Bone Dry 5

4 July 2015: Katopa, Lomami River, Democratic Republic of the Congo

First of all, let me start by saying happy 4th of July!  I hope everyone will enjoy some barbeque, which I would love to have in place of the nearly constant meals of rice, beans, cassava and fish.  Because I have a 60 MB limit for my internet use this summer and the last post burned up 16 MB, I will only post one photo until I can get back to a good internet connection in Kampala—thanks for your understanding and patience.

Chombe-Kilima had a few more surprises in store for us before we decided to follow the plan outlined in my last post.  As we continued to work in the forests surrounding the village, more interesting animals turned up, including several unknown species of frogs and a Trachylepis skink with striking dark brown and cream stripes on its flanks.  Chifundera mentioned that he collected two additional skinks like the one we had found during the previous trip to the TL2 area last month, and so if it turns out to be a new species to science as I suspect, we will have enough specimens to officially describe it.

As I was working in my laboratory during the afternoon, a man brought us an enormous forest cobra (Naja melanoleuca) that had died while trying to steal a rodent from a small-mammal trap he had set in the forest.  Remarkably, we manage to obtain, on average, one cobra a year when we work in the lowland rainforest from this frequent accident (see my post from last year with nearly identical circumstances).  The animal we obtained this way this year was a male measuring about 6 feet in total length.  We thought the big venomous snake exciting captures were over, but the very next day, a man brought us a 6-foot Jameson’s mamba (Dendroaspis jamesoni), which had been killed because it had taken up residence in a palm tree dangerously close to the village.  This species is probably the most poorly known species of mamba in Africa, but if it is similar to its cousin the green mamba, it is likely to be extremely venomous and very quick.  However, bites are generally rare because they tend to frequent trees several meters off the ground, and they usually take off when a threat is perceived by their keen eyesight.  The color pattern is striking—the color on the head is lime green, and this color transitions to a neon yellow as one progresses down to the tail; mixed in with this is a large streak of black from the neck to about the middle of the body.  Although I have no way of fact checking this from here, I wonder if this species is named for James S. Jameson, a British man who accompanied the famous African explorer Henry Morton Stanley through the Congo Free State (the name for DR Congo in the 19th century) during an ill-fated expedition to relieve Emin Pasha, the marooned governor of Equatoria in present-day South Sudan.  Although Jameson and several other British members of the so-called Emin Pasha Relief Expedition died from causes ranging from tropical disease (no doubt exacerbated by starvation) to skirmishes with the local tribes, he seemed to spend at least some of his time collecting natural history specimens, so my suspicion seems to be consistent with the information I have read about him (Liebowitz and Pearson, 2005).

Once the excitement of the snakes had worn off, we decided it would be best for the team to travel by foot to Katopa on the Lomami River so that we could have an opportunity to sample herps on the other side of a major river.  As I have explained before, the larger the river, the more likely it is to be a barrier to dispersal for terrestrial vertebrate species, and thus we would be more likely to find additional new species if we could cross the Lomami.  Even if the species turned out to be the same or at least look similar, we would then have DNA samples to make genetic comparisons from sites on opposite sides of the river to actually test whether it is a barrier to dispersal or not.  This is one of the major goals of my grant from NSF, and the route would take us through the core protected area of the park, so we would have an opportunity to see the landscape in its most pristine state far from the noisy village where we had spent most of our time.

As we entered the forest, I could see a thick carpet of large, brown leaves on the forest floor, a likely consequence of the lack of rain.  With the exception of a brief 15-minute sprinkle at Chombe-Kilima, we hadn’t seen any rain at all, and the ground had little standing water or mud aside from the banks of small streams.  Compared to other areas of the world, Africa’s rainforests receive the least rainfall, and we certainly seemed to be experiencing the height of the dry season.  Nevertheless, the many plants of the forest were continuing their process of evapotranspiration whereby water passes through the roots and out of the leaves into the air, and within an hour of entering the forest to start the long journey to Katopa, my shirt was completely soaked in sweat from the thick humidity.  The calls of several kinds of birds echoed through the forest as we walked, and I admired the beautiful dragonflies, which ranged in color from brilliant indigo to iridescent royal purple.  Orange and white butterflies with intricate patterns danced along the path, seemingly guiding us along the way.

A couple of hours later we emerged from the dim light of the forest into the first of many areas of savanna.  Upon closer inspection, the savanna seemed to be a dried up marsh consisting of white sandy soil, grass and reeds.  The sun had baked the sandy soil into the consistency of concrete, and the uneven and narrow footpath was punishing on our feet.  With several inches or more of standing water, these areas would likely be impossible to cross on foot in the rainy season, but I wondered what kind of frogs might be active there if only water were present.  At least at this time of year, it would be easier to move from place to place and sample more sites, but of course I would like to return during the rainy season in the future.  Although we were partially saved by overcast skies, the savannas were quite hot (I estimate the temperature was in the low 90s), and later in the afternoon when the sun peaked through the clouds, the white sand reflected the heat back to our bodies.  Once again I could imagine elephants emerging from the surrounding forest to wallow in the marshy savannas in the rainy season, but our porters said that they only occasionally sighted sitatunga and other antelope in the savannas.   I guess the park’s elephants lived even deeper in the forest than I had hoped.

