Mozambique Diary: Amphisbaenians

Most people would hardly look twice at this small, pink “worm”, but this amphisbaenian (Chirindia swynnertoni) from Gorongosa probably looks like the now extinct ancestor of all snakes.

Most people would hardly look twice at this small, pink “worm”, but this amphisbaenian (Chirindia swynnertoni) from Gorongosa probably looks like the now extinct ancestor of all snakes.

Having drawn the short straw at the phenotypic lottery I have always felt a special kinship with creatures that most people dismiss as too small, too creepy, too unattractive. Because these are (I tell myself) the hallmarks of the truly interesting organisms, ones that have followed the less-trodden paths of unusual specialization, remarkable adaptations, evolutionary ingenuity.

One such organism, about the existence of which I learned as a young child from an old zoology textbook, was Bipes, an amphisbaenian. It was a chimeric, strange creature, with the appearance of a pink snake, but equipped with a pair of shovel-like legs at the front end of its long body. There was a striking resemblance between that creature and a picture of a dragon that I had seen in the illustrated edition of the Old Testament from my Sunday School (which, incidentally, offered its classes on Monday nights), and I was instantly hooked.

Although it looks like a soft and squishy, the amphisbaenian’s head hides a strong skull that allows it to push through even the hardest soil.

Although it looks soft and squishy, the amphisbaenian’s head hides a strong skull that allows it to push through even the hardest soil.

Amphisbaenians are reptiles, but so unusual that for the longest time they were considered a separate order of these animals. For one, they look nothing like a vertebrate – the last couple of times that somebody brought me an amphisbaenian they were under the impression of having collected an earthworm (unlike Bipes, most species are legless.) Their annulated body is usually pink or covered with irregular, white and dark blotches, a clear indication that these animals don’t care about how they are perceived by others. And for a good reason – why bother with the looks if your entire life is spend underground and you yourself are blind. Better to invest the energy that would have been spent on the irrelevant appearance into things such as a thick skull and powerful thoracic muscles that will allow the animal to push effortlessly though the soil in search of prey.

My assistant Ricardo Guta looking for insects and other animals in the habitat of the Gorongosa amphisbaenian.

My assistant Ricardo Guta looking for insects and other animals in the habitat of the Gorongosa amphisbaenian.

Recent phylogenetic studies revealed that amphisbaenians are not a separate, primitive order of reptiles, but rather a highly derived, supremely modified lineage of lacertiform lizards. It is very likely that the next step in this transition to a subterranean lifestyle was the complete loss of limbs and girdles, a dramatic reshaping of the skull, the loss of eyelids and, eventually, the emergence of a brand new group of animals, the snakes. In fact, the most basal (primitive) snakes, the Typhlopidae and other related families, look remarkably like the amphisbaenians.
A few days ago I was in the southern part of Gorongosa, checking out sites for the second biodiversity survey of the park, and there, in a dry, crumbling log, I found a beautiful little amphisbaenian, Chirindia swynnertoni. This species is rarely seen, and thus I promptly followed a recommendation of a field guide to amphibians and reptiles of East Africa: “Anyone finding a worm-lizard [amphisbaenian] should take it to a museum.” I still haven’t had the heart to preserve it for the Gorongosa Synoptic Collection, and instead I have been watching it for days, transfixed by its amazing ability to squeeze into the hardest soil with the body that looks like an overcooked string of pasta, and with a baby-pink face of a newborn. It has been feeding on termites and ant larvae, crushing the insects with its tiny yet powerful jaws. And I find it fascinating (and somewhat rewarding) that from so seemingly unassuming a beginning came a lineage of animals that has terrified the human psyche since the time of Eden.

Gorongosa amphisbaenian (Chirindia swynnertoni)

Gorongosa amphisbaenian (Chirindia swynnertoni)

My life is now complete

A wingless form of zorapteran (Zorotypus hubbardi) from Sapelo Island, GA

A wingless form of zorapteran (Zorotypus hubbardi) from Sapelo Island, GA

When I set off for a long weekend on Sapelo Island in Georgia to teach insect photography at the BugShot workshop, it never occurred to me that the trip would culminate in completing a life-long quest. I am not one to keep bucket lists of things to see or do but, as an entomologist, I always hoped to personally collect all extant orders of insects. The most conservative classifications list about 28 orders of these animals, while others divide the class into more ordinal taxa (for example, Vitaly M. Dirsh divided the Orthoptera into 14 separate orders; thankfully nobody paid any attention to such craziness.) Regardless of the semantics, over the years I have collected all major lineages of insects, including such rarities as the Mantophasmatodea (in fact, I collected the second live specimen ever found; the first one was collected by Namibian entomologist John Irish about 10 minutes earlier), Grylloblattodea, or Strepsiptera. But one group has consistently eluded my grabby hands – the Zoraptera.

