The Central African Republic, part 3

This is my third of three posts on a trip to the Central African Republic (CAR) in December 2017. The first part dealt with the (extensive) planning for the trip and my days in Bangui at the start of the trip. The second part covered the remainder of my trip, mostly my week at Sangha Lodge in the rainforest of Dzanga-Sangha National Park.

This, last of my CAR posts, is for the intense wild animal-seekers out there. It’s a list of all the mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians I came across during my trip and any relevant notes about where they were seen and suggestions on how others might see them. I’m also including animals that I haven’t been able to properly identify, in hopes that somebody reading this might have some insight as to what these animals could be.

Mammals

I identified mammals based on Kingdon’s Mammals of African, second edition. After my trip I confirmed the IDs from my notes and pictures using the Handbook of the Mammals of the World. I assigned the animals I saw to subspecies based purely on range maps.

African Forest Elephants digging for mud in Bai Hokou.

African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) - Practically guaranteed at Dzanga Bai, also frequent at other bais, like Bai Hokou. Otherwise quite hard to see, even though they are present everywhere.

Southern Needle-clawed Galago (Euoticus elegantulus) - Seemed relatively common on the trails around Sangha Lodge at night. I saw three during my time there.

Demidoff’s and Thomas’s galagos are almost impossible to tell apart in the field based on physical appearance, from what I’ve heard. However, apparently they can be relatively reliably distinguished by behaviour (and by call, though I didn’t hear them make any sounds).

Demidoff’s Dwarf Galago (Galagoides demidovii anomurus) - Sangha Lodge’s owner, Rod, said these are not easy to see. I assigned one galago I saw to this species because it was foraging low in the understory of the forest, at about my eye level, and was moving by scrambling through the vine thickets.

Thomas’s Galago (Galagoides thomasi) - I assigned the rest of the galagos I saw to this species because they were high up in the forest canopy and because they would move by running along branches lengthwise and leaping from tree to tree. If I am correct in my IDs, these are fairly easy to see at night on the trails around Sangha Lodge, though you’ll need a good pair of binoculars to see anything beyond their intense eyeshine.

Milne-Edward’s Potto (Perodicticus edwardsi) - Fairly common on the trails around Sangha Lodge at night.

Moustached Monkey (Cercopithicus cephus cephus) - Common, I saw them in several places but most easily in the forest around the visitor’s centre in Dzanga-Sangha NP.

Putty-nosed Monkey (Cercopithicus nictitans nictitans) - Common and easily seen around Sangha Lodge.

Crowned Monkey (Cercopithicus pogonias grayi) - Apparently common around Sangha Lodge, but I only managed to spot them once, in a mixed group with putty-nosed monkeys.

Grey-cheeked Mangabey (Lophocebus albigena) - I saw them one morning on the hike into Dzanga Bai.

A blurry, heavily cropped picture of a western guereza at Dzanga Bai.

A blurry, heavily cropped picture of a western guereza at Dzanga Bai.

Western Guereza (Colobus guereza occidentalis) - Seen foraging on the ground at Dzanga Bai.

Mongambe, the silverback of one of the two habituated gorilla groups tourists can visit, near Bai Hokou.

Mongambe, the silverback of one of the two habituated gorilla groups tourists can visit, near Bai Hokou.

Western Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) - Guided tours will lead you to one of two habituated groups, so sightings are almost guaranteed. I also saw an unhabituated silverback on one of the mud tracks in Dzanga-Sangha NP, which was one of the most spectacular animal sightings of my life. They’re also occasionally seen foraging in Bai Hokou.

I had a particularly hard time identifying the squirrels I saw, and I saw lots! I saw at least one individual of each of the following five species well enough to confidently ID them to species, but most that I saw went unidentified.

Striped Ground Squirrel (Euxerus erythropus limitaneus) - One seen on the roadside passing though a grassy area on the outskirts of Bayanga Village.

Thomas’s Rope Squirrel (Funisciurus anerythrus mystax) - Seen around Sangha Lodge.

Ribboned Rope Squirrel (Funisciurus lemniscates mayumbicus) - Seen around Sangha Lodge.

Red-legged Sun-squirrel (Heliosciurus rufobrachium) - Seen at Dzangha Bai.

Forest Giant Squirrel (Protoxerus stangeri eborivorus) - One seen at the visitor’s centre in Dzanga-Sangha NP.

Before arriving at Sangha Lodge I’d never heard of anomalures. When I left I’d seen half the world’s species!

It took us forever to identify this Beecroft’s anomalure.

It took us forever to identify this Beecroft’s anomalure.

Beecroft’s Anomalure (Anomalurus beecrofti) - One seen at night on the trails around Sangha Lodge.

Lord Derby’s Anomalure (Anomalurus derbianus) - Seen reliably inside a hollow tree on the Sangha Lodge property.

Lesser Cane Rat (Thryonomys gregorianus) - One seen running across the road on the outskirts of Bayanga at sunset.

As with the squirrels, most of the bats I saw went unidentified. Most were little more than shadowy blurs silhouetted against the dusk.

Pel's Pouched Bat (Saccolaimus peli) - These massive bats were easy to see around Sangha Lodge, particularly flying over the river. They are identifiable by their huge size.

Intermediate Slit-faced Bat (Nycteris intermedia) - The hollow tree that houses the Lord Derby’s anomalure is also home to at least two kinds of bat. I was able to identify one of them as slit-faced bats, and I’ve called them N. intermedia based on Vladimir Dinnet’s notes.

Pangi, one of the two habituated long-tailed pangolins living around Sangha Lodge. There are much better pictures of her elsewhere on the Internet.

Pangi, one of the two habituated long-tailed pangolins living around Sangha Lodge. There are much better pictures of her elsewhere on the Internet.

Long-tailed Pangolin (Manis tetradactyla) - Easily seen at Sangha Lodge by joining the trackers that follow habituated individuals from sunrise to sunset. Otherwise practically impossible to see.

Forest buffalo (left) and giant forest hog (right) hanging out together at Dzanga Bai.

Forest buffalo (left) and giant forest hog (right) hanging out together at Dzanga Bai.

Giant Forest Hog (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni rimator) - Regularly seen at Dzanga Bai.

Forest Buffalo (Syncerus nanus) - Reliable at Dzanga Bai.

Bongo!!!!!!

Bongo!!!!!!

Bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus) - Occasionally makes an appearance at Dzanga Bai, making that the best place in the world to see them.

Western Sitatunga at Bai Hokou.

Western Sitatunga at Bai Hokou.

Western Sitatunga (Tragelaphus gratus) - Occasionally seen at Bai Hokou.

