If you look at the two photos above, you will notice that the sand has moved – there is something down there…….
I have long been fascinated by the sandfish – the sand swimmer, the sand skink, or Scincus scincus – and wrote about this remarkable critter and its contribution to robotics a couple of times (see the link there for the earlier piece). But I never thought that I would actually see one and watch its performance.
However, during my recent visit to the Moroccan Sahara for a couple of days on the hump of a camel (more – perhaps – of that later), I was lucky. My guide and cameleer, Ibrahim, knew the desert like the back of his hand, every track and trail in the sand, every burrow, every bush, and, thank heavens, every route. We paused for a rest at a small oasis:
Ibrahim, grinning, comes up to me and opens his hand, in which, pert and unperturbed, was a sandfish, the poisson du sable.
After a little research on my return, I see that this is not Scincus scincus, the robotic inspiration, but probably its western cousin, Scincus albifasciatus laterimaculatus - hardly important here, because both have the same amazing abilities. They do literally swim into and under the sand. It’s all beautifully fluid – the movement of the skink and the behaviour of the sand (click image to enlarge):
We re-excavated the poor little fellow several times and put him (or her – skink-sexing is not an area of my expertise) through his/her paces until the little critter became somewhat exhausted. A drink of water proved reviving, and off he/she disappeared into the sands.
As evidenced by the astonishing network of tracks and trails that greet you each morning in the sand, the majority of the local inhabitants are nocturnal. The sandfish is an exception, on the move during the day, and I am immensely grateful to Ibrahim and this delightful little skink for the pleasure of this meeting.