Friday, April 22, 2016

Soutpansberg February – April 2016: Dragons!

Dragon Lizard, Smaug warreni depressus resting in it's crack.

The three months were an extremely busy period for the SCBC. We did a lot of traveling and recorded many new species and surveyed many new sites, continuing our ‘broadening horizons’ programme. February started off just South-west of the Soutpansberg at Masebe Cultural Village. The SCBC was helping a team led by evolutionary biologist Chris Broeckhoven, including geneticist Genevieve Diedericks and herpetologist Yousri EL Adak. We were looking for Smaug depressus lizards, the scientists aimed to figure out why there is such a high variation in armour and osteoderms in this species from different localities in the Soutpansberg. We moved along a West-East axis surveying areas of different altitudes which took us to some beautiful locations in the Soutpansberg and surrounding areas: Lajuma, Bluegumspoort, Zvakanaka, Golwe-Vhurivhuri, Gundani and of course sunny Medike. We eagerly await the results of this study.

Unusually dark Smaug warreni depressus with reduced spinesEntabeni.
Smaug warreni depressus, light with reduced spines Golwe-Vhurivhuri.
Typically coloured Smaug warreni depressus in its crack for the night, Medike.
Dragon lizards can remain still for hours. Their camouflage effectively conceals them when in the open.
Night scene, Golwe-Vhurivhuri.
Arid northern slopes, Goro.

View descending Lajuma Peak, The highest point on the Soutpansberg.
A view looking south over Medike.
Open area, Entabeni, Eastern Soutpansberg.
Sand River in flood after break in drought.
The drought finally gave way to some rain and on a night in March we got over 100ml of rain in a single down pour. It is impossible to say how much rain fell as our rain gauges spilled over. That night the Sand River came up, a few days later plants bolted and life exploded into action. It was a beautiful event.

Cordylus vittifer, Common Girdled Lizard, Entabeni.
Late summer is usually a good period for biodiversity and in particular a good time for reptiles and this late summer season was exceptionally good. I have never encountered so many reptiles and snakes as we did over the last three months. We had some record night drives and record walks. One memorable night walk turned up seven snakes three of which were rarities.Besides the rarities, common species were also out in full-force and we enjoyed a wide spectrum of reptilian biodiversity.

Unusual sighting, a Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis), lying on a bare rock face at night. Photograph Melissa Petford.
A young Black Mamba captured by Medike resident Alan Carr. Photograph Melissa Petford.
A hatchling Puff Adder. A large proportion of the snakes seen this season were hatchlings.
Striped Skaapsteker (Psammophylax tritaeniatus), Medike.
Shortly after saying goodbye to the team from Stellenbosch the SCBC welcomed volunteer Freo Jaques from Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Freo, a young environmentalist, volunteered in order to add some more work experience to his already impressive portfolio of working with wildlife and conservation. Freo had the following to say about his experience at the SCBC:

I started my journey in conservation only one year ago and it was in the Soutpansberg that i got my first chance to get close to wild snakes. Like most people I grew up in a culture very poor when it comes to information about reptiles. What it could be easily taken as amazing or fascinating was rather sold as scary or despicable. I realized that it is impossible to understand, truly understand, a snake through a book or a documentary film, even when they are realistic and committed to change the 5000 years of bad reputation of these animals.
They are dangerous, yes, but so is every other animal when attacked or highly disturbed. It's no reason to fear, but to respect them. They are in the far edge of conservation right now and not many people care when a snake is killed. People were led to believe that in order to be safe they must kill every snake close by. But they were not taught that the main cause of a bite is, in fact, the attempt to kill a snake.
It was in the Soutpansberg, during warm nights, after a rainy week, or a sunny day, that I got to truly understand snakes. There, sometimes, I would encounter 4 or even 5 different species of snakes in a day. And you have to get close to them. You have to hear the sound of the night instead of the background music or Sir Attemborough's voice, look at their movement instead of a high definition picture or the text on Marais' pages.You have to hold them between your fingers to realize how delicate and calm they can be. There's something mystical about a snake moving in the night, smelling the air silently, sliding smoothly among rocks that no device can capture. And, if you give it a chance, it's something powerful enough to finish every myth, fear or prejudices of ignorant times.

Freo having a closer look at a Common Purple-glossed Snake.
Thank you Freo, without your help and motivation, this season would not have been half as successful. I have full-confidence in your future as an environmentalist making positive changes in this world.

