21 June 2015: Kampala, Uganda
Hard to believe it has been a week since my last post, but time flies when one is having fun. After filing my last post near the town of Buhoma in Bwindi, the rain eventually tapered off and we were cautioned to look out for thieving blue monkeys (Cercopithecus mitis), which looked at our bananas with hungry eyes from the edge of the restaurant. Following a final snack just before dusk, the team was able to climb about 1,000 feet into the mountains to look for more rare frogs. As part of a strategy to maximize our search, Mathias and Danny dashed ahead with a ranger to a swamp that we were told was just over the summit, while Wendy and I took the slow-and-steady approach up the mountain, searching more carefully for things in the leaf litter and streams along the way. As we were climbing the corkscrew trail, something caught my eye in the leaf litter in the buttress of one of the large rainforest trees. Searching more carefully, I discovered the frog that is shown below, and I present it to my students to identify for the cybertaxonomy project. I will give one clue- it is NOT a toad, and based on the markings, location and elevation (about 1600 meters), it might be a new species to science, which is always exciting.
Wendy and I eventually reached the summit after a 3-hour hike through slippery and muddy trails, where we found a pygmy chameleon (Rhampholeon boulengeri) pretending to be a dead leaf on a branch of a tree about 2 meters above the ground. Our guide told us that the swamp was another 2 hours down on the other side of the mountain (this was a mistake- it was only 20 minutes away!) so we turned back because it was already 10 PM and it would take at least an hour to descend back to our basecamp. When Danny and Mathias caught up with us just before returning to camp, they told us that they heard a gorilla beating its chest as a warning when they reached the summit only an hour before us, perhaps as a warning to another silverback that it was coming too close to his territory. Danny remarked that Christmas had come early, because the swamp had been very good for frogs—among other gems, they found Hyperolius lateralis, a species that is common in the Albertine Rift in Uganda and Rwanda, but I had never encountered it on the Congolese side of the border. Some fancy acrobatics were needed to catch the frogs because the swamp had very steep sides along its edge, requiring them to grab onto trees with one arm, while they dangled their bodies over the water to find the frogs.
Very pleased with the bounty, but with the expedition clock ticking, we moved on the next day to Ruhija, where I had spent about a week the previous year. There was a swamp near Ruhija (at about 2200 meters elevation) where I had found some interesting frogs the previous year, and after confirming that one of them was a new species in the lab at UTEP, I wanted to come back to record the call of the males and find more females, which were lacking in my previous samples. We stayed in the “Rock House” (perhaps because of its rocky façade?) in the heart of the forest, which had rustic accommodations, including a wooden outhouse, no running water and a solar panel for modest amounts of electricity. Remembering that a column of army ants had come down through the chimney to attack a colleague in her sleep the previous year (see Bwindi’s Bounty post from 2014: http://eligreenbaum.utep.edu/blog/bwindis-bounty/) I insisted that we keep a fire going at night to discourage a repeat attack, but we soon discovered that the chimney was partially blocked, and smoke filled the house each time we did this.
As we descended a steep mountain trail to reach the marsh, I spotted a female Johnston’s chameleon (Trioceros johnstoni) sleeping on a tree. Wendy let it crawl onto her hat, and because her head was much warmer than the surrounding air temperature (15 degrees Celcius, or about mid-50s Fahrenheit), it decided to sleep there for the rest of the evening while we looked for frogs. When we returned to the swamp where we had found the frogs the previous year, we found the new species of treefrog happily calling for mates, but there was a foul stench emanating from the water. The local villagers told us that elephants had recently visited the marsh in the middle of the night and virtually destroyed it with their trampling and sloppy feeding. Much of the shredded vegetation was decaying, which was the source of the odor. Besides the new treefrog we were targeting, the diversity of frogs was low, so we called it a night after a couple of hours and started the uphill trek back to the Rock House.
