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Mozambique Diary: Rescuing a Dragon

A guest post by Jen Guyton

In my lap was a specter, one of the most elusive animals in sub-Saharan Africa. I’d been waiting years to see it, and now it was weighing abrasively on my thighs like a sack of bricks stuffed into a giant pinecone. It wiggled and unfurled its roly-poly body just enough to reveal an eye like sticky caviar, its tongue whizzing in and out and reinforcing the illusion that this scaly orb was a dragon come to life.

Jen_Guyton_painting

But it was a warm-blooded, placental mammal, confirmed by the tiny body double that was furled in her grasp, suckling at the teats exposed on her underbelly. The mother and her pup were ground pangolins (Smutsia temminckii), one of eight species belonging to the mammalian order Pholidota, found only in Africa and southeast Asia. Though often called scaly anteaters, pangolins are unrelated to the Vermilingua, the suborder containing true anteaters. Actually, pangolins aren’t closely related to much of anything; these animals are unique, clinging to a long, isolated branch on the tree of life.

Safe at last – rescued from poachers, a Ground pangolin and her baby boy are going back to Gorongosa National Park to be released back into their habitat.

Safe at last – rescued from poachers, a Ground pangolin and her baby boy are going back to Gorongosa National Park to be released back into their habitat.

We were in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, and someone had told us about her. There was a man in a village across the river, the whispers went, selling her for the low price of 22,000 meticais (about $700 USD). Like rhinos, pangolins have fallen victim to a deeply-held misconception that their keratinous scales hold medicinal magic: that they can cure skin disease, reduce swelling, or even conquer cancer. I’ll tell you now: save yourself the money and the risk of jail time, and just chew on your nails – they are chemically and physiologically the same.

One day and a sting operation later, the pangolin was in my lap. Park rangers, working with the local police, arrested the poachers and rescued the animals. We were driving them out into the core of the park, where we’d release them, safely distant from grasping human hands. Though the pinecone plates of a pangolin’s back can and do stand up to being chewed on by lions, these animals are no match for a human that’s interested enough to simply pick one up and carry it off. Their only other defense is their smell, an indescribable odor that originates from a noxious acid secreted from glands below the tail.

I ran my hands along the pangolin’s scales. They were grooved and brittle-chipped, crooked and mud-splattered like fingernails that had seen many years of working with the land. In Asia, the scales of confiscated pangolins bear the circular scars of punches used for medicine. Even the artful hand of evolution, which had crafted this unique armor from a plush pelt, couldn’t save them.

Bipedal and armed with massive claws, a Ground pangolin could easily be confused with a carnivorous Jurassic raptor. But these gentle mammals feed exclusively on termites and ants, and their only defense is a thick armor of keratinous scales.

Bipedal and armed with massive claws, a Ground pangolin could easily be confused with a carnivorous Jurassic raptor. But these gentle mammals feed exclusively on termites and ants, and their only defense is a thick armor of keratinous scales.

As she unrolled herself from her fortress, a second head surfaced, tiny and pale. It was her male pup, the only one that will be born until he reaches sexual maturity in two years. He was born in captivity, a side effect of stress, and an unrealized bonus prize for the poacher. His scales were half-baked, pliable, and the dark shriveled stump of an umbilical cord poked from his round belly. He moved in the shivering stutters of an infant still unsure about the world.

As the pup crawled up my arm, the mother thrust out a hooked hand to right herself. Her claws, the length of my fingers, gripped my jacket like rusty nails and tore a gaping hole in the material as they bore into my side. I jumped, and she rolled back into a ball, her pup safely inside. These formidable sickle-claws are used to tear open termite mounds and ant nests, shredding the hard earth in search of scrambling adults and doughy larvae. The pangolin laps them up with its sticky-salivating tongue, longer than its own body and the longest relative to body size of all known mammals. Because pangolins lack teeth entirely, keratinous folds line their stomachs with inverse armor, grinding the insects to bits with the help of ingested pebbles.

Having spent a month in captivity, the pangolin, her baby tenuously clinging to her back. takes the first steps as a free animal.

Having spent a month in captivity, the pangolin, her baby tenuously clinging to her back, takes the first steps as a free animal.

We finally reached an appropriate site: far from the park’s perilous edges, the forest bulged above a tapestry of termite mounds. We set her gently on the ground, and waited.

Pup clinging to her back, she stood and sniffed the air, taking a few moments to orient herself to her new and safer home before choosing a bearing. Her scales clack-clacking, she ambled away on her hind feet like a drunken Velociraptor, tail out and claws curled against her chest. It’s hard to walk on all fours when you’ve got scythes for hands.

In Chinese mythology, pangolins are wayfarers. It’s said that they travel the world by digging through the core of it, tying the earth together with a vast underground labyrinth. In Cantonese, they’re called chun-shua-cap, “the animal that bores through the mountain.” I’d like to think she’s safely reached the Alps by now.

