Well, here we are, in Durban; six weeks have come and gone, and it’s already time for us to go back home.
These last two weeks have been pretty crazy, between continuing internet problems, booking and communication issues, collecting woes, submerged bridges, and inaccessible hotels, but we got more bugs! And from much needed groups at that!
Last week, after some not-so-great collecting in the public-access areas of Hluhlue Park (i.e. picnic sites and parking lots), we moved on to the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park area. We stayed in St. Lucia, a really cute little beach town by the reserve. We sampled around town and in and around the reserve, in areas that were either big-five-free (fenced off from parts of the reserve containing the big five most dangerous African mammals: lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, buffalo) or in those that were designated as public-access (i.e. picnic sites and hiking trails that often sported signs like this one below).
Our collection success in these areas was still rather dismal though, possibly due to the fact that they are highly disturbed in non-natural ways. We suspect that the current climatic conditions (South Africa has been having a drought this year) and the time of year (late summer) may be factors as well, but in some of the habitats we sampled, there simply might not be any coreids.
However, during our stay in Saint Lucia, we heard back from the Hluhlue-iMfolozi park scientist, with some great news: a game guard/guide would be available to escort us during our second visit to the park!! This meant that we would finally be able to sample within the park, along the roads, and walking into the vegetation, instead of only in picnic sites and right outside our chalet. As you can imagine, we were thrilled.
Since we had stayed at Hilltop and sampled in the Hluhlue side of the park the week before, this week we were scheduled to stay at the Mpila Lodge and sample the iMfolozi side.
Africa had other plans though…
Early Monday morning, we departed St. Lucia and drove through the rain to the park. We were scheduled to meet with the park scientist and our guide at the research center (near Hilltop, on the Hluhlue side) in the morning, then collect into the afternoon before checking into Mpila (on the iMfolozi side).
When we got to the nearest park gate though, the staff didn’t want to let us through. They said that the rain had made the roads very muddy and flooded in parts, and that there was no way our vehicle (an SUV-style car without 4WD) would make it to the research center or to Mpila from that gate. They told us we should try the other gate, Nyalazi (a two-hour drive around the park from where we were, Memorial Gate). We tried to call the park scientist with no luck (Michael’s international plan was having one of its “moments” and had apparently given up on life), so we sent him an email with the one bar of data reception Michael was getting, hoped he would receive it, and got in the car to head for Nyalazi Gate.
Thankfully, we kept trying to call him as we drove, and before we had gotten too far, one of the phone calls went through long enough for him to tell us to turn around and come back to Memorial Gate. He said we should be able to make it to the research center from there, but we definitely would not make it from Nyalazi Gate, so back we went.
Above: Vistor Map of Hluhlue from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife
After some confusion and driving through some muddy, bumpy roads, we finally made it to the research center a few hours later (without getting stuck! yeay!), met with the park scientist, and made the arrangements for a guide to come collecting with us from Tuesday through Thursday (at that point it was already too late to get any collecting done that day). One hurtle conquered; next task: check-in at Mpila.
It was still raining though, and with the current state of the roads, it was impossible for us to get to Mpila from the research center through the inside of the park, so off we went to try Nyalazi Gate.
Two hours later, we made it to the gate, got the ok to go through with caution, and made it about 8 km into iMfolozi, but...
The torrential rains had fed the Umfolozi River to the point that it had completely covered one of the bridges we needed to cross and was swiftly flowing over it. The water was deep, and the currents were strong. Mpila was out of the question.
Thankfully, Michael's international plan and partner back home came to our rescue once again, and we were able to get accommodations back in St. Lucia for the night. On the road again we went! Happily, that was the last of our troubles for the day. We arrived at our hotel that evening, checked-in without issues, and checked out the next morning for “iMfolozi: take two.”
This time, we were able to collect, and in fact, we had a pretty fantastic day of collecting. Our guide, Erick, was super helpful: he knew a lot about plants and had a very good bug-spotting eye too! He actually spotted a bug that we really needed for the phylogeny! By the end of the day, all the cup holders in the car and all of our pockets were full of vials with bugs; it was pretty great.
However, our good luck that day did not extend to road conditions: the bridge was still impassable and Mpila unreachable, so we had to go back to St. Lucia again.
The weather report did not forecast conditions getting any better in the next few days, so this time, we decided to forego our reservation at Mpila and book accommodations in St. Lucia for the rest of our stay in the area (Not only were we unlikely to be able to get past that bridge and to Mpila anytime soon; there was also the risk of getting through but then not being able to get back out later. We couldn't risk getting stuck on the other side and not being able to drive to Durban in time for our flight home this weekend).
