The Tet Zoo tour of Libya (part III): frasercots and Tripoli Zoo

By now you might have read my two previous articles (part I, part II) on the assorted tetrapods I encountered in Libya last month. Here's the third and final part in the series [image below shows chital at left, melanistic fallow top-centre, nilgai bottom-centre, blackbuck at right].


It's a bit unusual for a Tet Zoo article, as it contains a whole paragraph of boring travel-writing stuff, but I hope you can grit your teeth and get through this - the meat and potatoes on obscure subspecies and so on is delivered towards the end, I promise. So, without further ado...

Having spent our time in the field, Gareth and I returned to Tripoli (only a three hour taxi drive). While we were in the middle of talking about the monophyly of guineafowl it started to rain. Then it rained a lot. And then some. At one point our taxi driver got right up behind another car which was driving erratically in the middle of the road. Turned out that this car had no windscreen wipers so the driver couldn't see where he was going; driving right up his arse was not exactly a good idea. By way of hand gestures we managed to convince our eager driver to back away and thereby improve our chances of reaching old age. At the edge of Tripoli, the traffic ground to a halt and we were stuck in a jam for about two hours. Beep beep, beep bloody beep, went the cars... A flash flood had swamped the road: there was only about 30 cm of water, but that's enough to drown a car. So the local authorities brought in a crane to block the road and stop cars from queuing in the water. This caused a bottleneck and further delays. We got through in the end, and were back in the country's capital.


On our last day in the country we decided to do the tourist thing and tour the city and its markets. I saw nothing of interest (sorry: antiques, jewellery and clothes just don't excite me; I did go looking for ladies' shoes [not for me] but found the diversity disappointing)... UNTIL I found another one of those 'frasercot' skins. This is actually the third I've seen: regular readers will recall frasercot skin # 1 from this article. The 'fish-scale' pattern of dark brown markings is highly distinctive, but no-one knows what animal the skins belong to, or whether they're genuine. Finding one in a Libyan market does somehow strengthen the idea that they're fakes of some sort, and indeed it really didn't look at all 'real', as you can tell yourself from the adjacent photo. It didn't have any of the bits required for identification and I couldn't find out anything about it, nor could I buy it (too expensive), and even if I could I wouldn't want to try and smuggle it back through customs. I'm currently writing an article about these skins for a magazine and will discuss them more at a later date.

A trip to the zoo!

After the market - and the fish-market (nothing unfamiliar there) - Gareth and I decided to visit Tripoli Zoo. We'd heard conflicting reports but decided to try it anyway. I drew a little picture of caged animals for the taxi driver but, before I was able to employ my impressive impromptu artistic skills, he had phoned an English-speaking friend and knew where we wanted to go. The hardest part was finding the entrance once we were in the enormous car park, but we got there eventually.


A series of wildlife murals are encountered as you approach the zoo entrance. With all due respect to the talented artist(s) concerned, they're pretty hilarious. I particularly liked the one (depicting an African savannah scene: shown above) where the artist had obviously had to change some of the primates into lions - or was it the lions into primates? Or perhaps they were making some controversial point about evolutionary theory? Equally wonderful was the one featuring a stegosaur, an edaphosaurid synapsid, and the dinocephalian Moschops! [shown previously]. I bet many Libyan kids are disappointed once they discover that stegosaurs are not, in fact, on show at the zoo.

A large section of the zoo was under renovation, and as a result there was less to see than there might be usually. Ironically, neither Addax Addax nasomaculatus nor Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus were to be found, for example, despite featuring on the big sign above the zoo entrance. In fact, having read around on the zoo's history, I've found that it previously included many, many more animals than it does now, with elephants, rhinos, giraffes, ostriches, hippos, zebras, hyenas, lions, tigers, lynxes, tapirs, kangaroos, monkeys, water buffalo and others all being displayed there in the recent past. But overall I was fairly impressed. The animals were in good condition, the enclosures were reasonably large, and the selection of animals was pretty good. It certainly was not a bad zoo. The total lack of signage reduced the educational value zoo-going might have for the public, to put it mildly. Hell, even when signs are available people still have no idea what they're looking at.


A large aviary was devoted to big raptors: Egyptian vulture Neophron percnopterus [shown above], Eurasian griffon Gyps fulvus and Golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos. I don't get to see Egyptian vultures much, so spent a lot of time taking pictures of the one they had. Some interesting facts about Neophron: it had very close relatives that occurred in North America during the Miocene, Pliocene and Pleistocene*, and it derives the carotenoids that make its face yellow from ungulate dung (Negro et al. 2002). How, then, do captive birds - which I know do not ever get to eat dung - maintain yellow faces? Neophron is famous for cracking open ostrich eggs with stones. This looks like one of those culturally transmitted meme things, but a few years ago it was shown that 'culturally naïve' birds will still practise this behaviour so long as they learn that broken ostrich eggs result in a food reward, and stone throwing is instinctive in the species anyway (they apparently throw egg-like stones in the hope that, like real eggs, they might break open). Ergo the behaviour is an instinctive response to a sign stimulus and not a culture (Thouless et al. 1987).

