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Beetle blog

April 25, 2011
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Happy Easter beetlers!

 

 

So whilst all you good people are out enjoying the glorious weather, I am inside dutifully blogging away for your continued enjoyment. Here is the latest installment from our intrepid HT, who it would appear remains alive, despite close encounters with Elephants and large flying beetles...And, also, it would appear retains that healthy enthusiasm for poo...read on...

 

"The Winter’s Tale it may be – it really does get cold in these mountains. When one thinks of Tanzania, images of large mammals in the warm African Sun come to mind. The mountains could not be more different. I am currently camped at just under 2000m on a stupendous slope for a tent to be erected! If it rains during the daylight hours, the evenings are very cold.

Udzungwa is an incredible area of biodiversity and endemism. And to the Tanzanian authority’s great credit, they have protected it very well. There are still vast tracts of primary forest standing with excellent populations of mountain elephants and other endangered species. The Udzungwas have also thrown up some quite extraordinary new species to science in the very recent past – the Kipunji (a new species of monkey), and an elephant shrew to name but two.


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Beautiful view over the Udzungwa mountains from Mwanihana peak

I am studying the Mwanihana region of the Udzungwas, an area with many different habitats leading up to the heather-covered granite peak at just over 2100m. The views from up here are amazing; the mountains and its highest peak, Lohomero, in one direction and the plains of the Kilombero and Selous in the other. I’m getting used to ridiculous slopes to clamber up but the final push through the submontane forest to reach this peak is unbelievable. It is quite difficult to portray how steep it really is in a photo!

The noises in the forest at night can be frightening. Having seen the havoc created by elephants on many of the paths in the forest, I would not want to encounter them, or for them to encounter us in the middle of the night! A ranger, armed with a rifle, from the National Parks team is a necessity and will warn me as soon as any danger is imminent. There was one night when the elephants were pretty close to camp – they could be heard ripping plants and trees out of the ground...

 

 

...but it was not the elephants that I had the closest run in with. Whilst camping nearer the peak, a buffalo came rather close. We camped on the flattest bit in the area (I say flat, but it is all relative; nothing is flat up there), which happens to be by the path. This path is used not just by humans but animals too – they don’t want to work any harder by creating new paths if they can use ones which are already present. Luckily for us, the buffalo was not so sure about something, perhaps the light and fire in camp but probably the smell exuding from the synthetics such as our tent fabric (and from me as well) and left us in peace. But hearing the rustling whilst stuck in a tent is very disconcerting!

 

 

It has nearly been a month since arriving in Tanzania and it is reaching a point where I start craving certain foods – mainly cheese and sushi. Conversely, I have now reached a point where finding a cockroach cooked in with your rice for dinner does not bother me; if it was fried as opposed to boiled, I would probably eat it. Irritations still include mosquitoes, drying clothes by the fire on a nightly basis and putting wet clothes on in the morning because a) you did not manage to dry your clothes by the fire or b) because the tarpaulin over the clothes line where your dry clothes are hanging decides to leak heavily. You can never win (NB: it seems one only finds out about holes in tarpaulins when it rains, at which point it is too late...).

A friend of mine commented from the last blog that he had an image of me “sinking African beers waiting for the odd beetle to fall into a cup listening to the cricket commentary.” If only collecting beetles was that easy and could be done whilst listening to the cricket...I can but dream! The reality is a lot of hard work, trekking and in the Udzungwas, digging....

 

 

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Dung baited pitfall traps (See what I mean about the poo!? BG)

 

Digging for what you may ask? Beetles of course.

 

The presence of elephants in these mountains means the existence of one of the largest dung beetles in the world. The beetles belonging to the genus Heliocopris are powerful, charismatic (if that can be used as a descriptive term for a dung beetle) bulldozers, that bury deep into the ground underneath the dung pat. It is a real challenge to find them and it involves careful digging up to 3ft underground! And they certainly don’t make it easy... they avoid the big roots in the ground so their tunnels go left and right and it is rather too easy to lose the trail. They leave a trail of the elephant dung all the way to the end of the tunnel where they create a chamber and fill it with dung. The photo shows just how big the ball of dung in the chamber is!

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Many other species of dung beetle feast on the massive banquet that is elephant dung and those species that bury the dung can be found at different depths in the ground. Some of the smaller dung beetles cheat and follow the giant tunnels of the Heliocopris and are often found a long way underground; there is no possible way that they could have got there on their own accord! Digging for beetles is a time consuming approach and so trapping for these beetles using dung baited pitfall traps makes the job a lot easier. It can be very successful depending on where they are placed and the meteorological conditions that day.

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A male Heliocopris hamadryas (sexual dimorphism makes these beetles relatively easy to tell males from females, BG)

 

I have not found many Cetoniids in the Udzungwas this time. To be honest, there have not been that many insects around and certainly far less than I was expecting. Even the light traps have been rather quiet. I think that it is just too wet for them too! However, from time to time, some pretty impressive sized long horn beetles (Cerambycidae) such as the Tithoes below and click beetles (Elaterididae) have turned up to the light sheet.

 

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Catch of the trip so far: a Cerambycid flew past me and landed on the top of a 5m tree. Having seen it through a pair of binoculars, it had to be caught! Much activity ensued to secure a 3m extension (a tree sapling was all we had to hand) to the butterfly net. It ended up with me on the shoulders of one of the field assistants trying to keep this net straight. One swing of the net later and we had the beetle in the net. A lot of effort for one beetle – but what a beauty it is!

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Hilarious! I hope you have filled out a risk assessment for this most unorthodox fieldwork method HT?! Also, note right foreground: an Englishman is never separated from his umbrella in the tropics! BG

 

 

 

Next on the itinerary is Magombera forest, a tiny fragment of good lowland forest with large populations of monkeys, the Kilombero Swamp (guessing that this will be a bad idea in the wet season – mosquitoes will be everywhere?!) and Mahenge Scarp, the last mountain in the Eastern Arc chain."

 

HT

So folks, you will have to wait until next time to find out the identity of the Cerambycid which was so hard won (yes, I'm attempting to build suspense!) - truth is, I'm off to catch some beetles of my own before the sun goes down on this glorious day...BG