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And so now on to my time in the Church Forests of Ethiopia….and what an amazing time that was…

 

 

Ok so what’s a Church Forest? These are isolated pockets of forest that have been protected from encroachment by agriculture and housing etc as they are owned by the Church and each one of them surrounds a beautifully painted circular church, more specifically the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Churches (EOTC). Some of these forests date back to the 13th century and are often primary forest. In many places they are the only forest patches left but are often isolated from each other.

 

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Church Forest

 

The main studies on these have focused on the botanical aspects and these have come from primarily Dr. A. (Alemayehu) Wassie Eshete, who is quite a remarkable man! It was through him and his collaboration with Dr. Margaret “CanopyMeg” Lowman (see here) that a group of international scientists first came to the forests in 2011.

 

This group consisted of many canopy arthropod specialists including my former PhD supervisor Dr Claire Ozanne. It was Claire who came to me a year ago to help with identifying flies from their first trip to Ethiopia in 2010. There were some exciting things in there which were very rare in our collections.

 

So….you can guess where I wanted to go….one grant application later….and one happy dipterist….bish bash bosh….lovely flies!

 

I arrived back from my fieldtrip to South Africa, spent Christmas and New Year with my family and then was off on the 2nd of January. All a bit hectic but worth it.

 

There was a large group of us there….

 

The team consisted of Canopy Meg; Mark ‘Adventurer’ Moffett; Magdalena Sorger (Ph.D. student working on ants); Canopy Mite specialist and tree climbing extrordinaire Neville Winchester; Claire, Myself; Dr Phil Whitman (another one who likes to get up trees); Phil Harpootlian and Jan Ciegler (the beetle enthusiastists); Dr Alemayehu Wassie himself!; another local Tegistu Adane (Dr Bird); Peter, Greg and Matt - the film Crew; Matt Jellings, the unofficial photographer; and Andrew Petersen, the physicist come herbivore research assistant!

 

Different ages, different nationalities and different interests – one common goal though, to explore the forests

 

We were based around Bahir dar, Northern Ethiopia, next to Lake Tana and the Birth of the Blue Nile. A relaxing day when we arrived was spent on this lake sailing around some of the islands looking at birds, monastic communities, and the odd Church. The Churches were so colourful and part of our remit as a group was to encourage all the local communities to see the benefits of these forests and therefore protect them from further encroachment. Hopefully this will lead to the development of some long term research projects but initially this involved insect t-shirts much to the amusement of the local priest…..

 

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Local Priest

 

The main focus of the trip was based in three forests of various sizes and levels of disturbance. The first was the most disturbed, and there was a distinct odour to the forest…..Last year, the group collected during the rainy season and the conditions of sampling where less than favourable with many of the boots thrown at the end of the trip and in some cases before that!!! However, the addition of toilets in the forest (a first for me) has improved the situation (see – its not all glamour and idyllic landscapes!!). It was the most hectic as well as there were two film crews (one local and one with the group) photographers, and loads of children following you everywhere curious to your every move.

 

This resulted in taking us most of the day getting traps up. I was using a large armoury of insect traps – intent in tracking down all the allusive flies that I could . I used SLAM traps (sea, air and land)(sounded great in principle but somehow failed miserably), Malaise traps (crazy tent like traps which collect lots), interception traps (a sheet with bowls underneath it), pan traps (high tech yellow bowls with washing up liquid and water!) and there were further aerial malaise traps.

 

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Pan trap....

 

The plan was simple for all of the forests. Set up traps on day one. Run around like loons for the next couple of days sweep sampling off every bit of vegetation that we come across. Then collect up the traps. Meanwhile back in a hotel room near the lake – 2 dipterists were rapidly trying to pin and sort the material that was collected that day amongst some squealing when stalk eyed flies were discovered. Another example of males being bent to the whim of females….Every trip ends up with insect sharing and this was no different with different insects being brought to my room, both dead and alive, to be added to the NHM and hopefully the Ethiopian collections.

 

There were lows – the dust of the roads, the food that took forever to arrive, the lack of time but all of these were minimal in comparison to the gains. The highs more than made up for it in both the scientific and cultural sense. We caught lots. There were explosions of scarabs from trees that had all running for their nets. Converting the group to the wonders of flies , trying to extract insects when you realise that you are sitting under a troop of monkeys! Hunting asilids….(actually that was my favourite – catching robberflies and beeflies in the mid-day sun)

 

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Fly collecting  (photo curtesy of Matthew)

 

I came away with boxes of material and bags of samples that now need to be sorted and pinned. This material is the first fresh material from this region in many, many years and hopefully there will be many gems amongst it. One of these gems are the Stalk-eyed flies. How can you fail to like flies when you come across species like this?

 

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Stalk eyed flies (Curtesy of Phil)

 

As well as the diptera, we collected a lot of the other orders and many of my colleagues are eager to get there little paws on this too!!

 

And we also learnt how to do the shush shush dance – I am sure that there is a proper name for that but that is how it stuck in my head. The people were so friendly and the children were forever trying to catch us insects. The beetle people had to try and stop the children rummaging through cow pats for them!!

 

A great country to collect in and hopefully we will return to carry on the research on these precise fragments of habitat.

Erica McAlister

Erica McAlister

Member since: Sep 3, 2009

I'm Erica McAlister, Curator of Diptera in the Entomology Department. My role involves working in the collection (I have about 30000 species to look after and over a million specimens), sometimes in the lab, and thankfully sometimes in the field.

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