We had nearly reached the rocky steps leading to our lodging when Mathias decided to stop at our truck to retrieve something he had forgotten. As we waited for him, Danny suddenly shouted and pointed out an extraordinary sight in a tree a few meters above our heads. There we saw a Forest Wolf Snake (Lycophidion ornatum) approaching a juvenile chameleon, which was sleeping on the edge of a branch in the tree. As I started filming with my video camera, we watched as the snake attacked the chameleon for its evening meal. This was astonishing because this species of Wolf Snake is not known to be arboreal or stalk chameleons, and in fact, every time I had encountered it in the past, it was always somewhere on the floor of the forest. When we checked the best available book on Reptiles of East Africa, we learned that very little is known about the behavior, ecology or natural history of this snake, and the authors assumed it only ate skinks on the forest floor. I was able to step onto a large pile of firewood that had been placed near the tree for local rangers and I retrieved the snake to confirm its identity.
The following morning we were all disappointed to find that the snake had escaped from the only container we had left from the marsh, which was obviously not strong enough to hold it. Snakes are infamous escape artists and the Wolf Snake had found a tiny hole from which to flee. I told Danny not to lose heart, because we had enough photos and videos to document the snake’s unknown behavior for a nice publication, but we all shared the disappointment.
We had so many specimens to process that we again had to divide the team to finish the sampling work on one hand, and look for more animals on the other. Wendy and I worked on the former task while Danny and Mathias went with a ranger to explore another swamp that was a couple hours walk into the forest. While they were gone, I tried in vain to start a new fire with the soggy wood that we had at hand, but Wendy got it going with a single inexplicable attempt just as I was about to give up. Once again most of the smoke billowed out of the fireplace into the living room, and our eyes and throats began to burn as the house became very smoky. After a few hours the fire died down and the smoke began to dissipate from the house. Just before midnight we awoke to yells of delight from Danny. Just before reaching the door, Danny spotted the escaped Wolf Snake, which had obviously decided that the house was too smoky to reside in any longer! Below is a photo of the animal. It was an incredible stroke of luck, and it added to the bonanza of frogs that Danny and Mathias had collected in the swamp, including the rare Vissoke Puddle Frog (Phrynobatrachus bequaerti), which I had seen only once before when German colleague J. Max Dehling brought a handful from the same place in 2014.
The team was in high spirits the next morning when we were preparing to leave Bwindi, but there was one last surprise in store for us. Danny noticed a strange lizard in the wooden outhouse and I was delighted when he brought it to me. It is a very rare species that I had never encountered before, and I present a photo of it below for a double-header cybertaxonomy project for the students. As a clue, the belly was bright yellowish orange (you can see a hint of the color in the photo below).
Next, we loaded the truck and prepared to head to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in the extreme southwestern corner of Uganda. The park is home to 10 of its namesake mountain gorillas, which tourists can glimpse for $600 per visit. However, Mgahinga is in the Virunga Mountains range at the intersection of Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo (all of which have their own national parks to protect gorillas), so many of the roughly 600 other mountain gorillas in the range wander into Mgahinga on a regular basis, especially when warfare flares up in DR Congo and they need to escape the violence. Besides gorillas, the park is also home to the golden monkey (Cercopithecus kandti), a small population of forest elephants and a much larger group of forest buffaloes, which can be very dangerous when they think humans are encroaching on their territory. Although the Virungas had been sampled for herps (amphibians and reptiles) well in recent years on the Rwandan side of the border and the Congolese side had been worked even more in the colonial era, we couldn’t find many records of people working on the Ugandan side, and we wondered if there might be some surprises in store for us. We wouldn’t be disappointed.
