Rhythms of a Desert Lizard

By Phillips, John A. | Natural History, October 1995 | Go to article overview

Rhythms of a Desert Lizard


Phillips, John A., Natural History


Alfred Brown, an English immigrant to South Africa in the second half of the nineteenth century, was fascinated by large lizards, living and extinct. Officially, Brown was schoolmaster, as well as postmaster and librarian, of Aliwal North, a small frontier town northeast of Cape Town. Unofficially, he was Gogga ("vermin" in Afrikaans) Brown, the town's ardent, almost pathological, naturalist.

Between 1869 and 1909, Gogga Brown produced 10,000 pages of neat, handwritten notes on subjects ranging from meteorology to archeology, geology, and paleontology. But his most passionate interest by far was the local species of monitor lizard, the white-throated monitor, or leguaan (an English language corruption of the Afrikaans word, from the Portuguese l'iguana). In an era when scientists pickled animal specimens first and described them later, Brown was something of an exception. He spent the better part of his life attempting to piece together a complete life history of the leguaan, one of four monitor lizards in Africa and a species he felt provided insight into the dinosaurs.

Cataloging the biology of this fifteen-pound-plus, five-and-a-half-foot-long, voracious carnivore--a relative of the formidable Komodo dragon--was no easy task. The harshness of the rocky terrain and thorn-scrub vegetation around Aliwal North, coupled with the animal's ability to travel several miles a day, made it extremely difficult to observe the lizards in the wild. To circumvent this problem, the industrious Brown constructed an elaborate vivarium that housed up to forty-two lizards at a time. During the many years of his studies, he kept and cared for more than 200 leguaans.

Brown fed his charges top-quality food. From the wild, he collected smaller lizards, amphibians, birds, locusts, and dead snakes. In addition, he fed his leguaans chicken eggs and meat from slaughtered farm animals. At night, especially during the cooler winter months, he covered each animal with a blanket. Such extravagance apparently consumed the better portion of Brown's meager salary, but his close attention to the animals produced outstanding results. He recorded information on size, sex ratio, body proportions, morphology, diet, and behavior. He studied the relationship between food consumption and fat deposition, as well as how the animals regulated their body temperature. And although he could not follow the monitors closely in the wild, he knew from his walks what their preferred habitat was. Not until the 1940s would professional herpetologists match his discoveries, in part because the reclusive Brown kept his observations largely to himself, and in part because when he did send his manuscripts to scientists at European museums, they were ignored.

Despite his many accomplishments, Brown became disheartened. Quite simply, he had the will, but the technologies of the nineteenth century defeated him. Without modern incubators, he failed to hatch eggs, and without radiotelemetry or other sophisticated equipment, he was unable to track individuals. His neighbors also hindered his efforts. Far from sharing Brown's desire to understand leguaans, local farmers killed the animals for their skins, which they sold to local cobbler shops. A heading in his notes reads: "(The monitors, destruction of by certain persons." Because of these disappointments, and perhaps also because of ridicule at the hands of his neighbors, Gogga grew even more reclusive in his later years, and his passion for studying the leguaan waned.

I first heard of Alfred Brown in 1990, from Bill Branch of South Africa's Port Elizabeth Museum. Listening to Bill by the light of the campfire at my field site, I was impressed by Gogga's data but saddened by the thought of what must have been a very lonely existence. I felt fortunate to have twentieth-century technology on my side, enabling me to concentrate my studies in Namibia's Etosha National Park on monitor lizards in the wild.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Rhythms of a Desert Lizard
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.