Warm, humid, and festooned with Spanish moss, the oak forest of Sapelo Island, GA, is an ideal habitat for the Zoraptera.

Warm, humid, and festooned with Spanish moss, the oak forest of Sapelo Island, GA, is an ideal habitat for the Zoraptera.

Described in 1913 by Italian entomologist Filippo Silvestri, Zoraptera are the least diverse order of insects – only 39 species are known, all in the genus Zorotypus (Mantophasmatodea have fewer species, but are divided into multiple genera and families.) As far as rare insects go, Zoraptera may appear somewhat underwhelming in their size and morphology – most species are only about 3 mm long, usually pale yellow or brown, blind and wingless. Their preferred habitat is also not very sexy as Zoraptera are found mostly in rotten logs across tropical and subtropical parts of the world, feeding on fungal hyphae or springtails. They are rather picky in their selection of habitat, and will only survive in logs that have reached the “Zorapteran stage” of decomposition – nothing more, nothing less (the five-stage classification of log decay was introduced in 1959 by E.O. Wilson, who to this day considers himself a zorapteran aficionado). Looking for Zoraptera is akin to looking for a grain of salt in a sugar bowl – in a log teaming with ants, termites and springtails you need to be able to spot a nearly microscopic, whitish insect that runs frantically in all directions, whose body proportions are only slightly different from those of a newly hatched termite nymph. It took me several hours of ripping through decaying logs and enduring countless stings of trap-jawed ants (Odontomachus) before I noticed an eensy dot of an insect that looked a little different. Even as I was putting it in a vial I was not quite sure that it was really a zorapteran, but my suspicion was confirmed the moment I looked at it through the macro lens of my camera.

Most zorapterans are pale, wingless and blind. Winged forms only appear if the decaying long in which they live can no longer support the population of these insects.

Most zorapterans are pale, wingless and blind. Winged forms only appear if the decaying log in which they live can no longer support the population of these insects.

But of course one should not judge the Zoraptera by their unassuming demeanor, for their behavior and reproductive biology are some of the most interesting among all insects. First, despite their name (zor [Gr.]=pure, aptera=wingless), winged forms are found in all species, albeit they only appear when the time comes to leave the log when it shifts from the “Zorapteran” to “Passalid stage” of putrefaction. And, once a new, nicely rotten habitat is found, the wings fall off. This type of behavior is not unique to the Zoraptera (aphids display a similar wing polymorphism), but what happens next is.

Zoraptera are not truly social, but often live in groups of 30+ individuals of various ages. But, unlike termites and ants, all individuals in the colony can reproduce, at least in theory. The colony is strictly patriarchal – the dominant individual is always the oldest male who maintains a harem of females and fights off younger males. Only when the senility kicks in, younger males have a chance to take over the top spot. This type of a male-dominated society is unique among arthropods, where it is always the females who control both reproduction and individual status in the colony.

Even more interesting is the way males inseminate the females. All across the animal kingdom males tend to be rather generous with the dispensation of their reproductive cells (to put it mildly), while females are frugal with their eggs, and choosy when it comes to mating. But in Zoraptera things are different – to inseminate the female the male produces only one (one!) sperm cell. And not just any sperm – the zorapteran spermatozoa are about 3 mm long, which, if you recall, is the average body length of the entire animal. Not surprisingly, males of these insects are not particularly eager to mate and it is the female who does most of the courting. Why this happens is not entirely clear, but most likely the single, giant sperm cell fills the female spermatheca (a sperm storage space that allows the female to inseminate eggs long after the copulation) and precludes her from mating with other males.

I wish I could have spent more time in Georgia – it would have been nice to see armadillos in a form other than flattened pancakes on the highway. On my drive from Savannah to Atlanta I counted 27 carcasses of these animals killed by cars.

I wish I could have spent more time in Georgia – it would have been nice to see armadillos in a form other than flattened pancakes on the highway. On my drive from Savannah to Atlanta I counted 27 carcasses of these animals killed by cars.

As I drove back from Savannah to Atlanta, counting armadillo roadkill (27), I couldn’t help but wonder what the bar scene of our species would look like if men produced only one, 6 feet long reproductive cell during each mating. In the end, I am happy for the zorapteran males, but will keep my millions, thank you very much.

Zorapteran (Zorotypus hubbardi), the only species of the order Zoraptera found in the United States.

Zorapteran (Zorotypus hubbardi), the only species of the order Zoraptera found in the United States.