* The 'American Neophron' species are properly known as Neophrontops.


Greater flamingos Phoenicopterus roseus, White stork Ciconia ciconia, Muscovy Cairina moschata, Black swan Cygnus atratus and Emu Dromaius novaehollandiae were on display, as well as various parrots. All pretty typical zoo fare, though Green-winged macaw (aka Red-and-green macaw or Red-blue-and-green macaw) Ara chloroptera was a new species for me, believe it or not. There were also aviaries with Red kite Milvus milvus and with peahen and other pheasants. Finally on birds, I've never seen both crowned cranes species next to one another before: Black crowned crane Balearica pavonina (darker, smaller, with pink cheeks) and Grey crowned crane B. regulorum (lighter, larger, with white cheeks). Feral cats were wandering about the zoo, and about ten were sat in the same enclose as the flamingos and muscovy ducks. I waited to see if a duck would go and pick a fight with one of the cats, but nothing happened.

Moving now to large mammals, several Puma Puma concolor were there, as well as a load of black Leopard Panthera pardus. Yes: all black, no 'normal' ones. Two Brown bears Ursus arctos shared an enclosure [see below], and sadly both were displaying abnormal behaviour. It's obvious that, like primates, bears need stuff to keep them constantly occupied. Fail in that and they go insane.

North African bovids: Slender-horned gazelle and Aoudad


The zoo was particularly good on hoofstock, with Nilgai Boselaphus tragocamelus, Blackbuck Antilope cervicapra, Chital or Spotted deer Axis axis, Fallow deer Dama dama, Scimitar-horned oryx Oryx dammah and Brindled wildebeest Connochaetes taurinus [see composite image at top]. Two species were exciting 'firsts' for me. One was Slender-horned, Sand or Rhim or Rheem gazelle Gazella leptoceros [shown here], a poorly known, particularly pale, mid-sized gazelle of the Sahara (one of two species included by some authors in the [probably not monophyletic] 'subgenus' Trachelocele. The other species is the Asian Goitered gazelle G. subgutturosa). The 'rhim'/'rheem' name comes from Hebrew for 'wild ox' (I recognise it from the bit in the Bible about the leviathan) and has thus been argued to be inappropriate (Spinage 1986). A true desert specialist, the Slender-horned gazelle exhibits several features that are convergently present in some other desert antelopes (like Arabian oryx O. leucoryx): unusually pale coat, enlarged hooves that help spread its weight on sand, and an ability to get most (or even all) of its water from plants and dew. As is the case with most other bovids from northern Africa, it has been strongly reduced in numbers by trophy hunters and is possibly endangered.

I was also really pleased to see Aoudad, Arrui or Barbary sheep Ammotragus lervia, of which they had a great many [some are shown below: a male is shown at the front, a kid is at the back]. As you might recall from the Tet Zoo sheep series (part I, part II), the Aoudad is not a sheep in the strict sense, but seems to be close to the root of the goat-sheep clade. What does make the Aoudad particularly sheep-like, perhaps (I'm joking here), is the fact that it's polytypic, with six named subspecies (some of you might remember that so many wild sheep seem to have so many subspecies).


I'm enough of a nerd that when I see a member of a polytypic species, I want to know what subspecies I'm seeing: merely getting the species right isn't good enough. I have no doubt you feel the same way. Alas, making subspecific IDs is usually all but impossible without having all the primary literature, some museum holotypes and a measuring kit to hand. Of the subspecies, the local one is the Libyan aoudad A. l. fessini, though both the Saharan aoudad A. l. sahariensis and Kordofan aoudad A. l. blainei may also occur in the south-east of the country. The nominate subspecies - the Atlas aoudad A. l. lervia - is an animal of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia while the Egyptian aoudad A. l. ornata was thought extinct until evidence for its persistence was reported in 2002. The most widespread subspecies - the Saharan aoudad - also went missing for a while, but only from Western Sahara, and it was rediscovered there in 2003. For more on aoudad subspecies visit the IUCN page here. A reassessment of the supposed subspecies is underway by Jorge Cassinello. Incidentally, aoudad have been introduced to Spain where they compete with the critically endangered Iberian ibex Capra pyrenaica (Acevedo et al. 2007). If you're American you may already know that there are introduced populations in California, New Mexico and Texas.