Text and artwork ©Jen Guyton 2014

If you would like to learn more about pangolins, and threats they face from the illegal wildlife trade, read a recent expository piece on the CNN website.

Safe under his mother's armor, a young pangolin will stay with her until his own scales are large and strong enough to provide protection from predators.

Safe under his mother’s armor, a young pangolin will stay with her until his own scales are large and strong enough to provide protection from predators.

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: Heroes, and what bugs them

Jen with her exciting catch

Jen with her exciting catch

One early morning, while on the Cheringoma Plateau, Jen “the Mammal Lady” Guyton came running into the camp. “We caught something really good in our traps!”, she announced breathlessly, sending the media team that was filming our expedition into a state of frenzied excitement. Everybody rushed to see the mystery animal, whose identity Jen refused to reveal. We scrambled through a spiny thicket and arrived at a place where she had set a large trap the night before. My imagination was running wild, and I was really hoping for a pangolin, or at least a baby aardvark. But the animal I saw was neither of these. At first, in the dim light I couldn’t quite make out the large mammal in the cage, and my first thought was of a small kangaroo, which would have been exciting if rather unlikely. “It is a pouched rat!”, Jen said proudly, and I felt all my hopes deflate like a punctured tire.

But my disappointment turned out to be grossly unjustified. To begin, the animal was actually very pretty. It was the size of a small cat, with a sweet face and slow, deliberate movements, quite unlike those of a house rat or any other rodent that I had ever seen. When Jen handed it a snack, it calmly ate it. Its tail was thick, half black and half white, which is a characteristic coloration of this species. Pouched rats (Cricetomys gambianus) are members of the family Nesomyidae, and thus not closely related to the rats that infest human houses, and derive their name from their ability to store food in large pouches in their cheeks. They can reach the weight of about 2 kg, and in some parts of Africa are hunted for their tasty meat.

Pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus)

Pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus)

In Mozambique, however, pouched rats play a very different role. The civil war of 1975-1992 has left many areas of the country infested with land mines, resulting in human casualties, and forcing people to abandon their land and houses. The removal of mines is an arduous process that normally requires the use of metal detectors or highly trained sniffer dogs. But in the late 1990’s Frank Weetjens, a Belgian mine-removal specialist, realized that pouched rats could make great mine detectors – they have an unparalleled sense of smell, and their calm nature and intelligence makes them easy to train. His organization APOPO set up a rat training camp in Tanzania, where young pups of pouched rats are taught to detect the smell of 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene (TNT), the main ingredient of land mines, and signal its presence to the trainer in exchange for a snack. After a 250-day long training the rats are flown into Mozambique, where they are used to systematically de-mine large areas still too dangerous for people to inhabit. Their efficiency in detecting land mines is nearly 100%, and their use in Mozambique has already allowed thousands of families to return to their homes and farmlands. It is not surprising then that in Mozambique they are known as Hero rats, a designation they fully deserve. In an even more amazing development, the pouched rats are now being used in Africa as sensitive and efficient diagnosticians of tuberculosis, a disease that affects many rural populations. Their incredible sense of smell allows them to differentiate between sputum of a healthy and an infected person at a rate and accuracy much higher than those afforded by traditional medical tests.

Epizoic earwig (Hemimerus sp.) on the fur of a pouched rat

Epizoic earwig (Hemimerus sp.) on the fur of a pouched rat

All this would be enough to make me worship pouched rats, but the animal we caught had a hidden entomological bonus. We had placed it a large container to take a few photos, and then we noticed dozens of large, brown insects running on its fur. One look and I immediately recognized them as something I had only read about before – they were parasitic earwigs! Earwigs are not insects that are usually thought of as something to be found on other animals, but members of the suborder Hemimerina are specialized parasites of rodents. They lack the large abdominal forceps of their free-living relatives and they are blind. Unlike other earwigs, they are also viviparous. On the body of the pouched rat they moved with an amazing speed, and their legs acted like clasps, allowing them to cling to hair and virtually swim through the mammal’s fur.

Epizoic earwigs (Hemimerus) lack the clasping cerci of their free-living cousins

Epizoic earwigs (Hemimerus) lack the clasping cerci of their free-living cousins

Adult parasitic earwigs (Hemimerus) have many nymphal characteristics, such as the lack of clasping cerci, wings, and wing musculature, suggesting that they are paedomorphic (reproductive stages that retain larval morphology.)
From the pouched rat’s perspective, having the earwigs is probably not too bothersome. These insects feed only on dead flakes of skin of the mammal, and thus act more as helpful exfoliants, rather than true parasites, and I also imagine that they provide an occasional snack.

All in all, the pouched rat in the trap turned out to be far more interesting than a baby aardvark would have ever been. (But I am still hoping to see one.)

An adult epizoic earwig (Hemimerus sp.)

An adult epizoic earwig (Hemimerus sp.)

Mozambique Diary: Golden bats

A colony of Lander's horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus landeri) – notice the orange hairs in the armpits of the flying male.

A colony of Lander’s horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus landeri) – notice the orange hairs in the armpits of the flying male.