Wednesday was another epic collecting day. We found bugs from the elusive Latimbini tribe at last (We think —Michael will have to verify under the scope when we get back home). We had been looking for those bugs since we got here, and we had even checked the specimens at the KZN Museum to see where and on what they had been collected; the label information on those had led us to search the coastal scrub and dune forests in the St. Lucia area, but we'd had no luck. Well, we asked, and iMfolozi provided! We also caught a member of another tribe on our wish list, and a few other species. We even got some footage of fighting and mating behavior of some bugs in the wild! And to top off our day, we befriended a humongous mantid and spotted some elephants.
Thursday, our last day of collecting, was not so great. Not only were the bugs not cooperating (i.e. they were hiding really well it seems, because we were finding very few), but also Michael encountered another common traveler problem: the stomach bug (not the kind of bug we wanted!), so we had to cut the collecting a bit short. Thankfully though, it seems to be a mild and short-lived illness, and he is doing better today.
This morning we checked out of our hotel in St. Lucia and drove to Durban. Tomorrow we will process samples (they must be transferred from alcohol to propylene glycol for the flight, for safety reasons) and pack, and on Sunday already we will head back to the US.
It’s hard to believe the six weeks are up, but then I start looking back at all the things that have happened since we left home, all the adventures we’ve had, all the places we’ve been, people we’ve met, animals we’ve seen, and bugs we’ve caught, and I can see where all the time went!
Well, here’s to more adventures!
Thanks Africa! Hope to see you again soon!
This is Michael, and I thought I would personally write a special post that highlights some of the issues and concerns we have experienced since leaving Pietermaritzburg and coming to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (Visit 1 of 2). It’s typical for most foreign travel expeditions to have their complications and snags, and we seem to have hit them all of a sudden.
When we departed Pietermaritzburg, we made a quick stop in St. Lucia to talk with our KZN Wildlife Research Coordinator about sampling sites within the iSimangaliso and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi reserves. During this meeting, it was discussed that game guards for all KZN Wildlife protected areas are no longer available to researchers due to increased poaching activity and limited resources to combat it. Unfortunately, this means that Daniela and I are restricted to sampling in public access areas, such as lodges, parking lots, and picnic areas.
The first issue with this is that while we may come across a bug or two in these areas, these spaces are not natural and are highly disturbed. Every time we have sampled such areas, it's been a major disappointment. The second issue is public perception and distractions. People are always curious about what you are doing and why. While it's a great thing to educate the public, you may end up spending more of your time explaining to people what you are doing than actually doing what you came to accomplish. Furthermore, from prior experiences, some might become upset that you are sampling in a protected area despite having documentation stating that everything you are doing is perfectly legal.
After talking more with our KZN Wildlife Research Coordinator, we asked if we could also sample along the tarred roads in the parks, so long as we were near our vehicle and visible. Unfortunately, a compromise could not be reached for the iSimangaliso areas. Of course, this is done out of concern for our safety. There are dangerous animals within these parks (i.e., elephants, rhinos, buffalo, lions, and leopards), and there is literally nothing separating you from being mauled, other than your lodge and vehicles.
While it wasn't brought up, public perception may also be in the back of everyone's mind. If members of the public start disobeying park rules because they see us outside of our vehicle, then what could the parks or KZN Wildlife do in terms of policy? The simplest approach might be to have park staff inform entering visitors that researchers are sampling in restricted areas (i.e., reserve roads) and that this does not mean visitors are permitted to leave their vehicles in these areas under any circumstance. On the flip side, the most extreme possibility is that the reserves and KZN Wildlife decide that research is not longer permitted in these parks due to public perception and safety issues. This would be a terrible thing, as it burns a bridge between a protected area, a conservation organization, and the scientific community. Yet, is it more important to maintain this relationship than it is to prevent the public from having a misconception about their safety and putting themselves in a dangerous position?
Given the above, Daniela and I honestly had a dismal week of collecting since we were heavily restricted to sampling sites that were too unnatural. However, we were referred to the Hluhluwe-iMofolozi Park Scientist to see if a compromise could be reached. After several days of attempting to reach our contact, it seems we might have reached a compromise that will allow us to sample in the reserve when we return in a week.
