The first Ape-Man of Kromdraai Cave (TM 1517)

The first Ape-Man of Kromdraai Cave (TM 1517)

Lazarus Kgasi, DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

In 1938, Gert Terblanche, a 15-year-old schoolboy, discovered the first fossil of a robust ape-man (see figure), weathering out of a block of cave-breccia on the dolomite hillside of Kromdraai. Kromdraai is about 2 kilometres east of the Sterkfontein Cave (now part of the Cradle of Humankind Word Heritage Site, Gauteng Province) where Dr Robert Broom had identified the fossil of the first ape-man, Australopithecus africanus in 1936. In 1934, Broom obtained a position in the Palaeontology Department of the former Transvaal Museum (now DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History).

The Sterkfontein quarry manager (Mr Barlow) informed Dr Broom about the unique fossil that he had in his possession, a hominid fossil palate. He showed Dr Broom the fossil he acquired from the schoolboy, and noted that the breccia was not the same as that of Sterkfontein. Dr Broom decided to visit Gert and when he arrived at Gert’s house, he found his mother and sister, who informed him that Gert was at school and that he had found four lovely fossil teeth. Dr Broom was shown where Gert had discovered the fossil in an ancient cave infill on the neighbouring hill of Kromdraai, where he picked up some bits of the skull. He then proceeded to the school, where the headmaster located Gert, who, according to Broom “drew from the pocket of his trousers four of the most wonderful fossil teeth ever seen in the history of the world.” Dr Broom then proceeded to buy these teeth from Gert right away and discovered that two of them, a premolar and a molar, fit perfectly on the palate. Broom delivered a talk about caves and fossils to the students and teachers until school was dismissed for the day. Gert then took Dr Broom to the site and showed him a lower jaw that he had hidden there.

After cleaning and joining all parts of the skull, Dr Broom had much of the face and palate, as well as part of the braincase and the right side lower jaw (see figure). The teeth were larger, the jaw was more robust, and the face was flatter than Sterkfontein Ape-men. He called it Paranthropus robustus, a new genus and species that meant it was parallel to human line and had a robust physique. With its teeth, Paranthropus appears to have specialised in crushing and grinding hard things such as African potato tubers (Hypoxis hemerocallidea), roots, seeds, and hard berries. It is believed that Paranthropus were walking around the Cradle of Humankind between 1-2 million years ago. This specimen was later assigned a unique accession number TM 1517.

Fossil of the robust ape-man, found at Kromdraai (Museum accession number: TM 1517).

Brief history of Kromdraai cave 

The cave of Kromdraai is an unroofed dolomite cave filled with fossil bearing strata that have long been separated into two important and different localities: Kromdraai A. (KA) and Kromdraai B. (KB). The type specimen of Parantropus robustus (TM 1517), the only partial skeleton of this species identified so far (Broom 1938a, 1938b, 1942,1943), as well as other fossil hominin individuals (Thackeray et al. 2001) were discovered at the older Kromdraai B locality, which is known as the ‘hominin site.’

The younger KA, about 30 meters west of KB, has yet to yield human fossils and is thus known as the ’faunal site.’

We would not have known about TM 1517 if it were not for Gert Terblanche. May we have more Gerts for the advancement of science! This specimen is currently housed at DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History and the public is very fortunate as they can make an appointment to meet this iconic fellow together with their distant cousin, Mrs Ples!

References

Broom, R., 1938a. The Pleistocene anthropoid apes of South Africa. Nature 142, 377-379.

Broom, R., 1938b. Further evidence on the structure of the South African Pleistocene Anthropoids. Nature 142, 897-899.

Broom, R., 1942. The hand of the ape-man, Paranthropus robustus. Nature 149, 513-514.

Broom, R., 1943. An ankle-bone of the Ape-man, Paranthropus robustus. Nature 152, 689-690.

Thackeray, J.F., de Ruiter, D.J., Berger, L.R., van der Merwe, N.J., 2001. Hominid fossils from Kromdraai: A revised list of specimens discovered since 1938. Ann. Transv. Mus. 38, 43-56.

