Friday, June 28, 2013

A tale of two venoms

The other day Aaron and I were in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge south of Apalachicola.  On a dike along a marsh we came across a dusky pigmy rattlesnake.  She tolerated our presence and other than snapping a few photos, we didn’t bother her.  It’s always exciting to find a venomous animal.  The venomous creature we hunted, however, is far more aggressive than a rattlesnake.  We hunted fire ants.

 We stumbled onto this dusky pigmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius barbouri) while hunting a far fiercer animal

Really, we just wanted queens—winged females that fly off to have sex and start new colonies.  Queens are harmless, but are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of workers—fearless stinging warriors who stop at nothing to protect their sisters.  And fire ant venom is no joke.  Unfortunately, we need a hefty supply of queens for our flight studies, and we go queen hunting a couple times a week.

Exotic species tend not to live in natural habitats like this longleaf pine and Sabal palmetto savanna.  Mowed lawns, however, which cover the refuge’s man-made dikes, provide perfect nesting ground for fire ants (Solenopsis invicta).

Collecting queens is painful work, and I expect to get stung at least a few times for every colony I disturb.  As soon as the first bit of soil is turned over, thousands of ants rush out in all directions.  They climb twigs, blades of grass and my legs.  When I pick up a queen, workers race up my forceps and onto my hands and arms.  Queens are big and fat—expensive for a colony to produce—and the colony exacts a price in pain for each one taken.  If you want queens, you get stung.

 No matter how non-threatening you appear, fire ants are quick to defend their queens, injecting burning venom with every sting

For the non-southerners out there, fire ant venom burns.  The next day the sting itches like a mosquito bite, and then swells up into a little blister.  A single sting is nothing, but dozens can be torture.  In a week and a half I’ve been stung over 200 times.  I feel the welts on my arms, legs and back.  A moment of doubt comes over me and I wonder, “Why did I pick such a painful project?”

Maybe next time I’ll study something easy… like rattlesnakes.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Land o' the pines

I’m in the Big Bend region of Florida for a month or so, working in the Apalachicola National Forest.  It’s my second field trip to the forest, which is shooting toward the top of my favorite field sites.  Every day brings a new discovery or humbling natural encounter, in one of the most aesthetically pleasing landscapes I know.  The forest is a mosaic of pine savannas, wet prairies, live oak forests, and pond cypress swamps—a dynamic blend of fire-dependent grasslands and dark wet forests.

Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) savannas are a mix of prairie and forest, maintained by frequent natural fires

Apalachicola's extensive pine savannas host the world’s largest population of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers (Picoides borealis)

Different habitats swirl together in the Apalachicola, their boundaries varying with water table and fire frequency.  Here a pitcher plant (Sarracenia sp.) prairie meets a pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens) swamp and a longleaf pine savanna.

An experimental physicist, Aaron, has joined me for this project.  Dr. Walter Tschinkel has allowed me to use his field sites.  We’re performing experiments to understand how fire ant queens fly and move across a landscape.  And, as always, I will learn and experience.

Aaron is helping me study how fire ant queens fly to new places, and we hope Apalachicola holds the answer

So here we are—a biologist and a physicist—with a month to explore a 600,000 acre natural playground.

This is going to be a great month.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sick at last

I reflect on a question Brian asked me on Galoka.

“Do you think the Marines prepared you for life as an explorer?”

That’s a tough question, and one of the central themes of this blog.  It would be naïve and incorrect to attribute my personality to the Marines.  But as time goes on I find myself putting to use many skills the Marine Corps taught me, which I never actually used as a Marine—fireman’s carries, navigating with a compass, estimating distances by pace count.  And there are those skills I used often in the Marines, but which translate to many situations in life—staying awake, coping with homesickness, problem solving, observation, teamwork… and tolerating misery.

Our charrette driver, the boy Rigo, left us in the park that first night.  He returned with the charrette and zebus on the third evening, to spend the night with us and leave in the morning.

Shortly after falling asleep that night I awoke from pain in my stomach.  The pain got worse, and developed into diarrhea and nausea.  Mild delirium set in.  I spent the night lying naked in a puddle of sweat in the hot air, rushing out of the tent at least once an hour.  Prickly plants grew around my tent, and fallen thorns littered the ground.  When going out I slipped on my untied boots, and threw on an unbuttoned shirt to keep mosquitoes off my back, and in my wild, booted nakedness I shat.  Or vomited.  Or both at once.  A waiting swarm of mosquitoes assaulted me when I went out.  When I returned I spent a few minutes killing those that had flown in when I entered.  In between trips I sweated and thought, and mildly hallucinated, and imagined being somewhere comfortable.  I fantasized about someone nursing me back to health.  I fantasized about being cool and mosquito-free, and drinking water without Giardia.