Can anyone help identify these:

  1. I think these three pictures are of a red-legged sun squirrel. Can anyone confirm or correct me?

2. The hollow tree where the Lord Derby’s anomalure is found, I identified two species of bats. This was quite challenging, I was literally going back-and-forth between looking straight up with my binoculars and reading through Kingdon’s guide. I identified two bats down to genus: the slit-faced bats mentioned above and woolly bats (Kerivoula sp.). Unfortunately Vladimir Dinnet does not list a woolly bat species as occurring inside that tree. Does anyone know what kind(s) of woolly bat roosts in there?

Targets for next time:

Tree Hyrax - Their extremely loud calls were heard nightly around Sangha Lodge, sometimes very close to the trails. I think I could have found them if I had known what I was looking for, I thought I was looking for some kind of nocturnal bird!

Agile Mangabey - Usually easy to see as there is a habituated group at Bai Hokou but unfortunately when I was there the trackers were on strike.

De Brazza’s Monkey - Apparently occasionally seen in the swampy area near Sangha Lodge but I didn’t get enough time to properly explore this area in the daytime.

Brush-tailed Porcupine - There is a cave where they live not far from Sangha Lodge, but when we went they were very skittish and ran too deep into the cave for us to see. They can also be reliably seen by going hunting with the Ba’aka.

Tree Pangolin - Apparently regular on the trails around Sangha Lodge at night, though I think Rod might be a little over optimistic (he said they’re seen approx. once per four night walks).

Red River Hog - My favourite pig, I was really hoping to see them. They’re regular at Dzanga Bai, so I was just unlucky.

Birds:

I identified birds almost exclusively by sight, using the second edition of the Birds of Western Africa. I’m just not good enough at African bird calls to rely on them. However, Rod Cassidy, the owner of Sangha Lodge, was a professional birding guide in Africa before buying the lodge, so I was able to rely on him for help with some hard-to-ID birds. He also loaned me his Swarovski telescope to use at Dzanga Bai, which very much came in handy.

My bird list is here. It is 173 species long, and I don’t think it’s worth reposting. Instead, I’m just going to mention some highlights. Also, I should note that my list may not be complete, I think I forgot to write down some of the common and/or introduced species I’d seen previously.

Plumed Guineafowl (Guttera plumifera) - Seen with Rod’s help on the trails at Sangha Lodge.

African Green Pigeon (Treron calvus) - This spectacular bird was common around Sangha Lodge and Dzanga-Sangha National Park

Yellow-throated Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx flaviguralis) - Not an easy bird to see, Rod help me track down one that was calling around Sangha Lodge early one morning.

Black Spinetail (Telacanthura melanopygia) - The diversity of spinetails around Sangha Lodge makes identification a challenge; I found four species on my trip, of which this is the least reported (according to eBird).

Forbes’s Plover (Charadrius forbesi) - A Central and West African specialty, these were common at Dzanga Bai. There were many other waders at Dzanga Bai as well, a good telescope is necessary if you want to identify them.

Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii) - One seen at Dzanga Bai at the edge of the forest.

Black Goshawk (Accipiter melanoleucus) - A spectacular bird to see emerge from the forest at Dzanga Bai.

Dark Chanting-goshawk (Melierax metabates), Bataleur (Terathopius ecaudatus), Red-necked Buzzard (Buteo auguralis) - Three spectacular African raptors all seen riding the thermals from the road to Lac des Crocodiles.

Fraser’s Eagle-owl (Bubo poensis) - Rod found one at Sangha Lodge after dinner one evening.

Red-billed and Black Dwarf Hornbills (Lophoceros camurus and Horizocerus hartlaubi) - Both dwarf hornbills are rather difficult to see, but can be spotted in the forest canopy around Sangha Lodge.

Black-and-white Casqued Hornbill (Bycanistes subcylindricus) - Rod says he doesn’t think these are present in the area, but I swear I saw one - the diagnostic black-and-white undertail pattern in particular - fly across the river during our river cruise.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) - Despite seeing this bird regularly in all my hometowns (Toronto, Montreal and Canberra), I was extremely pleased to see a Sky Ferrari perched on the cell tower in downtown Bangui.

Gray Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) - My #2 most wanted bird of the trip, they were so common at Sangha Lodge and around Dzanga-Sangha NP that I could have gotten sick of them if they weren’t so wonderful. The palm wine boat tour is particularly good for seeing them in large, riotous flocks.

Red-eyed Puffback (Dryoscopus senegalensis) - A particularly hard rainforest bird to see, I only saw it once, at Dzanga Bai.

Black -headed x African Paradise-flycatcher (Terpsiphone rufiventer x viridis) - While hanging around Bai Hokou village, I saw what looked like a black-headed paradise-flycatcher, except it had black underparts and white tail streamers of intermediate length. What a weird bird.

White-bearded Greenbul (Criniger ndussumensis) - I saw this around Sangha Lodge, and was able to identify it to species only with Rod’s help.

Lesser Bristlebill (Bleda notatus) - I was lucky in finding an army ant swarm while wandering the Sangha Lodge trails and, though the experience was stressful for trying to avoid being encircled by the ants, it was great for birding those understory skulkers that are otherwise quite difficult to get a look at.

Xavier’s Greenbul (Phyllastrephus xavieri) - I saw this greenbul only once, birding around the Bai Hokou village.

Green-backed Eremomela (Eremomela canescens) - This seldom-reported bird seems pretty easy to see on the road to Lac des Crocodiles.

Gosling’s Apalis (Apalis goslingi) - This Central African specialty was easy to see at Sangha Lodge.

Yellow-footed Flycatcher (Muscicapa sethsmithi) - This did not seem like an easy bird to see, but I found one extremely confiding individual hanging around the Bai Hokou village.

Can anyone help identify this:

This bird was seen and photographed at Dzanga Bai. Yes, this is the best (i.e. only) picture we managed to get. Can anyone identify it from this?

Targets for next time:

Red-necked Picathartes - I was sad to have missed my #1 target bird. Rod has a reliable spot for them, but unfortunately a poacher had camped there recently (the remnants of his fire pit were still very evident) and there were no birds to be found. We did see their weird mud nests.

White-collared Starling - Rod suggested that the road to Lac des Crocodiles is a good place to look for this species because previous groups had found them there.

Pennant-winged and Standard-winged Nightjars - Rod said that these can be found hawking over and around the airstrip at Bayanga, but we didn’t manage to arrange a night trip there. Also, the road to Lac des Crocodiles is almost guaranteed to have them, but I don’t think driving this road at night is a good idea in the current security situation.

Greater Painted-snipe - I was convinced that if I scanned Dzanga Bai long enough and hard enough with the telescope I would find one, but I never did.