An introduction to some of the Anti-Tank Weapons in the collection of The Ditsong : National Museum of Military History

An introduction to some of the Anti-Tank Weapons in the collection of The Ditsong : National Museum of Military History

A new weapon is unleashed

On 15 September 1916 the first tanks made their appearance at Flers-Courcellette in the Somme River area in France. German infantry was terrorised and at a loss as how they were going to stop these slow, lumbering monsters.  Onwards across the moonscape of No Man’s Land, came the 49 British Mk I tanks. They were not stopped by thick belts of barbed wire and trenches. Hundreds of Germans were killed by the machine guns of the female tanks and the 6 pounder naval guns of the male tanks. The German’s standard 7.92 x 57 mm Mauser rifle and machine-gun bullets just bounced off the armour of the tank.

Some of the tanks were destroyed by artillery or trench mortar fire, but most ground to a halt due to mechanical failure or got stuck in deep artillery made shell holes. The British had tried but failed, but had warned the Germans of their new secret weapon. It would only be more than a year later in November 1917 at the Battle of Cambrai (northern France), that the British mastered the effective use of tanks en masse in a combined operation.

A later Mk IV British tank with thicker mostly 12 mm armour, impervious to Mauser reversed bullet technology.

Stop gap measures

Steel plate shield had been used by snipers up until this time and both the German and British had thought of, and had used high powered hunting guns (elephant guns) to penetrate the steel plate and kill the sniper. The British developed special ammunition for armour piercing. The “Cartridge, Small Arms, Ball, .303-inch Mark VII S, Mk VII P and Mk VIIF” were developed for this purpose. This ammunition was limited specifically for British. The hunting rifles used by both sides were also not in general use.

The Germans introduced the idea of using a reversed Mauser bullet. They pulled the Spitzgeschoß bullet from the cartridge case with a pair of pliers.  A few extra grains of smokeless powder were added to the case and the bullet was reinserted into the neck of the case, but point first. The cartridge thus had a blunt boat tailed nose. This cartridge was able to be fired from a standard Mauser rifle.  At distances of about 100 m, this modified cartridge was able to penetrate the 6 mm thick portions of the British Mk I tanks. The bullets did not penetrate the tank on 12 mm sections, but caused the inside layer of the armour to splatter the tank’s crew with spall. This was not often deadly but damaged the crew’s face and eyes.

A more professional approach was the introduction of the K bullet.  This bullet designated “8×57 mm IS” had a hardened steel core and was effective up to about 100 m.

The most numerous and best known British tank of the First World War was the MK IV. It was first used in June 1917 and was quite successful. The armour was mainly 12 mm thick and stopped the reversed and K bullets. At the end of July 1917, a British major offensive was preceded by a heavy artillery bombardment. This caused large shell holes and damaged the drainage of the battlefield. When the tanks were unleashed, many got bogged down in the mud in deep shell holes, where they were easily destroyed by German artillery.

The first anti-tank artillery   

The Germans introduced a new anti-tank projectile for their standard 7,7 cm light field gun.  The 7.7 cm Kanone Granate Model 1915 mit Panzerkopf (7.7 cm Field Gun, HE shell Model 1915 with armour-piercing head). A high-explosive shell was adapted but with a steel nose head and, during the battle of Cambrai on 20 November 1917, some German artillery units had these armour-piercing shells available.

This report by a German artillery officer Lieutenant Jakubash of 4 Battery, 213 Field Artillery Regiment shows the ease with which the tanks were destroyed. “Tanks suddenly appeared to our front at Flesquieres, (6 km South West of Cambrai), not knowing what was waiting for them. I ordered sights to be set at 700 metres. With our third shot we knocked out a tank. In short order we followed this with three more. Then with my one remaining gun, we dealt with four more tanks.  It was like a shooting gallery”.

British soldiers with a captured 1918 Mauser-T Gewehr

But what about the poor infantry

With the reversed bullet and the K bullet no longer able to pierce the armour of the MK IV British tanks, the Germans then up-scaled the standard Mauser rifle to fire the already developed 13.2 x 92 mm semi –rimmed cartridge which had been developed for the Maxim MG 18 machine gun for use against tanks and aircraft. This cartridge was developed by the Polte Munitions Factory in Magdeburg. The result was a single shot bolt action Mauser 1918 T- Gewehr, with a muzzle velocity of 785m/s. It weighed 41 lbs and had a crew of two. It was issued to standard infantrymen. When fired the Mauser rifle had large recoil. This recoil sometimes dislocated the shooter’s shoulder. At 100 m the penetration was 26 mm of armour and this slowly reduced to 18 mm at 500 m. The crew sometimes fired at the engine, situated behind the driver. This disabled the tank and the crew could be killed at the Mauser crew’s at will. The tank then became a sitting duck for German artillery. Mass production at the anti-tank rifle was undertaken at the Oberndorf am Neckar plant, starting in May 1918.  This was the world’s first anti-tank rifle. By the end of the war 15 800 of these had been manufactured. The DITSONG: National Museum of Military History has three examples of this large anti-tank rifle.