Glass katydid

Glass_katydid Last night the Harvard Museum of Natural History held an event to celebrate a new book on Gorongosa by E.O. Wilson and yours truly, and the opening of a photo exhibit highlighting the park’s biological richness. During the evening I met a talented glass sculptor, Wesley Fleming. Turned out that Wesley is yet another artist who uses my photos to inspire his creations. He presented me with a beautiful glass katydid, which he designed based on the photos from one of my books. (Incidentally, a while ago I wrote about a real life glass katydid.)

Please visit Wesley’s website and marvel at his incredible glass sculptures.

Glass_katydid2

Almost mammals

A female ball blattodean (Perisphaerus lunatus) from northern Cambodia begins to unfurl to reveal long, powerful legs.

A female ball blattodean (Perisphaerus semilunatus) from northern Cambodia begins to unfurl to reveal long, powerful legs.

I was rummaging one day through the leaf litter on the forest floor in northern Cambodia, looking for insects, when a small, perfectly round ball rolled from a leaf above, bounced off my head, and landed on the ground in front of me. I picked it up to have a closer look, not sure if the object was an animal or a plant. It was about the size of a pea, but black, and very hard. It was an animal, as betrayed by the clearly visible segmentation of its body, but several groups (crustaceans, millipedes, and armadillos, to name a few) use a very similar tactic, and I was not sure which one I was holding (I quickly ruled out armadillos.) After a few seconds a pair of big eyes with two short antennae between them cautiously peeked from a crack that opened on the mysterious sphere. It was a blattodean, but one I had never seen before. Later I identified it as the ball blattodean (Perisphaerus), an interesting animal that experiments revealed to be, thanks to its tight armor, virtually impervious to attacks by ants and other small predators. In fact, the combination of the hard cuticle that forms its exoskeleton with its powerful muscles makes it impossible to unroll the animal without damaging it.

Ball blattodeans of the genus Perisphaerus and several related genera are probably the only organisms other than mammals that exhibit suckling behavior. Young nymphs of these insects have long, almost proboscis-like mouthparts that allow them to access a series of special “mammary” glands on their mother’s underside and suck nutritious fluids.

Ball blattodeans of the genus Perisphaerus and several related genera are probably the only organisms other than mammals that exhibit suckling behavior. Young nymphs of these insects have long, almost proboscis-like mouthparts that allow them to access a series of special “mammary” glands on their mother’s underside and suck nutritious fluids.

Rolling your body into a tight, hard ball is a neat trick, perfected by only a few other insects, but there is something else about Perisphaerus that makes it unique among not only insects, but also almost all other animals. Blattodeans, a large, ancient lineage, represented by nearly 5,000 species, is a truly fascinating example of the evolution of parental care and social behavior. Within insects, where good parenting usually amounts to not eating your young, blattodeans display levels of devotion and parental sophistication otherwise found only in birds and mammals. Dr. Louis M. Roth, the late Harvard entomologist who during his long and productive life uncovered many secrets of blattodean biology, was the first to realize the unusual nature of Perisphaerus. While studying these insects he noticed that females were often accompanied by nymphs clinging to their legs, and some of these youngsters had their heads stuck to the underside of their mother’s body. Careful examination revealed something strange – the mouthparts of the nymphs were very long, almost proboscis-like, a trait unknown in blattodeans, whose mouthparts are of a simple, biting type. Looking carefully at the female Roth also noticed that between the bases of her legs were small, glandular openings, and that’s where the young ones were sticking their heads. Could it be that the mother were actually suckling her young? Up to that point only mammals were known to display this type of behavior, but suddenly it appeared that a similar one might have evolved at least one more time in the history of the animal kingdom. The evidence for this is still largely circumstantial, but what we know about blattodeans certainly supports such a possibility. Many species of these insects give birth to live young, and in a few cases the female feeds them until they are ready to start foraging on their own. In the case of the Pacific blattodean (Diploptera punctata) the female develops an equivalent of the mammalian placenta, and feeds the embryos growing inside her abdomen with a rich mix of proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates. But a female with “mammary glands” and nymphs with sucking mouthparts take the maternal care among blattodeans to a completely new level.

North American forest blattodean (Parcoblatta penssylvanica) carrying an ootheca – a hard, nearly indestructible purse that protects the eggs from predators, parasitoids, and desiccation.

North American forest blattodean (Parcoblatta penssylvanica) carrying an ootheca – a hard, nearly indestructible purse that protects the eggs from predators, parasitoids, and desiccation.

