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Zoological Notes from Natal, Millar 1899

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No. 694.— April, 1899.




By Alfred D. Millar.


(Plate I.)


A Monstrous Ray or Devil-fish.—In April, 1898, a crowd was seen on the sea-shore at Durban, drawn together by the interesting object represented in the accompanying Plate (I.), a reproduction of a photograph taken by Mr. Burn, of the Natal Drug Company. Some Indians were fishing with their net on the sea-coast when they discovered that something unusually large had come within their grasp, whereupon these men, with great excitement, quickly drew the net shorewards, and, as the waves receded, an enormous Eagle Ray, with its single young, was disclosed to view. The captors smartly fastened ropes to their prize, and anchored it to the shore, gradually drawing it out of the water, but with considerable difficulty.

The measurements taken of this fish were 14 ft. 6 in. across the disc, 6 ft. from head to root of tail, and with a tail 6 ft. in length. In order to turn this enormous creature to be photographed on its reverse side, no fewer than twenty natives were required, thus giving some idea as to its weight, which was roughly estimated at about 15 cwt.

Although several of these monsters have been observed disporting themselves about Durban, this is, I believe, the largest, if not the only specimen of its kind that has been landed on our shores, and it is now preserved and contained in the Durban Museum.

[This is not the first time that attention has been called to these gigantic fishes in the pages of this magazine. In 'The Zoologist' (1849, p. 2358), the late Edward Newman gave an account by Capt. Hamilton of the capture of a specimen in the Gulf of California, which measured nineteen feet across the back. For this unidentified species Mr. Newman proposed the provisional name of Brachioptilon hamiltoni, which by Jordan and Evermann, in their 'Fishes of North and Middle America,' is placed as a synonym of Manta birostris (Walbaum). This fish, generally recorded under the name of Ceratoptera vampyrus, attains a width of twenty feet. Gosse, in referring to this animal under the generic name of Cephaloptera, gives a sensational narrative:—"Col. Hamilton Smith, in the neighbourhood of Trinidad, had the pain of witnessing a fellow-creature involved in the horrible embrace of one of these monsters. It was at early dawn that a soldier was endeavouring to desert from the ship by swimming on shore. A sailor from aloft, seeing the approach of one of these terrific fishes, alarmed the swimmer, who endeavoured to return; but, in sight of his comrades, was presently overtaken, the creature throwing over him one of its huge fins, and thus carrying him down." The same writer also gives the following extract from a Barbadoes paper:—"On the 22nd of August [1843] the brig 'Rowena' was lying in La Guayra Roads, the weather perfectly calm. I discovered the vessel moving about among the shipping. I could not conceive what could be the matter. I gave orders to heave in, and see if the anchor was gone, but it was not; but, to my surprise, I found a tremendous monster entangled fast in the buoy-rope, and moving the anchor slowly along the bottom. I then had the fish towed on shore. It was of a flattish shape, something like a devil-fish, but very curious shape, being wider than it was long, and having two tusks, one on each side of the mouth, and a very small tail in proportion to the fish, and exactly like a bat's tail. The tail can be seen on board the brig 'Rowena.' Dimensions of the fish were as follows:—Length from end of tail to end of tusks, 18 ft.; from wing to wing, 20 ft.; the mouth 4 ft. wide; and its weight 3502 lb." ('The Ocean,' pp. 193–4).

According to Prof. Seeley, the Ox Ray, or Sea-Devil (Dicerobatis giornæ) has been captured in the Mediterranean, 28 ft. wide and 21 ft. long, and estimated to weigh a ton. Mr. Lydekker has stated that an Indian representative of Dicerobatis is known to measure 18 ft. across the disc, and a weight of over 1200 lb. has been recorded.

Mr. Boulenger (Ann. & Mag. Nat. Hist. ser. vi. vol. xx. p. 227, 1897) has described a new genus and species from Jamaica, allied to Ceratoptera (Ceratobasis robertsii). The specimen was a young one, but the species is said to grow to a very large size; "but specimens are almost impossible to obtain, owing to the superstitious fear of the fishermen."