The standard 7.92 x 57mm cartridge vs the Mauser T-Gewehr cartridge

References:

Books:

Rottman, GL. 2005.       World War II Infantry Anti-Tank Tactics. Oxford: Osprey Publishers

Internet:

Google.                         World War 1 History: First Tank Versus Tank Battle. Last Modified June 2020.                               https://owlcation.com/humanities/WWI-First-Tank-Versus-Tank-Battle

Google.                         About World War 1 German Bullets vs Allied Tanks. Last Modified June 2020.                               https://owlcation.com/humanities/About-World-War-1-German-Bullets-vs-                                       Allied Tanks

Google.                         Mauser 1918 T-Gewehr. Last edited 25 May 2021.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mauser_1918_T-Gewehr

Google.                         K Bullet. Last edited 28 May 2021.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K_bullet

Google.                         Reversed Bullet. Last edited 9 March 2021.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reversed_bullet

Google.                         13.2mm TuF. Last edited 29 January 2021.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/13.2mm_TuF

 

German Anti-Tank Weapons The Development and Science of Hand Held Weapons Panzerfaust 30M

German Anti-Tank Weapons The Development and Science of Hand Held Weapons Panzerfaust 30M

by Richard Henry, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

Introduction  

When the First World War (1914-1918) ended, the peace Treaty of Versailles ensured that the German military was severely restricted in the number of men allowed. The manufacture of armoured cars, tanks, submarines, aircraft and poison gas was forbidden. Only a small number of factories could make munitions or weapons.

The light 3.7 cm Pak 36 (Panzerabwehrkanone) 36 was developed by Rheinmetall in 1933 and was first issued to the German Wehrmacht in 1936. It was tested during the Spanish Civil War where it was found that the 160 kg gun could be man-handled into position. The Pak 36 could destroy the opposition tanks.

Most European countries also developed small anti-tank guns in the 37 mm calibre range as these were able to destroy the known tanks at the time. They fired high explosive and solid armour-piercing shot cartridges, which were effective up to 500 m. The British developed the Quick Firing 2 pounder anti-tank gun, which was accepted for use in October 1935.

When the Second World War (1939-1945) started, the best anti-tank weapon was another tank, followed by anti-tank guns and self-propelled guns. The calibre and size of anti-tank guns were increased to deal with increasingly heavily armoured tanks, but when tanks attacked infantry position, the infantry were easily overwhelmed. The infantry needed their own light anti-tank weapon.  This article discusses the development of the infantry hand-held anti-tank weapons, leading to the successful Panzerfaust 30M.

The Munroe or Neumann effect

The scientific principle of focusing the explosive blast of a conical or hemispherical hollow charge onto the surface of the item to be penetrated was first found in 1792. This principle was investigated and developed by various scientists. In 1888 Charles E. Munroe tested a steel safe with 4-inch thick walls. He placed a hollow charge against it and when it was detonated, a hole of 3 inch (76mm) diameter was blown clean through the safe wall.

In 1910, the German scientist Egon Neumann discovered that a block of TNT (explosive substance) punched a hole through steel if the explosive head had a conical indentation. An effective military application for this principle still needed to be designed.

Development starts   

In 1935 a prototype anti-tank shaped charge projectile was developed by two German scientists but the results were disappointing.

In 1939 German intelligence received reports of a new Soviet tank under design. It was reported to be fast, reliable and with 60 degree sloped to a maximum thickness of 45 mm. If that were true, the German 5 cm Pak gun under design would be unable to defeat this tank. An enlarged 7.5 cm Pak project was initiated. The famous T-34 medium tank was introduced into Soviet service with a 76 mm main gun in September 1940.

The development of the 7.5 cm Pak 40 gun and ammunition progressed slowly. In mid-1940 the first High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) round with a hollow charge was introduced in German service.   The results were disappointing, being only able to penetrate about 75% that of the Armour Piercing Capped Ballistic Capped (APCBC) round.

