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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.



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…..



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.



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)



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?



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.


So I have been travelling a fair bit recently and the only way that I could fit in writing this blog is because I have been grounded due to a blizzard in Istanbul! However, this has afforded me two days to look through some of the material from the previous collecting trips, one of which was South Africa.


The South Africa trip was a consortium from the Natural History Museum consisting of 2 Bryozoan experts, 1 Coleopterist, 1 Protist specialist and me. Beth Okamura (Team leader), Mary Spencer-Jones (mostly spends her time in waders), Peter Hammond (retired and relaxed, samples with a pipe- very dapper), Dave Bass (strange views on bird taxonomy) and I, respectively. We were based at the University of Cape Town, which offers some of the best views that a University anywhere could, under the wing of Cecile Reed, who is one of the most helpful people you could imagine. Between her and her colleagues I was told of sites, they collected some mosquitoes for me and also donated for the NHM 2 mantophasmids!!! (a lot smaller than I was expecting) which increased the collections by 20%



Dave enjoying the experience of chest waders.....


So we left at the end of a cold miserable November in the UK and arrived in glorious sunshine. Dave and I were staying in the Western Cape for the whole of the trip whilst the others were off to seek bryozoans in pastures new (or rivers and dams new). Bryozoans are tiny colonial organisms and I had only ever seen them in marine environments before. I thought that my field work was frustrating at times but I take my hat off to them as they were searching for minute colonies which may only consist of a handful of individuals to start with….


We were lodged for the majority in a fine old house that offered many advantages, not at least a swimming pool, a Braar (South African Bar-b-que) (the former was very good at catching robberflies), a good wine fridge and a very friendly dog – all of which are good after a day in the field.


Our first day of sampling was at Rondervlei Nature Reserve, which was gorgeous. I had not registered how windy it could get though which was actually a blessing on days of very intense sunshine. Rondervlei was a wonderful wetland reserve sporting a large wildfowl community and a population of hippos although we did not see them that day. But more excitingly for me, my first fly was an acrocerid!! A humpbacked fly- they are some of my favourites as they are brightly coloured, look amazing and have a fascinating life history involving firing offspring into nests. Lots of very cool asilids everywhere too. But no mosquitoes..


…in fact I did not find any for ages….


We sampled at Betty’s Bay, Raapenberg Bird Sanctuary, Western Lakes, along ditches, amongst reeds and still I did not find any mosquitoes…


However, there were other things to keep me entertained!!



A magnificent Spoonbill



And these cheeky little things....



(A bit like me...)


The first week was a hectic week of predominantly trying to find good Bryozoan sites with little joy. They are the proverbial needle in a haystack!!! There were some small successes on their side and some on mine. I spend most of the time with my head in a net which does often cause comments from anyone passing by. Luckily for me though several passes by happened to be undertaken an ecological survey and so helpfully recommended more sites, including one of their own which had mosquitoes!! I was a very excited person.


In the meantime though I set up some malaise traps at Rondevlei after a very early start due to taking a boat trip out on the wetlands in the search of Hippos. They had been reintroduced onto the reserve in 2003 and apart from one running wild after being bullied by an older male, they have been getting along fine with everyone. This is most amazing for several reasons, firstly it abuts a large housing estate, and secondly, although this is one of the most important reserves for birds in South Africa, it is located next to Zeekoevlei, which is heavily polluted!


One of my favourite localities of the trip though was De Hoop Nature Reserve, a little piece of paradise consisting of open planes, wildfowl lakes and some of the largest Dunes I have ever seen of the purest white... there was some great collecting and I caught some flies that will definitely make peoples skin crawl…or should I more accurately say make their nose dissolve


Here we have a beautiful fly, front on it looks like an inquisitive little thing (as say little – this specimen is 2cm long…..)


Gedoelstia cristata front.jpg


But this is a bot fly from the family Oestridae. It is Gedoelstia cristata which is a fairly widespread and common botfly from the afrotropical region. And it is noisy I had two of them flying straight towards me and when I caught them in the net I was most impressed. I have to say I felt a tad peculiar as well knowing these creatures were flying around as well.


Here is an abstract from ‘Parasitic diseases of wild mammals’ by William Samuel and Margo Pybus:



Sounds lovely doesn’t it! It is made more unusual as most nasal botflies directly lay their eggs into the nasal cavity. So the first instar stage uses its large mouth hooks and spines on its back to pull itself along from the eye to drop down into the nasal cavity. I have just tried looking up images for this and even for me, have decided that may be too much…..


It is generally found in large ruminants such as deer but can be problematic in sheep. It has been found in man although these cases are exceptionally rare I hasten to add. There was a case were large numbers of first instar larvae were deposited in the ear!!


I didn’t get attacked though , well not by that…there was the experience of the Cape Cobra but maybe I should leave that to peoples imagination……


All in all a very good trip. I have a mass of flies to sort, some from traps, some from me sweeping. All I need know is another life time to get through everything! Any volunteers?

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.

View Erica McAlister's profile