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!

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