The T-34 tank has a massive effect on the development of man portable HEAT weapons

Operation Barbarossa also known as the German invasion of the Soviet Union was code name for the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany on 22 June 1941. They expected to face an inferior enemy but experienced a psychological shock when they came up against a limited number of the Soviet T-34 tank. Their best anti-tank gun, the 5cm Pak and the long barrelled 5 cm Mk III tank, were only able to destroy the T-34 tank at short ranges and when fired at the T-34s sides or rear. Many German commanders considered the T-34 as vastly superior to any of the German tanks.

The production of the larger 7.5 cm Pak gun as well as the modified version of the up-gunned Mk IV tank was made a priority. The first 7.5 cm Pak guns were delivered in November 1941 and the first up-gunned Panzer IV in the spring of 1942. These could penetrate the T-34 at ranges of 1500 m.

What do infantry to do when attacked by the T-34?    

In essence they rely on the shaped charge. A shaped charge used chemical energy from the detonation of the main explosive which is shaped to force the effect of that explosive energy onto a small area of the target.

In a typical HEAT round, when it impacts on the target, the impact fuse is fired which explodes the main charge. This main charge is on the outside of a shaped conical metal liner, often made of copper. The explosion compresses and squeezers the copper liner at about 1100 degrees Kelvin forward in a high velocity jet of copper, flowing like a liquid but remaining a solid.  Forward velocities of about 10 km/sec and immense pressure focus the explosion on a small area of the target, blowing a hole through the steel or concrete. It does not rely on heat to burn though the steel as is often thought.

What governs the effectiveness of the HEAT round?

The effectiveness of the HEAT round is dependent on its diameter. As the penetration of the target continues the width of the hole decreases in the characteristic “fist to finger” profile. The depth of penetration is dependent on the initial size of the fist. During the Second World War (1939-1945), HEAT rounds could typically penetrate between 150% – 250% of their diameter.

The size and length of the hollow or empty space at the front of the HEAT warhead are also vital for optimum penetration. If the detonation occurs too close to the target, there would not be enough time for the high velocity jet to fully develop. If the distance of the charge to the target is too great, the effect of the jet is reduced.

The initial muzzle velocity of the fired projectile was of no importance as the effect of the HEAT warhead did not rely on its own velocity to penetrate the target as did the Armour Piercing Shot (APS) rounds.

When HEAT rounds were fired from rifled barrels the spin imparted to the projectile, which normally helps with accuracy, actually countered and reduced the effect of the round.

Therefore an infantry HEAT round could be fired at a low velocity of about 30m/sec. The scientific principle of “for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction” was used. The mass and velocity of an infantry held and fired HEAT round was balanced by the gas and flame of that HEAT round ejected backwards out of the hand held launcher. This principle was used in the American Bazooka, the German Panzerschreck and series of Panzerfaust hand held weapons in the Second World War.

The first infantry anti-tank weapon 

The well-known American Bazooka was the first to see service. It was designed by Edward Uhl in 1942 and was put into production of June that year. Some were sent to the Red Army as part of the Lend-Lease agreement, where a few were captured by the Germans. At about the same time the Americans used the Bazooka in Tunisia during Operation Torch where they were found to be unreliable. Again the Germans captured some Bazookas and reverse-engineered them into a larger, more effective Raketenpanzerbüsche 54, better known as the Panzerschreck, effective to 150 m range. These were effective but required a three-man team. The German commanders wanted a more uncomplicated weapon, which could be used by any infantryman in an emergency, discarded and the soldier thereafter to continue using his own rifle or machine-pistol.

Panzerfaust  

In the summer of 1942, a German scientist Dr Heinrick Langweiler and his team started to work on a new hand held anti-tank weapon at the Hugo Schneider Factory in Leipzig. The idea was to use the hollow charge principle to design and inexpensive, single shot, effective anti- tank recoilless gun for use by a single infantryman.

Their efforts resulted in at first, the Faustpatrone (small fist cartridge) and a little later the Panzerfaust (tank fist). These weapons had only 30% the mass, 60% the length and 30% the cost of the Panzerschreck. Its drawback was that it had a range of only 30 m but at this range it was able to penetrate 140 mm of steel. The range was later increased to 60 m, 100 m, and 150 m on later models.