We spent the night next to the small Lojo River in the forest, where Chifundera got a brief glimpse of a large, green Gastropholis lizard.  These spectacular arboreal lizards spend most of their time on trees and in the canopy of the forest, and although my team has managed to see two over the years (I missed them both times!) we have never come even slightly close to catching one.  Without a jetpack to reach the canopy we wouldn’t have a chance anyway, but I hope to at least get a photo of one if my luck is good.  Once darkness fell, the team managed to find more of the interesting toads we had seen at Chombe-Kilima and some tiny Arthroleptis frogs, which were hopping through leaf litter a few meters away from a stream.

Just after dawn we were off again, but this time as we passed through a long stretch of forest, our luck began to improve.  I spotted another one of the skinks with the striped flanks sunning itself on a branch near the trail, and Wandege helped me catch it.  A few minutes later Wandege and I caught up to three of our porters, who had deposited their loads on the trail and were busy poking the leaf litter with long sticks.  When I asked them if they had seen something in my broken French, all three of them responded with a unanimous “Oui!”  They said a reddish lizard had scurried across the trail into the leaf litter, and when they started poking around to look for it, they had stumbled upon a snake!  All of us immediately dropped everything we were carrying to dig through the leaf litter, and at one point, I got a brief glimpse of a gray, scaly body burrowing through the loose sand just under the surface of the leaf litter.  We spent the next half hour digging up the layers of dead leaves, shriveled plant roots, moss, fungi and other detritus on the forest floor to look for the animals, and after considerable effort, we were able to find both of them.  One was a handsome Lepidothyris red-sided skink, and the other was a legless lizard that I present to the students below (when I can post a photo later) for the cybertaxonomy project.

Katopa Burrowing Lizard

Sweaty from our work but energized with the finds, we continued into yet another patch of savanna, but this time it was late morning and the full sun cooked our bodies as we slowly followed the small white path leading towards our goal.  Imagine my surprise, when out of nowhere, Aristote emerged from a small tussock of grass with a Ptychadena rocket frog!  How in the world the animal could survive in the heat with no water I can’t imagine, but just when I thought it was an anomaly, Wandege found a 2nd one nearby.  Usually these frogs are different shades of brown or green without much of a pattern, but these individuals were intricately patterned with different shades of brown, black, white and gold.  I will try to post a photo later (it now appears below):

Wild Chombe Savanna Frog

but for now here is a photo of the savanna with the little white trail leading to the forest in the background.

Savanna Forest Chombe Kilima

Several more hours of uneventful walking led us, at last, to the banks of the Lomami River.  Our young porters, obviously frustrated with our slow pace, were nowhere in sight and we couldn’t see any way to cross the river, which was about 150 feet in width.  As we rested and waited, Wandege went to wash his face in a small stream that had branched off from the river into the forest.  My interest piqued when I saw his cat-like pounce in the mud next to the stream, and when Aristote and I joined him, we soon found several very tiny Phrynobatrachus puddle frogs, barely a quarter of an inch long.  It’s impossible to know if they are juveniles that happened to be in the same place, but my guess is that they are adults and probably another new species.  They are distinct from other puddle frogs I have seen both in their size and by the neon orange color of their flanks.

Eventually the ICCN station caretakers at Katopa heard our whistles from the opposite bank and fetched us in a small dugout canoe.  As we passed over the Lomami, we moved from Maniema Province (some sources say Maniema means maneater, for the infamous cannibal tribes from Congo) to Kasai Orientale Province, which is best known for its large diamond mines.  We found our porters patiently waiting for us in the nice campsite, which had excellent shelters for our tents, laboratory, and even places to wash in privacy.  The welcome wagon included enormous blue butterflies and a chattering troop of slender monkeys with golden brown tails, which hopped between large trees from the most precarious branches at least 50 feet above the ground.  With the exception of this modest clearing, the place is surrounded by the forest, and we wasted no time looking for animals.  A very colorful Lygodactylus gecko turned up on trees almost immediately, and in the evening, a completely different group of frogs were found along streams in the forest, including a wide-headed, green Leptopelis with a strange call.  Only one of the frogs that we are finding here looks similar to the ones on the other side of the river, but the results from the DNA will tell us if that similarity is only superficial.

Best of all, the day after we arrived there was a heavy downpour of rain, and it rained again this afternoon.  With luck, the moisture will trigger more frog species to emerge from their hiding places underground, and we can continue to document the amazing biodiversity of the virtually unexplored forest in this area.  There seem to be only two down sides to the place:  1) although we are deep in the forest and the deforestation from the village seems to be minimal, the toad Amietophrynus gutturalis (or something that looks like it), normally associated with savannas and clearings, is very common on the river banks here, and its call is extremely loud when one is trying to sleep at night—multiply the call by hundreds of even thousands of individuals within earshot and it can be deafening; and 2) there are a fair number of tsetse flies shadowing the river, and with their long proboscis, one really gets stabbed by the flies rather than bitten.  However, everyone says there is no problem with sleeping sickness in this area.  One of the positive aspects of Congo’s colonization was that the Belgians did a very good job eradicating this deadly disease from nearly every remote corner of the country.  Thanks goodness for that—the treatment for sleeping sickness is NOT fun.

Plan is to stay here for a few more days and then head back to Kindu with a very long motorcycle ride if we can convince our previous crew to drive all the way out to Katopa to pick us up.  If there is enough time after that, we might try to hit up one more place east of the Lualaba River before the return flight to Goma on the 15th.  Over and out for now!  Below is the book I cited in this post:

Liebowitz, D. and C. Pearson. 2005. The Last Expedition: Stanley’s Mad Journey Through the Congo. W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London.

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