Qatar's Natural History
An Introduction to the Geology and Nature of Qatar
In this article author and Natural History journalist Frances Gillespie delivers a wide ranging introduction to Qatar's Natural History, including its geology, its animal, bird and marine life and its plants.
Qatar is one of the driest countries on earth, with an annual rainfall averaging only 81 mm, no natural surface water and large stretches of saline sand [sabkha] both on the coast and inland. Yet despite the harsh environment it is home to a wide variety of fauna and flora, many of which have developed specialised survival strategies to cope with the environment.
Until oil production began in the late 1940s, the human population of Qatar was small and had minimal impact on wildlife. Massive development of the oil-rich state and the expansion of the population in six decades from a few thousand to a number rapidly approaching a million has had a direct effect on the fauna. Some is inevitably adverse, as more and more land is taken for building and beaches are encroached upon, but development has also proved beneficial, as large areas of date plantations and vegetable farms shelter a variety of creatures ranging from bats to hedgehogs, and provide a food supply for seed and insect-eating birds. Massive irrigation schemes to bring water to farms, parks and trees in Doha and other towns, effluent lagoons and even swimming pools provide a water supply not only for resident birds but also for the migrating birds which pass through Qatar twice a year.
Although the peninsula has an area of just under 11,500 sq. kilometres it features several geologically distinct regions. In the south is the Inland Sea, a tidal lagoon bordered by large dunes of golden sand. To the west of the peninsula are spectacular plateaux of white limestone, while the north-east coast is fringed with salt marshes and mangrove forests, home to a rich variety of insects, birds and fish. The centre of the country features rolling gravel plains and low eroded limestone escarpments, where herds of camels graze and foxes and owls hunt along the bluffs.
Anyone out exploring the desert regions of Qatar soon comes across criss-crossing trails of small footprints in the sand. Cape Hares leave long-narrow slots as they graze among the clumps of vegetation, while if you come across trails of small round footprints they may be those of a hedgehog. These animals are smaller than their European counterparts, and rely either on their speed or their excellent camouflage to protect them from predators such as foxes and raptors.
Because many of Qatar's desert mammals are nocturnal, it is more common to come across footprints rather than the animal itself. However, Arabian Red Foxes can often be spotted during the day, especially during the cooler winter months, on the gravel plains of central Qatar. Fox footprints can be distinguished from those of feral cats, which also frequent the desert and are a similar size, by their oval shape and non-retractable claw marks.
The smaller Rueppell's Sand Fox is much rarer but has occasionally been recorded in the far south. Also out and about in the early morning and evening, particularly on the borders of cultivated areas, are Ethiopian Hedgehogs. Fearless and voracious animals, they'll eat almost anything, and will even attack poisonous snakes, relying on their spines for protection.
Small rodents provide food for reptiles such as snakes and large Monitor lizards and also birds, and are entirely nocturnal. They include the Lesser Jerboa, an animal capable of making spectacular leaps on its long hind legs, hence its nickname 'Kangaroo Mouse'. Gerbils, of which three species are present in Qatar, along with their slightly larger cousins the Jirds, number among the smaller mammals. Their large ears, like those of foxes, help to control their body temperature by allowing the blood circulating through the capillary veins to be cooled by the breeze. Many desert mammals, including foxes and jerboas, have pads of hair on the soles of their feet to give them a better grip in loose sand.
Within the last few years two rare mammals have been recorded in Qatar: Sand Cats and Honey Badgers. Sand Cats are among the smallest of the cat family, and have beautifully striped coats and large ears. The soles of their feet are covered in wiry hair so that they leave rather blurred footprints. They are nocturnal, as are the Honey Badgers, also known as Ratels, agile black and white animals related to European badgers.
Bird watching is popular in Qatar, with many enthusiasts making regular visits to their favourites sites, whether farms, waste water sites or beaches and headlands. The combination of water, grass and trees attracts many birds, both migratory and resident, to Doha Zoo and the Doha Golf Course. An astonishing range of migrants, some of them rare species, land in the grounds of the Sealine Beach Resort at Mesaieed for rest and shelter.
Up in the north of the country are stretches of lonely beaches where shore birds abound and large flocks of pink and white Greater Flamingoes feed in the shallows. Mangrove forests around Al Khor and Al Thakhira are home to many wading birds, and Marsh Harriers hunt over the trees. The Arabian Gulf's only endemic bird species, the Socotra Cormorant, has a breeding colony on one of the Huwar Islands archipelago, off the NW coast of the peninsula, and long skeins of these birds can be seen flying like clouds of drifting smoke during the winter months.
Garden birds in the towns include White-cheeked and Red-vented Bulbuls and Collared Doves, all of which were scarce 30 years ago but are now described as 'widespread'. Along the Doha Corniche, noisy colonies of Mynah birds roost in the palm trees, and Rose-ringed Parakeets form roosts and nesting colonies in the parks and fly screeching overhead.
For a more indepth article and superb pictures see Qatar Birds.
The Arabian Gulf is home to several species of dolphin and one species of porpoise, which can occasionally be spotted from the shore, and whales sometimes shelter in the Arabian Gulf to escape stormy weather in the Indian Ocean. Dugongs feed on sea-grass beds and the second largest breeding colony in the world is around the Huwar Islands.
Both Green and Hawksbill turtles feed around Qatar's shores, and the nesting sites of the Hawksbill turtles on beaches north of Al Khor are now under the protection of the Supreme Council for the Environment and Natural Resources, whose rangers mount a round-the-clock patrol to monitor the nesting females and later, the emerging hatchlings.
Frances Gillespie has contributed to several publications related to Qatar, is the author of Discovering Qatar and also writes regular feature articles for a national newspaper on the cultural heritage and natural history of the country. She is a former chairperson of the Qatar Natural History Group, and is still active on the committee.