Gorongosa Mountain

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A part of the Murombodzi waterfall on Mt. Gorongosa

On August 6th, two days before leaving Mozambique, I took a much-anticipated day trip to Mt. Gorongosa. This mountain, the highest peak in the country, is home to a montane rainforest environment uncommon in southern Africa, and thus bursting with unusual and often endemic species. The drive there was a wonderful 2-hour or so ride along extremely bumpy mountain roads, but it was totally worth it. I first explored the Murombodzi waterfall, a stunningly beautiful area unfortunately surrounded by a lot of slash-and-burn destruction. It was thrilling to be in a place that I had seen so many photos of in the past. Piotr had told me to collect everything, as virtually every species on the mountain is unique. I collected quite a few insects, including two species of katydids that are very uncommon and possibly new to science. I also found a positively spectacular spiny orb weaver spider.

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Almost every surface around the waterfalls is covered in swarms of Stalk-eyed Flies (Diopsidae). These are likely genus Sphyracephala.

The hike down to the falls from the mountain campsite (basically skiing down a sheer dirt slope) was tough, but hiking back up was even tougher. I was so tired and out of breath that I wasn’t sure I was going to make it, but make it I did.

Later in the day, I had the chance to visit some of the fields on the mountain where crops are being grown with coffee trees. There is an ambitious coffee project going on which has a lot of momentum. The mountain was made part of the park in 2010 when officials realized that without the rain-catching power of the mountain forest, the rest of the park would die. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people living on the mountain, and most are subsistence farmers. The only way of life they know is to slash and burn large chunks of rainforest, leaving huge areas dead. The new coffee project aims to give these people control of coffee plantations, which will yield much-needed revenue. The coffee trees require shade to grow, so creating coffee plantations also requires planting rainforest trees. The idea is that this will create a source of income for the people and also rejuvenate the damaged rainforests. However, the coffee trees take 4 years to fully mature, so it is a slow and difficult process. I was called upon to collect samples of pests that were infesting some of the crops. I collected several pest species, including thrips and planthoppers. Hopefully they will be controlled with minimal use of pesticides. While there I also found a wonderful large pyrgomorphid grasshopper Dictyophorus griseus. This animal is deadly toxic to vertebrates and advertises this fact with bright red underwings when threatened. Since it knows it is protected, it rarely jumps and is very docile when handled.

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The pyrgomorphid grasshopper Dictyophorus griseus on my hand.

Hopefully I will be able to return to the mountain at some point in the future and do some night collecting. I would especially love to see the Mount Gorongosa pygmy chameleon, endemic to this mountain. Someday…

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A stunning jewel of a spider, Gasteracantha sp.

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Gorongosa: A few thoughts

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Fever trees (Acacia xanthophloea) in Gorongosa, so named because early settlers associated these yellow-barked trees with rampant malarial infections. It is now known that this tree grows in wet areas that host the mosquito which spreads the malaria parasite.

I have returned from Mozambique after three unforgettable weeks. In just under a week, I will be on the move again, this time to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where I will be starting as a freshman studying entomology. I am sure that I will be extremely busy there, but I will try to continue posting here about my experiences in Gorongosa, time permitting. There are lots of interesting insects around the Cornell campus too, so perhaps I will recount some of my inevitable to-be encounters with these animals as well.

Being in Gorongosa was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. The stunning habitats, large charismatic wildlife, and enormous insect diversity all blew me away, but I also learned a lot about being in a different country. The differences in living are huge. Electricity, for example, would occasionally sputter out for long hours, and would later pop back on with no explanation. The Chitengo restaurant served lovely food, but was often very unreliable; some days food would come out in 5 minutes, and on other days it might take an hour or more. Vervet monkeys prowled around the restaurant, looking for an opportunity to steal some food. They would also spend hours sliding down the slide in the small playground (unfortunately I have no photos of this!). Yellow baboons were omnipresent throughout the camp, and you could not leave anything unattended lest the baboons make off with it. On numerous occasions baboons stole food from the researchers at the Wilson lab, and once one even made off with a cage containing a large praying mantid! The cage was eventually recovered, but needless to say the mantid was gone. I experience none of this in Maine, and although annoying at first, I became accustomed to, and learned to take joy in the many quirks of staying here.