Reptiles

Reptiles were the hardest to identify because (1) there is a huge lack of knowledge as to what reptiles live in Central Africa, (2) they are extremely diverse (particularly certain groups of lizards and snakes), and (3) diagnostic differences between species can be subtle. Luckily reptiles have long been my passion, and I can identify almost all reptiles to family on sight, most reptiles to genus on sight, and for the easier groups (monitor lizards, boids, crocodilians, etc) I can identify them to species on sight. However, for a lot of the small, skittish lizards, it just wasn’t possible to identify them on my trip. I took pictures of them if I could get my camera out and focussed before they ran away, and others took notes on their appearance as best I could. Once I got home, I used the primary (scientific) literature to figure out what species in that family or genus could be present in CAR, and then how to tell those species apart. My main source of information for what reptiles are present in CAR was Chirio & Ineich, 2006.

A young Central African dwarf crocodile in the swamps near Sangha Lodge.

A young Central African dwarf crocodile in the swamps near Sangha Lodge.

Central African Dwarf Crocodile (Osteolaemus teraspis) - I saw a young one spotlighting in the swamps on my first night at Sangha Lodge. Rod doubted that I’d find one, and I wasn’t able to find it again on subsequent nights despite intensive searching, so I think they are pretty rare in the area and I was extremely lucky.

A young sacred crocodile at Lac des Crocodiles near Boali Falls.

A young sacred crocodile at Lac des Crocodiles near Boali Falls.

Sacred Crocodile (Crocodylus suchus) - A young one was lured out of the Lac des Crocodiles with the promise of a live chicken, however a hive of angry bees came to the chicken’s rescue. The poor croc retreated back to its lake unfed as we all ran off screaming.

A Calabar burrowing python found at night near the Picathartes waterfall, Sangha Lodge.

A Calabar burrowing python found at night near the Picathartes waterfall, Sangha Lodge.

Calabar Burrowing Python (Calabria reinhardtii) - One found at night spotlighting below the picathartes nesting site. My guide completely freaked out when I picked it up. He was new, very keen to make a good impression (which he did), and thought he was watching his great opportunity disappear before his eyes because who would hire him again when his first tourist committed suicide by snake? After I explained (repeatedly and at length) that this particular snake was not dangerous, he eventually asked to hold it.

Jameson’s Mamba (Dendroaspis jamesoni jamesoni) - There aren’t many wild animal experiences I treasure more than watching a two-meter-long, bright yellow mamba move effortlessly from a sunny patch on the rainforest floor up a palm tree and into the safety of its crown of thorny fronds. The mamba made no hurry and kept its head elevated and eye on me the whole time. I would have walked right by it had a squirrel not been alarm-calling at it, and even then I spent the first few minutes trying to ID the squirrel before I thought to try and figure out what had got the squirrel so worried. How many other amazing, fully exposed but well-camouflaged animals did I walk right past?

A beautifully coloured male African five-lined skink at Boali Falls.

A beautifully coloured male African five-lined skink at Boali Falls.

A baby African five-lined skink with a beautiful blue tail.

A baby African five-lined skink with a beautiful blue tail.

African Five-lined Skink (Trachylepis quinquetaeniata) - Common around man-made structures at Boali Falls and Lac des Crocodiles.

A speckle-lipped skink basking on the deck at Sangha Lodge.

Speckle-lipped Skink (Trachylepis maculilabris) - Common around Sangha Lodge.

A Makolowodé’s skink hanging above the door to my cabin. I took a bunch of pictures of this guy, and he never moved. Later, I realized he was dead.

Makolowodé’s Skink (Trachylepis makolowodei) - Common around Sangha Lodge.

A Benoue agama near Boali Falls.

Benoue Agama (Agama dorian) - Common around man-made structures at Boali Falls and Lac des Crocodiles.

A gorgeous male red-headed agama.

Red-headed Agama (Agama lebertoni) - The Agama agama-group species in the area, these were surprisingly uncommon. Usually they are abundant around human habitation, but I only saw them around the Mausoleum of Ange-Félix Patassé, just outside of Bangui.

Moreau’s tropical house gecko in my cabin at Sangha Lodge.

Moreau’s Tropical House Gecko (Hemidactylus mabouia) - Seen on the interior walls of my cottage at Sangha Lodge, as well as the dining hall.

A coalescent house gecko in my cabin at Sangha Lodge.

Coalescent House Gecko (Hemidactylus coalescens) - Common both in the buildings at Sangha Lodge, and around the bases of trees in the forest.

The one picture I was able to get of the sawtail lizard before it took off.

Sawtail Lizard (Holaspis guentheri) - I saw this gorgeous lizard on a tree limb beside the observation hide at Dzanga Bai. That was the only one I ever saw, so I suspect they aren’t easy to find unless you can get up high.

Ornate Monitor (Varanus ornatus) - Rod was surprised when I told him on my last day that I had yet to see one. He said he frequently sees them wandering around the camp. I made a concerted effort to find on that morning, and finally came across a baby on the bank of the river across from the camp. It was gorgeous, and well worth the effort.

Can anyone help me identify:

1. This gorgeous agama was hanging around on the tree by the Dzanga Bai elevated hide, and I have no idea what it is. Not only is its colour scheme not one I’ve seen described anywhere for any African agamid, but something about this individual says “female” to me, which would make its beautiful colours even more unusual. If you know what it is, please let me know!

2. I chased this agamid around my cabin at Sangha Lodge trying to get decent pictures. Something about this one makes me think it’s a male, but I still have no idea what species it could be.

Targets for next time:

Central African Slender-snouted Crocodile - Rod says these have been hunted out from the area, but the guides in the Dzanga-Sangha NP were familiar with it. It might be worth trying to hire a Ba’aka guide to see if they can take to you a good spot for them.

Gaboon and Rhinoceros Vipers - I borrowed a rake and tried raking through leaves at the bottom of a pit with no luck. Rod says he’s only seen them two ways: when they’re swimming in the river or fleeing army ants. I suspect they aren’t rare, but the quality of their camouflage and their habit of not moving make them almost impossible to find.

Broadley’s and Variable Bush Vipers - Both these spectacular snakes should be present in the rainforest of southwest CAR. Spotlighting at night is probably the best way to find them (along with luck) but I didn’t come across any - and I spotlighted quite a bit!

Ball Python - One of the most popular pet snakes in the world, I’d love to seen this gorgeous animal in the wild. Flipping debris on the road to Lac des Crocodiles would probably give a decent chance of finding one (and who knows what else!)

Conrau’s Dwarf Gecko - These tiny but spectacularly coloured gecko are around Sangha Lodge, I’m sure. They prefer dense vegetation in sunny spots in the forest. I’ll have to look harder next time.

Savannah Monitor - I’ve got no idea what kind of hunting pressure they might be under, but they should be present in the savannah mosaic around Lac des Crocodiles. It’d be worth wandering around the area, or at least keeping an eye out while birding.

