Mozambique Diary: Devonian sashimi

A fishermen from Dingue Dingue and his catch. The first animal is the African lungfish (Protopterus annectens).

A fishermen from Dingue Dingue and his catch. The first animal is the African lungfish (Protopterus annectens).

A few years ago I wrote a book titled “Relics”, which was a way of expressing my fascination with both time travel and with all the irreplaceable forms of life that had existed long before our species sneakily appeared when Nature wasn’t paying attention. One of the organisms I really wanted to include in the book was the lungfish, a direct descendant of the organism that gave rise to all tetrapods, including you and me. Alas, I had never photographed or even seen a lungfish, and thus could not add it to the book.

Imagine my confusion, surprise, delight, disappointment, and hope when yesterday I finally ran across one of those amazing animals. I was driving around with a few friends around an area south of the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique and at some point we stopped near a small settlement by an old oxbow lake. We saw a few fishermen and decided to see their catch. And there, among catfish and tilapias, I spotted what at first I took for a giant salamander. A second later I realized that I was looking at an African lungfish (Protopterus annectens), a spitting image of Devonian, air-breathing, land-walking animals, the first to evolve lungs, tetrapod locomotion and, as a recent study reveals, structures that eventually lead to the formation of our ears.

Alas, the fish were already dead and gutted. I was heartbroken – it felt to me as if somebody shot a triceratops for its horns or squashed a trilobite as a bug. How can you eat a relic? But my next thought was, since they are already dead, why shouldn’t I eat them? How many biologists could say that they ate a lungfish? Unfortunately, we still had many hours of driving ahead of us and I had no way keeping it cool and safe from the African sun. The only option was to eat it raw. Did I? No, I didn’t, I chickened out, but only because of the fear of contracting some dreadful disease from the water in which the carcasses were washed. But this encounter also made me hopeful that soon I will be able to catch a live one and properly document it. I have just arrived in Gorongosa, and I know that lungfish are here. The hunt commences tomorrow.

Update [4April 2014]: I got it! Read about my encounter with the first live lungfish.Lungfish2

Mozambique Diary: A welcoming conehead

A female conehead (Ruspolia consobrina) found in a Maputo hotel.

A conehead katydid (Ruspolia consobrina) found in a Maputo hotel.

Last night I arrived in Mozambique’s capital Maputo. It was almost midnight when I finally got to my hotel, tired to the point of barely being able to keep my eyes open after more than 20 hours on the plane. But the scent of tropical, humid air was too much for me to resist, and so I put on my headlamp and took a quick stroll around the hotel’s grounds. 

It is the wet season now, and although it did not rain last night the atmosphere felt very humid. But it quickly became apparent that the hotel’s garden had been sprayed with pesticides, as evidenced by almost no insect activity on its beautifully manicured lawns. Across the street from the hotel insects were flying around street lamps and several species of crickets and katydids could be heard in a distance; I even heard the unmistakable call of a pamphagid grasshopper. “Oh, well”, I thought, and at that moment a large katydid flew in from across the fence and landed on the wall in front of me. It was a female conehead katydid (Ruspolia consobrina), a species I knew well from Gorongosa. After a few minutes I found a second individual, trapped in the foyer of the hotel.

Coneheads of the genus Ruspolia are handsome insects, with bodies resembling blades of grass, which makes sense as these are the plants they mostly feed on. Their mandibles are massive and strangely asymmetrical, a feature they share with several other grass-feeding katydid genera. Why is one mandible, usually the left one, much larger than the other is unclear, but it likely helps with stabilizing and cracking seeds of grass that these insects like to eat. And because they feed on such nutritious food, bodies of Ruspolia can get very fat. Combine it with the fact that coneheads can occur in large, almost plague-like numbers in certain parts of Africa, and it is not surprising that they feature prominently in the diet of many African peoples. They high fat content also allows coneheads to survive long periods of low food availability, or even starvation (a topic I covered in an earlier post).