THE PANZERFAUST 30M

The launcher

The launcher was a simple mild steel tube, 800 mm long, with a diameter of 44 mm and with a mass of 2,3 kg. Combined with the warhead the weapon had a length of 1 045 mm and a total mass of 5.2 kg. Forward of the middle of the tube was the firing mechanism. A hinged, folding simple ladder type sight covered the firing mechanism when not in use. The sight had only one setting at 30 m. It was in essence a simple recoilless gun. The warhead’s low forward velocity was countered by the ejection of the propelling gases from the rear of the tube. These gases were dangerous to about three metres behind the firer. The gases caused a significant tell-tale cloud of smoke and dust. Consequently the tube carried in red lettering the following warning. “Achtung / Vorsicht! Starker Feuerstrahl →” translated as Attention / Warning!  Strong jet of flame →.

The colour of the tube and warhead always appears to be in a tan / dark yellow colour (dunkelgelb) paint colour. After firing the tube was discarded, making this the first disposable man portable anti-tank weapon.

The warhead

The warhead/bomb was roughly made from thin sheet steel. It had a maximum diameter of 149 mm and a length of 235 mm. The steel head was attached to a wooden tail shaft 260 mm long. Behind the head, around the wooden shaft, was a paper tube containing 95 grams of black powder as the propelling charge. At the rear of the wooden shaft were four 0.25 mm thick spring steel fins. These were wrapped around the shaft when inside the tube and their contact with the inside of the launcher kept the warhead from falling out the launcher by friction. The complete length of the warhead was 495 mm. Just behind the head were two small mild steel horns with two small holes. The horns fitted into a cut-out in the forward edge of the launcher. This ensured that the firing nipple of the propelling charge was directly below the firing button/ percussion cap situated under the sight on the firing mechanism.

Inside the HEAT warhead was a semi spherical hollow charge. The metal line was made of copper.  Around the liner was placed 1.5 kg of a 50:50 mixture of TNT (Trinitrotoluene) and RDZ (cyclonite hexogen). At the rear end of the liner was a hollow tube which was screwed into the tail shaft. The hollow tube contained a small detonating charge which was fired by the base impact fuse.

Firing sequence

For firing, the cap at the rear of the tube was removed. The fuse safety pin at the rear of the sight when folded down was pulled out, and the sighting rail raised to 90 degrees with the tube. The Panzerfaust was taken under the right arm. The left hand was used to support the launcher close to the warhead.

To sight the weapon, the hour glass shape cut out on the sight rail, which was set for a 30 m range, was lined up with the outer edge of the warhead and the target. The Panzerfaust 30 m was fired by depressing the release button / percussion cap with the right thumb situated just below the raised sight rail. When depressed this fired the 95 gram propelling charge. The ignition of this propelling charge pushed the 2.9 kg warhead out of the lube / launcher at a velocity of 30m/sec.

Effect on the target

As the warhead left the launcher, the spring steel tail fins popped up and started to stabilise the wobbly projectile. The maximum range was 30 m and the flight time was a slow one second. When the warhead struck the target, the base fuse detonated the booster charge in the tail of the warhead. The flame from this small explosion was channelled up the hollow tube to the main 1.5 kg TNT: RDX charge in the head.

The empty space, covered by a mild steel cap between the main charge / liner and the point of contact, was set at the correct distance. The explosion of the main charge squeezed and propelled the copper liner forward at great speed (10km/sec) and immense pressure onto a small area of the target. The initial hole in the armour of the tank was about 70 mm in diameter and this reduced as the jet blew its way through the armour.

The strike caused massive spalling of steel particles into the crew compartment. When fully penetrated the molten copper liner burned the crew, set fire to the electrics and sometimes set-off the on board ammunition causing a catastrophic destruction of the tank. Panzerfausts were equally good against bunkers and other strong points.    

Use of the Panzerfaust

About 6.7 million of all the variants of the Panzerfaust were manufactured from October 1943 until the end of the war in Europe on 8 May 1945.

Tank hunting teams consisting of a non-commissioned officer (NCO) and at least three men were trained in anti-tank close combat tactics. The first option to destroy attacking tanks was the use of anti-tank guns or other tanks. If these were not available, then at a last resort tank hunting teams armed with Panzerfausts would try and prevent their positions from been overrun. German tactics called for mortar and machine gun crews to fire at the attacking tank’s supporting infantry and try isolating the tanks. The tank hunting teams would then take up multiple ambush positions in the same area and wait for the tank’s arrival. On the command of the NCO the tank hunting teams would fire from different positions at preferably the rear or sides of the same tank ensuring a kill.

