Preparing for the Sky-Island Expedition

Left to right: Simon Loader, Gabriela Bittencourt, Werner Conradie, Hanlie Engelbrecht, Cristóvão Nanvonamuquitxo, Michele Menegon, Krystal Tolley (Photo by Krystal Tolley)

It’s only one week before we get onto the road for the sky-island expedition in eastern Africa, so I would also like to introduce the team.

First and foremost is our camp manager Mike Scott from Khangela Safaris. Mike has more than 20 years of experience in the bush working as a naturalist and guide. He will be setting up the camps and liaising with all the important people on the ground at each site.

Then we have our two PhD students, Hanlie Engelbrecht and Gabriela Bittencourt. Hanlie is from Cape Town, having received her MSc degree from Stellenbosch University. She is crazy for snakes, and luckily for her, her PhD project is on the biogeography of two groups of snakes; herald snakes and spotted bush snakes. Gabriela is Brazilian, and is registered at the University of Basel in Switzerland for a PhD on frog biogeography. She has a decade of experience chasing amphibians in the rainforests of Brazil, so she is a great asset for the team.

Werner Conradie is based at the Port Elizabeth Museum in South Africa. Werner simply cannot stop talking about tadpoles. That aside, he is able to identify anything, and if he can’t, he takes it as a challenge and will spend hours pouring through books to figure out what species he has just found.

Simon Loader is well-known for his work on African amphibians, particularly in the Eastern Arc Mountains of Tanzania. He is a city-boy by his own admission, but he loves amphibians and not even the wet, muddy forest will keep him away.

Michele Menegon is based at the Muse in Trento, Italy. He is the quintessential naturalist-explorer, and can catch any snake, lizard or frog with his apparent super powers.

We will also be joined by Cristóvão Nanvonamuquitxo, a student from the University of Lurio in Pemba, Mozambique. Finally, there’s me, Krystal Tolley, often known as The Chameleon Lady (although I do not think I’m very lady-like). While I do care about all lizards and frogs, chameleons really are my thing. The world can be exploding around me, and I won’t notice if I am out in the forest on the trail of that elusive chameleon species.

So, that is us. A fantastic group to be working with, each with our own speciality and quirkiness. It is sure to be an adventure.

The four mountains that we will survey are shown by the yellow pins on this Google Earth image. The inset shows the area in Africa where the mountains are (the red dot on the lower left shows the location of Cape Town). (Image by Google/Data SIO/NOAA/U.S. Navy/NGA/GEBCO)

The Expedition Route

The four mountains that we will survey are shown by the yellow pins on this Google Earth image. The inset shows the area in Africa where the mountains are (the red dot on the lower left shows the location of Cape Town). (Image by Google/Data SIO/NOAA/U.S. Navy/NGA/GEBCO)

Now that I’ve introduced the team, here is the plan. We will be surveying four mountains for reptiles and amphibians. The first is Mount Mabu (16° 16′ 38.19″ S, 36° 20′ 44.48″ E), which has a large patch of nearly pristine rain forest. We have high hopes that this forest will contain some surprises. Recently, two new chameleon species were found there, and one viper! We will spend about a week there in the forest and conduct active surveys plus set up some bucket traps. These are set into the ground and frogs and lizards fall into them. We check the buckets several times a day for captures. After the first week, we will pack up and travel to Mount Namuli (15° 19′ 38.72″ S, 37° 2′ 42.53″ E) which is larger than Mabu but is more impacted by human activities. Some of the forest has been damaged or destroyed but there are a few patches left.

A few new species have also been recently found on Mount Namuli, including a couple of lizards. We will also be on Namuli for at least a week, and if all goes well, even a bit longer. After Namuli, we plan to do a couple of short surveys on Mount Inago (15° 5′ 19.13″ S, 37° 23′ 43.39″ E) and Mount Ribaue (14° 51′ 44.51″ S, 38° 13′ 48.06″ E), which are about 50 km from Namuli. These two mountains have small patches of forest, and have only ever been very briefly surveyed. Unfortunately, most of the forest on Inago has been destroyed. From Google Earth images, it seems like there are some forest fragments that total about five square kilometers (1,200 acres or 500 hectares). In any case, there should be some fantastic surprises at these spots and we are all very excited to get started. It will be more than a week before I can give an update, though. We start driving today from Cape Town to Johannesburg, then Maputo, and then onward to the sky islands!


Read More by Krystal Tolley

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Krystal Tolley is a National Geographic grantee discovering the diversity of reptiles and amphibians in the montane forests of Mozambique. Krystal and her colleagues are carrying out field surveys of poorly known forests, and following up with DNA barcoding to understand species diversity. This information will feed into conservation assessments to determine if these montane forests are biological hotspots.