But shortly after leaving the rough and rocky road from Bwindi onto the nice paved road that led to Mgahinga, we had to turn back because a horrible bus crash had closed down the entire two-lane highway. We had a choice: we could either take a circuitous route all the way to Mgahinga for several hours, or we could return to Lake Bunyonyi, where we had found the poorly known frog Amietia lubrica the year before (see the above link again for Bwindi’s Bounty from 2014). We didn’t need any more Amietia, but we had failed to find a Hyperolius treefrog that was calling from deep in the lake the year before. Because the lake is so beautiful and we craved a break from the rough accommodations we had endured thus far, we booked a night at the comfortable Bird’s Nest Hotel, which has a spectacular view of the lake. The hotel owner even let us borrow his boat, which we used to paddle out to an island of flooded reeds just off the shore. Our boots were soaked up to our knees as we waded through the razor-sharp vegetation, but we were able to collect a few of the treefrogs we wanted, and Danny even found a couple chameleons, which we were not expecting to find in such a place. The chameleons seemed to belong to a common and widespread species, but their coloration was rather unusual, and we are looking forward to seeing how their DNA places them in the family phylogenetic tree that Danny is working on for his dissertation. Below is a photo of one of the more spectacularly colored treefrogs.
Everyone got some much-needed rest at the Bird’s Nest, and only a couple hours later we reached the town of Kisoro a few minutes away from Mgahinga. Danny and I recalled Kisoro as the place where we had been treated to great coffee and pastries after crossing the border from DR Congo the previous summer, and sure enough, the shop was still in business. Fueled with caffeine and a nice breakfast, we drove up the foothills of the Virungas to Mgahinga and met a ranger named Ishmael who agreed to show us around. He showed us the outside of a beautiful and impressive visitor’s center that had been constructed with partial funding from USAID, and we marveled at the beautiful forested glen adjacent to it. Below is a panoramic view of this place with Wendy at the center.
We then started a difficult trek into the patchwork of recovering natural montane forest (parts of the park had been reclaimed from farmers a few decades before) and grassland. When I briefly wandered off to explore a small pond, a buffalo snorted at me from some hidden vantage point in the bush, and everyone laughed at me as I ran back to the group, thinking it was an elephant. Both animals can be equally dangerous, and I was glad to have our armed escort to protect us.
The vegetation was full of thorny vines and weed-like stalks with painful spines that seemed to break off purposefully into the skin when one brushed against them. We pressed on as best as we could, and we soon found a couple uncommon skinks with very long tails in tussocks of grass (Trachylepis megalura). A cold mist rolled into the hills as we took a rest and waited for darkness to fall, and when we got moving again just after dusk, Danny started spotting sleeping chameleons (Trioceros rudis and T. johnstoni) left and right. Our guide seemed to get lost a few times, perhaps because he was losing his bearings in the dark, but after another hour or two of wandering through the thick vegetation, and sometimes using our bodies as machetes to make new paths, we returned to a small pond that we had found in the afternoon. Now that it was dark, it was full of calling treefrogs, and I got to work recording their calls and making some short videos of them. At some point during our wanderings, Wendy gave us a scare by falling sideways into a large pit that was likely made by the random digging of an elephant. She got a few bruises and was completely soaked to the bone from the muddy water, but her laughter allayed our fears that she had broken a bone.
We returned the next day to try our luck with a swampy area at the edge of the park. Following a difficult walk through muddy tussocks of grass and shrubs, we jumped a rocky wall at the edge of the park (erected to keep buffaloes out of grazing areas for cattle and goats) and continued on rolling hills of short grass that were crisscrossed with tiny streams and puddles of water. In several of them we found many different kinds of frogs that we had not encountered before, including an oddly colored Amietia, the deafening calls of the Kassina Walking Frog and a tiny Phrynobatrachus puddle frog that maxed out at only a centimeter in size.
Yesterday Mathias, Wendy and I had a grueling 10-hour drive to Kampala, where the team (minus Danny, who decided to stay behind to work some more with a Ugandan student) is getting some rest before Wendy returns to the USA tomorrow. Of course I will be sad to see the expedition medic go, because she has provided the team with good spirits and the comfort of professional medical care! After that, I will make a mad dash to the DR Congo border at Bunagana, where I hope to reach Goma in time for a flight to Kindu on Wednesday. The expedition has already been challenging and interesting, but the unknown and remote area west of Kindu promises to be a biologist’s paradise and traveler’s nightmare at the same time. Such is the alluring paradox of Congo!