A couple of years after my first encounter with Perisphaerus I found myself, in the middle of the night, following through a bamboo thicket a group of fanatical herpetologists who were intent on catching a particularly elusive, possibly new to science frog. We were in New Britain, a large island that is a part of Papua New Guinea, and I knew that I had a good chance to run across Perisphaerus again. Sure enough, the very moment I heard a triumphant scream that announced the capture of the unfortunate amphibian, I saw the mysterious blattodean scurrying around my feet. And it was a pregnant female. She gave birth to about 10 young a few days later, and during the two weeks when I kept her in a small container the nymphs always stayed with her, hidden under her body, their mouthparts firmly between her legs. Every now and then she would have a bite of a fruit, but the young ones never left her side or fed independently. And yet they grew. I separated a couple of nymphs from their mother and offered them the same conditions and food I was providing her with – they were dead within three days, while their siblings continued to thrive. This short observation convinced me that the female feeds her young with something secreted by her body, and that they completely depended on it, just like mammalian offspring does. My admiration for insects ratcheted up yet another notch.

Table Mountain blattodean (Aptera fusca) from South Africa is a species that exhibits an extended maternal care.

Table Mountain blattodean (Aptera fusca) from South Africa is a species that exhibits an extended maternal care.

Of course, not all blattodeans display the same degree of nurturing and maternal sacrifice, but there is not a single species in this group that does not at least try to give its children a safe start in life. The least the female blattodean can, and most do for their eggs is to encase them in a hard, chitinous purse that protects the eggs not only from physical injuries and desiccation, but also creates a very effective barrier to predators and parasitoids. Usually such a container, known as the ootheca, is carried by the female until the eggs are almost ready to hatch. She will then burry or glue it close to the source of food, usually a fruit or some particularly tasty leaf, and the young hatch a few days or weeks later, ready to start independent life. In more advanced species the female never lets her eggs go, and while she still protects them in an ootheca, she carries it until the very day the young ones are going to hatch. Others take it a step further and, after forming the ootheca and filling it with eggs, suck it back into their abdomen. There, protected by both the ootheca and their mother’s belly the young ones complete their development. Their hatching takes place inside the mother’s abdomen, giving the impression of live birth (such false live birth is known as ovoviviparity.) And finally, there are species, such as the Pacific Diploptera punctata that are truly live bearing.

A large, shield-like pronotum protects the head and front legs of the giant blattodean (Blaberus giganteus) from Guyana.

A large, shield-like pronotum protects the head and front legs of the giant blattodean (Blaberus giganteus) from Guyana. This species is ovoviviparous, which means that eggs are carried by the mother until they are ready to hatch and the nymphs are ready to start independent life.

I have always been fascinated by these animals: the simple elegance of their bodies, their devotion as parents, their dominance in tropical ecosystems, their ancient origin, all this made me want to learn more. But for a group so rich in species and so abundant in many terrestrial ecosystems, we know shockingly little about blattodeans. There are probably no more than 20-30 scientists worldwide who study the 5 thousand or so species we already know about (an equal number of new species of blattodeans most likely still awaits discovery.) At the same time thousands of students and researchers around the world work on mammals, a group with a comparable number of species. As it turns out, the two may have a number of astonishing similarities in their reproductive behavior. Perhaps some of the mammal specialists could be enticed to broaden their taxonomic horizons, and help us learn more about one of the most intriguing groups of animals that ever walked the Earth? Entomologists could really use some help here.

Wood blattodeans (Cryptocercus) took their family life to the next level, and these insects live in small, multi-generational societies. Females feed their offspring symbiotic protozoans, which these insects need to be able to digest cellulose, their main source of food. From here it took only a small evolutionary step towards eusociality, which we see in a lineage of blattodeans known as termites.

Wood blattodeans (Cryptocercus) took their family life to the next level, and these insects live in small, multi-generational societies. Females feed their offspring symbiotic protozoans, which these insects need to be able to digest cellulose, their main source of food. From here it took only a small evolutionary step towards eusociality, which we see in a lineage of blattodeans known as termites.

Mozambique Diary: Shooting bats

Leaf-nosed bats (Hipposideros sp.) in a cave of Cheringoma Plateau, Gorongosa National Park.

Leaf-nosed bats (Hipposideros sp.) in a cave of Cheringoma Plateau, Gorongosa National Park.

My entire last month was a blur of hectic activity, related mostly to the opening of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory in Gorongosa National Park. This kept me from updating the blog, but it was definitely worth it – the Lab is a fantastic facility that will serve as a research base to current and future scientists in the park, and as a center of advanced biodiversity education for Mozambican students for years to come (I just finished teaching its first African entomology workshop there, and it was great.) We are also creating the Gorongosa Synoptic Collection, which has the ambitious goal of documenting, over the next 15-20 years, all (or at least as much as physically possible) multicellular diversity of the park – I will try to post frequent updates from this effort. In the meantime, I would like to invite all biologists to come and work in Gorongosa – there is an entire universe of unexplored life out there, waiting to be studied and saved. Contact me if you are interested – Gorongosa wants your research projects, and we will help you make them happen.