Our activities during the three-month period were centered searching for reptiles and scorpions to build our lists for the Soutpansberg and surrounds. Our reptile list now stands at seventy for the Soutpansberg. Looking at distribution maps, historical records and anecdotal accounts we believe there are still many more species to be found and documented. For the February-April period we found seven new reptiles: Cordylus vittifer, Trachylepis punctatissima, Amblyodipsas polylepis polylepis, Elapsoidea sundevallii longicauda (technically this record is just north of the mountain but is included here), Lychophidion capense capense, Psammophylax tritaeniatus and finally Megatyphlops mucruso.

This three month period was excellent for nocturnal snakes. We spent a lot of time getting out there and walking at night, often until past midnight searching for nocturnal species. Ocassionally we took a drive and had some good success. The efforts really paid off. Below are a few of our more charismatic finds:

The Brown House Snake (Boaedon capensis) a very common nocturnal snake.
A beautiful Variegated Wolf Snake (Lychophidion variegatum). Locally common at Medike.
A dark Variegated Wolf Snake, Medike.
Common Wolf Snake (Lychophidion capense), near Buysdorp.
Black File Snake (Gonionotophis nyassae) adult, Medike.
Black File Snake (Gonionotophis nyassae) hatchling, Medike.
The Common Purple-glossed Snake (Amblyodipsas polylepis polylepis) Medike.
Atractaspis bibronii, Bibron's Stiletto Snake. Uniform colouration Medike.
Atractaspis bibronii, Bicoloured form Waterpoort.
Common Egg-eater (Dasypeltis scabra) a harmless snake with an effective defensive display.
The Eastern Tiger Snake, Telescopus semiannulatus semiannulatus, near Waterpoort.

The Zambezi Giant Blind Snake (Megatyphlops mucruso), Goro.
Pachydactylus vansoni, Vanson's Gecko. Entabeni.
Pachydactylus nigropunctatus incognitus, Lajuma peak.
Pachydactylus nigropunctatus incognitus, Cryptic Dwarf Gecko, a Soutpansberg ndemic.
Afroedura pienaari, Medike.
A large Chondrodactylus turneri, the most common gecko on Medike.
Common Rough-scaled Lizard, Meroles squamulosus, Golwe-Vhurivhuri.
Besides the new reptiles in we also added some new scorpions to our Soutpansberg list over the three months we got Parabuthus mossambicenis from eastern and western Soutpansberg. Hottentotta trilineatus and Uroplectes planimanus from the Sand River valley. From the Northern slopes we got Uroplectes carinatus and finally managed to photograph Opistacanthus asper. Just to the north of the mountain we found Opistophthalmus boehmi.

A 'normal' coloured Parabuthus transvaalicus.
An unusually colourful Parabuthus transvaalicus.
Dark Parbuthus mossambicensis from Western Soutpansberg region. New for our Soutpansberg lists.
Light Parabuthus mossambicensis from Eastern Soutpansberg (Golwe-Vhurivhuri).
Hottentotta trilineatus, Sand River Valley. New for our Soutpansberg lists.
Uroplectes carinatus, Goro, Northern slopes, Soutpansberg. New for our Soutpansberg lists.
Opistophthalmus boehmi, north of Waterpoort. A new species for our Soutpansberg list.
Soutpansberg endemic Opistophthalmus lawrenci, Goro.
Opisthacanthus asper, Goro.
Soutpansberg endemic, Hadogenes soutpansbergensis, Goro.
In addition to our creation of biodiversity lists for the Soutpansberg, we have also been collecting behavioural data on reptiles. This requires spending time watching animals without disturbing them and recording what they are doing and how they are doing it. We aim to begin using trail cameras in order to help record behaviour. This is new ground for us and we hope to be producing relevant data on these behavioural aspects in the next SCBC update. 
The Rough-scaled Plated Lizard, Broadleysaurus major. Photo Melissa Petford.
In broadening our horizons the SCBC has been doing data collection on different properties on the mountain. We recently visited Goro on the Northern slopes and will return in due course. Lajuma has been a good site too and in May we will be there for ten consecutive days, I am sure they will be productive. In the near future we aim to expand our surveys to even more sites to create lists that better reflect the biodiversity of this beautiful and diverse mountain range. Thanks to everyone at Lajuma, Leshiba, Goro and Zvakanaka who helped us during this period.

Pyxicephalus edulis, the African or Edible Bullfrog, near Waterpoort.
South African Porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis). Medike. Photo Melissa Petford.