Cameroon Stumptail Chameleon - I would LOVE to see a species of dwarf chameleon. I suspect find it is a matter of keeping a close eye on the ground while walking along rainforest trails.

Amphibians

Although the data on amphibian diversity in Central Africa is just as terrible as the data on reptiles, two things made the amphibians easier to identify. First, their diversity is a heck of a lot lower, so the number of species that could possibly be present is less daunting. Second, an academic, David Modry, had recently done a survey of frogs at Sangha Lodge, and left behind a picture book of all the species they found. This was very useful. Unfortunately the data doesn’t seem to have made it into any publication yet.

Greshoff’s Wax Frog

Greshoff’s Wax Frog

Greshoff’s Wax Frog (Cryptothylax greshoffi) - Common on the trails around Sangha Lodge at night.

White-lipped Frog

White-lipped Frog

White-lipped Frog (Amnirana albolabris) - Common in the swamps near Sangha Lodge at night.

Perret’s Grassland Frog

Perret’s Grassland Frog

Perret’s Grassland Frog (Ptychadena perreti) - Common in the grassy areas of Bai Hokou.

Benito River Night Frog

Benito River Night Frog

Benito River Night Frog (Astylosternus batesi) - Not easy to find. I found a couple in the creek that flows down from the Picathartes nesting site.

Buea Screeching Frog

Buea Screeching Frog

Buea Screeching Frog (Arthroleptis variabilis) - We managed to find a couple spotlighting at night on the trails around Sangha Lodge.

Eared River Frog

Eared River Frog

Eared River Frog (Phrynobatrachus auritus) - A few individuals found in the swamps near Sangha Lodge.

Oban Toad

Oban Toad

Oban Toad (Sclerophrys camerunensis) - This human-associated species is relatively easy to find at night around the Sangha Lodge buildings.

Central African clawed frog

Central African clawed frog

Central African clawed frog (Xenopus power) - This, the northernmost of the four species that Xenopus laevis was split into, was common in the swamps around Sangha Lodge at night. This was surprising because it is not included in David Modry’s picture book. Maybe its presence is seasonal?

Can you help me identify:

1. I think this is just a weakly patterned eared river frog. Any other opinions?

2. I’m pretty sure this is  Hyperolius brachiofasciatus  based on the description in  AmphibiaWeb , but identifying newly-metamorphosed froglets like this one is quite difficult. Does anyone have any insight?

2. I’m pretty sure this is Hyperolius brachiofasciatus based on the description in AmphibiaWeb, but identifying newly-metamorphosed froglets like this one is quite difficult. Does anyone have any insight?

3. I think this might be Leptopelis calcaratus? But something about it just doesn’t seem to fit for that species…

4. David Modry has this listed in his book as Hyperolius sp. Anyone know if it’s been described?

Targets for next time:

Congo caecilian - I have never seen any kind of caecilian in the wild. This terrestrial species should be pretty common in the rainforest, but I suspect we didn’t get enough rain when I was there to bring them out of their burrows.

Bolifamba Reed Frog - This spectacularly coloured frog reaches its westernmost distribution in southwester CAR.

Accra Snake-necked Frog - Another spectacularly coloured frog, this one found in dryer savannah regions. Lac des Crocodiles seems like a good place to look for them, but you’d have to be there during the rains.

Cameroon Toad - Among the most beautiful of toads, this species is found in rainforests in the vicinity of large rivers, so Sangha Lodge seems like the perfect place to go looking for them! Maybe I have to spotlight more along the river’s edge, as opposed to in the forests and swamps.













The Central African Republic, part 2

The Central African Republic, part 1 dealt with my preparation for the trip and my time in Bangui at the start of my trip. This part deals with the main attraction: my time at Sangha Lodge in the country’s southwest.

The morning after my trip to Boali Falls, William and Nestor picked me up and we drove to the airport to catch a puddle-jumper flight to Sangha Lodge, in the southwest corner of CAR. William immediately disappeared into the airport to do his fixing for two arriving clients, while I waited in the parking lot with Nestor. Me being me, I asked Nestor if I could pull out my binoculars and look for birds. Nestor approved, and I started trying to figure out what was perched on the fences and light posts around the airport. Many fences and lights surround the airport because it is one of the most strategically important and heavily fortified places in CAR. That means it’s also crawling with heavily armed UN soldiers and at least three tanks. The sight of a guy using a pair of high-powered binoculars to look at them (well, at the finch perched on the fence just to their left) did not please these soldiers, and Nestor quickly came running up to me to tell me he was sorry but I couldn’t do that. Binoculars and heavily armed soldiers just don’t mix.

In the pilot’s seat of our little plane was a twenty-something South African man. His gave a casually self-assured delivery of the safety briefing and we were off flying over Bangui and then the rainforest. I was seated directly behind him, and - a nervous flyer at the best of times - my sense of alarm rose significantly during the flight when I saw him take out the extremely thick airplane manual and place it, open and face-up, in the space between the pilot’s and copilot’s seats. In order to reassure myself (surely he was just looking up something innocuous) I leaned forward and read the title of the page he had opened to: it was the page explaining how to restart the plane in the air following the failure of both engines. Alarmed, I spent the rest of the flight keenly listening to the sounds the plane was making*. Despite my apprehensions we landed safely in Baganga, the village at the entrance to Dzanga-Sangha National Park and close to Sangha Lodge. 

The entrance to Dzanga-Sangha National Park

The entrance to Dzanga-Sangha National Park

The owner of Sangha Lodge is a man named Rod Cassidy, and he was there to meet us at the airstrip along with his staff and many locals. Rod’s advice to me was to start birding right away, as the wildlife around the airstrip tends to be unique because the airstrip is a unique grassy area in the middle of a massive rainforest. There were no armed soldiers in sight, so I entertained myself trying to identify swifts (no easy task) while administrative issues were dealt with around me. I was initially hesitant when Rod told me to hand my passport over to a local official, but in the end I decided against wasting my day going with the official as he processed my entry into the region, and handed over the document. Common travel advice for Africa is to never, ever part with your passport. However, I find that this advice is almost impossible to follow. I had also handed my passport over to William upon arrival in Bangui, and he had then promptly disappeared into the bowels of the airport. Previous experiences with other fixers at African ports of entry have taught me that this is normal. My advice is to carry several certified copies of your passport; these will do in a pinch should your passport fail to be returned. 

Rod Cassidy (L), owner of Sangha Lodge, and me at the Bayanga airstrip.

Rod Cassidy (L), owner of Sangha Lodge, and me at the Bayanga airstrip.

I was blown away by Sangha Lodge. The lodge is perched over the Sangha River, and on the first night we were treated to a river cruise. Big trees hung over the banks, monkeys occasionally causing a ruckus in the canopy. Parrots and hornbills flew overhead, presumably back to their evening roosts, and Rod regaled us with the story of the lodge and his past. He spent many years traveling across Africa as a birding guide, which was music to my ears! 

