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Studying Insects: Back in Gorongosa

March 18, 2013

Yesterday I arrived in the spectacular Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Last time when I was here the place was dry and dusty, but now, at the end of the rainy season the luxuriant vegetation is vibrantly green and after the misery of Boston’s winter the air feels throat-soothingly humid. During the day Gorongosa’s woodlands vibrate with calls of cicadas and grasshoppers, while nights are thick with crickets and frogs, randomly punctuated with blood-curling screams of a bushbaby. On my first stroll after dark I counted eleven species of praying mantids, and immediately ran into three species of katydids that I had not seen during my previous visit. Sandy paths around the main camp of the park are Roman arenas full of carnage indiscriminately dispensed by solifugids and giant Anthia beetles. Every lightbulb along the camp’s roads is dimmed with clouds of moths, dung beetles, and ants, and under each one sits a fat toad, gorging on the seasonal manna. It is heaven.


Photo: One of the first katydids I spotted was a female of Horatosphaga serrifera, an elusive species, known only from a small handful of specimens. This group of katydids is highly sexually dimorphic and males look nothing like this chunky, flightless females.


The purpose of my visit to Gorongosa is to lead a month-long survey of plants and animals of the Cheringoma Plateau, the poorly explored eastern rim of the Great African Rift Valley, of which Gorongosa is the southernmost tip. In a few weeks a large group of biologists will descend on the park, and trap, record, photograph, sample, measure, weigh, track, trace, and triangulate every plant, mammal, bird, reptile, frog, dung beetle, ant, katydid, and praying mantis living here. We will leave no stone unturned, no twig unchecked for ants, and no pile of dung uninspected for beetles. I will not be surprised if, once all the collected material is processed and identified, we might be able to double the number of species recorded from Gorongosa, which currently stands at 1,790 confirmed animals and plants. But before this happens there is still a lot of work to do and tomorrow Marc Stalmans, Gorongosa’s chief scientist and I are leaving on a reconnaissance trip to select the survey’s camp sites.


As a scientist I am absolutely giddy with excitement about what we will find and document, and as a nature photographer I am itching to point my lens at everybody and everything that crosses our path on the Cheringoma Plateau. In preparation for this unique opportunity I had packed my brand spanking new Canon 400mm; a cool new gizmo called NeroTrigger to remotely capture elusive nocturnal animals; a battery of flashes and macro lenses; and a waterproof housing for my camera to get some shots of the underwater life. All in all, really great gear. It is thus rather unfortunate that all of it was lost on my way to Mozambique. South African Airlines gladly took my luggage and a big wad of cash for the extra piece, but somehow forgot about the delivery part of the deal. There is a big Pelican case with $12,000 worth of gear floating somewhere in the nether regions of the aviation industry, and I can only hope that at some point it will resurface and I am reunited with my beloved gear. In the meantime I will make do with what I have, perhaps the limitations of my current gear will spur me to be more creative. Watch this space.


Photo: Below my feet, carnage. A big Anthia ground beetle killed another individual and is now gorging on it favorite soft part – the ripped off genitalia.


By Piotr Naskrecki


Read more on his blog The Smaller Majority


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