Tomorrow marks the first official day of the Gorongosa Biodiversity Survey on the Cheringoma Plateau. All participating scientists are arriving, and the following morning we will depart for the first, northernmost site. But even before we get to those remote and unexplored areas, some of us have been already collecting interesting data.

Earlier today Jen Guyton, the expedition’s bat and rodent specialist, discovered a large colony of bats in an old, abandoned concrete water tank on the outskirts of the Chitengo Camp. It was too good of an opportunity to learn something new about bats of Gorongosa to pass by. Armed with a large butterfly net Jen had descended deep into the dark and rather odoriferous structure, and soon emerged triumphant with half a dozen bats fluttering in the net. She immediately identified them as Horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus), members of the family Rhinolophidae.

Two color morphs of Lander's horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus landeri) found in Gorongosa.

Two color morphs of Lander’s horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus landeri) found in Gorongosa.

These mammals get their common name from the characteristic, horseshoe-shaped noseleaf, an intricate structure on their faces that is the source of their echolocation signals. The ultrasonic signals of horseshoe bats are unusual in their relatively long duration and constant frequency, as opposed to more typical, short signals of shifting frequency found in most other insect-feeding bats.
Our bats turned out to be Lander’s horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus landeri), and the Chitengo colony had two color morphs of this species, one of which had a beautiful golden fur, which reminded me of that of the Amazonian Lion Tamarin. Lander’s horseshoes appear to feed mostly on moths, and can be identified among related species of the genus by tufts of distinct orange hair in the armpits of adult males (see photo).

In the coming days and weeks we will undoubtedly see more bat species and other amazing organisms. I will try to post updates from the field as often as I can, but it remains to be seen if my cellphone modem works in the areas were we will do our work. Stay tuned.

Mammalogist Jen Guyton examining a freshly caught Lander's horseshoe bat.

Mammalogist Jen Guyton examining a freshly caught Lander’s horseshoe bat.

Mozambique Diary: It’s good to have my gear back

To celebrate the miraculous recovery of my photographic equipment from the clutches of South African Airways, today I took my new Canon 400mm for a short spin around the Chitengo camp. I usually do not photograph birds and mammals, but there are so many of them around that it would be a shame not to point a lens at some.

This Yellow baboon (Papio cynocephalus) got in our cabin this morning and stole our bananas. Just a reminder to keep our doors and windows locked, we are on their turf here.

This Yellow baboon (Papio cynocephalus) got in our cabin this morning and stole our bananas. Just a reminder to keep our doors and windows locked, we are on their turf here.

There is a small colony of Village Weavers (Ploceus cucullatus) near my cabin. This male was finishing his nest and frequently displayed if any female was around.

There is a small colony of Village Weavers (Ploceus cucullatus) near my cabin. This male was finishing his nest and frequently displayed if any female was around.

African Pied Crow (Corvus albus) is a handsome, intelligent bird, but for some reason birders tend to ignore this species.

African Pied Crow (Corvus albus) is a handsome, intelligent bird, but for some reason birders tend to ignore this species.

Scary, scary stuff

As the tradition dictates, every year on this day we like to scare the living crap out of each other. One common way of doing it is to pick a random, small animal, and pretend that it is somehow dangerous or deadly. The top of this list of innocent victims is usually occupied by bats, spiders, cockroaches, or pretty much anything that is way too small to do us any harm. Unfortunately, the stereotypes hammered into everybody’s head on Halloween stay with us much longer than just one day, and the poor creatures suffer the undeserved bad reputation for the entire year.

But the really scary, dangerous animals are those that nobody suspects of being evil, and none more so than the creepy Giant panda. Sure, they look cute. But under the cuddly exterior hides a vicious, mean monster. My friend Corey, who used to work in the Panda Base in Chengdu, China, told me about about one particularly nasty, psychotic individual who used to attack people all the time, completely unprovoked. In fact, panda attacks are quite common, and there is even a blog devoted to this topic (“When Pandas Attack”). While in China I heard stories of people being killed by these vicious animals. In any case, I would rather be assaulted by a cockroach or run across a bat or a spider while walking alone in the forest, then meet one of these giant, black and white monsters. I know that they try to appear sweet by hiding their beady eyes in black patches of fur, but they are not fooling me!

A portrait of the competition

White-throated Round-eared Bat (Lophostoma silvicolum) [Canon 7D, 100mm, 3 x 580EXII]

White-throated Round-eared Bat (Lophostoma silvicolum) is an insectivorous bat that specializes in hunting katydids, the very same group of insects I like to catch (albeit for different reasons.) This species is common in rainforests of Central and South America. Note the large, leaf-like flap on its nose, which is a device that helps the bat direct and modify its echolocation signals. This species, however, relies not only on echolocation, but also uses songs of katydids to find them at night in the vegetation. I took this photo of an individual captured by Dr. Burton Lim, a mammal specialist from the Royal Ontario Museum, during our biological survey in southern Suriname.