initially assumed it was a fossil - it sure looked like one - but there's no Cenozoic exposure at the site at all, and bone left on the surface for a while ends up with a sort of weathered, 'mineralised' look. I reckon it's a goat bone. Camel bones were also obvious at the site but I couldn't collect them; didn't fancy trying to get them back through customs. I did keep a camel astragalus though: very neat having small and large artiodactyl astragali to play with :)


Even better was the chameleon Chris and I encountered at the ruined hilltop town of Shek Gegesh, easily one of the wildlife highlights of the trip (I've never seen a wild chameleon before). We encountered the animal out on a rocky pavement, and about two metres away from a tall shrub, so I was able to get good photos from both sides as it made its way back to the vegetation. North Africa is home to the Mediterranean, European or Common chameleon Chamaeleo chameleon, a species that also occurs on Crete, Cyprus, the Canaries, southern Spain, Turkey and the western Middle East (Arnold et al. 1992, Martin 1992). C. chameleon was always thought to be the only chameleon occurring within the European field guide region (as I call it), but recent work has shown that another species, C. africanus, inhabits Greece. Last I heard people were still arguing over how those chameleons got there: overlooked natives, or introductions? C. chamaeleon and C. africanus are very similar and I'm not sure I could distinguish them in the field. C. africanus is supposed to have a taller casque.

That's all for now, more later - time permitting. There's more wildlife to talk about, plus my musings on the trip to the zoo, plus other stuff...

For previous articles on north African wildlife see...

Refs - -

Arnold, E. N., Burton, J. A. & Ovenden, D. W. 1992. Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Europe. Collins, London.

Gonzales, J., Wink, M., Garcia-del-Rey, E. & Castro, G. D. 2008. Evidence from DNA nucleotide sequences and ISSR profiles indicates paraphyly in subspecies of Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis). Journal of Ornithology 149, 495-506.

Gutiérrez-Corchero, F., Campos, F., Ãngeles Hernández, M. & Amezcua, A. 2007. Biometrics of the Southern grey shrike Lanius meridionalis in relation to age and sex. Ringing & Migration 23, 141-146.

Heinzel, H., Fitter, R. & Parslow, J. 1995. Birds of Britain and Europe. Collins, London.

Hernández, M., Campos, F., Gutiérrez-Corchero, F. & Amezcua, A. 2004. Identification of Lanius species and subspecies using tandem repeats in the mitochondrial DNA control region. Ibis 146, 227-230.

Isenmann, P. & Bouchet, M. A. 1993. L'aire de distribution française et le statut taxonomique de la pie-grièche méridionale Lanius elegans meridionalis. Alauda 61, 223-227.

Klassert, T. E., Hernández, M. A., Campos, C., Infante, O., Almeida, T., Suárez, N. M., Pestano, J. & Hernández, M. 2008. Mitochondrial DNA points to Lanius meridionalis as a polyphyletic species. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 47, 1227-1231.

Kosuch, J., Vences, M. & Böhme, W. 1999. Mitochondrial DNA sequence data support the allocation of Greek mainland chameleons to Chamaeleo africanus. Amphibia-Reptilia 20, 440-443.

Le Loeuff, J. & Métais, E. 2009. Early Cretaceous vertebrates from the Cabao Formation of NW Libya. In 7th Annual EAVP Meeting 2009, p. 41.

Martin, J. 1992. Chameleons: Nature's Masters of Disguise. Blandford, London.

Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterström, D. & Grant, P. J. 1999. Bird Guide. HarperCollins, London.

Nessov, L. A., Zhegallo, V. I. & Averianov, A. O. 1998. A new locality of Late Cretaceous snakes, mammals and other vertebrates in Africa (western Libya). Annales de Paléontologie 84, 265-274.

Panov, E. N. 1995. Superspecies of shrikes in the former USSR. In Yosef, R. & Lohrer, F. E (eds) Shrikes (Laniidae) of the World: Biology and Conservation. Proceedings of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology 6, 26-33.

Sangster, G., Knox, A. G., Helbig, A. J. & Parkin, D. T. 2002. Taxonomic recommendations for European birds. Ibis 144,153-159.

Schön, M. 1998. On the evolution of the northern and southern group of subspecies in the Great grey shrike superspecies (Lanius excubitor). In Yosef, R. & Lohrer, F. E. (eds) Shrikes of the World II: Conservation Implementation. International Birdwatching Centre, Eilat, Israel.

Smith, J. B. & Dalla Vecchia, F. M. 2006. An abelisaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) tooth from the Lower Cretaceous Chicla formation of Libya. Journal of African Earth Sciences 46, 240-244.

- ., Tshakreen, S., Rasmussen, S. & Lamanna, M. 2006. New dinosaur discoveries from the Early Cretaceous of Libya. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26 (supp. 3), 126.


More like this

I second your ID of the lizard as Acanthodactylus sp., it looks a lot like the A. schreiberi I saw a lot of in Cyprus, especially with the rough-scaled tail.