This trip taught me many things besides learning how to live in another country. I affirmed that I want to become a field biologist, and that I am completely cut out for it. Oftentimes you have to get dirty and try strange ideas out in the field, and sometimes there are real hazards to fear (wandering lions, for example). Although this life might not be for everyone, I welcome the adventure, and the chance to find something new. During this three-week stretch alone, I documented three grasshopper species that had never been found in the park before, plus several crickets and other insects. Because Gorongosa is just beginning to be explored by scientists, it is bursting with opportunity.

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A colorful little cricket in the genus Trigonidium. I found this creature on the last day of my trip, and I have not been able to identify it yet. One thing is certain, though: this is a new-to-the-park animal.

I have also decided, based on what I saw this trip, that I want to photograph more herps. Lizards are everywhere in Gorongosa, and I quickly discovered that they are just as much fun to catch and photograph as insects. There are snakes too, as well as frogs, toads, crocodiles, and a little-known group called amphisbaenians (check this out if you’re curious about those). I usually keep my camera pointed only at the insects, but I feel compelled now to redirect it toward a reptile or amphibian when the moment is right.

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Striped skink (Trachylepus striatus), a lizard species common on tree trunks in Chitengo camp.

One last unexpected thing about this trip: I came for the insects (and was not disappointed!), but the people were equally wonderful. Everyone I met, researchers, staff, and others alike, cares deeply about the Park and conservation, and are simply awesome people in their own rights. I am happy to be a part of this project and will surely be involved with Gorongosa for many years to come.

More soon!

The Sudden Appearance of a Cricket

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Beat-up male Phonarellus miurus.

On one of my first days in Gorongosa, I heard an insect call that stood out from the rest. It was a very loud, persistent, beeping sound emanating from a patch of short grass. I quickly located the singer, which turned out to be a striking black and white cricket. He was unfortunately quite beat up, having broken both antennae and also missing two legs. I photographed him anyway and then pinned him. Later, Piotr noticed it and recognized it as Phonarellus (Semaphorellus) miurus (Saussure, 1877), a species that he had only collected as females and nymphs once before in Mozambique. The very next day, I headed back to the same spot to see if I could find another. Sure enough, there was another male singing a short distance away from where I found the first male. He, too, was easily captured. This individual was in much better shape than the first one. Piotr took this one and managed to capture a recording and some photos of it.

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A much better specimen of a male Phonarellus.

Over the next week, Phonarellus started showing up everywhere. They were calling from almost every patch of grass, in nooks around the lab, and even right in the middle of the road. The species is a mimic of certain toxic carabid beetles, which explains their blatant singing behavior – they don’t have to worry about staying concealed. Both Piotr and I were amazed that this species, which Piotr had never encountered singing, suddenly appeared in such great numbers. Many insects in Gorongosa are very seasonal like this, so it is not especially surprising, but certainly very exciting.

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A singing male Phonarellus on one of the sandy roads in Chitengo Camp.

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A female of Phonarellus miurus. In this species, the ovipositor is very reduced, so it is tougher to distinguish the sexes. This is the only female I have seen, and unfortunately she escaped after I took this shot.

Silhouetted Sibylla

After finding my first individual of the lovely preying mantid Sibylla pretiosa on one of my first days at Gorongosa, I have since discovered several more, all superbly camouflaged on tree trunks. They are perfect mimics of a spiderweb with bits of dirt and leaves wrapped all around. The last time I found one, I tried for something a little different than a regular whitebox shot. I like the result.

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Silhouetted Sibylla pretiosa nymph.

Leptacris, at last!

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Leptacris monteiroi monteiroi, a very convincing grass-mimicking grasshopper.

The past few days have been a blur of activity as Piotr taught a bioinformatics workshop at the Community Education Center (CEC) in Gorongosa. I came along for the ride and did a lot of collecting at the CEC myself. The place was swarming with grasshoppers of all sorts. Many were common species, but quite a few strange individuals turned up in my sweep net as well, including one of the coolest grasshoppers in Gorongosa (in my opinion): Leptacris monteiroi monteiroi. This animal is very long and thin, a perfect dry grass mimic. It has a stunning mother-of-pearl stripe running down its thorax, the true color of which cannot be captured in a photo. Below are a few of my shots of this awesome animal.

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A closer view of the head and thorax.

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The series of regular, parallel stridulatory veinlets in his wing mark him as a member of the subfamily Hemiacridinae.

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Leptacris on my hand for size comparison.