I quickly snapped a few pictures of the katydid, happy to see it minutes after my arrival, and collapsed on the bed on the verge of total exhaustion. Of course I woke up a couple of hours later, unable to fall back asleep because of the time change and so, here I am, writing this blog well before sunrise – a first for me.

Ruspolias

Coneheads (R. consobrina) are highly polymorphic – these three individuals are from the same population in Gorongosa National Park.

Mozambique Diary: Victims of our deficiencies

Am I the only person who thinks that the White-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) looks like Billy Idol's doppelgänger?

Am I the only person who thinks that the White-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) looks like Billy Idol’s doppelgänger?

I had a very short and uneventful tenure as a boy scout – I simply could not stand having my activities organized for me, and the idea of wearing a uniform fills me with dread to this day. But I did learn a valuable lesson at one of my camping trips: if a can of meat appears bulgy, throw it away. Botulism, a deadly disease caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, is something that our immune system cannot cope with, and thus it is not surprising that our species has evolved an innate repulsion to things that are dead or putrid. This aversion protects us from getting in contact with other harmful microorganisms that cause such diseases as salmonellosis, anthrax, or cholera. Unfortunately, the same revulsion also makes us consider creatures that are resistant to the deadly effect of these pathogens with disdain. We tend to treat animals that feed on carrion or dung as the lowest possible forms of life, oblivious to the fact that necrovores and coprophages’ immune system and  their efficiency in procuring nourishments  are far superior to ours.

Two events in 2013 made me think about the legions of these underappreciated, but critically important, members of animal communities. The first one was the biological survey of the Cheringoma Plateau in Gorongosa National Park, which I lead in April and May. Among many groups of organisms that we surveyed were dung beetles, heroically sampled by Bruno de Medeiros, who had to withstand countless, painfully repetitive jokes about his “bait.” But in the end Bruno proved not only that Gorongosa had a surprisingly rich fauna of these insects, indicative of a rich and diverse fauna of vertebrates, but also that some of the beetles were both beautiful and had fascinating behaviors. An earlier post on this blog mentions some of these findings.

After following a radio-collared lion, Gorongosa veterinarian Rui Branco (right) lead us to a freshly killed sable antelope.

After following a radio-collared lion, Gorongosa veterinarian Rui Branco (right) lead us to a freshly killed sable antelope.

I went back to Gorongosa in September and this time I was privileged to witness another remarkable, yet blatantly underappreciated animal in action, the vulture. Seeing them feeding on a carcass of an antelope killed by lions was for me the highlight of 2013. Which is saying a lot, considering that this year I have also seen centipedes with feathers, the cat mantis, frog-eating spiders, bomb-sniffing rats, and ants that cannot walk. Vultures are birds, I know, but I feel that they deserve being considered honorary members of the Smaller Majority on account of the low esteem in which they are generally held – just like most things that look or behave in a way that is unlike us, mighty humans.

Once the lions had left about fifty White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) descended onto the carcass.

Once the lions had left about fifty White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) descended onto the carcass.

But vultures, two unrelated groups of birds that have converged on similar appearance and behavior, are both fascinating and remarkably beautiful. In the New World members of the family Catharitidae and in the Old World some members of Accipitridae have evolved the ability to locate and feed on carcasses of large vertebrates. In order to do this they had to acquire the ability to sniff them out from many miles away, a feat that they were able to achieve through extremely well developed olfactory tubercles in their nasal cavities, scrolled and lined with epithelium innervated by the olfactory nerve. Interestingly, early naturalists speculated that vultures’ ability to find carrion was due to the possession of a mysterious “occult sense.” More pragmatic and rational scientists realized that vultures’ incredible sense of smell can be put to a good use, and in late 1930s the Union Oil Company began to inject mercaptan, a compound produced by rotting flesh, into gas lines in order to patrol them for Turkey vultures attracted to leakages from damaged pipes.