Good on you for spotting the chameleon, it's much more boldly-marked than the individual I saw of the same species (if your ID is correct!) in Cyprus.

for reasons I can't recall I opted to go with Mullarney et al (1999) this time, instead of Heinzel et al. (1995)

Whether you recall those reasons or not, you opted wisely.

True shrikes, however, were seen quite frequently: I saw numerous individuals sitting on telephone wires at the roadside, in trees, or even pursuing prey in flight.

Were the shrikes, by any chance, pursuing flying vertebrate prey? If so, they would surely have caught it with their beaks? (Oh, this wasn't the Darwinopterus thread. Never mind then.)

a small, stocky, dark brown, tail-less animal that quickly scurried away and vanished down a burrow or into cover under rocks. I saw these animals twice and the sightings were so brief that I couldn't even get a look at them in my binoculars [...] The only possibilities seemed to be gundis or hyraxes. After seeing the creatures on the second occasion (this time in a rocky gulley where large boulders provided lots of cover) I became convinced that they were rock hyraxes.

Weren't you able to estimate the animals' size? Rock hyraxes are much bigger than gundis so it seems odd* that you, an eminently knowledgeable zoologist, would hesitate between those two alternatives.

* Or rather: it seems odd to someone - such as yours truly - who's never seen either critter in the wild himself.

Thanks for comments. My guess on those mammals is that they were c. 20 cm long in total. Yikes, this puts them in gundi size range rather than rock hyrax range (40-60 cm). I'm still confident that they were rock hyraxes, and I've learnt from experience that I am totally useless at estimating size. So, either I'm wrong and they were rather larger than 20 cm, or they were small individuals or juveniles or something.

lovely lovely desert wildlife.
So lucky to see the Chameleon, I saw one in Southern Oman which was bright green.

THe only herp books I know of that cover similar habitat/area are for the UAE & Arabia.

Not that I want to sow any more seeds of doubt, but... check out the tail length of this gundi.

The very unusual wolfish subspecies of the golden jackal known as the Egyptian jackal lives in Libya. It may represent a unique species of canid. For years, it was called the Egyptian wolf, and its scientific name was Canis lupus lupaster. Right now, it is Canis aureus lupaster. It may be conspecific with another wolfish golden jackal of the Danakil, which is called a wucharia.

Dartian (comment 5): yeah, very short tails on some gundis. But I'm pretty sure that what I saw was pretty much tail-less (I saw the back ends of four differnt individuals as they ran away from me). They were also very dark brown, and just had a far heavier look than seems to be the case for gundis. If only I could have gotten a good look.

On jackals... I confess that I was initially taking photos of canid tracks and scat as I was hoping that they might be those of Golden or Egyptian jackals. Later saw dogs at the relevant sites, however. It seems that some authors are indeed proposing that Canis lupaster might be a distinct species or a form of wolf, with those who favour this typically citing Ferguson (1981)...

Ferguson, W. W. 1981. The systematic position of Canis aureus lupaster (Carnivora : Canidae) and the occurrence of Canis lupus in North Africa, Egypt and Sinai. Mammalia 45, 459-466.

... I'd be interested to know if there are any more recent papers that test the affinities of this animal. Eyewitness reports suggest that wolves might even be present as far south in Africa as Eritrea.

God damn you Darren, You never said you where going to Libya.
Very lucky of you to, im going on a trip to the galapagos to see the local reptile and bird fauna.

By Zach Hawkins (not verified) on 03 Nov 2009 #permalink

Le Loueff

Le Loeuff. Or possibly Le LÅuff, but probably not.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 03 Nov 2009 #permalink

Just curious - why is there sometimes an aura of secrecy around fossils?

ech: It's a "veil over", not an "aura around". As a professional courtesy, Darren doesn't talk about details of things somebody else has said they will publish formally on, until after the publication. Sometimes, too, the locations of exposed fossils are glossed over to try to prevent vandalism or even claim-jumping.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 03 Nov 2009 #permalink

Nice trip! :D

vandalism or even claim-jumping

Or just simply commercial excavation and sale into private hands that fossils usually can't be pried out of even if cold and dead (...the hands, not just the fossils).

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 03 Nov 2009 #permalink


the European field guide region (as I call it)

Isn't that mostly just an ornithological tradition? Do any field guides except those about birds normally include the entire 'Western Palearctic' region? For example, there are a handful of different field guides to European mammals but none of them, AFAIK, covers North Africa and/or the Middle East. In them, 'Europe' ends south of the Mediterranean Sea. And that, in my opinion, is a good thing. I've never been too keen on this Western Palearctic field guide concept. For starters, it's irritatingly vague. The southern border of the Western Palearctic seems to be drawn pretty arbitrarily somewhere across the Sahara Desert, and the inclusion (or non-inclusion) of the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea region, the Arabian Peninsula, and Iraq/Iran is wildly inconsistent. And more often than not, the treatment of the birds found in the western part of Russia (which is, by any biogeographical definition, part of Europe proper) is poor.