Getting back to the Tripoli Zoo animals, the inclusion of domestic cattle as an exhibit was a little odd to European eyes, but these animals are not encountered in Libya and hence might be considered exotic to a Libyan zoo-visitor. Likewise, dromedaries also seemed a little odd given that camels are seen regularly away from the towns.


So that pretty much brings an end to my Libyan recollections and musings. My encounters with wild chameleons, larks, buntings and those cryptic "hyraxes" made it a rewarding trip as goes wildlife, and the stuff I saw in the museum (which I haven't written about) and zoo also gave me the Tet Zoo fix I need. I look forward to returning to Africa, and I know that I will.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on adventures in north Africa see...

And for previous 'zoo trip' Tet Zoo posts see...

And, given the artiodactyl-heavy theme of part of this post, be sure to also check out...

Refs - -

Acevedo, P., Cassinello, J., Hortal, J. & Gortázar, C. 2007. Invasive exotic aoudad (Ammotragus lervia) as a major threat to native Iberian ibex (Capra pyrenaica): a habitat suitability model approach. Diversity and Distributions 13, 587-597.

Negro, J. J., Grande, J. M., Tella, J. L., Garrido, J., Hornero, D., Donázar, J. A., Sanchez-Zapata, J. A., BenÃtez, J. R. & Barcell, M. 2002. An unusual source of essential carotenoids. Nature 416, 807-808.

Spinage, C. A. 1986. The Natural History of Antelopes. Christopher Helm, London.

Thouless, C. R., Fanshawe, J. H. & Bertram, B. C. R. 1987. Egyptian vultures Neophron percnopterus and Ostrich Struthio camelus eggs: the origins of stone-throwing behaviour. Ibis 131, 9-15.


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White stork Ciconia alba

Ciconia ciconia, surely?

the inclusion of domestic cattle as an exhibit was a little odd to European eyes, but these animals are not encountered in Libya and hence might be considered exotic to a Libyan zoo-visitor

Well, it's not unheard of to display "exotic" cattle breeds such as zebus and Ankole cattle in European zoos and safari parks either. What kind of cattle were they, precisely?

Regarding that bare bear enclosure... I hope that negligably low fence is not all that separates the bears from the public. There was a wide moat or something surrounding the enclosure but invisible in the photo, right?

Ciconia ciconia: that's what it says, you're clearly hallucinating (in other words: D'OH!).

Cattle: they had two breeds. Ankole are suitably exotic and often feature in zoos. But as for the second, I don't know: they looked like Jerseys, but with a lot of black. I'll have a go at identifying them some time (here's a good online guide to cattle breeds). From a distance, I first thought that they were reconstituted aurochs, but no way.

Bears: yes, right in front of the little fence is a deep moat, then a hedge, then another fence.

Well it certainly was a good trip in terms of wildlife (and zoo animals).

Your point on domestic cattle reminds me of the case of the pig in Afghanistan. Being a strict Muslim country of course, no one ate pork so no one farmed pigs, so the one pig in the zoo was the only one in Afghanistan. They ended up having to move the poor thing from public view when swine flu arose due to people fearing it would give them the disease. Linkage on he story here

Sorry to post again but Ive just found out Christopher lever has brought a new edition of his book "The Naturalized Animals of Britain and Ireland"! Its straight to the top of my xmas list

That Frasercot skin looks like a deer skin or horse skin of some sort...

By Tim Morris (not verified) on 16 Nov 2009 #permalink


It didn't have any of the bits required for identification and I couldn't find out anything about it

What did the frasercot's pelage feel like (soft, coarse)? Or did that trinket shop have a 'You touch, you buy' policy?

I wish some Islamic ELF would librate those bears into the Atlas mountains. Freestyle.

On the subject of goats have you guys heard the news about the new ectothermic goat?…

I am still a little wary but if the author's conclusions are correct then this may be one of the greatest discoveries yet!

Not that there is anything wrong with the goats of today however and I must congratulate Darren on these posts.

I have been hoarding a zoo question.

At the Sacramento zoo, the ducks live alongside the flamingos, and, like them, often stand on one leg. I grew up in Hawaii, bereft of ducks. Is it common for ducks in the wild to do this, or do they only learn it from the flamingos?

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 16 Nov 2009 #permalink


Is it common for ducks in the wild to do this

Yes, it's perfectly normal anatid behaviour (and many other birds, such as gulls, often do it too). No flamingo tutelage required.

That melanistic fallow deer led me to recall certain medieval and later artworks in a whole new light. Never having seen a living fallow deer, I had always thought that the artists were stylizing their subject, artificially lengthening the neck and shrinking the legs as well as doing something anatomically odd to the back. But that animal, in pose and outline, is a dead ringer for ones in old paintings and engravings. I just grew up thinking that Sitka blacktail deer were an example of a worldwide body plan.

