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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

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Tanzania fieldwork part II

Posted by Blaps Apr 15, 2011
Hello beetlers,
Well our intrepid explorer is alive and well, despite the dramatic shaky camera and ‘fade to black’ in the last video entry!
Finally we get some beetle information, proof that he is out collecting for us, and not just sunbathing (or drying off from the rains)!
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Wet kit drying on the ridge
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Porters preparing for the journey into the mountains. Those chinese laundry bags get everywhere!
Over to Hitoshi:
"This is a beetle blog after all so I guess I should talk about the beetle fauna! The groups I have been concentrating on mainly in Tanzania are the chafers (Cetoniidae) and the dung beetles (Scarabaeidae). This time round in the Ngurus Mountains, I have seen a couple of beautiful species which have not been observed in the previous seasons, namely Dicronorrhina derbyana and Megalorrhina harrisi. These Cetoniids are attracted to a broad leaved shrub which produces a sap which is irresistible to insects. Often from one small sap flow, one can observe butterflies and beetles fighting over the sweet liquid.
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Dicronorrhina derbyana is a real beauty!
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Megalorrhina harrisi basking!
Unfortunately, the dung pitfall traps did not work too well due to the rainwater washing out almost all of our pitfalls. However, of the ones which remained un-flooded they yielded some very interesting Onthophagus dung beetle species as well as other small Staphylinids (rove beetles) and Carabids (ground beetles).
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Here's something else that didnt work too well! Truck gets stuck in the mud...
Another interesting find was Ochyropus gigas, a giant Scaritine ground beetle which was found scuttling around the forest floor. This is a species which is common in West and Central Africa but are most unusual on this side of the Rift Valley.
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The formidable Ochyropus gigas, and yes, it can give you a nasty nip!
You learn something new every day: Passalids make squeaking noises – I did not know this!"
HT
Thanks Hitoshi - happy collecting!
Ochyropus gigas belongs to the subfamily Scaritinae (Bonelli, 1810). These beetles are commonly known as burying ground beetles, and are predatory, as is immediately obvious from those huge mandibles! Other features include enlarged and broadened front tibia adapted for digging and ‘wasp waist’. They spend the day in burrows and come out at night to hunt their prey!
The Passalidae are a family of beetles within the super family Scarabaeoidea. They are commonly known as ‘bess bugs’ or ‘bess beetles’ particularly in America, (America has the best common names for beetles!). These amazing beetles not only squeak (to communicate with one another) but are brood carers, living in social groups in rotting wood. (This unfortunate creature can be seen in the video from the previous post, squeaking on demand!).Their famous squeak is produced by rubbing the upper abdomen against the wing cases. The larvae also squeak and do this by rubbing the second and third leg together.  They care for their young by feeding them and assisting in building the pupal case. Somewhat unpalatably, the larvae and adults feed on regurgitated faeces which are also broken down by microflora, a bit like cows ruminating!
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Well 'tis the season - fieldwork season that is, and also the rainy season in Tanzania - which is NOT the season for fieldwork! But, if you are Hitoshi Takano, and determined to find that elusive species new to science, then needs must. This week, our fledgling entomologist has flown the NHM Coleoptera nest and managed (against the odds) to send us his 'notes from the field'. Here are the highs and lows thus far:

 

“For the rain it raineth every day”

 

It has been tough. It has seemed like everything has been against us – a long and drawn out April Fool’s joke that Feste in Twelfth Night would be proud of. The wet season in tropical Africa really is a most unforgiving place. Especially up in the mountains.

Our drive from Dar es Salaam to the village of Maskati in the Nguru Mountains should only take 7 hours or so in normal conditions; it took nearly 14 hours this time. The roads leading up to Maskati are winding and contain some pretty challenging uphill hairpins and turns with huge 100m drop offs. Dangerous enough in the dry season, let alone with the torrential rainfall. The deforestation on these slopes don’t help at all. The topsoil just erodes away and flows into the rivers; landslides are not uncommon in this region.

 

 

Half way up to Maskati the back wheel of our trusty vehicle slipped off a concrete bridge. The whole vehicle ground to a halt with its weight bearing down solely on the differential! It took us nearly 2 hours of lifting and pushing with the help of the locals to get the car out. We thought this was bad enough; 200m further up the road, up an especially tricky uphill turn, the vehicle nearly flipped onto its side; it slipped down hill and ended up with its front left tyre completely off the ground! There were many points along this road where we had to unload the kit from the vehicle, reload it only to get stuck 100m further down the road. There were times where we thought it would just be impossible to make it to the village due to the atrocious roads. But Maskati and the Ngurus are well worth the effort. With the sun setting behind the mountains, the village must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. I would guess this is the kind of place James Hilton imagined when he described Shangri-La in Lost Horizon. The air is cool and refreshing. Maskati has been known to the Europeans for over a century. The mission and the church in the village were built by the Germans in 1909 and are still the pride of the village.

 

The walk into the mountains is also very tough. Two serious up-hills interjected by fast rivers flowing over slippery granite. Having overcome this obstacle, one reaches an incredible ridge at about 2100m. Beyond this ridge is a 200m drop off into what feels like Jurassic Park; a prehistoric forest with wonderful streams and rivers which contain many endemic frogs and chameleons, tree ferns, mosses and lichens. Many of the neighbouring forests have been logged out but because it is so difficult to get here (and to get the timber out) this area has escaped the deforestation.

To rub salt into the wound, this long walk was undertaken during a torrential downpour! I made a massive hash of packing my kit and because none of my clothes were in dry bags, absolutely everything got wet! Thank goodness we had three hours sunlight on top of the ridge to dry my clothes. I was not very happy with my schoolboy error!

 

 

During my time in the Ngurus it really did rain a lot. If we had less than 10 hours rain in the day, we were lucky; on bad days, it rained for 12 hours and more. Cold and wet. Nothing dries - putting on wet clothes in the morning has got to be one of the more unpleasant experiences when in the field.

The wet season also means that two of my fears become a palpable reality. Firstly, lightning and thunder which in their own right are extraordinary spectacles, but camped perilously on an exposed ridge with quite a lot of metal from all our equipment is not in the least bit amusing! Secondly, slugs and snails – my inordinate fear. They are everywhere. On the forest floor, on my tent, even in my tent. When walking at night looking for insects, every leaf you look at and every log you turn over, there is always some filthy slimy creature waiting for me! Give me spiders and scorpions any day!

Having managed to get up to the mountains and to base camp in the forest, we found to our despair that the generator we bought with us did not survive the journey. Light trapping is such an important weapon in an entomologist’s armoury that without it, comprehensive collection becomes very difficult. We painstakingly had another generator sent up into the forest and although it seemed like it was working, this too failed to light our Mercury Vapour lamp! Unbelievable! Other things which decided to die at crucial points included our inverter/battery charger, the choke for one of the actinic tubes and a digital camera. At this point it seemed very clear that it was worth cutting our losses and returning to Dar es Salaam to sort out our electrical problems; we really need it working for the rest of the trip. It is a terrible shame but we will be returning to the mountains towards the end of the trip to light trap high in the cloud forest.

 

I will now be heading south to the Udzungwa Mountains where elephants and buffalos await – and no doubt, more rain!

HT

Next time, we see some Tanzanian beetles encountered along the way...