Sunset over the Sangha River from deck at Sangha Lodge.

Sunset over the Sangha River from deck at Sangha Lodge.

The lodge itself looks exactly like what you might expect - gorgeous but run-down in just the way a remote jungle lodge should be. The buildings were all distressed wood and blooming with moss and epiphytes. Flowering trees were starting to encroach on the lodge grounds. The main building had a comfy indoor common area decorated with local art and a bookshelf of books describing the local environment and culture. Attached was a gorgeous patio overlooking the river. Each “room” was its own little bungalow with a private bathroom (including a shower overlooking the river) and brand-new furniture. 

The main building’s common area at Sangha Lodge.

The main building’s common area at Sangha Lodge.

The lodge used to be a hunter’s camp, as Dzanga-Sangha National Park is surrounded by hunting allotments. By purchasing the hunting allotment just north of the park, Rod and his partner Tamir have stopped all legal sport hunting in addition to creating a tourist attraction. Illegal poaching is an ongoing problem; a European hunting guide still sometimes takes his rich clients into the allotment, lying to the clients about exactly where they are. One evening I was there rifle shots range out from across the river; Rod immediately called rangers from the national park who came in a speedboat to investigate.

Sangha Lodge from the river.

Sangha Lodge from the river.

The Sangha tour I was on included five activities (one per day). The first activity was a full-day visit to Dzanga Bai: the reason I have heard of this national park. As a child I remember staring at photos from Dzanga in my Dad’s National Geographic magazines. Dzanga is one of a collection of bais (small rainforest clearings) scattered through the rainforest in the region where CAR, Cameroon, and the Republic of Congo meet. Bais are special because they provide the best opportunities to see animals that usually stay hidden in the dense rainforest. For whatever reason, each Bai seems to attract a slightly different suite of animals, and Dzanga is famous for its elephants. After a fifteen minute walk through the rainforest I, the other Sangha guests, and our guides emerged at the base of a wooden observation platform about three stories tall. Our guides were very clear that we had to be extremely quiet - another reminder that we were in a remote location, visited only by a very lucky few. You can see elephants, albeit not the same species, easily on the plains and bushland of eastern and southern Africa, and there’s no need for quiet. Those elephants get so many safari trucks rumbling by that they are completely habituated to human noises. These elephants see very few tourists and are not at all habituated to human presence. 

Dzanga Bai from the top of the observation platform.

Dzanga Bai from the top of the observation platform.

The view at the top of the observation platform took my breathe away. Elephants – dozens of them – scattered around a clearing, doing various elephant things. Some had their entire faces submerged in the mud, others used their trunks to delicately transfer the mud to their mouths. Huge males congregated around the deepest mud pit, where their long tusks could scrape up the best mud. Young elephants ran around, flaring up their ears and trunks in mock aggression: sometimes at each other, sometimes at an unlucky heron, and sometimes at nothing in particular. Baby elephants stuck close to their mothers, venturing only short distances to play before high-tailing it back to safety under mom’s massive torso.

A newborn (still pink) baby elephant finds safety and comfort under her mother’s massive body.

A newborn (still pink) baby elephant finds safety and comfort under her mother’s massive body.

The thing I enjoyed the most about the bai was watching new elephants arrive. Despite their huge size, elephants emerged from the incredibly dense rainforest seemingly by magic. One second there was nothing, and the next there was an elephant, without even the slightest sound or shake of a tree. Once the elephant emerged, other elephants would turn towards the newcomer and raise their trunks, seemingly sniffing the air to see who had arrived. The new elephant would amble forward, sometimes trumpeting or flaring its ears and trunk. Often it would amble towards what I perceived to be a friend, the two elephants would touch and entwine trunks, and then eat mud side-by-side. At the end of the day we left, creeping quietly down the stairs into the rainforest, where there was absolutely no indication that there were any elephants around, let alone the highest density of elephants in central Africa. The rainforest just swallows up the world’s largest land animal without a trace.

Driving on muddy roads through the park, we had one last fantastic encounter: a big silverback gorilla on the road. As our driver slammed on the breaks the gorilla arched his back, flexed his massive muscles, and then disappeared into the forest. We saw him for maybe a second, but it was an incredible moment: I was in a place where gorillas are still common enough that you can happen upon them accidentally on your commute.

The roads through Dzanga-Sangha National Park. Imagine this view but with a huge male gorilla blocking the road and flexing at you.

The roads through Dzanga-Sangha National Park. Imagine this view but with a huge male gorilla blocking the road and flexing at you.

Gorilla tourism, where you can visit a habituated gorilla group with professional gorilla trackers, is now relatively easy – if you can afford it. Uganda and Rwanda have really popularized this activity, and the habituated groups of mountain gorillas living in those countries are visited by tourists daily. Western lowland gorillas, despite being the most common of the gorillas, are by comparison much more difficult to see. Dzanga-Sangha National Park has two habituated western lowland gorilla groups that tourists are allowed to visit, and our second day’s activity was to visit one of these groups. Visiting wild gorillas is quite the experience: I was walking through the forest, turned a corner, and there was this huge, vaguely human, insanely muscular, hairy black beast sitting in front of me, maybe 50m away. Then I heard a crash to my left, a rustle behind me, and was surrounded by gorillas. These gorillas were not as habituated as the mountain gorillas. They snorted at us, gave us a lot of side-eye, and moved quickly through the forest. Spending an hour with them was unbelievably wild.

A female gorilla checking me out.

A female gorilla checking me out.

The silverback of the habituated gorilla group we visited.

The silverback of the habituated gorilla group we visited.

The third day’s activity was a hike to a waterfall to see some animals that, while not as well known, are weird central African specialties:  anomalures, picathartes, and porcupines. Anomalures are flying squirrel-like creatures endemic to Africa. There are only four species, three of which are found at Sangha. Rod has found a very old, very big hollow tree near the waterfall that is home to these weird critters. The tree is big enough that you can stand up inside it! 

Standing inside a huge, hollow tree, staring up at bats and anomalures.

Standing inside a huge, hollow tree, staring up at bats and anomalures.

The waterfall itself was beautiful in that way that rainforest waterfalls are beautiful (and Boali Falls was not), but I wasn’t there for the scenery. The limestone rocks behind the waterfall are home to brush-tailed porcupines and grey-necked picathartes. There are only two species of picathartes, rare birds that are restricted to the central and west African rainforest. They also look completely bonkers, like the bird version of a rodeo clown. The porcupines were home, but only our guide got a glimpse of them as they ran deep into the limestone rocks. The picathartes were not home, unfortunately, though we did get to see some of their (unoccupied) mud nests. Rod had warned us that our chances of picathartes were small: a poacher had recently camped at the base of the waterfall, scaring the birds away. Hopefully they return next season!