They were issued in large numbers to soldiers on the Eastern Front to combat the mass of Soviet tanks.  For the Normandy Landings they were expected to kill many allied tanks. Just the threat of the use of these Panzerfausts in the close Boscage country was sufficient to greatly slow the progress of the allied tanks. Tank commanders rather waited for close infantry support to try and counter the Panzerfaust threat. Consequently, only about 6% of allied tanks in the Normandy Landings were destroyed by Panzerfausts or Panzerschrecks. The short range of the Panzerfaust relied heavily on surprise ambush and much personal courage from the German soldier. After his one attempt at killing the enemy tank, his position was shown by the dust and smoke of the back blast. He had to escape quickly to hopefully fight another day.

Once the Soviets started to enter eastern German towns and cities, the fight was for every inch of the Fatherland. In urban warfare the Panzerfausts accounted for a much higher proportion of tank kills.

As the German situation became increasingly desperate, young boys and old men of the Volksstrum were used to counter the allied advance of tanks and other armoured vehicles. As these weapons required minimal training and were cheap to manufacture at about 20 Reichsmarks each they were issued to the Volksstrum and even women in a last ditch effort to save the Fatherland.

References:

Books:

Angolia, R & Schlicht, A. 1987.   Uniforms & traditions of the German Army 1933-1945. San Jose,                                                  R James Bender Publishers.

Chamberlain, P. 1974.                Anti-Tank Weapons (World War 2 Fact Files).  London, Arco                                                         Publishers.

McLean, D.B. (ed), 1973.           Illustrated Arsenal of the third Reich. Wikenburg. Normount                                                          Technical publications

Rottman. G.L. 2005.                  World War II Infantry Anti-Tank Tactics. Oxford, Osprey Publishers.

Articles:

Walters, W. 2007.                      Introduction to shaped charges In Army Research Laboratory.

Internet:

Google                                      7.5cm Pak 40. Last edited 14 June 2021.                                                                                    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/7.5_cm_Pak_40

Google                                      5cm Pak 38. Last edited 28 May 2021                                                                                         https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5_cm_Pak_38

Google                                      T-34. Last edited 20 June 2021                                                                                                   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T-34

Google                                      Panzer IV. Lasted edited 20 June 2021                                                                                        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panzer_IV

Google                                      Shaped Charge. Last edited 15 June 2021                                                                                   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaped_charge

Google                                      PIAT. Last edited 10 June 2021                                                                                                 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PIAT

Google                                      Bazooka. Last edited 27 June 2021                                                                                             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bazooka

Google                                      Panzerschreck. Last edited 17 May 2021                                                                                     https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panzerschreck

Google                                      Panzerfaust Launcher World War II Database. Last edited May 2011                                             https://ww2db.com/weapon.php?q=229

Google                                      The Panzerfaust/der Erste Jug. Last edited May 2005                                                                  http://www.dererstezug.com/panzerfaust.htm

Google                                      Finnish Army 1918-1945: Infantry AT Weapons Part 2. Last edited 23                                            May 2020.                                                                                                                                 http://www.jaegerplatoon.net/OTHER_AT_WEAPONS2.htm

Google                                      Anti-Tank Gun. Last edited 21 June 2021.                                                                                    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-tank_gun

Google                                      3.7 cm Pak 36. Last edited 14 June 2021                                                                                    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3.7_cm_Pak_36

Google                                      Ordnance QF 2 pounder.  Last edited 12 May 2021                                                                       https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordnance_QF_2-pounder

Google                                       Munroe  Effect.  Last edited 25 June 2021                                                                                  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Munroe%20effect

Thiel H, 2014                             You Tube: WW2 Germany Army Panzerfaust.

 

Getting to know The Owls of South Africa

Getting to know The Owls of South Africa

S. M. Malematja, Curator Ornithology: DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

Owls are often misunderstood and labelled as mysterious creatures of the night. Owls are generally identified by their nocturnal activity patterns, camouflage plumage, upright posture, large eyes and freaky ability to rotate their heads by as much as 270 degrees. They are highly stigmatised within African communities and are believed to be a bad omen relating to witchcraft practices. The lack of knowledge of owls has contributed to multiple conservation challenges. The aim of this article is to educate the public about the owls of South Africa, by highlighting their significance. Secondly, to eliminate unfounded stigmas surrounding owls in order to improve the current conservation efforts of owls.

