Saturday, July 13, 2019

Summer 2019 (January to May) Tortoises, Flat Lizards and One Lucky Pangolin

A rescued African Ground Pangolin (Smutsia temnickii) busy feeding on cocktail ants. Photo Melissa Petford.
It’s been a long period since our last blog post and we have been very active this summer. As usual, most of our time was spent at Medike Nature Reserve, but we have also visited other regions, most notably Kruger National Park, Mapungubwe National Park, Makabeng Plateau, eastern Soutpansberg, Alldays Region and some new sites in the western Soutpansberg. Besides our fieldwork we also were involved in a pangolin rescue and maybe the most exciting development of all was Melissa finally submitting her PhD entitled Ecology and Conservation of Restricted Reptiles, which focused on the endemic and rupicolous reptile species of the Soutpansberg. Below we share some of our highlights and interesting observations.

Orange cliffs of Medike, the effect is created when the sun is low and lights up orange lichen growing on cliffs.

Our year got off to an exciting start and the SCBC hosted two researchers, Melita Vamberger and Flora Ihlow, who were looking at Kinixys and Pelomedusa throughout the north eastern parts of the country. We assisted them in the Soutpansberg region and saw and learned a lot about Testudines: a very interesting and diverse group of reptile. This is the first time we have specifically gone into the field looking for tortoises and they are actually difficult animals to target, especially Kinixys which normally occur in low densities.
Juvenile Hinged Tortoise (Kinixys spp.) from the northern Slopes of the Soutpansberg.
Adult Kinixys from the top of the Soutpansberg.
Adult Kinixys spekki from the Limpopo Valley.
Juvenile Kinixys speki from the Sand River.
Hatchling Kinixys spekki from the Sand River.
Marsh Terrapin (Pelomedusa subrufa) near the Limpopo River.
Helmeted Terrapin (Pelomedusa) from near Polokwane.
Serrated Hinged Terrapin (Pelusios sinuatus), Soutpansberg.
Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) feeding on lion scat, Mapaungubwe National Park.

Kruger National Park and Mapangubwe National Park
Kruger National Park was one of our destinations during the summer and we were lucky to visit after some heavy summer rains. Pans had formed in many areas that are normally dry and we were lucky to see some of the exciting herpetofauna that Kruger National Park exhibits.  Besides the reptiles we also had some amazing bird and mammal sightings.  The most exciting being an unusual Nyala which had retained female colouration but grown horns. This is apparently caused by some kind of hormonal imbalance – a very unusual animal.

Aberrent Nyala Bull (Tragelaphus angasii), Punda Maria, Kruger National Park.
A difficult reptile to see due to it's retiring nature Rough-scaled Plated Lizard (Broadleysaurus major), Punda Maria, KNP.
Soutpansberg Purple-Glossed Snake (Amblyodipsas microphthalma nigra) the Soutpansberg's and only endemic snake. Punda Maria, KNP.
We also did a few trips to Mapangubwe National Park throughout this period and one weekend in particular was exceptional for birding, we recorded 167 species in a three days visit. Some highlights of the trip were seeing thousands of Muller’s Platanna (Xenopus muelleri) congregating at the edge of the Manoutswa pan, a Martial Eagle Eating a Rock Monitor, a new reptile for our list: Boulenger's Garter Snake (Elapsoidea boulengeri) and finally a rare bird, the Slaty Egret which we spotted in a small pan. Thanks to Richard Petifor for making it such a successful trip.
Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) consuming a Rock Monitor (Varanus albigularis).
Thousands of juvenile Muller’s Platanna (Xenopus muelleri) gathering along edge of Manoutswa Pan,
Mapungubwe NP.
Slaty Egret (Egretta vinaceigula) at Mapungubwe National Park.
Nile Monitor (Varanus niloticus) basking at Mapungubwe National Park.
Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis) preying on Southern Foam Nest Frog (Chiromantis xerampelina).

Another mentionable highlight was an outing was to see the Platysaurus species of an area just south of Blouberg. We found three species living in very close proximity to one another, this is quite a special situation as there can’t be too many places in Southern Africa where one can see that many Platysaurus in easy walking distance.
Dwarf Flat Lizard (Platysaurus guttatus) this species is incredibly shy and difficult to approach. Blouberg Region.
Waterberg Flat Lizard (Platysaurus minor), Blouberg Region.
Orange-throated Flat Lizard (Platysaurus monotropis), Blouberg Region.
 Other Platysaurus we have seen this season were Soutpansberg Flat Lizard (Platysaurus relictus), Blouberg Flat Lizard (Platysaurus parvus), Wilhelm's Flat Lizard (Platysaurus wilhelmi), Zimbabwe Flat Lizard (Platysaurus rhodesianus) and Sekhukhune Flat Lizard (Platysaurus orientalis).
Wilhelm's Flat Lizard (Platysaurus wilhelmi).
Blouberg Flat Lizard (Platysaurus parvus), Blouberg Nature Reserve.
Soutpansberg Flat Lizard (Platysaurus relictus), Soutpansberg.
Sekhukhune Flat Lizard (Platysaurus orientalis) Blyde River Canyon.
Zimbabwe Flat Lizard (Platysaurus rhodesianus)
During this period we undertook two notable surveys in new areas of the Soutpansberg. Our first survey was at the farms Leek and Surprise, located roughly south-east of Medike. We recorded 31 reptile species from the property, the most significant of these were five endemic Soutpansberg reptiles: Soutpansberg Worm Lizard (Chirindia langi occidentalis), Soutpansberg Flat Lizard (Platysaurus relictus), Soutpansberg Rock Lizard (Vhembelacerta rupicola), Cryptic Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus incognitus) and Soutpansberg Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus soutpansbergensis). The abundance of L. incognitus, L. soutpansbergenis, P. relictus and V. rupicola indicates that the property is an important location for the conservation of these species.
Spotted Sandveld Lizard (Nucras intertexta)
Soutpansberg Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus soutpansbergensis)
Flat Dragon Lizard (Smaug depressus), an iconic species of the Soutpansberg.

Soutpansberg Worm Lizard (Chirindia langi occidentalis), an important high altitude record.
Bibron's Blind Snake (Afrotyphlops bibronii) locally common invertebrate eater.
In addition to the endemics we also found a new locality of Spotted Rock Snake (Lamprophis guttatus) and a new species for our records: Broadley’s Flat Gecko (Afroedura broadleyi).
Spotted Rock Snake (Lamprophis guttatus), a difficult to see crack dweller.
Broadley's Flat Gecko (Afroedura broadleyi) the first specimen for our lists.
 Another notable survey was a visit to a reserve near Tshipise where we conducted a site visit to assess the practicalities for further surveys on the property. We recorded 15 species and our highlights include the most westerly Soutpansberg records for Stevenson’s Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus soutpansbergensis) and a good easterly record of Black Lined Plated Lizard (Gerrhosaurus intermedius), we don't have many localities in the region for this secretive species. We look forward to surveying the property again in the future.

Svenson's Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus stevensoni) hiding in plain site on a tree.
Black-lined Plated Lizard (Gerrhosaurus intermedius) a lizard not often encountered.
Eastern form of Pienaar's Flat Gecko (Afroedura pienaari)
Speckled Gecko (Pachydactylus punctatus).
This period also produced many general biodiversity highlights. The most interesting were seeing a live African Hedgehog (Atelerix frontalis) in the Soutpansberg for the first time. Saving an African Ground Pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) from people trying to smuggle it into illicit trade (animal was rehabiltated and is now part of a African Pangolin Working Group programme which will reintroduce Pangolins into Northern KZN where they have become expatriated). Witnissing a Rock monitor (Varanus albigularis) predating on a hatchling Hinged Tortoise (Kinixys spekii). Observing a large Whalberg’s Velvet Gecko (Homopholis wahlbergii) consuming a Tropical House Gecko (Hemidactylus mabouia). Capturing a White-backed Night Heron (Gorsachius leuconotus) on camera trap and finding a Slaty Egret (Egretta vinaceigula) at Mapangubwe. 
African Ground Pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) photo Melissa Petford.

White-backed Night Heron (Gorsachius leuconotus)
Whalberg's Velvet Gecko (Homopholis wahlbergii) and Tropical House Gecko (Hemidactylus mabouia)
Watched this Rock Monitor (Varanus albigularis) digging out a Hinged Tortoise (Kinixys spekii).

Summer 2019 has been exceptional and we have seen so much, encountered so many species, met some amazing people and accomplished so much over the years. The coming summer will see us continuing our surveys by targeting gaps in our survey effort, tying up loose ends and continuing our collaborations we have built over the years. Watch this space for our final blog post at the end of the year.

African Hedgehog (Atelerix frontalis) photo Melissa Petford.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

First Half of Summer in the Soutpansberg (September to December 2018)

Two-Striped Shovel Snout (Prosymna bivittata). Northern slopes of the Soutpansberg.

Variegated Wolf Snake (Lycophidion variegatum) a snake with poorly understood distribution patterns.

The last quarter of 2018 has been very exciting and productive. We have returned to Medike where we used to live until September 2017. Being back at Medike has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. The warm weather and abundance of wildlife (especially herpetofauna) have been a welcome change. Also watching the property developing into a proactive and important conservation area in the western Soutpansberg has been a special experience for us, we are happy that we could be a small part of that. Now managed by the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Medike will officially be protected for the foreseeable future.

Richard's Burrowing Skink (Acontias richardi) from the far eastern Soutpansberg.The highlight of this season's sampling.
Zambezi Beaked Blind Snake (Afrotyphlops mucruso) an unusual and rarely encountered fossorial species.
This period has been very busy in terms of widening our sampling effort and expanding our horizons. We have visited many additional sites and sampled at some unique places including: Alldays in the hot open sandy Bushveld; Blouberg Nature Reserve reminiscent of the northern parts of the western Soutpansberg; the hot deep sands on the Northern Slopes of the Eastern Soutpansberg; Mapungubwe; Musina; and of course, various sites in the western Soutpansberg, including high and low altitude regions, some of these sites we have visited for the first time. Most of our time was spent in the Sand River Valley at Medike.

Cape Buffalo, a member of the big five. An exciting yet dangerous encounter on foot. Alldays.
Fig Forest at Blouberg Nature Reserve.
Blouberg Flat Lizard (Platysuarus parvus) from the foothills of Blouberg.
Stevenson's Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus stevensoni) Mapungubwe National Park.
Zimbabwe Flat Lizard (Platysaurus rhodesianus Mapungubwe National Park.
One trip that is worth a separate mention was to the Wolkberg, a centre of endemnism. With a few other herpers and researchers we visted the area to look for possible sites to target the Eastwood's Long-tailed Seps (Tetradactylus eastwoodae). The lizard is considered to be extinct, but our idiotic optimism has us thinking they may still be there. This was my first visit to the region and we spent most of our time in the high altitude grassland, full of fynbos elements. We also spent a little time in Woodbush forest. Can’t wait to visit the area again.

Woodbush Legless Skink (Acontias rieppeli) a large legless skink from high altitude.
Woodbush Flat Gecko (Afroedura multiporus) a very large and highly restricted Flat Gecko.
Limpopo Berg Adder (Bitis atropis).
Northern Forest Rain Frog (Breviceps sylvestris sylvestris) a Wolkberg Endemic.
Uniform dark phase of Cape Skink (Trachylepis capensis).
Normal Cape Skink (Trachylepis capensis).
A Limpopo oddity Red-sided Skink (Trachylepis homalocephala).
Woodbush Transvaal Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion transvaalense).
New Species and Special Finds

African Bull Frog (Pyxicephalus edulis)
The first specimen from Medike, we encountered an adult one night during a termite alate emergence. The frog was in the process of swallowing a centipede (Scolopendra morsitans).
African Bull Frog (Pyxicephalus edulis) consuming a Centipede (Scolopendra morsitans). Medike Nature Reserve.
Northern Pygmy Toad (Poyntonophrynus fenoulheti) 
One night while doing one of our transects we encountered a Northern Pygmy Toad, this is a first for Medike and the first for our Western Soutpansberg records. Previously we have only found these frogs in the far eastern Soutpansberg.
Broad Banded Grass Frog (Ptychadena mossambica)
During the rains in early December part of the nocturnal amphibian chorus was made up of Broad Banded Grass frogs, we failed to detect this species in previous years and is also a new species for our Medike lists.

Northern Pygmy Toad (Poyntonophrynus fenoulheti) Sand River. Photo copyright of Gary Kyle Nicolau.
Schlegel’s Beaked Blind Snake (Afrotyphlops schlegelii)
We were lucky enough to log two specimes of Afrotyphlops shlegelii on a night survey just west of Alldays. This is a new species for our greater Soutpansberg list.

Schlegel’s Beaked Blind Snake (Afrotyphlops schlegelii)
Delande's Beaked Blind Snake (Rhinotyphlops lalandei) 
We encountered our first Rhinotyphlops lalalandei last year and unfortunately the specimen was dead, this is the first time we have encountered this species alive in the Soutpansberg Region.

Delande's Beaked Blind Snake (Rhinotyphlops lalandei)
Slender Quill-Snouted Snake (Xenocalamus bicolor lineatus)
Until this season we had only encountered Quill-Snouts at Blouberg Nature Reserve and Mapungubwe. We encountered five specimens during our night work this season: three in the Soutpansberg region and two near Venetia. We also witnessed some unknown defensive behaviour.
Slender Quill-Snouted Snake (Xenocalamus bicolor lineatus), Limpopo Valley.
Savannah Legless Skink (Acontias occidentalis)
Two Acontias occidentalis were found by us during field work, one on the far western reach of our survey area (Alldays) and the other was found near Nwanedi Nature Reserve. A nice addition to our lists.

Juvenile Savannah Legless Skink (Acontias occidentalis)
Richards Legless Skink (Acontias richardi)
We finally got around to going to look for this species in the hot sands north of the eastern Soutpansberg. This is another new one for our lists. Thanks to Gary Kyle Nicolau and Emily Jackson for the motivation to do this trip.
Richards Legless Skink (Acontias richardi)
Spotted Sandveld Lizard (Nucras intertexta)
These shy lizards have not been seen very often on Medike. We recorded a juvenile in 2015 and now we got two adults during this summer, one was moving around on a very hot day and the other was found just after sundown during a termite alate emergence. Our singletons are becoming fewer. 
Spotted Sandveld Lizard (Nucras intertexta), Medike, Soutpansberg.
Muller's Velvet Gecko (Homopholis mulleri)
We don't see this species very often, and when we do it is always exciting. On a dark night in early December we were lucky enough to see another one. These small Velvet Geckos are highly restricted and not much is known about them.
Muller's Velvet Gecko (Homopholis mulleri) a rare inhabitant of the Limpopo Valley.
Shovel Snouts (Prosymna)
We often see East African Shovel Snout Snakes (Prosyman stuhlmanni) while surveying but this first half of the season we were lucky to see two unusual species of Shovel-Snout; Lined Shovel Snout (Prosymna lineata) and Two-Striped Shovel Snout (Prosymna bivittata). With the Lined Shovel Snout (Prosymna lineata) we observed two different colour morphs in the region.

Lined Shovel Snout (Prosymna lineata) dark phase.
Lined Shovel Snout (Prosymna lineata), striped phase.
Behavioral Observations

We were lucky to experience some interesting reptile behavior and capture these on camera. Among these have been Hinged Tortoises fighting and courting, Snake-eyed Skinks mating, many species of lizards feeding during termite alate emergence and newly seen defensive behavior in a Quill-snouted Snake.

Spotted-neck Snake Eyed Skinks (Panaspis maculicollis) mating. Sand River.
Speke's Hinged Tortoises (Kinixys spekii) courting. Soutpansberg.
Flat Dragon Lizard (Smaug depressus) gorging on termites.
Slender Quill Snout (Xenocalamus lineata bicolor) in defensive posture.
Despite the drought and extreme weather this season has proven productive. We have seen a few unusual species, made some significant findings and also added a few new species to our lists. During December the rains finally came and the veld was transformed back into a lush green landscape full of life. Below are some of the beautiful, usual suspects we often see during our sampling.

A large Herald Snake (Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia) in defensive display.
A Rhombic Egg Eater (Dasypeltis scabra) very common in the region.
A large Eastern Tiger Snake (Telescopus semiannulatus) from the Sand River.
Eastern Bark Snake (Hemiragerrhis nototaenia) relatively common in hot low laying woodland areas.
Common Purple Glossed Snake (Amblyodipsas polylepis) a powerful reptile eater that is not often encountered.
Bibron's Stiletto Snake (Atractaspis bibronii) commonly encountered at night at lower altitudes in the region.
Black File Snake (Gracililima nyassae) only encountered after good rains when they emerge to hunt and mate.
Vine Snake (Thelotornis capensis) beautiful and shy snakes.
Cape Gecko (Pachydactylus capensis) large chunky geckos of hotter open areas.
Transvaal Gecko (Pachydactylus affinis) favours rocky and hilly areas in our area.
Speckled Gecko (Pachydactylus punctatus) these small geckos are abundant in sandy or rocky open woodland.
Bradfield's Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus bradfieldi) common in hot open savanna regions.
Turner's Gecko (Chondrodactylus turneri) one of the most powerful geckos in the region.
Juvenile Rock Monitor (Varanus albigularis), Medike.
Jones's Girdled Lizard (Cordylus jonesii) Alldays.
Overall the summer so far has been great. We have a few projects and collaborations lined up for 2019 and are expecting a busy and rewarding season. Let it rain! 
Parabuthus granulatus from Waterpoort.

Big thanks to everyone who helped make this period a success. Thanks to Oldrich van Schalkwyk from EWT for networking opportunities and hosting us on Medike. Thanks to EWT for hosting allowing us permission to live on Medike. Thanks to everyone at Alldays Wildlife and Communities Research Centre for hosting us while doing fieldwork out west. Thanks to everyone that gave some time or donations to help with surveys especially Ruan Stander, Gary Kyle Nicolau, Emily Jackson, Luke Kemp, Chanel Sierfontein, Luke and Ursula Verburgt, Thabo Hlatshwayo, Richard Pettifor, Brian Kelly, Sylvie Faillétaz, Francis Burger, Brett Lee and Katherine Monaghan. Without your help this past season would not have been so successful. 
Medike is characterised by high cliffs and the Sand river which cuts its way through the western Soutpansberg.