Thirty minutes later all meat has been stripped from the antelope's carcass, leaving only bones, pieces of skin, and the stomach content.

Thirty minutes later all meat has been stripped from the antelope’s carcass, leaving only bones, pieces of skin, and the stomach content.

Even more impressive is the vultures’ ability to resist the toxins produced by C. botulinum, Salmonella, Bacillus anthracis, Vibrio cholerae, and other deadly pathogens. Their first line of defense is, surprisingly, avoidance of rotten meat. Contrary to popular belief vultures prefer meat of freshly killed animals, and will eat old, decaying flesh only if absolutely desperate. But even if they consume meat infected with these bacteria, the extremely high acidity of their stomachs kills almost anything that might have been alive in the carrion. Gastric fluids in vultures have pH levels of 0.2-0.8 – essentially equivalent to pure hydrochloric acid (in humans it usually ranges between 2.0 to 3.5.) This high acidity also allows them to digest bones, and the Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) is the only vertebrate feeding exclusively on bones (even spotted hyenas eat bones only occasionally). But on top of this vultures have incredibly efficient immune response to pathogens, making them virtually impervious to infections and diseases. This fact is not lost on some, and in Colombia drinking vulture blood is considered an effective cure for cancer (albeit the efficacy of such a treatment has yet to be evaluated by the medical community).

Like cruel children who mock those among them who are different and often more talented, our entire species picks on those organisms that don’t conform to our notions of normalcy. We tell ourselves that dung beetles and vultures are disgusting, but I think that deep down we are just jealous.

We tell ourselves that vultures are ugly and disgusting, but I think we are just jealous of their superior abilities and survival skills.

We tell ourselves that vultures are ugly and disgusting, but I think we are just jealous of their superior abilities and survival skills.

Happy 2014!

Who was Per Brinck?

Brinckiella elegans – a beautiful species from Western Cape Province of South Africa. Females of all species in this genus, and males in at least one, are completely wingless. This is rare among katydids and I still don’t have a good explanation for this loss of the ability to both fly and produce courtship calls.

Brinckiella elegans – a beautiful species from Western Cape Province of South Africa. Females of all species in this genus, and males in at least one, are completely wingless. This is rare among katydids and I still don’t have a good explanation for this loss of the ability to both fly and produce courtship calls.

Taxonomists, myself included, are often asked how we choose names for the organisms we discover and describe. Some are surprised to learn that species are often named after people, but that is also inappropriate to name species after yourself (albeit I know of one such case*). Naming species and genera after people is in fact so common that taxonomists rarely pause to ponder who Welwitsch (Welwitschia), Scudder (Scudderia), or Wahlberg (Clonia wahlbergi, Aquila wahlbergi, Arthroleptis wahlbergi and more) might be or have been. 

As I am sitting in front of my miscroscope, preparing a description of yet another African katydid of the genus Brinckiella, I realize that it never occurred to me to find out who Brinck was, the person after whom the genus was named in 1955. All I know is that he was one of the editors of a monumental, 15-tome treatment of the results of an expedition across southern Africa in 1950-1951. It was during this expedition that a single, tiny green katydid was collected, later to be named after its collector Brinckiella viridis by a French entomologist Lucien Chopard.

For some reason I assumed that Brinck, whoever he was, must be long dead – somebody who published a 15-tome treatise in the early 1950’s would have to be at least 120 by now, right? Well, yes and no. Professor Per Brinck has indeed died. But he only died two months ago, at the age of 94 in his home in Oland, Sweden. He was that country’s leading ecologist, one of the founders of the Nordic Foundation Oikos and editor of the journal Oikos. He was also a an expert on whirligig beetles (Gyrinidae) and dragonflies. He might have liked to receive a copy of my revision of the genus Brinckiella, which I published with my friend Corey Bazelet a few years ago. Alas, I never thought of it and now it’s too late.