Slit-faced bat (Nycteris cf. thebaica) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

Slit-faced bat (Nycteris cf. thebaica) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

One of the many benefits of having a permanent and safe logistical base in a place as biologically rich as Gorongosa is that I am not afraid to bring and leave behind my expensive high tech gear, and experiment with it. For months I had been dying to try out my high speed photography system, and finally was able to use it last month to shoot flying bats in the comfort of our lab. Now, bats have been photographed in flight by many, and the technology to do so has existed since at least the 1980’s. But, as far as I could tell, few had tried to take images of flying bats using the white background technique, made popular by the Meet Your Neighbours project, and I really wanted to try it.

An orange form of a Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus landeri) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

An orange form of the Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus landeri) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

The setup for photographing bats in flight will be familiar to anybody who has ever worked with high speed photography: I used an external, very fast shutter (6mS response time, 10-50 times faster than the shutter in a typical SLR) mounted on a Canon 7D with a 100mm macro lens, triggered by two intersecting laser beams, and with four Canon flash heads that provided the illumination. Cognisys is a company that sells turnkey solutions for high speed photography, and their excellent StopShot system is what created the basis of my setup. The tricky part was to create a stage where the bats’ flight path was relatively narrow, allowing me to illuminate it properly. Last year I photographed bats in a cave, which was relatively easy, but gave me little control over the lighting. I needed to restrict their movement better, and decided to bring a large diffusion box that I would then turn into a flight chamber for the bats.

The box was about 1 m (3 ft) long, giving even the largest Gorongosa species ample room to fly. On the sides of the box I cut out two small windows (covered with thin, clear Perspex) that allowed the laser beams to go through. The front of the box had to remain unobstructed to the lens, but something had to stop the bats from flying out; I ended up using a large piece of thin glass (and had to adjust the flashes so that they would not reflect off the glass). But somebody had to put the bats in there, and it was not going to be me (one word – rabies!)

Leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros caffer) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

Leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros caffer) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

Luckily, I got help from Jen Guyton, a Princeton graduate student and a bat specialist, who is working on her Ph.D. in Gorongosa. Since capturing bats to get samples of their DNA (or rather the DNA of their prey) was part of her nightly routine, Jen was able to bring live bats to my studio and control them while I took the photos. Once all the technical kinks were ironed out, the system worked like a charm – in a few minutes I would get multiple shots of each bat, and then the animal was removed from the chamber unharmed.

A studio setup for photographing bats in flight: (1) Cognisys high speed shutter, mounted on Canon 100mm lens; (2) a laser and a laser beam sensor (an identical but vertically reversed set is positioned on the opposite side of the box).

A studio setup for photographing bats in flight: (1) Cognisys high speed shutter, mounted on a Canon 100mm lens; (2) a laser and a laser beam sensor (an identical but vertically reversed set is positioned on the opposite side of the box).

But some species turned out to be more difficult than others – members of the family Molossidae (my favorite bats) are not able to lift off from horizontal surfaces and thus could not fly in the box. Next month I plan to photograph them in the wild by combining this system with a UV light – I hope that the bats will be attracted to insects coming to the light (which they often are) and sooner or later will hit the laser trigger. Watch this space to see if it worked.

One final note – don’t try any of this at home! Nobody but professionals, vaccinated against rabies, legally permitted, and fully trained to handle live bats should ever attempt catching these animals. If you are interested in photographing bats, get in touch with a mammalogist at a nearby university or a conservation group that works with these mammals, and they may be able to help you. They are an awesome group of animals, but don’t risk their or your own life. Having seen Gorongosa bats’ unbelievably sharp, lyssavirus-carrying teeth in action, I now think of them as flying vipers – cool, beautiful and fast and, potentially, very deadly.

A grey form of the Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus landeri) from Gorongosa

A grey form of the Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus landeri) from Gorongosa

 

Mozambique Diary: The House of Spiders

A guest post by Edward O. Wilson

The skeletal remains of the Hippo House, once a busy restaurant and observation point.  Orb weaver (Nephilengys cruentata) from the Hippo House.

The skeletal remains of the Hippo House, once a busy restaurant and observation point.

Each spider in the Hippo House was sheltered in a tubular retreat, a behavior typical of all species in the genus Nephilengys.

Each spider in the Hippo House was sheltered in a silken, tubular retreat, a behavior typical of species in the genus Nephilengys.

At the end of a long rutted road in the park sits a conspicuous artifact in the midst of wilderness. Built in 1970, the Hippo House was the vantage point, the antigo miradouro, from which well-heeled tourists, cool drinks in hand, watched wildlife herds as they grazed over the vast floodplain grassland below. Today the herds are back, but the house is a seldom-visited ruin. During the Mozambique civil war, almost all the buildings of Gorongosa National Park were torn down or blown away, leaving behind a few remnants scarred by bullets. The house had been reduced to a shell of its original self.