By Jenny Islander (not verified) on 16 Nov 2009 #permalink

I'm quite surprised Ara chloropterus was new to you. I wonder, what other parrots did the zoo have?

I wonder though, given that zoo Neophron still have a yellow face, wouldn't it just be a natural colour and not ungulate dung-induced at all? It would seem like the logical conclusion.

That bear enclosure looks incredibly flimsy... I'm glad there was actually a moat! (I assume it would be empty and too deep to climb out of? Water itself wouldn't slow down a brown bear much, would it?)

By William Miller (not verified) on 16 Nov 2009 #permalink

Thanks for comments. Some responses...

-- 'frasercot' furs (comment 6) are fairly soft and the pelage is cat-like. Specimen # 2 (photographed at an antique fair in England) had a short-furred, velvety patch on its inside forearm. I'm told that this is seen in some cats.

-- the physiology of Myotragus (not really a goat in the strict sense) is all over the newswires. The paper itself is here. Lamellar-zonal tissue shows that Myotragus grew slowly and ceased growing periodically. Wow. As if it wasn't weird enough!

-- Fallow deer (comment 11) are highly unusual compared to other deer, and in many ways are 'extreme', particularly in their elaborate ornamentation. Please see this article for more.

-- Parrots at Tripoli Zoo (comment 12): I also recall Blue-and-gold macaw, Scarlet macaw, Grey parrot and Cockatiel. Nothing special.

If they were purebred local aoudad, some European zoos may be interested. However, quite possibly they may be re-imported typical generic zoo aoudad of unidentifable subspecies (hybrid).

Myotragus is incredible. BTW, locals were apparently trying to domesticate them.

Funding might be an issue, but how about a DNA test? It's been done before on museum specimens...although perhaps you need an ancient DNA lab to do it right. Failing that I wonder if protein sequencing would work, although it may not have enough power to discriminate between cat species...but that would at least tell you it's a cat. Heck I'm sure there are people out there-forensic taxonomists?-who could tell if it was painted.
Perhaps I just need to wait for the magazine article.

Even just looking at the thing under magnification ought to determine whether it's actual fur or a synthetic fake.

So clearly, someone needs to buy a frasercot skin. Sadly, I have no access to frasercot skin suppliers...

By William Miller (not verified) on 18 Nov 2009 #permalink

DNA aside, simple light microscope plus atlas of mammal hair could show if it is pained sheep, goat or whatever. :)

As for whether it's real or not - is the question whether it's something unusual or just mundane domestic-animal fur painted weird colors, or whether it's fur at all or some artificial material? or both?

By William Miller (not verified) on 18 Nov 2009 #permalink

Back during my childhood in the early 1980s the Bronx zoo had a farm exhibit that included holstein cows. There were probably other farm animals too, but this is a 25 year old memory. Being a recent transplant from farm country and having spent time on the family dairy farm (now a Target), my eight year old brain didn't understand why you would hover around cows when there were far cooler animals to see. I hadn't really figured out that if you grew up in the Bronx your changes of getting up close and personal with a dairy cow where about equal to your chances of getting up close and personal with an elephant.

By katydid13 (not verified) on 20 Nov 2009 #permalink

There's another interesting cat skin in a shop at the entrance to the Medina in Tripoli, it has a similar pattern to the one pictured but is a bit moth-eaten. I remember it because it looked a bit wrong for both a leopard and a Cheetah. I'm no cat expert at all though, so it could have been either species.

By boynamedsue (not verified) on 20 Nov 2009 #permalink

Probably, yeah. I'll speak to some of my former colleagues and see if any of them can get a photo.

By boynamedsue (not verified) on 21 Nov 2009 #permalink

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I know it is an old post but if IUCN is right the Tripoli zoo aoudad is A. l. fassini. From sub-section 'Libya' in 'Conservation Actions' section on IUCN page for aoudad:

It is not known whether Aoudad are protected by law. The species was introduced into Tripoli Nature Reserve (870 ha; est. 1978). It may also occur in Jabel Nefhusa Nature Reserve (20,000 ha; est. 1978) in northern Libya in the Jebel Tarabulus range of the Jebel Nefhusa mountains (Tripolitania Region 32°N, 12°50'E), although this reserve does not appear to fall within the suspected distribution of the species (Shackleton and De Smet 1997). There are captive populations in Sabratha, Surman and the Zoological Garden of Tripoli (T. Jdeidi pers. comm.). The latter definitely belongs to the subspecies A. l. fassini.

By Ridgely S. Wren (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink