Monday, September 25, 2017

Winter 2017 July to September: Changes

Large female Striped Skaapsteker in process of ecdysis (Psammophylax tritaeniatus). Photo Melissa Petford.

Colour variation among Black-headed Centipede Eaters (Aparallactus capensis). Western Soutpansberg, Photo Ryan van Huyssteen.
The second half of winter has been very busy at the Soutpansberg Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation. A lot of positive changes in our programme have taken place. The major change to the Soutpansberg Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation which has taken place is that we are moving our operations from Medike in the Sand River Gorge 15km west to Lajuma Research Centre which is situated in the heart of the newly proclaimed Luvhondo Private Nature Reserve.

Soutpansberg Flat Lizard (Platysaurus relictus). Delightful lizards endemic to the Soutpansberg. Photo Melissa Petford.

One of our favourite lizards, the Soutpansberg Rock Lizard (Vhembelacerta rupicola). Another Soutpansberg endemic. Photo Ryan van Huyssteen.
Transvaal Girdled Lizard (Cordylus vittifer) in freshly burned grassland. Photo Melissa Petford.
Very dark Flat Dragon Lizard (Smaug depressus) near its crack. Photo Melissa Petford.
Yellow Throated Plated Lizard (Gerrhosaurus flavigularis) from the Sand River. Photo Melissa Petford.

Medike Mountain Sanctuary has been the SCBC’s home base since our humble beginnings in 2014. We have done a lot of hard work and mapped the biodiversity of the gorge thoroughly and identified the Sand River Valley as a biodiversity hotspot. Many thanks to Hannes and Maritjie Underhay for making our stay one we will never forget. You gave us more than I can ever express: Thank you!

Sunset over Medike one of the most important biodiversity areas in the Soutpansberg. Photo Melissa Petford.
Small view of terrain near Mount Lajuma, the SCBCs new home. Photo Melissa Petford.
Medike large property has finally been purchased by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and will now be protected while they run a Leopard conservation programme. Congratulations to EWT and specifically Yolan Friedman and Oldrich van Schalkwyk for your efforts in acquiring this important conservation area. The unique habitats especially the sandy woodlands still hold many secrets and we are sure it will continue to be an important study site for us. We look forward to seeing the developments and positive changes.
Puff Adder (Bitis arietans) found in garden at SCBCs new base at Lajuma Research Centre. Photo Ryan van Huyssteen.

Our new home Lajuma Research Centre is situated high up in the Soutpansberg. The base is ideal for studying high altitude habitats and the moist cool forests, high altitude woodlands and grasslands characteristic of the southern slopes of the Soutpansberg. The move to Lajuma will allow the SCBC to grow and become more closely associated with on going research in the area, conservation planning and other researchers.  

To commemorate our new trajectory, the SCBC commissioned long time supporter and benefactor, Francis Burger to design us a new logo. The logo represents two Lygodactylus geckos. We are extremely pleased with the results and grateful for your help.

Psammophis crucifer from Hanglip. Photo Melissa Petford.
The SCBC programme has now been split into two streams: we now have the resources to accommodate long term independent researchers and we are still running our volunteer research project. . Big thank you to Ian Gaigher, Bibi Linden and Jabu Linden for making this possible: looking forward to this new direction in our programme and all the new possibilities.

Common Egg Eater (Dasypeltis scabra) a new species for our Lajuma lists. Photo Melissa Petford.
Puff Adder (Bitis arietans), Lajuma Research Centre. Photo Melissa Petford.
Besides the changes to the SCBC, we have continued working hard this winter collecting data. This winter has seen a lot of data collection for Melissa Petford’s Masters Thesis on the endemic Lygodactylus geckos. Some very interesting behaviour has been observed and along the way we saw quite a lot of interesting reptiles, including a few new species for Lajuma and some difficult to see species. 

An winter morning scene. A large amount of water entering the system in the Soutpansberg comes in the form of mist. Photo Melissa Petford.
Lygodactylus incognitus (Cryptic Dwarf Gecko) a species seemingly reliant on the cool moist weather and associated  with mist. Photo Melissa Petford.
One of the SCBCs study subjects, the endemic Lygodactylus soutpansbergensis (Soutpansberg Dwarf Gecko). Photo Melissa Petford.
Cryptic Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus incognitus) in situ. Photo Melissa Petford.
Van Son's Gecko (Pachydactylus vansoni) common gecko in rocky high altitude habitats. Photo Melissa Petford.
Large Male Lygodactylus soutpansbergensis. Photo Melissa Petford.

Highlights for the winter included finding some new species for Lajuma’s records, including; Striped Skaapsteker, Brown House Snake, Common Egg-eater, Striped Skink (stowaways!) and Turners Tubercled Geckos.