When I first visited the Hippo House, Mozambique was in the middle of the winter dry season. Other than along the watercourses, the vegetation of Gorongosa was brown and withdrawn. Insect life was still abundant, but harder to locate. I had been told that spiders, big ones, were abundant at the house, but I was quite unprepared for what I found. The interior of the ruined building was powder dry. Its floor, stanchions, and ceiling were windblown and coated with dust. No vegetation reached in from the outside, and except for a few small geckos resting on the pillars, there was no immediate sign of life of any kind. Instead, torn webs and long single threads of silk dangled from the ceiling like ghostly decorations in a haunted house. They swung gently back and forth in the occasional light breeze. No other movement or sound came from the seemingly empty space.

An unlucky katydid that flew into a web under the Hippo House is immediately killed and wrapped in silk by a female orb weaver.

An unlucky katydid that flew into a web under the Hippo House is immediately killed and wrapped in silk by a female orb weaver.

Where were the spiders I expected? Not one could be seen. But I knew they must be there someplace, alive, perhaps watching us. The idea of a hidden arachnid horde ready to rush out made me uneasy. Soon I saw something else: round objects plastered onto the ceiling. They were dusty and silent. My companions and I picked up a stick lying on the ground outside that was long enough to reach the ceiling, and tore two of the pouches apart. They proved to be silken egg pouches, undoubtedly made by spiders but now dry and empty; we were obviously not in the breeding season. The spiders themselves stayed hidden. Where were they? I grew more apprehensive.

We saw other, much larger, oblong pouches scattered over the rough eroded ceiling. At the tip of each was a circular entrance opening to a hollow interior. Using a flashlight and looking straight down the chamber, we could see what lay within. There at the rear of each pouch crouched a large spider, facing outward, its fangs, eyes, and the front of its tightly bunched legs visible. I wanted to see a specimen well enough to identify it, but hesitated. I was, to be frank, afraid of these crouched and waiting spiders. I suffer from mild arachnophobia. This spooky place was the setting of an arachnophobe’s nightmare.

The golden orb-weaver (Nephila senegalensis) is one of the largest spiders of Gorongosa. Its name comes from the beautifully golden coloration of its silk.

The golden orb-weaver (Nephila senegalensis) is one of the largest spiders of Gorongosa. Its name comes from the beautifully golden coloration of its silk.

We selected one of the pouches and poked at it in and out, but the spider stayed tight inside. One of my companions then took charge. He tore open the pouch and shook the inhabitant out into a transparent plastic bag. At last I could see what had lain within. The spider was heavy-bodied, the size of a thimble. When it suddenly spread its spiny legs, its width almost tripled.

I had solved the mystery of the spider house, at least in theory. The creatures in the silken bags were orb weavers, members of the spider family Nephilidae, called golden orb weavers, and, I later learned from an arachnologist, the species is Nephilengys cruentata. Some species of nephilids and the closely related araneids hide in retreats next to their webs; others remain in the centers of the webs. But how could there be so many spiders of this one species crowded together? Why are there no other creatures of any kind? The explanation I believed to be immediately clear. The floor of the lower level of the spider house is a layer of concrete. The interior is abnormally dry. Because the lower level cannot be invaded by any vegetation, few if any other forms of insect or arachnid life can live there. Yet flying insects undoubtedly fly through the wide-open space of the lower level, in through one side and out the other. A few might settle there to rest. The fate of most or all is the same: spider food.

Orb weaver (Nephilengys cruentata) from the Hippo House.

Orb weaver (Nephilengys cruentata) from the Hippo House.

My imagination was roused by this bizarre little world, but more so by my own reaction to it. When I took the captured spider back to Chitengo Camp, I found I was unable to make a specimen of it. That would mean fishing the monster out of the cellophane bag and working it into a bottle of preservative. So I simply opened the rear window of my room and dumped my captive live onto the ground below, where it would at least have a chance of making its way to a tree or building and spinning a new silken retreat.

I remember vividly the incident that made me an arachnophobe. I was eight years old. It was late summer, and I was exploring a vacant lot near our house. There were several full-grown female orb-weaving spiders in the high weeds, likely the common garden spider (Araneus diadematus), sitting in the center of their webs. I could not resist getting close enough to see all the details of one spider’s body. When I was about a foot away, it began to jerk back and forth in a menacing manner. I thought it was preparing to jump out and onto me. I ran. If that were not bad enough, I soon afterward saw a movie, the name of which I have long forgotten, in which a man is trapped in a cave. Blundering around, he becomes tangled in spiderwebs that are hung all around. Spiders, really big ones, climb down toward him, and . . .

