Thursday, September 13, 2018

Winter 2018: Luvhondo Nature Reserve and Beyond

Wolkberg Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion transvaalense), Luvhondo Nature Reserve.
A sooty Puff Adder (Bitis arietans) found in burned grassland a few weeks after a fire.

The Soutpansberg Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation has had an interesting winter.  We spent the majority of our time at Lajuma Research Centre on top of the Soutpansberg. There we experienced a very cold winter in the damp Afromontane forest. Most days were spent working on our data, writing, supervising our students and of course we made time to get out there and do our winter sampling and continuing fieldwork on the endemic Lygodactylus geckos of the region.

A juvenile Boomslang (Dispholidus typus) from Luvhondo Nature Reserve.
Black-headed Centipede Eater (Aparallactus capensis) Luvhondo Nature Reserve.
Puff Adder (Bitis arietans) Luvhondo Nature Reserve. This particular animal was caught in a Sherman trap.
We found some new species for our Luvhondo Nature Reserve list. These were the Wolkberg Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion transvaalense) which we have been searching for for some time; Peter’s Ground Agama (Agama armata); and the high altitude Horned Adder (Bitis caudalis) of which we had anecdotal evidence of their occurrence. The biggest surprise of the winter was two Dwarf Sand Snakes (Psammophis angoloensis). Showing that there are still a few more reptiles to be found on the Luvhondo Nature Reserve.
Peter's Ground Agama (Agama armata), Luvhondo Nature Reserve.
Horned Adder (Bitis caudalis), Luvhondo Nature Resereve.
Dwarf Sand Snake (Psammophis angolensis), Luvhondo Nature Reserve.

In terms of our scorpion sampling, we finally encountered the high altitude Uroplectes cf. vitattus, potentially another Soutpansberg endemic.

Uroplectes cf. vittatus from the top of the Soutpansberg.
Uroplectes triangulifer, from the top of the Soutpansberg.

 Another exciting development is that we have finally come to grips with the 'Variable Skinks' in the area. These common lizards were recently split into three Southern African species and two of them have so far been identified on the Soutpansberg. One, Trachylepis varia favours high altitude grassland; while the other Trachylepis damarana favours more woody areas. Big thanks to Darren Pieterson for your help with these difficult reptiles.
Variable Skink (Trachylepis damarana) Luvhondo Nature Reserve.
Variable Skink (Trachylepis varia), Luvhondo Nature Reserve.
This winter we also visited a few sites off the mountain where we aim to do more work, increasing our sample sizes and our locations.  We visited sites north of the mountain in the deep sands of the Limpopo Valley, Blouberg Nature Reserve and also our old sampling sites at Hanglip.

Arnold's Velvet Gecko (Homopholis arnoldi), Blouberg Nature Reserve.
Makgabeng Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus montiscaeruli) Blouberg Nature Reserve.
Turner's Gecko (Chondrodactylus turneri), Blouberg Nature Reserve.
Sundevall's Writhing Skink (Mochlus sundevalli), Blouberg Nature Reserve.
Kalahari Dwarf Worm Lizard (Zygaspis quadrifrons) Blouberg Nature Reserve.

This coming summer will see some changes for the Soutpansberg Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation. The most exciting development will be moving back to our old base, Medike. After spending a year at Lajuma Research Centre, we are leaving Luvhondo Nature Reserve for the pull of the Sand River Valley. Medike is now managed by the Endangered Wildlife Trust and we will be assisting the EWT with biodiversity monitoring in the Sand River.
Sunny Medike during the rainy season.

A Common Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus capensis) making use of an arboreal cover board.

Another exciting development is that the SCBC will be experimenting with a new method of sampling for reptiles. This new method uses arboreal cover boards. So far our piloting has given us good results and we expect to find some interesting and elusive species this way. Watch this space!

