Saturday, 12 June 2010

RED VELVET FROM HEAVEN

About October the dark clouds begin to gather in the east, lingering about the crests of the ridges before breaking in spectacular thunderstorms. While it is still raining the hot sun comes out, the earth steams and rainbows appear over the lakes and dams. At this moment, the people say, “The hyaena is giving birth to twins.” Overnight scarlet lilies appear like balls of fire among the sprouting millet; shrubs along the cattle-paths break into leaf and in a few days are covered with pink scented flowers; bees hum everywhere; and a red velvet mite which crawls over the damp earth is welcomed as “the child of the rain” (mwambua) - a favourite personal name for anyone born at this time. Along the edge of the cattle-paths grass begins to appear. By late December, in a normal year, the rain may be so heavy that much of the country becomes impassable.” (Jellicoe 1978: 6-7)

Marguerite Jellicoe’s evocative description of the start of the annual rains in Singida includes a rare reference to the cultural significance of red velvet mites in Tanzania. I first came across these brightly coloured arachnids (family Trombidiidae) in 1981, at the start of my second wet season in the village of Utengule in Usangu (in what is now Mbarali District). I was away when the rains began on 2nd December, but when I returned to the village two days later these small crimson creatures were everywhere on the newly dampened earth. Sangu-speakers called them inkhadupa, their generic name for ticks and mites, and told me that they were thought to fall down from the sky along with the rain. In this respect they were similar to ground pangolins (Manis temminckii), another creature believed to fall from the heavens, from whence they were sent by the ancestors, amanguluvi.

At the time I had no idea what kind of tick or mite these might be. I later found a reference to them in adventurer Marius Fortie's book Black and Beautiful (1938). When he was in Dodoma in December 1933, Fortie was told by an American naturalist that the "velvety red bugs" crawling on wet sand after heavy rainfall were a kind of tick (1938: 251). In May 1995 I wrote to the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi asking if they could help identify the creature that both Fortie and I had seen. In the absence of a specimen they couldn't. I therefore referred to it as a "small red tick" in the paper that I wrote about 'The Ritual Sacrifice of Pangolins among the Sangu of South-west Tanzania' (1995/96: 165).

The growth of the internet has since made searching for this kind of information much easier than it once was, and when I eventually revisited this question it didn't take me long to find out that these 'ticks' were in fact red velvet mites - a perfect description of their external appearance. According to Joanna Makol, an authority on the Trombidiidae and their relatives, the red velvet mites that appear in large numbers after heavy rain are most likely members of the genus Dinothrombium (Oudemans, 1910), only two species of which have been recorded in Tanzania, D. tinctorium (Linnaeus, 1767) and D. zarniki (Krausse, 1916). But definite identification of the heavenly mites that make such a dramatic seasonal appearance in Usangu and elsewhere in the Eastern Rift must await the collection and description of more specimens.

Whatever species are involved, it's clear that red velvet mites are known throughout the region. A post on the Tanzania Odyssey blog in February 2009 describes their sudden appearance in Ruaha National Park, when "in some areas the whole ground can take on an almost red sheen and to walk without standing on one is almost impossible." But their emergence at the start of the rains isn't everywhere ascribed to heavenly intervention. Writing in 2002, my Hehe-speaking research assistant in Iringa, John Justin Kitinye, described pink-coloured ngudupa or ngudupasa mwihala (lit. 'bush mites', as distinct from ngudupasa mnyumba or kaye, 'house ticks') quite accurately as creatures which could dig down and hide in sand for months on end during the long dry season. No mention of them falling from heaven here, but wondrous animals nonetheless.

Acknowledgements
I couldn't have written this note without the information provided by the late Ngwila Simuhongole and other villagers in Utengule, as well as by John Justin Kitinye in Iringa. I'm also grateful to Richard Bagine and David Moyer for answering my queries, and especially to Joanna Makol for her email correspondence in February 2008 and for sending me extracts from her paper in Annales Zoologici (2007).

References

Fortie, Marius 1938. Black and Beautiful: A Life in Safari Land. London: Robert Hale.

Jellicoe, Marguerite 1978. The Long Path: A Case Study of Social Change in Wahi, Singida District, Tanzania. Nairobi: East African Publishing House.

Makol, Joanna 2007. Generic Level Review and Phylogeny of Trombidiidae and Podothrombiidae (Acari: Actinotrichida: Trombidioidea) of the World. Annales Zoologici 57 (1): 1-194.

Walsh, Martin 1995/96. The Ritual Sacrifice of Pangolins among the Sangu of South-west Tanzania. Bulletin of the International Committee on Urgent Anthropological and Ethnological Research 37/38: 155-170.

1 comment:

  1. These giant red velvet mites seem to have a pantropical distribution. Here is a note I posted about them many years ago on an email list on South Asian natural history:

    https://lists.princeton.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind9706&L=NATHISTORY-INDIA&P=R488

    Priyantha Wijesinghe

    ReplyDelete