Aversions and phobias of this kind, with the latter an extreme response causing panic and cold sweats, can be imprinted with as little as a single brief episode. They are rarely caused by a frightening experience with a knife, a gun, an automobile, or any other modern contrivance that can injure or kill. On the other hand, they easily and quickly follow a frightening experience with one of mankind’s ancient perils: snakes, spiders, wolves, heights, running water, and closed spaces. During millions of years of human prehistory, it has paid in a major Darwinian way to have quick, decisive response to the things that can kill you.

So I have forgiven myself for the wavelet of fear and revulsion I felt about the harmless denizens of the spider house. Let me make further amends by stressing that people are mostly safe amid what remains of living nature. We conquered the man-eaters long ago by destroying almost all of the big predators willing and able to hunt humans. They survive in our stories and in our legends of monsters. We imagine them silently emerging from caves and swamps, easing up from unexplored depths of the sea, or drifting down unseen from above. Walk into or swim in any wild habitat remaining on Earth, maintain the same level of caution you would on a city street, and you will be far safer than in most urban environments. Use common sense: don’t swim with crocodiles; don’t paddleboard among seals where great white sharks have been seen; and above all, never, ever run up to a mother grizzly bear with cubs to take a better look. Your greatest risk in the wild is from insect-borne disease—malaria, dengue, leishmaniasis, yellow fever—and these can be deadly if untreated. But they are transmitted chiefly among people. They can be easily avoided, and in any case pose less risk to you than the mélange of pathogens passing directly from person to person in human settlements.

The scary but harmless spiders in the Hippo House, and all the other animal species of wild environments like those of Gorongosa, are instinct-guided. They rigidly follow life-and-death routines formed during millions of years of evolution. Their lives are finely tuned and fragile in ways that are blessedly unthreatening to human beings.

Text Copyright © 2014 by Edward O. Wilson, Photographs Copyright © 2014 Piotr Naskrecki

Read more about the biological complexity and restoration of the fascinating ecosystem of Gorongosa National Park in “A Window on Eternity”, a new book by E.O. Wilson, with photos by P. Naskrecki (Simon & Schuster 2014).

Tarantulas, known in southern Africa as baboon spiders, may look frightening but are generally harmless. Their main line of defense is not their venom, but tiny urticating hairs that cover the entire body.

Tarantulas, known in southern Africa as baboon spiders, may look frightening but are generally harmless. Their main line of defense is not their venom, but tiny urticating hairs that cover the entire body.

Piotr Naskrecki and Edward O. Wilson in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.

Piotr Naskrecki and Edward O. Wilson in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.

 

Mozambique Diary: A single breath that changed the planet

The sound of an early ancestor of this lungfish (Protopterus annectens) taking it first gulp of air signified a pivotal moment in the history of life on Earth. The emergence of this behavior, along with the development of four limbs, set the stage for the conquest of terrestrial habitats by vertebrates, and the evolution of all tetrapods.

The sound of an early ancestor of this lungfish (Protopterus annectens) taking its first gulp of air signified a pivotal moment in the history of life on Earth. The emergence of this behavior, along with the development of four limbs, set the stage for the conquest of terrestrial habitats by vertebrates, and the evolution of all tetrapods.

About 400 million years ago, in the Devonian, in what was likely a shallow, freshwater pond in some tropical part of the world, a fish made a sound that started a dramatic chain of events, one that culminated in you and me being born. The sound was that of air being sucked in, as the fish lifted its mouth above the surface of the water, desperate to replenish falling oxygen levels in its bloodstream. Soon, gulping for fresh air became a necessity, as the gills failed to supply enough oxygen from the warm, muddy waters to sustain the animal’s activity. Its bladder, which up to that point helped maintain buoyancy for swimming, started to function as a gas exchange organ, an early version of lungs. At the same time, the fish’s pelvic and pectoral fins grew sturdier, and their connection to the rest of the skeleton more capable of lifting the body above the substrate. With these two steps the stage for the vertebrate conquest of land was set. We probably will never know when and where exactly this momentous transition took place, but we are pretty sure of what that fish looked like. And I am staring at it right now, as it looks back at me from the bottom of my beer cooler.

The Southern African lungfish (Protopterus annectens brieni)

The Southern African lungfish (Protopterus annectens)

Ever since I first set foot in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique I have been obsessed with meeting my oldest living vertebrate cousin, the lungfish (Protopterus annectens). Despite its unassuming physique, reminiscent of a large eel, the lungfish holds a special place in the history of life on Earth. Biologists have always suspected that the lungfish gave us insight into the origin of terrestrial vertebrates, but only last year a massive molecular phylogenetic analysis (pdf) , based on 251 (!) genes, proved that the lungfish is a sister taxon to all tetrapods – amphibians, reptiles, birds, and you, and the rest of mammals. Previously that place was reserved for the coelacanth, a marine fish of equally ancient provenance, but now it appears that the coelacanth is an earlier offshoot of fishes that went its own, equally interesting, if less pivotal, way.