The species here figured probably belongs to the genus Dicerobatis, but as dentition principally separates that genus from Cephaloptera, absolute certainty cannot be obtained from a photograph alone.—Ed.]


An Antelope protecting its Young.—There are many instances recorded in which animals have displayed remarkable courage in the protection of their young, and they will frequently expose themselves to imminent danger, though this is common alike in the higher as well as in the lower orders of animal life. An interesting incident was observed whilst Snipe-shooting at Claremont, near Durban, on the 1st November last. My pointer-dog started a young Reed-buck (Cervicapra arundinum), and immediately gave chase. The little buck was apparently but a few days old, and rushed off frantically in the long grass; but the dog soon gained ground, and was just about overtaking it, much to my regret, when the little buck, fearing capture, started bleating. This gave warning to the mother, who, watching us approach, had remained concealed in cover only eighteen inches in height. Immediately the bleating was heard, a fine doe Reed-buck rose within one hundred yards from us, and rushed off gallantly to rescue her young. The dog, not noticing the doe, was in hot pursuit, and within a yard or two of the little fawn, which in a few moments must have fallen to its pursuer. The doe now rushed at full speed, answering her little one's call in a deep guttural note, and, on overtaking the dog, deliberately jumped over it, and whilst in the air kicked out with her hind legs. The dog fell, but whether from fright or through being kicked over—probably the latter—I was unable to detect; however, be that as it may, the dog was so startled at such an incident that he immediately pulled up, and stood staring in wonderment, whilst the mother proudly cantered off with her young, a sight that any sportsman would delight to see.

Strange Messmates.— In October last I had occasion to watch a pair of Black Saw-winged Swallows (Psalidoprocne holomelæna), in order to discover their nest, and was soon rewarded by seeing one of the birds suddenly disappear in the ground carrying grass. On approaching I found a deserted hole of an Ant-bear,[1] into which the Swallow had gone. These birds frequent the holes of Ant-bears in preference to an embankment when nesting, and the reason may be readily understood when it is seen what protection is thus afforded against their many enemies. Having observed that the bird was then only constructing its nest, I decided to revisit the spot shortly afterwards, when, to my surprise, I found that the Ant-bear had returned home to his old haunt, taking up his abode inside. The ground being much disturbed, with the hole partly closed, it struck me that the Swallow would not return; consequently I determined to dig down to the nest. Entering the excavation head first, I soon found a small hole about two inches in diameter leading upwards about three feet from the entrance. I started burrowing, when the first thing discovered was a spherical white egg recently deposited on the bare ground. This was identified as the egg of the Natal Kingfisher (Ispidina natalensis), the clutch usually consisting of four eggs; and, on going a short distance further in the same hole, I came across the Swallow's nest, with a clutch of three small pure white elongate eggs, the nest being constructed wholly of minute grass-tufts. Both the Swallow and Kingfisher had made use of the same entrance. The Ant-bear I did not attempt to burrow after, this being a task usually ending in fruitless results, as these curious animals can dig faster than any two individuals provided with spades.

A Curious Deposit of Eggs.— For some time past a pair of Brown-hooded Kingfishers (Halcyon albiventris) have frequented my garden, but I was unable to locate their nest. At last, however, I came across one of the birds carrying a grasshopper, which at once led me to understand I was too late, and that the birds were feeding their young. They had nested in the bank of a pit, as is their wont, generally penetrating into the earth about three or four feet. Down this pit an old ladder had been left projecting several feet above the pit's mouth. About a week later, when revisiting the spot, to my surprise and delight I observed four large round white eggs lying on the ground immediately below one of the bars of the ladder, from which the eggs had evidently been dropped. The bird, having young in its nest, was apparently on the horns of a dilemma; it was useless depositing her eggs with the young, and hence the bird quietly disencumbered herself of the superfluous eggs in this easy but somewhat remarkable manner. The clutch of this bird consists of four round eggs, the shells being very thin, while the newly-laid egg has a salmon tint, the yolk reflecting through; but when the egg is blown it becomes pearly white. October is the nesting season.


  1. Ardvaark (Orycteropus capensis).

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.