Unoccupied mud nests of grey-necked picathartes.

Unoccupied mud nests of grey-necked picathartes.

The fourth day’s activity was hanging out with the local Ba’aka. Ba’aka are the indigenous peoples of the area, and are are often referred to as pygmies because they are very short. Traditionally discriminated against by governments and other local peoples, the Ba’aka are poor even by Central African standards. Nonetheless, they are renowned for their knowledge of the forest, and much of the staff and guides at Sangha Lodge are Ba’aka. Whenever we ventured into the rainforest, it was a Ba’aka guide who would lead the way and keep us safe (elephants were a particular danger). 

Usually this tour involves going hunting with the Ba’aka but I, and the other guest with me, were not super keen on this activity. Instead we got to hang out with some Ba’aka women, learning how houses are built from forest materials, and which plants are used for food and medicine. The most fun part for me, though, was the sheer joy these women exuded at behind asked to show off their skills. They sang songs the whole time, had huge smiles on their faces, and taught us to sing along as best we could. I often find anthropological tourism rather depressing and exploitative, and I generally avoid it. However, in this case I felt that these women were overjoyed to be earning some money showing off the skills they’d developed throughout their lives. I had so much fun, and I think they did too. 

Singing with Ba’aka women inside a newly-built hut.

Singing with Ba’aka women inside a newly-built hut.

The last pre-planned activity was a walk through Bai Hokou. Like Dzanga Bai, Bai Hokou is a small clearing (actually a series of clearings) in the rainforest. Unlike Dzanga, however, Bai Hokou doesn’t have the special mud that attracts elephants, and so it is much safer to walk around. Nonetheless, elephants do regularly pass through Bai Hokou and we had, as always, a Ba’aka guide with us to keep us safe. Bai Hokou was beautiful, and our guides showed us interesting things like birds and an elephant skeleton. We also spotted a mother and fawn sitatunga: a rare marsh antelope with webbed hooves. Sitatunga do not visit Dzanga Bai, so Bai Hokou was our only chance to see them. Even here, though, they are not common, so we were very lucky.

Wading with bare feet through the creek in Bai Hokou. This is  not a recommended activity , next time I would bring water shoes or sandals.

Wading with bare feet through the creek in Bai Hokou. This is not a recommended activity, next time I would bring water shoes or sandals.

Me with what I think is an elephant hip-bone.

Me with what I think is an elephant hip-bone.

The last full day didn’t have a pre-planned activity, so I decided to go back to Dzanga Bai. Again the elephants were the central draw (at Dzanga Bai the elephants are reliable) but the ungulates are a case of luck, and this time I was luckier with the ungulates, My first day at Dzanga the the only ungulate we saw was a single forest buffalo (but we did well on primates: black-and-white colobus at the bai plus mangabeys and moustached monkeys on the walk in). This time I did much better. There were many buffalo in the bai, and some giant forest hogs (the largest pigs in the world) showed up in the afternoon. But right at 4pm, just as we had to leave, one of our guides pointed and whispered “bongo!” The bongo the largest Tragelaphusantelope, and considered among the most difficult of the African megafauna to see. It is also among the most beautiful ungulates in the world. Bongo inhabit only dense rainforest, and don’t generally come out into the open. Dzanga Bai is the best place in the world to see wild bongo, and yet even here they are only an occasional visitor. Seeing fifty bongo emerge single-file from the forest – from huge males with spectacular spiral horns, to cute little calves – was a spectacular sight. We watched them graze and intermingle with the elephants until we just couldn’t delay leaving any longer. Once the sun goes down the prospect of surprising an elephant in the dark makes walking back from the bai much more dangerous.

One of the most spectacular animal encounters of my life: elephant and bongo intermingling in Dzanga Bai.

One of the most spectacular animal encounters of my life: elephant and bongo intermingling in Dzanga Bai.

Between all the activities I did have some free time at Sangha Lodge. The area around the lodge is dense rainforest and Rod has set up a network of trails for visitors to explore. I was eager to get back to the lodge early after each day’s activity so that I could wander these trails. There are many animals to see around the lodge, the most enticing being the habituated pangolins. Rod employs pangolin trackers to monitor them from sunrise to sunset, and we got to hang out with the pangolins a few times. Pangolins are spectacular animals, and being scaled mammals are particularly enticing to a herper. It was immediately obvious why they are so hard to see in the wild, though, as even standing right under one, with an expert pangolin tracker indicating its exact location in the forest canopy, it was still very difficult to locate them. And it’s not like koala-finding; these things are constantly on the move, foraging for arboreal ant nests to rip apart. I do not envy the trackers’ job. 

A black-bellied pangolin foraging for arboreal ants in the rainforest.

A black-bellied pangolin foraging for arboreal ants in the rainforest.

The rest of my free time I spent wandering the trails on my own, trying to find as many animals as possible. During the day, it was mostly birds and monkeys, though my most memorable experience was watching a huge swarm of army ants march across the forest floor, preceded by a flood of terrified (and usually doomed) insects, and followed by a flock of birds gorging on the ants. I continually had to monitor my own situation to make sure the ants were not surrounding me.

I also wandered around at night. I treasured my nighttime walks because the wildlife, and even the atmosphere in the rainforest, changes completely. The easiest mammals to find were the night monkeys: bushbabies with their giant saucer eyes and swivelly, owl-like necks; and pottos, which look and act like right-side-up sloths. In terms of insects and other invertebrates, the night-time rainforest revealed a wealth of crazy colours, shapes, and sizes. Frogs were quite abundant, their eyeshine making them easy to find. And the occasional rare treat made each night special: an owl one night, a crocodile or a snake another. It was a challenge to drag my tired self to bed each night so I could get up early enough the following morning to go birding.

We had six full days at Sangha Lodge. On the seventh day our plane was late getting in, and I spent the extra time wandering around looking for last-minute critters. I was rewarded handsomely: searching the river’s edge produced a gorgeous baby ornate water monitor, and the alarm calls of a squirrel pointed me to a two-metre-long, bright yellow western green mamba basking in a patch of sun on the forest floor. Sometimes, delayed flights are the best!

I had two nights back in Bangui, during which time Nestor, William and I explored the university, the parliament, and headed back to the Lac-des-Crocodiles road for more birding. I also visited the craft market for some souvenirs, and the diversity and quality of handicrafts available, in particular masks and other wood carvings, was just incredible. It was like visiting a museum where every artifact had a price tag. Visiting CAR as a tourist is not common – a UN employee told me, apparently sincerely, that some people might suspect I was CIA – but it is an immense privilege. 

The Faculty of Sciences at the University of Bangui. I got to have some interesting, if brief chats with some biology and anthropology professors here.

