We arrived in Cuc Phuong National Park on Friday afternoon. Set up in 1962, the park is the oldest in Vietnam and covers an area of over 22,200 ha. It is home to more than 2,000 species of trees, 110 species of reptiles and amphibians, 308 species of bird and 125 species of mammal, including the Clouded Leopard, Delacour's Langur, Owston's Civet and the Asian Black Bear.
Since the national park is so rich in snail diversity we could barely wait to start collecting and bagged our first few specimens as we excitedly stepped out of our van. After a hearty meal (more later) and a good night's sleep under our mosquito nets we were ready to head out into the field. Our first collecting site was a limestone outcrop, which also contains an archaeological cave where human tools and remains dating to over 7,500 years ago have been recovered.
Collecting snails is harder than it sounds, as we have to make sure we get specimens that live in soil and leaf litter, on the rocks and stones, in the trees and on vegetation. In the hot and humid conditions of the tropics this is difficult and sweaty work, but at least when we do find them they aren't too hard to catch.
On our first day we found an amazing variety of specimens, from microsnails less than 1mm tall that hide in the crevices of the limestone rock face, to larger and often strikingly coloured species. One of my favouites was the white form of Camaena gabriellae (pictured below left) which we found crawling on the bark of trees and managed to catch by knocking them with a stick in to a traditional conical Vietnamese hat, which did the job perfectly.
I am also particularly fond of the elongate group of snails called the Clausiliidae (pictured below right), which are found on limestone in large numbers, their bodies barely peaking beyond the shells as they graze on lichens and algae.
Species found on day one include Camaena gabriellae (L) and Tropidauchenia sp. from the Clausillidae (R).
Today I would like to introduce you to another Vietnamese member of our team, Mr Hao Luongvan (pictured in first image). Hao works for the Forestry Commision and is based in Hoang Lien National Park, Sapa in northen Vietnam. He has been studying molluscs for the last ten years.
We first met Hao on our visit to Cuc Phuong in 2007 and have worked closely with him ever since. Not only does he a have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the variety of habitats, plants and animals across Vietnam, but he has been instrumental in helping us gain access to different national parks and make vital links with important government and conservation departments.
After a hard day's work we managed to fit in a visit to the Cuc Phuong Turtle Sanctuary. The centre was set up in 1998 as a safe area to house and breed the 19 native species of Vietnames turtles (of which 3 are found in Cuc Phuong), as well as to increase public awareness of the threats poaching poses to these amazing creatures.
Terrapin in Cuc Phuong Sanctuary. Poaching is the main source of their decline.
The centre was really inspiring, as to date over 900 turtles have been born there from animals confiscated from illegal traders. Plus we got to sit on a life-size model of the Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swingoei), which can reach over a metre in length.
Specimen Sorting, Identification and Preservation
After our brief foray in to the world of chelonians it was time to get back to work. The first job is to sort all the snails into species based on shell and body shape, colour and sculpture (sculpture means the 3D surface - is it ridged, smooth or bumpy etc.). Once we have done this we choose one specimen to take a tissue sample from, and preserve this in 100% ethanol for molecular analysis.
We then split the remainder of the individuals into those to be preserved in 80% ethanol for anatomical analysis and those to be taken back to Hanoi alive for viable cell preservation (more on this in a future blog post). This is my favourite part of the collecting day as we get to compare what we have found and there is always something unusual or unexpected - this time we had both aplenty! On our first haul we could not believe the diversity and volume of species we managed to collect - this really is an amazing habitat for molluscs and even more exciting than usual as we think in our first day we not only have a new species or two but possibly even a new genus .... so watch this space.
Food For Thought
After a long but fruitful day it was time to retire for dinner and no blog post of mine would be complete without some mention of food. Tonight was the first time on this trip that I got to have some of my favourite Vietnamese food; a green vegetable called Morning Glory (rau muống in Vietnamese or Ipomoea aquatica in science speak). The spinach-like stems and leaves are fried in garlic and chilli and are bitter but wonderfully moreish. I ate more than I should have with fried chicken, sesame roasted pork and sumptuous sticky rice washed down with locally made Vietnamese brandy (don't ask!).
As I write this (in the courtyard of our accomodation with toads barking and cicadas chirping) I have just finished sorting out Sunday's specimen haul, also an impressive bounty, and I will be reporting back shortly on some new and exciting discoveries along with some of our further adventures in Cuc Phuong.
Biting animals update
As of Sunday evening (our time) I have;
0 leech bites
3 Mosquito Bites