A large and relaxed Mozambique Spitting Cobra (Naja mossambica) from Lajuma. Photo Melissa Petford.
Large female Striped Skaapsteker (Psammophylax tritaeniatus). Photo Melissa Petford.
The Soutpansberg Purple-glossed Snake (Amblyodipsas microphthalma nigra). A fossorial hunter of reptiles. Photo Melissa Petford.
The Montane Grass Snake (Psammophis crucifer), found at high altitudes. Well camoflauged and difficult to capture. Photo Melissa Petford.
Brown House Snake (Boedon capensis) a new species for our Lajuma list. Photo Melissa Petford.
East African Shovel Snout (Prosymna stuhlmanni). So far we have only located these high yellow individuals at high altitude in the western Soutpansberg. Photo Melissa Petford.
As the summer season begins we look forward to many new and exciting encounters. We are sure that this season will be as productive as always. Watch this space!

White-necked Raven patrolling it's mountain kingdom. Photo Melissa Petford.
Lichen covered rock. Hoping to learn more about lichens and their role in water capture. Photo Ryan van Huyssteen.
Lichen showing reproductive bodies. Photo Ryan van Huyssteen.
Very young Eastern Rock Sengi.  Photo Melissa Petford.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Curious luck: New Species, Rarities and the familiar (April to June 2017)

Transvaal Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion transvaalense) from Entabeni. Photo Melissa Petford.
Panorama of Medike clearly showing the gorge cut by the Sand River (Photo Ryan MacDonnell)
The first half of the winter has been a very interesting period at the Soutpansberg Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation. We have traveled widely to under sampled areas, spent a lot of time on the Northern Slopes and also enjoyed a fair bit of time at Lajuma and sunny Medike.

Spotted Bush Snake (Philothamnus semivariegatus). Lajuma. Photo Melissa Petford.
Hatchling Leopard Tortoises (Stigmochelys pardalis) Photo Leo Eastley.
New Species for our Lists

During the last couple of months we have been working very hard looking for reptiles and meticuliously logging everything for our biodiversity surveys, amongst the 2406 records generated in just over two months, we managed to find some new species which is always exciting. 

The first new species for the period was a Horned Adder (Bitis caudalis) from the hot dry northern slopes. After finding a sloughed skin of the species earlier this year we have been working very hard to locate specimens for photography and finally we caught up with one. Although these snakes are common they are very difficult to see. Since the first find we have located another.

First Horned Adder (Bitis caudalis) for SCBC from the Northern Slopes. Photo Melissa Petford.
Second Horned Adder (Bitis caudalis) from the Soutpansberg. Photo Melissa Petford.
The second new species for the period was a rather big surprise, it was a juvenile Snouted Cobra. Anecdotal records indicated that the species did occur on Medike but we had not located them until May 2017 (note that we have been sampling since 2014). After the first we saw another, a very thickset two metre long adult, and a week later another. Very exciting! 

First Snouted Cobra (Naja annulifera) for Medike. Photo Melissa Petford.
Second Snouted Cobra (Naja annulifera) for Medike. Photo Melissa Petford.
The other new species we found this past winter have been the elusive Dwarf Sand Snake (Psammophis angolensis), we spotted this little beauty while walking along the track at Medike. Next surprise was finding the Cape Skink in some deep Kalahari Sands while sampling in the far western Soutpansberg. Another interesting find was locating Stevenson's Dwarf Gecko near Pafuri in the North East. 

Dwarf Sand Snake (Psammophis angolensis) new species for Medike. Photo Melissa Petford.

Cape Skink (Trachylepis capensis) from the far Western Soutpansberg. Photo Melissa Petford.
Stevenson's Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus stevensonii) from the North Eastern Soutpansberg. Photo Melissa Petford.
Southern Brown Egg-Eater (Dasypeltis inornata) from high altitude grassland in the Soutpansberg. Photo Melissa Petford.

The final new species for our list was the Southern Brown Egg-Eater (Dasypeltis inornata). The Soutpansberg harbours a relicit population of these plain, yet beautiful snakes. These snakes are completely harmless and feed exclusively on bird's eggs. These new finds bring our total list of reptiles for the Soutpansberg to 103 species and we are confident that we will locate even more with hard work in the coming months.
Rarities and Soutpansberg Endemics and Special Finds

The Soutpansberg is a hotspot for reptiles with many unusual and exciting animals to be seen. Sometimes locating them can be difficult, but with time we eventually catch up with even the most secretive. The most unusual and rare sighting we witnessed over this early winter period was Giant Baboon Spiders (Harpactira gigas) mating in the wild. We moved a rock and saw the male near the females chamber, the male started drumming and approaching the female. The whole thing took about five minutes and the male ran away in the end. This was a once in a lifetime sighting and amazing to witness. The whole thing was filmed by Ryan Macdonnell from Canada.
Reticulated Centipede Eater (Aparallactus lunulatus) a rarity so far only found at Medike. Photo Melissa Petford.