The Faculty of Sciences at the University of Bangui. I got to have some interesting, if brief chats with some biology and anthropology professors here.

*Later, back in Bangui after the trip, I was invited to a party hosted by the pilot’s girlfriend and I got to ask him why he opened the manual to that page. He told me he’s used to flying over the vast grasslands of eastern and northern CAR, where if you have a problem you can land the plane just about anywhere and deal with it on the ground. However, we had been flying over continuous, unbroken rainforest and there was nowhere to land. Out of an abundance of caution, he wanted the steps to restarting the engines in the air available at a moment’s notice. Flying over the central African rainforest is truly spectacular. Deep green canopy spreads out as far as you can see in all directions, broken only by the occasional river. I just wish I had spent less of the flight blinded by panic!





Shake paws with the devil

One of the nice things about working in evolutionary biology (or any of the related, indistinguishable-for-all-practical-purposes Wild Thing Sciences) is that I was connected to a great number of cool people working on a great number of very cool creatures, in a great number of very cool places. Furthermore, the bureaucrats controlling modern-day Wild Thing Science are safety-paranoid enough that everyone doing "fieldwork" (working in the wild) must bring at least one buddy. That's one of the reasons I always brought volunteers on my trips, and why Wild Thing Scientists are constantly advertising for volunteers. If you're willing to work without getting paid there are many cool opportunities to work with a variety of wild animals worldwide. I know one evolutionary biologist who works solely on theory - all she needs to do her job is a working computer, essentially - but she travels the world going to exotic places and seeing incredible animals simply by tagging along with other biologists. It's actually an enviable system, as the "work" parts of fieldwork, like conducting experiments, collecting and preserving samples, and even just finding whatever animal you've decided you'd like to study, can be incredibly challenging, time-consuming, stressful and expensive. But tagging along on someone else's fieldwork? All the cool parts, none of the stresses!

This brings me to Dave. Dave is a friend of mine, and Scottish, which is why, when he got married, I got to wear a kilt. It was among the more exciting experiences of my life:

Dave (L) and me (R) wearing kilts at Dave's wedding. This was my first (and only) kilt-wearing experience.

Dave (L) and me (R) wearing kilts at Dave's wedding. This was my first (and only) kilt-wearing experience.

Dave is doing his PhD on Tasmanian Devils, one of the coolest mammals around. I took the opportunity to be a volunteer during his fieldwork, and for a week I got to go out every day and see Tasmanian devils in the wild!

Dave is working in the far north-west corner of Tasmania, where the facial tumour disease is still spreading into healthy devil populations. If you haven't heard of the devil facial-tumour disease, and the destruction it has wrought on the world's last Tasmanian devils, check this out.

Dave catches devils by setting traps for them. Each trap is a big PVC pipe blocked at one end, with a door at the entrance and a piece of meat dangling at the back of it. Here's what a trap looks like set, ready and waiting for a hungry devil to come along:

Inside the trap, the meat is dangling by a string at the very back. The string is tied to a pin which is holding the door open. The devil enters the trap, grabs and pulls on the meat, the meat pulls the string, the string pulls the pin, the pin lets go of the door and the door falls, trapping the devil inside.

A view inside a set devil trap, with the meat dangling from a string and ready for a big yank by a devil.

To ensure that the devils spend as little time in the traps as possible, Dave and his volunteers get up before the crack of dawn and drive out to his field site to check the traps. This is what they hope to find:

There's a devil in there! There's a devil in there!

Sometimes the initial excitement about a devil in a tube is unfounded: devils aren't the only predators prowling Tasmanian forests at night, and Dave sometimes has to deal with bycatch. If the bycatch is a tiger quoll, that's just icing on the devil's cake. Tiger quolls are another spectacular Australian marsupial currently going extinct, and getting to see one in the wild is just as much a privilege as seeing a wild devil. However, sometimes Dave catches feral cats, which are harbingers of death to native Australian animals and destruction to the Australian wilderness. Dave takes cats to be euthanized by a local veterinarian.

Dave sometimes catches spectacular tiger quolls, like this one, in traps set for devils.

Sometimes traps are closed with nothing inside. I like to think this is the result of Tasmanian tigers, because they'd be so big that they wouldn't fit completely in the trap, which would prevent the trap door from closing on them. More likely than not, though, it's due to trap malfunction or some other mundane explanation.

If the closed trap proves to contain a devil, now, for better or for worse, you have a devil in a tube. This may seem like a challenge, and devils do have a reputation for being scrappy little balls of teeth and claws, but I learned by watching Dave that as long as you handle them with care and precision they're actually really calm. I watched Dave take measurements from a lot of devils and never once did one try to bite him or scratch him. This is as much to Dave's credit as a professional wildlife biologist as it is to the devil's relative docility: handling wild animals, especially ones with sharp teeth and massive jaw muscles, is not for the uninitiated.

The first step of processing a devil is, of course, to get it out of the tube. To do this, the tube is lifted and tilted, the door opened, and the devil slid gently into a burlap sack:

Due to the weight of the devil and the size of the trap, this requires two people: one of the many tasks for volunteers!

Once the devil is in the burlap sack, it generally stays pretty calm. Dave manipulates the devil-within-the-sack into different positions so that he can inspect it, determine how healthy it is, determine if there's any evidence of the facial tumour disease, and take various measurements:

Here's Dave measuring a devil. It'd be extremely cumbersome to both take and record the measurements while controlling and manipulating a devil-in-a-sack, so data-recording is another important task for volunteers.

Among the parts of the devil Dave inspects are its paws:

Cute little devil paw!

Dave also inspects the female's pouch to see if they're currently nursing:

Tasmanian devil pouches: the pouch on the left belongs to a female without pups, the pouch on the right to a female with pups.

 

Finally, Dave takes a look at the devil's business end: its jaws. Tooth wear is a good way to estimate the age of a devil, as it is to estimate the age of a lot of mammal species. And around the jaws are where any signs of facial tumours will turn up, though the population Dave was working on when I visited had never had any evidence of devils with the facial tumour disease. Here's an inspection of the jaws of a healthy devil:

Dave, and all Tasmanian devil researchers and conservationists, are very concerned about the potential for humans to spread the facial tumour disease between devils. Notice that Dave is wearing disposable latex gloves: those go into the garbage and are replaced in-between each devil. Dave and all the volunteers also use alcohol disinfectant gel in-between each devil just to be safe. A brand new burlap sack is used for each devil. And after the devil is removed from a trap, the trap is thoroughly washed and disinfected before being reset: another job for volunteers!

Finally, it's time for the fun part! After being processed, the devils are released into the woods. The process of getting them free of the sack can be cumbersome, and is an opportunity for pictures to be taken with a devil! Usually, however, the devil takes off like a bat out of hell:

But, there's that rare occasion where the devil pauses for the briefest of moments to say goodbye, and, if you're lucky enough to have a photographer (another volunteer job!) quick on the shutter, it can be captured for all eternity:

Photos by Connie Leon.

