After a long and arduous trip over savannah, across borders and into the forests of Mabu Mountain, we were finally able to begin our search for exotic undiscovered species. In this unique “sky island” forest, the ecosystem is isolated from the surrounding savannah simply because nothing that lives in these forests can escape and survive in a different climate. This leads to a high rate of endemism, or unique native species.
During the past few days, we have been exploring the sub-montane forest near the camp, the “Miombo,” which is the type of savannah just outside the forest, and also made a foray into the Afromontane forest at high elevation near the granite dome that is the Mabu summit. We have started locally, working near the camp and in the nearby streams.
By day, searching for geckos in the Miombo has been something of an obsession for some of the team. The geckos run high into the trees, and are adept at simply blending in and acting like a piece of bark. Hard to spot, harder to catch. We eventually succeeded with a long pole, but it took some practice. Other efforts were around the streams for frogs, and the snakes that specialize in eating frogs. We worked by both day and night, with the nighttime dedicated to spot-lighting. This is an easy way to find chameleons, which perch in trees or bushes to sleep, but also it is a way to find nocturnal snakes that might be poised to ambush prey.
With some dedicated effort, the two species of endemic chameleon were relatively easy to find. However, what we were really after were the unknown species. Our efforts were rewarded as we found at least one special snake in the genus Dipsadoboa, one tree gecko (Lygodactylus sp.), and a burrowing legless lizard (Melanoseps sp.) that are probably new to science. Many other species were also found (Arthroleptis, Strongylopus, Rhampholeon, Holaspis), but only our follow-up work using DNA analysis will be able to tell us if they are new species.
The most exciting moment was probably the discovery of a caecilian under a log, at the end of a 24-hour rainstorm. Most of us were hiding in the lab from the wet, when a totally drenched Bibi who was kicking over logs on the edge of the camp, suddenly screamed, “I got one… a caecilian!” We all ran to her and there it was. A long, smooth, squirmy, purplish thing in her hands, looking like an enormous worm with tentacles for eyes. But it is not a worm at all. Caecilians are actually legless amphibians, many of which are burrowing and therefore blind, using their rudimentary eye-stalks as feelers. They are difficult to find and sightings are rare. We were lucky.A male Mabu painted chameleon (Rhampholeon maspictus) shows his colors in this display, usually reserved for challenging other males. (Photo by Michele Menegon)
The discoveries continued during the week, and we have steadily seen increasing numbers of different species in part due to the big rain storm. Rain in the forest is good, because it means a riot of activity follows. Frogs come out first, snakes follow, and chameleons actually come lower out of the canopy to seek shelter, making them easier to find. We slept fitfully as the wind built up, signaling the start of the storm.
Sometime in the night, hoping to hear raindrops, we instead heard a “gun-shot” noise ring out in the forest. Then, all was quiet. I lay awake wondering what it could have been. Then, 10 minutes later, a spine-chilling crashing started to echo into camp… a tree was falling somewhere nearby. The earlier “gun shot” was probably a thick vine breaking, the proverbial last straw holding up what was now a falling tree. As it came down, it was an unstoppable force, taking other trees and limbs with it, but more importantly, we had no idea where it was and where it would land. As it made its final ground-shaking thud on the forest floor, I was sure it must have landed near Werner and Michele’s tent. I had to check. I nervously unzipped my tent and made my way down the path… but all was well. They were safe and the tree had not fallen on them.
Soon after, the rain finally started and didn’t let up for more than 24 hours. Despite the excitement for the rain, the next morning, the main gossip in camp was everyone’s reaction to the tree fall. We had all been sure it was going to crash into the camp, except Michele, who apparently snored his way through the entire event and had to rely on our animated re-telling of it.
Our final move recently was to establish a satellite camp near the summit. After the rains cleared, we slogged up a slippery, muddy, 45-degree slope another 500 m in elevation to the base of the granite dome. We dropped our gear and then immediately ran up the dome for the view. To the south was a flat plain of savannah extending as far as the eye could see. But what was unexpected was the complex tumble of mountains and granite inselbergs to the north and east. The view was absolutely stunning, and even more so because the Mabu forest was at our feet, extending for miles. Beautiful and lavish, and still pristine, it was like an emerald sparkling on the landscape. And we now had some idea of its secrets… the assortment of frogs, lizards and snakes that have been hidden for so long were now part of our new scientific vocabulary.
We all felt extraordinarily privileged to be standing there on top of this incredibly special place. However, this expedition is only just getting started, and strange new denizens of the cloud forests are likely still out there, waiting to be found.