An so, next time you run across an insect’s weird name that sounds like it might have been named after somebody, make an effort to find out who that person was. That – let’s pick a random patronym – Naskreckiella may bear the name of somebody very interesting, you just never know.

B. karooensis occurs in karoo vegetation along the western coast of South Africa.

B. karooensis can be found only on karoo vegetation along the western coast of South Africa.

 

*) Wall’s krait (Bungarus walli), a highly venomous snake related to cobras, was named by Frank Wall, a British officer and a medical doctor working in India in the early 1900s. His paper is a delight to read, here is an excerpt where he justifies naming the species after himself:

“[...]At the Club in the afternoon I was pursued by an urchin who produced another specimen which, to my satisfaction, I found to exactly accord with the morning one, and after getting home while dressing for dinner the same boy brought me a third, identical in the peculiarities first noted. Thus in one day I acquired three specimens of a snake hitherto unknown ! I may mention that the day’s bag exceeded 100 snakes of all kinds ! These three Kraits were all small. Since this I have obtained 8 of the same species, and though I believe it a breach of ethics for any naturalist to call a species after himself, the fact that this is the first new snake I have discovered in 11.5 years’ hard collecting, may be pleaded as sufficient excuse for commemorating the event and attaching my own name to it.”

Wall, F. 1907. A new krait from Oudh (Bungarus walli). J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 17:155-157.

Hugewings

The enormous mandibles of a male dobsonfly (Corydalus)look like formidable weapons, but they are not. The males use them only in ritualized combat with other males and are too weak to use them to pinch or hurt anybody.

The enormous mandibles of a male dobsonfly (Corydalus) look like formidable weapons, but they are not. The males use them only in ritualized combat with other males, and are too weak to use them to pinch or hurt anybody (Barbilla N.P., Costa Rica).

As somebody who grew up in Europe I was really hoping that enrolling in a graduate school in the US would give me a chance to see many organisms that are rare or completely absent from the Old Continent. And, sure enough, as soon as I arrived in New England I almost got into a car accident after spotting my first Virginia possum, I giggled like a little girl at the sight of Black vultures feasting on a roadkill (probably a possum), and almost had a heart attack from the excitement of finding my first horseshoe crab on a beach in Connecticut. But nothing could prepare me for what one evening came to the light of the house that I shared with my then girlfriend. It was a creature so spectacular and unlike anything I had ever seen before that it took me a while to even put it in a broad taxonomic context. “It’s a megalopteran!”, I finally managed to exhale. “Oh yeah, a dobsonfly”, said Kristin, “They are pretty neat.”

Female dobsonfly in her natural habitat along a stream in Tapanti National Park in Costa Rica.

Female dobsonfly in her natural habitat along a stream in Tapanti National Park in Costa Rica.

That was my first introduction to the genus Corydalus, a massive creature that fully deserves to be a member of an insect order christened Megaloptera, or Hugewings (I just made this name up, but I think it’s fitting; as far as I know Megaloptera do not have a single-word common name despite being a well-recognized monophyletic lineage). They easily attain a wingspan of 140 mm (5.5″) and in flight are more akin to bats than insects. The dobsonfly that came to our light was a male and thus carried enormous, tusk-like mandibles that gave him a menacing look.

One of the few colorful members of the order Megaloptera, a Costa Rican dobsonfly Chloronia sp.

One of the few colorful members of the order Megaloptera, a Costa Rican dobsonfly Chloronia sp.

But, like so many seemingly dangerous invertebrates, a male dobsonfly could not hurt anybody even if he really tried. The gigantic mandibles are for show only, and the animal barely has enough muscle power to open and close them; actually biting is completely out of the question. Males use these ridiculous implements in largely ritualized combat with their rivals, a slower, weaker version of the jostling display seen in stag beetles. But be careful with dobsonfly females – while the males carry a pair of chopsticks, these have a pair of powerful wire cutters that can easily draw blood from careless fingers. Dobsonflies don’t live long as adults and, other than drinking water or an occasional visit to a flower to sip some nectar, don’t feed, and die within a few days.