My first encounter with the lungfish took place a couple of months ago, when I ran across a fisherman who had caught a couple of these animals. Alas, by the time I met him they had been killed and gutted, leaving me heartbroken and even more obsessed. This time I made it abundantly clear to anybody who would listen that I wanted a live lungfish, and last week a fisherman from the village of Vinho finally delivered one into my hands.

In Gorongosa National Park lungfish are common, if rarely seen, inhabitants of seasonal water pans. During the dry season, when the pans evaporate, the lungfish burry themselves in the mud and estivate for several months. During this period their metabolic rates drop by about 60% and gas exchange is done entirely through their lungs.

In Gorongosa National Park lungfish are common, if rarely seen, inhabitants of seasonal water pans. During the dry season, when the pans evaporate, the lungfish burry themselves in the mud and estivate for several months. During this period their metabolic rates drop by about 60% and gas exchange is done entirely through their lungs.

It is difficult to describe the nearly religious reverence I felt when I saw my first live lungfish. Here was an animal that, I am pretty sure, looked like something I would see in the ponds of the early Paleozoic, long before first amphibians, even longer before dinosaurs. As I watched the lungfish slowly moving in my cooler, it suddenly lifted its head above the water and loudly inhaled a big gulp of air. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget the sound of it.

The lungfish does not have fins like other fishes. Rather, it has two pairs of whip-like appendages that act as weak, but very much functional legs. In 2011 an interesting experimental study (pdf) demonstrated that the pelvic fins are used by the lungfish in a fashion very similar to that of the land animals’ hind legs, for both walking and bounding. This in turn casts a new light on some early Devonian fossil tracks that were thought to have been left by primitive amphibians – in fact, they probably are those of semi-terrestrial lungfish ancestors. The development of articulated limbs with fingers (digited limbs) no longer seems to be the prerequisite to the conquest of land.

If you think that this looks like walking that’s because it is. Lungfish use their pelvic fins in a way very similar to that of a tetrapod’s legs – the distal part of the fin becomes a “foot” and the fins produce both walking and bounding motions.

If you think that this looks like walking that’s because it is. Lungfish use their pelvic fins in a way very similar to that of a tetrapod’s legs – the distal part of the fin becomes a “foot” and the fins produce both walking and bounding motions.

The more we study the lungfish the more fascinating it becomes. It is now clear that this animal holds the secret to the development of tetrapod ears, and they were the first to develop enameled teeth, the kind we, mammals now have. The lungfish is also superbly adapted to the harsh seasons of the southern African savanna, and can burry itself in the ground and survive for months out of water, hidden from the hot sun in a muddy cocoon (stories abound about African farmers digging out live, large fish from their dry fields.) Its dependence on atmospheric oxygen is so strong that the lungfish will drown if not allowed to breathe above the surface of the water. Its strongly reduced gills are virtually non-functional, but during the lungfish’s larval development are external and feathery, resembling those of the salamander larvae.

A portrait of the Southern African lungfish (Protopterus annectens brieni) from Gorongosa.

A portrait of the Southern African lungfish (Protopterus annectens) from Gorongosa.

In Gorongosa lungfish are common in seasonal pans and rivers of the park, feeding on a wide range of aquatic invertebrates, smaller fish, and frogs. As they are highly territorial, it is likely that almost every body of water on the plains has at least one of these remarkable animal. It is a shame that they are never seen by the visitors to the park – in my opinion the lungfish surpasses in its importance and a fantastical set of features any other vertebrate of Gorongosa, lions and elephants included, and I vow to make it my mission to spread the knowledge of its existence.

Last week, on March 27th, the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory was officially opened, a culmination of my and many other people’s dream. More about the Laboratory soon, but I thought it fitting that the first vertebrate sample for our synoptic collection is a small snippet of the lungfish’s caudal fin, preserved for future DNA barcoding. The animal itself is being released back into its habitat, and I hope that this was not the last time that I looked into the eyes of my grand…grandfather’s twin brother.

Resembling an oversized salamander, the lungfish has four distinct limbs, a long tail, and only remnants of gills. The gills are virtually non-functional and the fish will drown if not allowed to breathe above the surface of the water.

Resembling an oversized salamander, the lungfish has four distinct limbs, a long tail, and only remnants of gills. The gills are virtually non-functional and the fish will drown if not allowed to breathe above the surface of the water.