But I was here.  I was sick.  The mosquitoes bit me.  I was hot.  I was continents away from anywhere I could call home.  And I was absolutely, bitterly alone.  There were no options.  My water was contaminated and I had better drink more of it.  I had asked for misery, and I found it.

At 0315 Francisco wandered over as I was squatting with my cheeks in his direction.  I heard him coming and got into the tent just as he shined a flashlight on me, to ask the time.  I told him.  We got ready, and left before four.  I huddled in the charrette with my arms crossed and head tucked in my shirt to ward off mosquitoes, fighting to control my nausea and bowels, as we bumped through the night.

We rode through the salt lake again, cow legs and cart wheels splashing.  There was a jerk and the charrette lurched beneath us, throwing us forward.  Rigo shouted at the zebus and jerked their ropes.  In the darkness we had veered off the road and into a patch of quicksand.  One zebu sunk above its chest.

I looked up.  There were no clouds.  A waxing moon shined bright on the landscape, and the shallow water stretched around us in all directions.  The Milky Way filled the sky from horizon to horizon.

Life is good.

We did get the zebu out of the quicksand, and relocated the road, and returned to Efoetse.  Gino’s cousin picked me up in his truck and drove me back to Anakao.  I waited a day for a boat to Toliara, and spent the time recovering in a hotel, drinking wonderfully clean water.  I made it back to Tana, and returned safely to the US.  I was content.  I learned a lot in Madagascar.

Monday, June 10, 2013

I got herps in Madagascar

Francisco and I explored Tsimanampetsotsa for three days.  Like many guides, he was an avid self-educator.  In addition to Malagasy and French, he taught himself a little English and German.  He knew the Malagasy, French, English and scientific names of many of the species found in the park.  He carried and constantly updated a notebook filled with drawings, organism names and descriptions of bird calls and behavior.  He’d worked with many world experts on Malagasy wildlife, and picked up new skills from each one.  I was one of the first entomologists he had hiked with, and he asked me about insect identifications.  Every name I told him went into his notebook.  Eagerness for new knowledge is a hallmark of a good guide.  It’s business.  The more you know, the more money you make.

But with Francisco it was also personal.  One day he described to me, in a mixture of French and English, his love for this forest, and his desire to spend his life interpreting the forest for those around him.   Francisco enjoyed learning.

“If yesterday you don’t know the name of an animal, and today you know it, it is good for your life.”
I couldn’t agree more.

Aside from plants and birds, the most visible group of large organisms in Tsimanampetsotsa was probably the reptiles.  With Francisco’s help, I racked up quite a list in our short time there.  Here are just the ones I was able to photograph.

 Though rare elsewhere, radiated tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) are common in the park.  A local fady forbids killing or eating them.  Poachers from Toliara, however, are still a problem.

Oplurus cyclurus and the two following species belong to an endemic family of Madagascan iguanas (Opluridae)

Oplurus quadrimaculatus

 Oplurus saxicola

The Madagascar girdled lizard (Tracheloptychus madagascariensis) is a species of plated lizard (Gerrhosauridae), a family also found in nearby Africa

 Another gerrhosaurid, the three-lined girdled lizard (Zonosaurus trilineatus)

Gold-spotted mabuya (Trachylepis aureopunctata) is one of several skinks we found

Elegant mabuya (Trachylepis elegans)

Gravenhorst's mabuya (Trachylepis gravenhorstii)

 A big-headed gecko (Paroedura picta) climbed my tent to eat the mosquitoes perched outside

Thick tail geckos (Phelsuma mutabilis) were common on trees in the campground

Phelsuma breviceps day geckos spend their time on Euphorbia bushes

Velvet gecko (Blaesodactylus sakalava)

We found chameleons, like this warty chameleon (Furcifer verrucosus), by searching the tips of branches at night with headlamps

 Jeweled chameleon (Furcifer lateralis)

Not surprisingly, Bernier’s striped snake (Dromicodryas bernieri) specializes on eating lizards.