Melanistic form of Cregoi's Legless Skink (Acontias cregoi) Punda Maria Kruger National Park. Photo Melissa Petford.
Normal colour morph of Cregoi's Legless Skink (Acontias cregoi) Lajuma. Photo Melissa Petford.
The endemic Lang's Dwarf Worm Lizard (Chirindia langi langi), far eastern Soutpansberg. Photo Melissa Petford.
Some of our highlights include: locating another rare Reticulated Centipede Eater (Aparallactus lunulatus), so far we have only located six individuals of this species at Medike which is a considerable range extension; finding a population of melanistic Cregoi's Legless Skinks (Acontias cregoi) near Punda Maria in the Kruger National Park; more localities for Lang's Dwarf Worm Lizard (Chirindia langi langi); obtaining a high altitude record for the Soutpansberg Purple-Glossed Snake (Amblyodipsas microphthalma nigra); a far western record for Savannah Lizards (Meroles squamulosus); and another locality for Jones's Girdled Lizard (Cordylus jonesii).
The endemic Soutpansberg Purple Glossed Snake (Amblyodipsas microphthalma nigra) Entabeni, Photo Melissa Petford.
Savannah Lizard (Meroles squamulosus) a new species for our western Soutpansberg Lists. Photo Melissa Petford.
Gravid Jones's Girdled Lizard (Cordylus jonesii) Western Soutpansberg. Photo Ryan van Huyssteen.

The Familiar

During Winter things are a bit slower and we tend to take more time with the animals we find and get some photographs of more common and visible species. Because our participants over the past two months were avid nature photographers we took a little more time to get some good images of the more common but still exciting Soutpansberg reptiles. As you can see we were lucky to see so many different species.

Spotted Sandveld Lizard (Nucras interetexta) Lajuma. Photo Melissa Petford.

High altitude camera trap image of a Giant Plated Lizard (Matobosaurus validus). Courtesy of Jordy Koedam.
Whalberg's Snake Eyed Skink (Panaspisd whalbergii) Lajuma. Photo Melissa Petford.
Kalahari Dwarf Worm Lizard (Zygaspis quadrifrons). Goro Game Reserve. Photo Melissa Petford.
Yellow Throated Plated Lizard (Gerrhosaurus flavigularis) Medike. Photo Melissa Petford.

Soutpansberg Flat Lizard (Platysaurus relictus) Medike. Photo Melissa Petford.
Bushveld Lizard (Heliolobus lugubrus), Northern Slopes. Melissa Petford.
Hatchling Soutpansberg Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus soutpansbergensis) photo Melissa Petford.

Flap-necked Chameleon (Chameleo dilepis), near Pafuri. Photo Ryan van Huyssteen.
Water Monitor (Varanus niloticus), Pafuri, Kruger National Park. Photo Melissa Petford.
Water Monitor (Varanus niloticus) Punda Maria, Kruger National Park. Photo Melissa Petford.

Mozambique Spitting Cobra (Naja mossambica) near Waterpoort. Photo Melissa Petford.
Natal Rock Python (Python natalensis) Medike. Photo Melissa Petford.

Common Slug Eater (Duberia lutrix) Hanglip. Photo Melissa Petford.
Herald Snake (Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia) Hanglip. Photo Melissa Petford.
Common Water Snake (Lycodonomorphus rufulus) Hanglip. Photo Melissa Petford.
Common Centipede Eater (Aparallactus capensis) Goro Game Reserve. Photo Melissa Petford.
Large Puff Adder (Bitis arietans) Goro Game Reserve. Photo Melissa Petford.
Puff Adder (Bitis arietans) in camouflage mode, Lajuma. Photo Melissa Petford.
Juvenile Puff Adder (Bitis arietans), Medike. Photo Melissa Petford.
Long-tailed Thread Snake (Myriopholis longicauda). Medike. Photo Melissa Petford.
Big thanks to everyone who helped us in the field and with additional support over the past few months, without you all none of this would be possible. Special thanks to Goro research Centre, Lajuma Reserach Centre, Hannes and Maritjie Underhay, Jordy Koedam, our assistants Leo Eastley and Ryan Macdonnell, Craig Napier and family, Nimeng Safaris and Johan Marais.
The core team for the past few months. From left Ryan Macdonnell, Jordy Koedam, Ryan van Huyssteen, Melissa Petford and Leo Eastley (Centre).