Aside from all of this, there was one other situation that happened after we departed St Lucia and came to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Upon reaching the gate, we informed the staff that we had a reservation at Hilltop Camp. There seemed to be some confusion about who we were. They couldn't find any record of either of us or All Out Africa (AOA), the organization that helped facilitate our accommodations. Eventually, they found information on the reservation, but it wasn't good. According to them, All Out Africa only submitted a partial payment. As a result, the reservation was cancelled. They then told us that there were no accommodations available for us. How do you react when you are in a foreign country and this has happened to you? You're not too familiar with the area, so you don't know what lodging is around. What if you don't have an international plan with calls, text, and/or data?
First, keep your cool. For me that can be difficult since I'm naturally a stress-ball; I was freaking, but I didn't get angry with the staff. Thankfully, I had Daniela who did a tremendous job of keeping her cool. Fortunately for us, I have an international cell plan. I instantly e-mailed our AOA contact about the issue, and while I waited to hear from her, I had my partner back home look up lodging in St. Lucia as a back-up since data was terrible in this area for us to do it. Our AOA contact called us and then spoke to the lodge staff to clear up the confusion. AOA did pay in full and had a reservation number, and an invoice as proof. The lodge informed the park staff to let us through the gate. While there was still some confusion initially about where exactly we were staying (one night at Hilltop and then somewhere else or all nights at Hilltop as planned) and what had already been paid for (Just lodging? Conservation fees? Meals?), we were able to check in and all became well. AOA was a tremendous help!
Our last week Swaziland had some ups and downs, but overall was a good one. Besides continuing to collect in the reserve, we went to the sugarcane fields a couple more times, as well as going back to the Shewula Community Gardens and checking out Mlawula Nature Reserve and one other agricultural site.
We were not very lucky at some of the sites we visited.
At Shewula, they had harvested the cabbage crops that our bugs had been on, and they were about to start planting tomatoes in their place. They had also burned the weeds all around the edges of the plot, where we had found two species of our bugs before. The field that had been a bug bonanza two weeks ago didn’t seem have single one now.
The other agricultural site we visited belonged to some local farmers that were selling their produce by the road. Although they seemed a bit hesitant at first, they were very nice and gave us permission to walk around and collect bugs in all their fields (thankfully, Mduduzi talked to them for us and explained exactly what we were doing), but sadly there weren’t a whole lot of insects there; we think the crops may have been treated with insecticides.
As for Mlawula, we went there for our last day of collecting in Swaziland with high hopes, but did not have luck. A lot of the habitat we were looking at had been recently disturbed, and our bugs were nowhere to be found. Apparently, the park staff periodically cuts down the acacia plants that grow thickly by the road, so that visitors are better able to see the wildlife (like giraffes and impalas), from their cars. They were in the middle of this process when we went collecting, and sadly for us, all the coreids in the area seemed to have fled.
However, at the sugarcane fields, we think we got two species that we didn't have before (Michael will have to take a closer look when we get back to make sure), and at the reserve, we found another species of Phyllomorphini (my favorite tribe of coreids -they're so cool!- and also on our high priority list)!! These ones are a little larger than the other species we had found, and they seem to use stridulation for aggressive interactions! (Internet connection permitting, we will try to upload a video soon).
At the SRC, we had more departures throughout the past week: Sifiso, Mnqobi, and Abbi finished their work and left last week, and Morten headed home this Monday. The camp was pretty quiet after that, with only a handful of us there.
...Except for our morning animal alarm clocks! We have been woken up by: calls and songs from Ibis and a variety of other birds; a fruit bat's mournful-sounding mating call; and, personal favorite, monkeys relieving themselves on the roof of our tent!
And then, this morning, it was our turn to depart.
Kwanele came to pick us up, and we left at 8 am this morning. We will miss the SRC and the friends we made there!
We crossed the border back into South Africa, and got to St. Lucia at around noon. There, we picked up our rental car and said goodbye to Kwanele. From then on, it was Michael's turn to drive (on the left side of the road!). We met with the iSimangaliso Park Authority to make arrangements for our upcoming collecting in the park, and then headed out to Pietermaritzburg, driving all afternoon. Thankfully, Michael is a quick learner and got used to driving on the other side of the road (and with all the car's controls in mirror-image positions relative to what he's used to) quite quickly. Despite some moments of confusion, we made it to Pietermaritzburg safe and sound this evening!
Tomorrow, we meet with our collaborator John Midgeley, at the KZN Museum, and then we're off to iSimangaliso!
Wish us luck!
It's been an eventful week here at the SRC!