Francisco had never gone on night hikes before, partly because he didn’t have a flashlight and the nearest place to buy batteries was hours away in Toliara.  But he was willing to try it after I asked him and lent him a headlamp.  In addition to some of the finds shown here, we also found an introduced wildcat (Felis sylvestris), sleeping birds, a Madagascar nightjar (Caprimulgus madagascariensis) and mouse lemurs (Microcebus sp.).  Night hiking was a whole new style of guiding, and Francisco loved it.  I let him keep the headlamp, so hopefully he can repeat the experience with future travelers.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Bienvenue à Tsimanampetsotsa

Parc National Tsimanampetsotsa is tucked away on the southwest coast of Madagascar.  This part of the country is home to spiny bush—dry semi-desert vegetation characterized by spiny succulent or deciduous plants.  Superficially, spiny bush is similar to the more lush parts of the Sonoran or Chihuahuan Deserts of the US and Mexico, or to tropical dry forests of the west coast of Central America.  But although structurally similar, the plants and animals living there, like elsewhere in Madagascar, are distinct from those in similar habitats elsewhere in the world.  Spiny bush is a far cry from the rainforests I had been visiting, and the hot arid climate was a shock, especially coming from cool high-altitude Tana.

Brian’s expedition ended, and I was on my own again.  This leg of my trip begins in Toliara, a fishing and tourism town on the coast.  Toliara is on the north bank of a large river mouth, and an extensive system of mudflats and mangroves.  In the morning I took a boat south past the estuary to Anakao, a small fishing village where I had arranged to meet a local trader named Gino.  The boat dropped me off in the surf, and as I waded ashore I saw him waiting for me.  Gino owns one of the few vehicles around here, and uses it to transport goods, passengers and mail up and down the coast.  Anakao lies in a narrow strip between coastal dunes and an interior salt marsh.  We picked up some boxes and locals heading south.  Paved roads end in Toliara, and a dirt track through dunes and pastures connects the string of fishing and ranching villages beyond.  We drove the truck through the sand to Beheloka, where we delivered the packages and passengers, and picked up Gino’s wife and toddler daughter, who had an eye infection.  After a couple hours we arrived in Efoetse, the village at the entrance to the park.

Tidal mudflats in Toliara extend half a mile into the sea, and charrettes are the most convenient way to load and unload boats anchored in the shallows

Gino dropped me at a gate guarding the dirt path leading east into the park.  Beside the gate was a hut with hanging beads in the doorway to keep out flies.  Posters of park wildlife covered the walls, and a mostly empty shelf with a handful of souvenirs stood against a wall.  The lone guard was surprised to see me.  It was the austral summer, the off peak for tourism in the spiny bush, and it was hot.  As we discussed my plans I wondered whether this was a good idea—conditions were promisingly miserable.  But when would I get another opportunity?  Summer or not, this was my chance to experience spiny bush.

The guard introduced me to Francisco, a local guide.  With Francisco’s help I hired a cook, Nesy, and bought food.  Options were slim—most produce in this dry region is imported.  We packed flour, rice, beans, eggs and a live chicken.  I bought biscuits, cheese and a day’s supply of water from the village shop run by Gino’s wife.  I could get water later from a well in the park.  We also hired a young boy, Rigo, and two zebus to drive us into the park in a charrette.  I arranged with Gino to meet me in the village the morning of the third day, for the drive back to Anakao.

Tsimanampetsotsa is surrounded by pastures and invasive Casuarina woodland

Groundwater from the porous limestone ridge bubbles up in the sandy plains and pastures to the west, creating a shallow salt lake
The dirt park road passed through salt flats, sedge marshes, and pastures with clumps of invasive prickly pear and Casuarina, a tree introduced from Australia.  We crossed an arm of Lake Tsimanampetsotsa, a large shallow salt lake on the western border of the park.  The lake is fed by aquifers boiling up through the sand—perfect conditions for quicksand.  Rigo guided the zebus along a hard packed underwater trail, visible through the shallows.  On the other side of the lake the sandy pastures gave way to a dark forested wall looming above us—the spiny bush of Tsimanampetsotsa.  This remnant patch of virgin spiny bush is naturally protected because it occurs on a ridge of jagged limestone, or tsingy.  Like similar limestone formations elsewhere on Earth, the ridge is well drained with little soil, and so useless for agriculture and ranching.  As nearby land was cleared for pastures and villages, or overrun with cattle, Tsimanampetsotsa stood alone, an island of spiny bush.

An island of spiny bush remains on a jagged tsingy formation, and rises out of the surrounding pastures with the ridge

A carpet of highly eroded limestone boulders protects this forest from agriculture and ranching, and makes for difficult walking

Roots of a fig tree descend into one of many water-filled sinkholes dotting the soluble landscape

Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) take advantage of the inaccessible limestone cliffs and caves

It was evening and it had been a long day.  I pitched my tent.  It was hot.  And dry.  Mosquitoes swarmed around the campground.  And spiny bush is, of course, spiny.  Misery awaited, and I was glad.