Whalberg's Velvet Gecko (Homopholis wahlbergii), Soutpansberg, Limpopo.
Mozambique Spitting Cobra (Naja mossambica), Luvhondo Nature Reserve
Southern African Rock Python (Python natalensis), Luvhondo Nature Reserve.
Montane Sand Snake (Psammophis crucifer) from Hanglip.

The SCBC will be placing researchers at remote sites to increase our sample size and give greater insights into the reptile assemblages of the Limpopo Valley. From October we will start with this and have a researcher Katherine Monaghan placed at an under-sampled field site at Alldays. Looking forward to building up our species assemblage list for that region.

Stripe-bellied Sand Snake (Psammophis subtaeniatus) Alldays.
Juvenile Puff Adder (Bitis arietans) Alldays.
Brown House Snake (Boaedon capensis) Alldays.

We have a few other exciting collaborations and developments lined up for the coming months. Our future is open and we are facing new challenges with optimism and tenacity. To keep up to date please follow our Facebook page (soutpansbergcbc).
Small Wolkberg Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion transvaalense), Luvhondo Nature Reserve.
Hadogenes troglodytes, Blouberg Nature Reserve.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Soutpansberg Summer Surveys: February–April 2018

Eastern Vine Snake (Thelotornis capensis capensis), Mphaphuli, Soutpansberg.
Soutpansberg Reptiles
Large Horned Adder (Bitis caudalis) from the Soutpansberg.
The SCBC has had a busy second half of summer. The majority of the season has been spent at high altitude at Lajuma Research Centre. Despite the high altitude site, reptile abundance and endemism at Lajuma is high.  Lajuma Research Centre is a great place to see some highly restricted endemic lizards. One of the most interesting endemics, the Soutpansberg Rock Lizard (Vhembelacerta rupicola) can easily be seen foraging along the cliff edges and between the bush clumps.

Soutpansberg Endemic
Soutpansberg Rock Lizard (Vhembelacerta rupicola) a highly restricted Soutpansberg endemic.
Nocturnal surveys proved quite unproductive at Lajuma so we did most of our night work collecting data at lower altitudes. As usual we saw a lot of snakes during  this summer and we were happy to catch up to a few species that we don't normally see close up. Specifically Northern Boomslang (Dispholidus typus viridis), Olive Whip Snake (Psammophis mossambicus) and Short-snouted Grass Snake (Psammophis brevirostris). These snakes normally rely on their speed and camouflage to escape detection.

Possible female Boomslang (Dispholidus typus viridis). Lajuma, Soutpansberg.
Male Boomslang (Dispholidus typus viridis). Lajuma, Soutpansberg.
Olive Whips Snake (Psammophis mossambicus), Waterpoort area, Soutpansberg.
Short-snouted Sand Snake (Psammophis brevirostrus). Entabeni, Soutpansberg.
Map depicting SCBC data collection points. As you can see we have a lot of work to still do.
Research has been very productive and we are close to 8000 reptile records from the region since November 2016 and our species list is sitting at 112 reptiles for the mountain. It is going to take some time to tidy, analyse and present data, but we have already managed to produce an abundance list based on all observational records and here are the top five snakes you are likely to encounter in the region (if you cover as much ground, visit as many locations and search in similar pattern to us).