There have been arrivals, departures, and adventures. Sifiso and Mnqobi, two graduate students from UNISWA, arrived to do their fieldwork (on birds and rodents, respectively), and Phumlile, the SRC Research Coordinator, got back from her break. Professor Magagula left to get ready for the start of the semester at UNISWA, but Daisy stayed with us until Friday, which was super helpful. She got really good at spotting and collecting coreids! She's all set to continue the project later this year after we've left, and she helped us a lot with getting specimens during her training. We also got help from Abbi, a recent high-school graduate who came to spend a week at the SRC, volunteering with Sifiso and Mnqobi. She's currently in the process of selecting and applying to universities for college, and we're working on convincing her to study Entomology. She's certainly got the eye already; in one afternoon, she found us two coreid species we didn't have yet!
Collecting has been a bit hit and miss this week around the reserve. On one afternoon, we found two different species in half an hour; while we got nothing for four hours the next morning. These bugs sure know how to pose a challenge! Talk about mad hide-and-seek skills... It makes victory that much sweeter when we do find them though. We now have specimens from approximately 20-25 species! Thankfully, we got some rain in the area; which has definitely helped in terms of collecting. Some of the plants are flowering now, happy with the extra water, and that seems to be luring more bugs out.
Aside from intense collecting in the reserve, Phumlile accompanied us to the Royal Swaziland Sugarcane Corporation headquarters in Simunye last Wednesday to ask for permission to collect bugs in the sugarcane fields. We were a little nervous. Asking for permission to collect on private or, in this case, the King's land can be complicated. People and governments can be very protective of their property and economic produce. At the very least, they want to understand what you're doing, why you're doing it, and whether your actions will damage their property, crops, and ultimately, their economy. In a foreign country, it's always a little extra stressful because you don't always know what cultural differences you might run into, in this regard as well as others. Thankfully, it all went smoothly thanks to Phumlile's help and existing cooperation between the RSSC and University of Florida researchers. We promptly got permission to do our fieldwork in the sugarcane fields, provided we report back at the end and let them know what we found. Today, we went collecting there for the first time and found a global pest coreid, Leptoglossus gonagra, and one other species, Prismatocerus sp., on Acacia plants. We'll be going again tomorrow, hoping for more!
In other news, Michael has learned how to drive a manual! Today he successfully drove us from the Royal Swaziland Sugarcane Corporation fields back to the SRC, on the left side of the road!
In fact, another concern when traveling to foreign countries can be that automatic vehicles are rather rare in many places. It's even more complicated when you have to drive on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle. Thankfully, we coordinated with All Out Africa and the SRC before our arrival for assistance with transportation, since automatics are not common in Swaziland (luckily for us, they are a bit more common in South Africa). It was quite an adventure riding in the back of the truck while Michael learned, driving around the reserve to our various sites. Daisy, Abbi, and I got very well acquainted with a few branches and learned the "bumpy road dance," but it was a success and worth it!
Michael says "my bad, at least everyone stayed in. Mduduzi said not to worry about those in the back, focus on the front.” Mdu was somewhat right. Twice, we almost ran into a giraffe hanging-out in the middle of the road that wouldn't let us pass! And one of them wasn't even visible to Michael until he made a tight turn onto a side road; thankfully, we saw it from the top of the truck and warned him.
(Sorry, the internet is extra slow today, more pictures next time!)
The bug hunt continues! We've got high hopes for our last week at Mbuluzi before we make our trek to South Africa for three weeks.
Sanibonani! (Hello all!)
We made it to the Savannah Research Center (SRC) safe and sound and are having a great start of the field season here!
We've been seeing lots of cool animals, big and small. On our first afternoon, we got to go check out the neighboring Mlawula Reserve for some wildlife viewing, and we've continued to see amazing creatures since. Besides lots of cool insects (including giant, colorful grasshoppers and beautiful, iridescent beetles), we've been lucky enough to spot: impalas, nyalas, kudus, zebras, waterbucks, giraffes, wildebeasts, monkeys, and warthogs!
We've been going out to collect insects everyday, and although some days start off veeeery slow (one bug in three hours!), at some point we always seem to stumble upon a "bonanza patch" of habitat that is so full of bugs we can barely keep up and catch them all. We've actually run out of vials a few times and have had to come back to camp to process bugs in order to free up vials!
We've also continued to use our high-tech observation chamber to record some interesting fighting and mating behaviors in different species, given these bugs are very flighty in the wild (videos coming soon).