A female dobsonfly taking off from a leaf at night in Tapanti National Park in Costa Rica.

A female dobsonfly taking off from a leaf at night in Tapanti National Park in Costa Rica.

The genus Corydalus is represented by 34 species, found mostly in the tropical regions of the Americas, and only the Eastern dobsonfly (C. cornutus) reaches as far North as Canada, while two additional species can be found in the southernmost parts of the US. The mandibles are enlarged in males of most species in this and in a closely related genus Acanthacorydalis from E Asia, although in Costa Rica I once caught a male of another dobsonfly with exaggerated sexual traits, Platyneuromus soror. His head carried two strange plates that reminded me of the facial lobes seen in an old male orangutan. Why they have them is unknown as they do not appear to use them in any way during courtship or mating.

The function of the large lobes on the head of Central American dobsonfly Platyneuromus soror is a complete mystery.

The function of the large lobes on the head of Central American dobsonfly Platyneuromus soror is a complete mystery.

The larvae of dobsonflies are aquatic and are well known to fishermen as hellgrammites (or helgies) – large, wiggly insects that make excellent bait for bass and trout. They are predators of other aquatic insects, such as caddis flies. Interestingly, while most species prefer large, well-oxygenated bodies of water (and thus make good indicator species of water quality), larvae of some hugewing species are capable of developing in such unusual habitats as water accumulated in tree holes or the digestive liquid at the bottom of pitcher plants. Those species that live in seasonal bodies of water are capable of aestivation, burying themselves is mud cocoons to await the return of water (very much like the lungfish). Interestingly, dried larvae of Megaloptera are used in Japanese traditional medicine to treat emotional problems in children, they are also consumed as a snack Zazamushi (not very tasty, according to my friend Kenji).

Hugewings give the impression of being ancient and primordial, and for good reason. They date back to the Permian, and are probably direct descendants of some of the earliest holometabolan insect (insects with the complete metamorphosis). They used to be lumped with the Neuroptera (netwings), but there is good evidence for their status as a monophyletic sister group to the Neuroptera.

Three species of hugewings common in New England.

Three species of hugewings common in New England.

Mozambique Diary: Poetic justice

The Cape centipede-eater (Aparallactus capensis) from Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

The Cape centipede-eater (Aparallactus capensis) from Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

If we lived in an ideal world, right about now I would have been putting on my headlamp to begin stalking katydids in the luxuriantly green savannas of Gorongosa National Park. But, alas, we don’t. For reasons beyond my control I had to postpone a trip to Mozambique, although I hope to be able to get there within the next couple of months or so, and witness the park in its full, rainy season splendor.

When I was in Gorongosa in May, conducting a biodiversity survey of the Cheringoma Plateau, I was introduced by our intrepid herpetologists, MO Roedel and Harith Farooq, to an interesting little snake. The Cape centipede-eater (Aparallactus capensis), feeds, as the name suggests, exclusively on centipedes. These arthropods are not the friendliest of creatures, in fact I have a very healthy dose of respect for these powerful, blindingly fast predators. All centipedes are venomous and those large enough to be able to puncture human skin can deliver nasty, nasty bites. Their body shape, however, seems to make them ideal prey for snakes – they are long and thin, and a single centipede would nicely fill a snake of comparable size.

Aparallactus hunts by grabbing the victim in the middle of the body and slowly working its way towards the head, eventually swallowing the centipede head-first. The scales on this snake’s body are particularly hard, making it difficult for the centipede to sink its fangs (forcipules) into the reptile. At the same time the snake’s venom quickly subdues and kills the prey. Aparallactus belongs to a lineage of snakes known as side-stabbing snakes (Atractaspididae), which includes several deadly venomous species. But despite being powerfully venomous, centipede-eaters are not dangerous to humans as their short fangs are located in the back of the jaw and cannot reach the surface of our skin; one of the members of the genus, Aparallactus modestus, is even entirely fangless and feeds mostly on earthworms.