IIRC, it was Heinzel et al. who started including the North African and Middle Eastern species in their field guide in the early seventies, and since then many if not most other European field guides have followed suit in what has become a minor arms race; if you're an author/publisher, you don't want your brand new bird guide to feature fewer species than your competitors', do you? And an increase in content inevitably leads to an increase in physical bulk. And that is a fatal flaw in a field guide. Surely I'm not the only casual birder who'd rather not drag Lars Jonsson's hefty tome with him to the field? Jonssonâs guide has superb illustrations but it's also bloody heavy and ungainly. Mullarney et als'. is a slimmer volume with excellent illustrations (in fact, probably the best ornithological field guide illustrations there currently are) but in order to satisfy this self-imposed requirement to include as many species as possible, theyâve had to reduce the size of their bookâs illustrations - you'll almost need a magnifying glass to see all their detail.

In the future, rather than desperately trying to cram everything between the same covers, could we please have geographically well-defined and separate field guides to the birds of Europe, to the birds of North Africa, and to the birds of the Middle East?

/Rant over

Just a point on the tchagra photo - it is also used on the cross-referenced article as BROWN-crowned, and it certainly doesn't look like the black-crowned species I've seen in Morocco.

By Kelvin Britton (not verified) on 03 Nov 2009 #permalink


there is a nice, new field guide to mammals (except cetaceans) of the western Palaearctic, up to 50oE and the Tropic of Cancer (so covering Libya)

Oh, I hadn't heard of that one yet. Thanks for the tip!

Super photos!

Wondered if you saw this morning's "metro" newspaper? There was a nice shoebill article in it (sorry-no link-new phone and not sure how to so it yet!)

That's a Brown-crowned Tchagra in the photo above, by the way. Nice range extension observation for Black-crowned however - it's not on any Libyan avifauna that I've been able to find ...

By David Callahan (not verified) on 05 Nov 2009 #permalink

Oh (re: comment 20)... this makes me worry that I saw something else - though I can't imagine what!

Just recently I saw on TV a video of Nubian ibexes fighting: they lock their opponent's horns with those knobs along the front edge of the horn and try to throw them down. They also get a little uphill and hurl themselves down on the opponent head-first. Only the most dominant in the herd gets to mate.

re. post 21: Don't worry - I'm sure you saw Black-crowned Tchagra as it's the only Western Palearctic tchagra species, and is known to be found just a few hundred miles to the north-east of Libya. Brown-crowned is very similar, but stays way subsaharan as far as I'm aware. There aren't really any confusion species in North Africa ...

Places like Libya are underwatched by birders and ornithologists, and there are probably quite a few at least minor discoveries waiting for the intrepid tourist or explorer ...

By David Callahan (not verified) on 07 Nov 2009 #permalink

I'm a long time fan of this blog, but this is the first time I've had anything useful to contribute here.

Firstly, collared doves ARE present in Tripoli, there's a breeding pair in the stand of trees near the Academy in Janzur (or at least there was last year).

The Cheetah is almost certainly extinct, because it's prey, the gazelle is near extinct due to hunting, and the larger population in neighbouring Niger is under severe pressure. Leopards might exist in the South East near Sudan and Chad, but are absent everywhere else. Libyans are generally unaware that ceetahs, lions and leopards have ever lived in Libya

Barn owls and little owls are incredibly common, largely due to the abundance of rats, thanks to the lack of a garbage collection system.

By boynamedsue (not verified) on 09 Nov 2009 #permalink

Thanks much for that information boynamedsue (... ), very interesting. The litter situation is pretty remarkable - I'm intending to discuss it at length. With pictures. Did the Collared doves in Tripoli get there themselves, or were they introduced?

No worries Darren. The collared doves could have been introduced during the Italian colonisation. I've only ever seen one pair, so they are definitely 3rd fiddle in the Libyan Columbiform Orchestra, behind laughing doves and feral pigeons. I can't remember if I've seen them outside of Tripoli... If I'd known they weren't supposed to be there, I'd have paid them more attention!

The rubbish is... something to see. You get used to it, but when I first arrived I was dumbstruck, and actually depressed by it. It's partially organisation and partially cultural. Libyans don't actually see plastic as dirty.

By boynamedsue (not verified) on 09 Nov 2009 #permalink

How about Schleich, Kästle and Kabisch's (1996) Amphibians and Reptiles of North Africa? Covers Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. Species not there but in Egypt only included in keys. It is getting a bit dated and although including around 150 photos showing reptiles and amphibians it has a very scientific approach (its share of scale counting) making it unsuitable for people with only a moderate interest in herps. Some sample pages from the first quarter of the book are on google books but they've mixed up the order (page 156 followed by 215-230 and then 167-197)

By V.Y. de Vries (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

It's an impressive book, and I'm stupid for not mentioning it. But I have a good reason: IT COSTS (minimum) $125!! (= 83 euros, £74).