Wednesday, August 3, 2011
During this expedition we have practiced a variety of animal capture and release techniques in order to monitor life in Gorongosa. We have used mist nets for birds, butterfly nets for any flying, ziplock bags for ants, and our cameras for anything else. These are all providing good content for the Life on Earth project to show how biologists conduct animal surveys.
Some collecting trips are planned and others are spontaneous. A good example of the unplanned discovery occurred the other night when Liz came into the dining area and said “There is an enormous spider in my room and it is in my suitcase!” Immediately, Ed stood up and commented “This is an entomologist’s dream! Coming to the aid of a lady in distress.” After a brief search in her room, there it was. A large baboon spider showed up in her clothes. Ed deftly captured the beast near a pair of socks. The Lord of the Ants had saved the lady as I am sure he has many times before.
I just caught myself about to write “The highlight of the trip so far….”, but realized I may have written that too many times already. Is that such a bad thing? If it isn’t already apparent, Gorongosa is filled with “highlights.” For those who love to explore and discover the beauty, complexity, and processes of the natural world, it is a dream.
Yesterday, we had the incredible opportunity to collect specimens within virgin rainforest in upper reaches of Mt. Gorongosa. This was prime habitat for collecting undescribed species. It was a biological explorer’s dream. Coming out of the high plateau grassland into the dense canopy of the rainforest was overwhelming. Everything seemed to be covered by mosses and other bryophytes. The air was still and wet. I arrived on the second helicopter run with Morgan, Liz, Greg and Bailey. As we entered the forest we heard findings had been slim. A reward of “2 Fantas” was announced by Ed. Samples of soil were gently turned and fallen branches moved and replaced. I kneeled down and started removing some bark from a fallen moss-covered limb. After a short while I started finding a variety of insects including two pseudoscorpions. I had previously only found these in the far away habitat of the San Diego Bay intertidal. Peeling away more bark I encountered some spiders I had never seen before. As I reached for a spider, it raced for the edge of the bark and I saw something lunge for it. I peeled back the bark and found a small, dark tree frog. This could a species that has never been seen before.
Within the same region I found a dead ant under the log. Could I truly earn the Fantas? Few things have been more stimulating for me as biologist than collecting ants with Ed. As I approached him with the dead ant I held my arm out and noticed a different species crawling to my hand. Was it being drawn in to the Lord of the Ants? It had possibly fallen from the canopy as Ed said it compared closely to other arboreal ants. The real thrill came when I pried some wood off the surface of the same log and located a small colony of ants. They immediately disappeared under some liverworts and into the wood. Ed had commented on the very cryptic nature of many of the ant species found in a rainforest habitat. These small reddish cryptic ants could be another new species.
Morgan and Ed arranged a great piece on island biogeography within the forest. The setting was ideal. Each of us filming the piece for Life on Earth or assisting in the shoot had to pinch ourselves as we listened to Ed articulate the fundamental concepts of the concept the basic concepts of island biogeography, much of which he is responsible for. The soft green light coming through the canopy and the subtle sounds of sunbirds and surrounding insects in the undergrowth created incredible ambience.
Today in camp Ed spent several hours searching for ants in the leaf litter he returned from Mt. Gorongosa. I assisted him for a while and found it very interesting. This is something I look forward to incorporating in future classes. Overall, he concluded it was relatively barren for a rainforest. However, this may be due to its altitude and cold weather.
A bush baby just called in the night. It sounds like a dying infant who is crying out in the bush. Why would such a small, relatively defenseless primate have such a loud obnoxious call?
Another recent collecting outing I had with Ed was look over some rock rubble on the edge of Camp Chitengo. I told him I had seen some incredibly fast ants while I was filming some ant hills nearby. After several attempts at grabbing these speedy ants I located a plant there were interested in and was able to collect several. Ed speculated these were Cataglyphis ants. They are typically found in desert biomes. Known as the worlds’s fastest ant. This reveals again something of the great biodiversity in this geographically diverse place.
Each morning, there has also been a bird survey team deigned to begin sampling birds with a mist net. This is a black, finely-woven net designed to be invisible for passing birds. There has been success but the birds seem to learn quickly. Such is the nature of life.
Another capture technique I took part in was the darting of a warthog with the veterinarian Carlos for a relocation project. This warthog was not responding to the proper tranquilizers and eventually
Additionally, some specimens are collected by other scientists who have heard of our work in Gorongosa. This reed frog was collected by the Vegetation Team. With the help of some additional experts soon we will be able to identify all of these species.
We will soon demonstrate a variety of means for sampling biodiversity within the Life on Earth Project. One of the fundamental aspects of maintaining a healthy ecosystem is to maintain species richness. If it is measured in soon in Gorongosa then it will be possibly to measure the impact of restoration efforts into the future with regular biodiversity measurements.
Now different bushbaby is crying in the night on the opposite side of camp from the first. Another informal survey. Another species on the primate list for Chitengo Camp. Maybe he/she is telling me it is time for bed.