Common Egg Eater (Dasypeltis scabra). This is the snake with highest recording rate (close to 100 records).
Puff Adder (Bitis arietans). Second most commonly seen snake (70 records).
When active searching on foot Black-headed Centipede Eater (Aparallactus capensis) is the most common snake we encounter about 60 records.
Bibron's Stiletto Snake (Atractaspis bibronii). It is unusual not to see one of these while surveying at night at low altitude we have 50 records of this species.
Brown House Snake (Boaedon capensis) is number 5 for our surveys, with 45 records.
Despite the common reptiles we also saw a lot of other interesting reptiles during the season. One of the best things about the late summer season is the amount of baby reptiles one sees. We saw a lot of hatchlings this season, below are some of the little animals we photographed.
Southern Brown Egg-eaters (Dasypeltis inornata) hatching.
Six Southern Brown Egg-eaters ready for release.
Hatchling Brown Water Snakes (Lycodonomorphus rufulus) with eggs.
Freshly hatched Rhombic Night Adder (Causus rhombeatus).
Hatchling Herald Snake (Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia).
Baby Southern African Rock Python (Python natalenis).
Juvenile Bushveld Lizard (Heliolobus lugubris). These are abundant in hot dry areas.
Juvenile Flap-necked Chameleon (Chameleo dilepis). These seem to make most people very happy..
The SCBC also did a few intensive site visits this summer; where we spent a few days in an area and built up species lists. The most productive site visits this half of the season have been Goro Game Reserve in December, where we located Bradfield’s Gecko, Entabeni where we recorded Rhombic Night Adder and a new locality for Southern Brown Egg Eaters and Bergtop Game Reserve where we found an extraordinary gecko: the Kalahari Ground Gecko, Pachydactylus (Colopus) whalbergii a first for the Soutpansberg. That’s three new species!
Kalahari Ground Gecko (Pachydactylus whalbergii). Soutpansberg, Limpopo.
Even though amphibians are not our target animals, we do record and photograph them when we find them. All the frogs illustrated here have one thing in common: they prefer walking/running to hopping around.
Banded Rubber Frog (Phrynomantis bifasciatus). SOutpansberg, Limpopo.
An unusually coloured Bubbling Cassina (Kassina senigalensis). Lajuma, Soutpansberg.
The Soutpansberg's only endemic amphibian, Northern Forest Rain Frog (Breviceps sylvestris taeniatus). Entabeni.
In addition to these finds, we are developing our study on Muller’s Velvet Geckos (Homopholis mulleri): we have added six new specimens of this species to our distribution records (thanks to Ruan Stander for four of those!). Looking forward to developing this project in the coming few months. Watch this space!

Female Muller's Velvet Gecko (Homopholis mulleri). Note swollen calcium glands, indicating readiness to produce eggs.
Other highlights for the season include finding three new scorpions in the Soutpansberg for our lists bringing the total species of scorpions located by the SCBC in the Soutpansberg to 24. Parabuthus granulatus is a well know species in Southern Africa as it has the most medically significant venom of all Southern African scorpions. We have located the species numerous times in the Northern Cape and along the Limpopo River, but this season was the first time we located them in the Soutpansberg, and this second half of summer we found them in two more localities. Parabuthus kuanyamarum and Afroisometrus minshullae are two rare scorpions which we thought we would never locate. This season we were lucky enough to find both.

Parabuthus kuanyamarum, Soutpansberg, Limpopo.
Afroisometrus minshullae is one of the rarest scorpions in Southern Africa with only a handful of records from northern Slopes of Soutpansberg into southern Zimbabwe. This tiny scorpion is a species we never expected to see.

Soutpansberg Scorpions
Afroisometrus minshullae, near Tshipise, Soutpansberg Region, Limpopo.

February we were joined by herpetologist Eric Jolin from Canada. Eric has spent the past four years working on Massasauga Rattlesnakes for Wildlife Preservation Canada throughout Ontorio. Eric helped us get our Leopard Tortoise Project off the ground, which he piloted. We are hoping this will turn into a popular long term monitoring project. Thanks for all your help and hard work in the field Eric, you gave us a very productive and enjoyable month.
Eric with an unnamed juvenile Leopard Tortoise (and a load of porcupine quills). Tortoise was marked and released for further studies on recruitment and habitat selection.
Looking forward to seeing what this winter will bring. While never very busy, we usually find and see some very unusual things during the winter season in the Soutpansberg. We are always looking for energetic and enthusiastic volunteers to join us on our sampling as well as researchers looking to do internships with us. Please contact the SCBC for more details.

Reptile Research South Africa
Soutpansberg Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation: Reptile Research South Africa.