On Friday afternoon, Professor Cebisile Magagula and her student Daisy came to join us, to learn about our bugs and help us collect. Prof. Magagula stayed all weekend, and Daisy will be with us until the end of the week, honing her coreid-collecting and behavioral observation skills so that she can continue the project after we leave, as part of her undergraduate project work.
We somehow also ended up recruiting an impromptu field team. Martin, a mammalian researcher from the Netherlands vacationing at the SRC, got interested in our fieldwork and decided to tag along and help us collect. Mduduzi, one of the SRC staff members, got excited about collecting bugs too and has also been joining us; he was a very quick learner and has been spotting new bugs left, right, and center! It's a great group that ended up forming, and it has been a great opportunity to network with others from different backgrounds. We've all been having so much fun and making so much progress!
We all went to the Shewula Community Gardens on Sunday and Monday, and it turned out to be a jackpot. Leaf-footed bugs tend to flourish in agricultural environments (many of them are crop pests, in fact), and we found several species at these gardens. With the help of the team, we had a giant pile of vials full of insects in no time, which caused us to return to the camp within 30 minutes of starting!
We now have specimens from at least 13 species, including one in the tribe Phyllomorphini, which is super cool! Not only were those guys on our high-priority list because we had no representatives of the tribe and needed some for the molecular phylogenetic work, but they also look crazy-cool and have really interesting behaviors, such as paternal care with eggs laid on the male’s back.
We also collected a specimen of Petascelis remipes. It was huuuuge! Check out those crazy hind-legs! Hopefully we can find more soon and record some of their fighting behavior, but like most things here in the reserve, bugs are sparsely scattered across 1600+ hectares.
Above: Daisy with the Petascelis
Finally, we are able to get enough bandwidth to edit the blog!
We’ve had a pretty great first few days here in Africa!
We left Gainesville last Thursday night, and after a very long trip (that included an extended layover in Toronto due to a whiteout), we arrived in Johannesburg on Sunday morning to beautiful, blue skies and hot, summer temperatures.
Our driver from All Out Africa, Kwanele, picked us up at the airport and took us to a gorgeous little hotel, the Safari Club. We decided to have a “rest” day to catch-up on much-needed sleep and plan the rest of our trip, but after lunch, we went on a little walk around the hotel garden and found coreids (leaf-footed bugs, the ones we came to study)!!! Needless to say, we spent the rest of the day running around the garden chasing bugs. The owners thought we were a little crazy, but they were happy to let us collect them for our research.
We captured 27 of them. They all belong to the tribe Mictini and seem to be of the same species (except perhaps one specimen that has slightly different coloration). We also found them on four different plants, of which we observed them feeding on two!
We put together a little behavioral observation apparatus (very fancy, as you can see below), and we managed to get some video of slight male aggression (coming soon). Look at those chunky hind-femur weapons! We also observed them feeding on yet another species of plant that we put in there.
After a very successful first day and much needed night of rest, Kwanele picked us up on Monday morning and brought us to Ezulwini, in the Kingdom of Swaziland. The drive was four hours long, but well worth it. Ezulwini is beautiful! It’s green and lush, with mountains on the horizon, and the weather is warm and humid. We’re staying at a pretty little backpacker lodge called Lidwala.
We spent the rest of our first day in Swaziland getting settled-in and buying supplies. The next day, we went to the University of Swaziland (UNISWA) to meet our collaborator, Prof. Cebisile Magagula. She was very welcoming, helpful, and excited about collaborating on this new project. She normally works with beetles (order Coleoptera) and ants (order Hymenoptera), but she’s looking forward to learning and working with another order of insects. She was also very happy to show us her collection of the order Hemiptera (which includes the coreids) and get some help from Michael in identifying a few tricky specimens. There were so many cool bugs in there, and we are extra excited now to go find them in the wild!
Yesterday, we went hiking and collecting on a trail by the lodge: Sheba’s Breast Hiking Trail. We didn’t find as many coreids as we had hoped for, but the trail was gorgeous and we did find a few specimens of our outgroup taxa (groups closely related to our bugs and useful for our project). We also saw some other cool critters! A baby mantis, some monkeys, a very loud cicada (that Michael couldn’t resist agitating), and an adorably grumpy-looking spider (Michael begs to differ on the point of its cuteness).
Today, the adventure continues as we move on to the Savannah Research Center, at the Mbuluzi Game Reserve on the eastern side of Swaziland.
Michael Forthman is an insect systematist and a Postdoctoral Associate working with Dr. Christine Miller in the Entomology and Nematology Department at the University of Florida.