 

There are two major groups of owls, namely Tyto owls and Typical owls. Tyto owls have a distinctive heart-shaped facial appearance, long pointed wings and oval-shaped eggs. Typical owls are round headed and have short rounded wings and round eggs. South Africa in particular, has twelve owl species, two of which belong to the Tyto grouping. The South African owl species are unique and diverse. They are spread throughout the country and occupy various types of habitats

Figure 1 Typical owl. DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History Ornithology collection.

 

 

Figure 2
Tyto owl. DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History collection.

 

Figure 3
Skull of Tyto owl on the left and Typical owl on the right. Note the difference in facial structure. Tyto owls have an oval skull shape, whereas Typical owls have a round skull. DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History collection.

 

Habitat and distribution  

Owls do not usually build nests, they identify suitable nesting sites, such as tree burrows or abandoned bird nests in their preferred environment, and mark these sites as territories. Habitat preference is species specific – some common habitats include, grassland areas, wetlands, woodlands and urban areas. The Cape eagle-owl, is known to live specifically in mountainous areas such as rocky outcrops and cliffs, whilst some species such as the spotted eagle-owl are able to tolerate a variety of habitats from urban areas to forest areas.

 

Hunting

 

Owls are birds of prey, they hunt and feed on smaller animals such as small rodents, other bird species, small reptiles and insects. They do not usually drink water, but obtain water from their diet. Their physiology is specifically adapted for nocturnal hunting. Their claws are strong and curved, in order to penetrate the skin of prey to ensure a tight grip. The beak is hooked at the tip, to assist in tearing prey. Owls have large eyes. However, they are believed to perceive images that appear grainy and lacking in colour. Owls have the best vision in comparison to other birds. Owls have excellent hearing, that aid in detecting movement of prey. Once prey is detected, owls will turn their heads towards the direction of the prey, and follow by flight towards that direction. Their feathers are adapted for silent flight, which largely contributes to their hunting success. After ingestion and digestion, indigestible food items such as feathers and bones collect at the bottom of the stomach, and later regurgitated, or vomited.

Figure 4 Large flight feathers adapted for silent flight.

DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History.

Mating and breeding

Like many bird species, owls coincide their breeding seasons with food security. Owls are monogamous. The correct time for copulation between mating pairs is recognized when both male and female exceed their usual hunting success as this signifies food abundance. During breeding season, a male identifies and claims a nesting site. The male will thereafter attract a mating partner by mating calls and display flights. Once a mating partner is acknowledged, courtship begins. The pair engage in courtship activities such as nibbling, cuddling and mock copulation. The pair will copulate and the female will lay and incubate the eggs, while the male hunts for prey to bring back to the nest. Smaller owls generally lay more eggs than large owls. Owls are clean birds; during breeding season the female owl defecates at the edge of the nest. After hatching she eats the remaining egg shells and trains the nestlings to defecate their droppings at the edge of the nest in order to keep the nest area clean.

Figure 5 An owl egg. DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History.

Benefits of having owls in the environment
Most owls are predators, they feed on smaller animals such as rodents, therefore they act as natural pest control agents. In recent years, owls have been deployed to the famous township of Alexandra in Johannesburg, in order to eradicate rodent infestation in that area. This decision by the City of Johannesburg, highlights the importance and usefulness of owls in the environment.

Conservation status

Two out of the twelve South African species of owls are currently categorized as vulnerable and endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN). The African grass owl is ICUN vulnerable, mainly due to the degradation of their environment. The Pel’s fishing owl is ICUN categorized as endangered, also due to habitat degradation, as well as pollution. The Owl Rescue Centre based in Hartbeespoort, North West Province, is one of the multiple conservation efforts of South African owls. The centre rehabilitates owls that have been injured, are sick, poisoned or orphaned and then release them back into their natural environment. This is a great conservation effort, however, it is important to highlight that the best conservation effort is one where the entire public engage in actively conserving owls. The best way to start is to gain as much knowledge as possible surrounding these birds. DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History is home to a comprehensive collection of owls comprised of owl skins, eggs and skeletons used for research purposes. There is also an owl exhibition in the Museum’s Austin Roberts bird hall. The exhibition displays the diversity of South Africa’s owl species.

Figure 6 Owl exhibition at the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History.

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