Rhythms of a Desert Lizard

Article excerpt

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. …