I have read that Aparallactus are immune to venom of their centipede prey, but the same cannot be said of other snakes found in Gorongosa. One rainy night on Mt. Gorongosa I ran across a scene that reinforced my high opinion of these multi-legged invertebrates: a large centipede was efficiently chomping to bits a House snake (Lamprophis capensis). If this is not the best example of poetic justice then I don’t know what is.

Centipede (Ethmostigmus sp.) devouring a House snake (Lamprophis capensis)

Centipede (Ethmostigmus sp.) devouring a House snake (Lamprophis capensis)

The amazing Glass katydid

A young nymph of Glass katydid (Phlugis teres) from Suriname sitting on the tip of my finger.

A young nymph of Glass katydid (Phlugis teres) from Suriname sitting on the tip of my finger.

Once again things have been slow on my blog as I am trying to finish a million little things before my upcoming departure for Mozambique. I will be arriving there at the beginning of the rainy season, which means tons of insects and other invertebrates, a multitude of frogs, and hopefully some great new stories for this blog.

One of the animals that I hope to see there is a pretty, yet unnamed katydid from Mt. Gorongosa, which I first found last year in the mid-elevation rainforest on the mountain slopes. I am now working on its formal description and will post its photos as soon as the paper is out. In the meantime I thought I would present one of its close relatives, the amazing Glass katydid from Central and South America, a member of the genus Phlugis (Listroscelidinae).

As they age, Glass katydids begin to lose their transparency, and older nymphs and aduls acquire pale green coloration.

As they age, Glass katydids begin to lose their transparency, and older nymphs and aduls acquire pale green coloration.

I coined the name Glass katydid after seeing for the first time young nymphs of Phlugis teres, a species found in Suriname, who display remarkable, nearly complete transparency of their bodies. These minute insects truly look as if they were made of glass and, peering closely, it is possible to see most of their internal organs, including the entire tracheal system. Unfortunately, these katydids lose most of the transparency as they get older, and eventually acquire pale green coloration, occasionally marked with brown accents.

It would seem that something so seemingly fragile cannot feed on anything other than dew and rose petals, but in fact Glass katydids are agile, powerful predators. Unlike most of neotropical katydids, the genus Phlugis includes many diurnal species that use their excellent vision to find prey, and their hunting technique is very clever. Glass katydids are sit-and-wait predators who spend most of the day sitting upside down on the underside of large, thin leaves, usually at the edge of the rainforest or in open, shrubby habitats. They prefer leaves that are fully exposed to the sun so that any insect landing on its upper surface will cast a dark, sharply defined shadow. And that shadow is what Glass katydids are waiting for – it tells them whether the insect is a hard beetle (not good) or a soft fly (excellent), and if the insect looks like a good meal they launch themselves from under the leaf and onto its surface, and capture the victim with their long, very spiny legs in a blink of an eye.

In addition to being some of the most sophisticated and fastest orthopteran predators, Glass katydids are famous for the sound they produce – their call exceeds the frequency of 55 kHz, which is about three times the frequency a human ear is capable of hearing. A closely related genus Archnoscelis holds the record of producing the highest frequency call among all invertebrates – a whopping 129 kHz, twice the frequency of echolocation of most bats, and about 10 times more than the hearing ability of most adult humans. Another reminder that the ability to look cool and do amazing things seems to be inversely correlated with the body size.

Their huge eyes are a good indication of Glass katydids’ mode of hunting – they are diurnal sit-and-wait predators of small flies and other soft insects. This newly discovered, yet unnamed species from Costa Rica hunts small flying insects along the edges of mid-elevation rainforest.

Their huge eyes are a good indication of Glass katydids’ mode of hunting – they are diurnal sit-and-wait predators of small flies and other soft insects. This newly discovered, yet unnamed species of Phlugis from Costa Rica hunts small flying insects along the edges of mid-elevation rainforest.