Africa: The Evolution of the Shoebill in Wetlands of Africa

WITH its flapping rate estimated to be 150 flaps per minute, the shoebill is one of the slowest of any bird while flying between 100 to 500 metres from one point to another ground the bird, with this slow speed when the bird walks on the ground it can be easily identified by its unique features which is its massive shoe-shaped bill which the ancestors of these birds acquired from millions of years ago.

Meanwhile, it is believed that about 3.5 billion years ago, to make life possible on Earth the almighty God accumulated the water mass in one place and named it ocean, scientists say ocean and sea today are called Biosphere to represent the liquid mass which occupies the largest portion of the Earth, it's believed that Biosphere came after the decrease amount of hot waves from the core centre of the planet, this is what is known as Asthenosphere, but its outcome led into the emerging of Lithosphere or dry land with fertile soil which also supports lives of animals, plants and microorganisms.

Geologically, lithosphere is a rocky and rigid outermost shell of terrestrial type planets, on the Earth these structures protrude out from the sea surface to form continents.

Scientists describe a continent as one of several very large landmasses on the Earth where Africa is the second largest just after Asia and before North America, continents happened due to volcanic activities which caused thermal expansion which in turn broke one supercontinent to form new continents which drift away because of expansion of the rip zones where oceans are found today.

History tells us that Africa came into being about 150 million years ago due what scientists describe as continental drift but from that time to date this continent has become an important refuge for different species of avian, reptile and mammals, scientists believe that before continental drift, all life on Earth shared a common ancestor known as the last universal common ancestor which lived between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago.

Scientists say evolution in organisms occurs through changes in heritable traits, the inherited characteristics of an organism but all in all in genetic this process is one of three factors which determine a specific characteristic of an organism or individual, paleontologists say that the first generation of these birds evolved more than 66 million years ago when they managed to survive the mass extinction which killed other animals but ancestors of these birds had unique abilities to dive, swim, or seek shelter in water and marshlands, they were able to build burrows, or nest in tree holes or termite nests, all of which provided shelter from the harsh environmental which effected and killed more than 60% of other animals in the world.

Meanwhile Kigoma region has one of the largest wetland in Africa which is fed by rivers such as Malagarasi Moyowosi and other small streams which make this area to be unique and rich in varieties of flora and fauna.

The shoebill is one of rare, shy and muscular bird found in freshwater swamps of central Africa, southern Sudan, eastern Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, western Tanzania and northern Zambia. With a body weight measuring from four to seven kilogrammes, the shoebill is not good in long flight because its 230 to 260 centimetre wingspan is capable to flap 150 times after every 59 seconds.

This make the shoebill to be a non-migratory bird which make slow seasonal habitat changes due to food availability and human intrusion in its breading or foraging area. By its 18 to 24 centimetres long and massive shoe like bill this bird clearly differentiates itself from other birds of the wetlands.

The upper mandible is armed with a sharp point which is curved downward and used as weapon against its prey which hunted and killed around the wetland where the bird forage.

This bird of prey solitarily prefers to hunt in muddy waters where it isolates itself from other birds at a distance ranging between 15 to 20 metres, the shoebill may appear to be old fashioned but very smart during hunting activities because it's capable of standing motionless for many hours waiting to pass on a strategic point.

When shoebill spot a prey it launches a quick violent strike which use more or less energy, this is a very powerful strike which throw water, mud and vegetation apart, this depends on size and the struggle of a prey to free itself from the powerful jaws of one of deadly hunter of the wetland.

At the time of food scarcity, the shoebill will go into less oxygenated water where it will wait for catfish which come of the surface for fresh air. It may also wonder on a side of water pools where it will depend on hippo's activities which sometime force fish to submerge for a quick pick.

Shoe bill hunt and eat fishes, snakes, Nile monitors, frogs, snails, baby crocodiles and all species of rodents. Most of its victims range from 15 to 60-centimetrelong and weigh around 500 grammes. Scientists say 60 % of strikes launched by the shoebill are successful and to avoid competition from other predators, immediately after the capture the bird will kill its prey using the sharp point on its beak.

The sharp point decapitates and punctures the body of a prey which its carcass is consumed quickly for not less than 10 minutes to avoid competition from other predators. Like many other species of birds, shoebills build their nest before breeding season in a two to four square kilometre territory which is violently guarded by both partners.

Male and female work together to clear three metres area where in the middle of muddy where a submerged 1.7 metre large nest is built using different types of hard aquatic vegetation. Shoebills are both good architecture and contractors of aquatic structures which float on muddy water using three metres well selected poles capable of supporting the weight of an adult human.

Shoebills lay one to three legs which hutch after an incubation period of 30 days then under the leadership of the female both parent work together to feed, worm and protect the chicks. These birds feed their chicks through regurgitation where small piece of meat is slowly directed into the beak of chick.

Shoebills may hutch one to three chicks but miraculously parents will select the stronger one which they put more time to feed it while taking other weaker once as buck up in case the chosen one dies. This habit made most of breading shoebills partners to raise one chick unlike other species of birds which lay one or more eggs.

Shoebills fledge their chicks on their hundred and fifth birthday as they will need one more week for flight exercises before a full airborne on their hundred and twelve day. Normally shoebills are silent birds but during breeding partner selection rituals both sex clap their large and powerful beaks while producing a cow like moo sound.

Scientists say the Shoebills with their strange looking face are genetically related to hamerkop which is also found on the wetland of African savannah. Korongonyangumi is the Swahili name for this bird which needs great protection for its habitats the wetlands of Africa which is becoming under heavy pressure from human activities.

Scientists believe that because of human activities the population of Shoebills in the wild of Africa has dwindled to five thousand individuals. In Tanzania just like some rare species of animals, reptiles and birds Shoebill is mostly found in Moyowasi Malagarasi wetland found in western tourist circuit.

rstanslaus@yahoo.com

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