Helping Dave work with Tasmanian devils in the wild was an experience of a lifetime. And he's looking for more volunteers!

Here are some monotremes

A few days ago I posted an essay about my summer travels to conferences, linked by my incessant search for otters. Included in the post was a truly terrible picture of a platypus. The photo was taken from a platypus viewing hide in Yungaburra, Queensland, about an hour outside of Cairns. We sat patiently for quite a while at dusk, waiting for the platypus to show. By the time it did, the sun was so low there was not enough light to take a decent picture.

Platypus aren't just easy to see in Yungaburra. Canberra, where I live, happens to be one of the easiest places to see platypus in Australia. At the Tidbinbilla Nature Sanctuary there is a boardwalk over a wetland where wild platypus are active during the day. With a little patience and, ideally, some binoculars, platypus can be viewed well at anytime. I thought I'd post some better pictures of platypus taken at Tidbinbilla to offset the terrible one I posted last week. I am not, however, a professional photographer, and professionals could get much better photos than these!

Platypus are monotremes, the last mammals on Earth that lay eggs. The only other monotremes still around are the echidnas, of which there are four species. Three are critically endangered animals that only live on the island of New Guinea, and the fourth is the reasonably common short-beaked echidna, which lives on both New Guinea and Australia. Canberra is also a great place to see echidnas, though they are by no means as easy to see as the platypus. Some of the best places to see them around Canberra are Black Mountain and Mulligan's Flat.

The Australian National University, where I work, is the only university in the world (as far as I know) that is home to both platypus and echidna, which is pretty special.

A Journey of Many Otters

Part of doing science is going to conferences where people present their research and everyone gets updated on the state of the art, as well as the identity of the artists. At an ideal conference a broad cross-section of researchers attends, from grizzled veterans who wrote their PhD theses on typewriters to undergraduate students who address everyone as Dr-so-and-so and generally act like they're attending extended office hours for their advanced biology course. This is what makes conferences so wonderful. Not only do you get to see the latest research, but you also get to meet people you admire from all professional levels at what approaches an even playing field. No polite knocking on office doors, no staying up until 1am to Skype with someone on the other side of the world. Last (Northern Hemisphere) summer I went on a 'round-the-world conference tour. This was made possible because three conferences I wanted to attend were taking place in the Americas in quick succession: the International Behavioural Neuroscience Society conference in Victoria, Canada at the beginning of June, the Evolution conference near Sao Paulo, Brazil at the end of June, and the International Brain Research Organization conference in early July in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Finally, the Behaviour conference was at the beginning of August back in Australia.

Otters are charismatic members of the weasel family, Mustelidae. They're well known for their personable, funny behaviour such as sliding down waterfalls, play-fighting, and generally being pretty cute. When I was a kid my parents would take me to the Buffalo Aquarium, where their river otters were among my favourite exhibits, and I always loved watching them slide down their artificial river. Although otters are probably the most well-liked members of the weasel family, they're not the easiest things to observe in the wild. I'd been lucky enough to see wild otters only three times over the course of my life, despite North American river otters (Lontra canadensis) being native to my native southern Ontario. I'd seen the aforementioned river otters once in the wild, during a spring break trip to the Everglades in Florida. I'd also seen a neotropical river otter (Lontra longicaudis), a closely related species native to Central and South America, once while surveying birds in Panama. Finally, I got a fleeting glance at a family of spot-necked otters (Hydrictis maculicollis) on safari in the Maasi Mara in Kenya. That's three otter sightings in 28 years. I would get just as many sightings of otters in the two months I spent attending conferences across the Americas. 

An Otter Surprise

Conference number one was the International Society for Behavioural Neuroscience (ISBN) conference in Victoria, Canada. Victoria is the beautiful capital of British Columbia, the westernmost province of Canada and is located on Vancouver Island. The conference was held at a particularly spectacular waterfront hotel in Victoria (picture below). Each conference has its own flavour, and the Behaviour Neuroscience conference was a strange mix of low-key and formality. The low-key aspect came mostly from the younger attendees, the graduate students and early postdocs. The conference started with a student-mixer, and I was surprised by how easy it was to meet new people and make quick friends amongst the students attending the conference. There weren't too many people and everyone seemed quite approachable and friendly. Smaller conferences and student-only mixers are good for this sort of thing. Meeting people is one of the main benefits to attending conferences, and the way this conference was organised really promoted getting to know people.

The more formal aspect of the conference came from the more senior attendees. I find people working in neuroscience have a higher level of professional dress, in general, and suits, ties, pleated pants and dress shoes were common amongst the attendee's attire (notice all these items, save the shoes, are stereotypically men's formal wear; science is still very much a male-biased profession). The talks also felt more formal, both in their structure and their delivery.

Behavioural neuroscience is a broad field to which I am only tangentially related. I would call what I do more evolutionary neuroscience or, if you want to get more specific, evolutionary neuroanatomy. I do try and relate my work to the behavioural work of others, but it's still not directly what I would consider "behavioural neuroscience". I like attending these conferences because they are significant horizon-broadeners. I come away from them feeling like I know better where I fit into the rest of the neuroscience field, even if nothing presented was directly what I work on.

Victoria is a spectacular place to hold a conference, and my jet-lag resulted in my being awake bright and early, allowing for scenic strolls along the waterfront each morning before the conference started. Along Victoria's waterfront there's a particularly kitschy wharf where tourists can buy raw fish to feed a particularly friendly and obese seal (picture above). I'd heard that they've been having problems recently with sneaky otters stealing the fish meant for the seal. I wasn't so interested in seeing the seal, harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are common along both of Canada's coasts and seeing one being fed by tourists didn't sound like a particularly wild experience. I was, however, very interested in trying to find the sneaky otters. Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) were, until recently, extinct in British Columbia due to over-harvesting for the fur industry. However, they had recently recolonised the coast of Vancouver Island and I was eager to see this endangered species in the wild. I walked down to the seal-feeding spot around sunrise, expecting to find some wily sea otters because, after all, this was the Pacific Ocean. However, I was surprised to find North American river otters instead! This just goes to show that you shouldn't make assumptions on the biology of animals based on their names. River otters can actually be found in lakes, streams, marshes and even coastal shorelines, as well as rivers.

An Otter Disappointment

Because of my failure to find sea otters in Victoria, I joined some friends I had just made at the Behavioural Neuroscience conference on a quick road trip up to Tofino, a small town popular with hippies and surfers on the seaward coast of Vancouver Island. This trip was good for me because I was able to cement some friendships with people I had just met at the conference in Victoria. I came to the conference knowing only one person, and yet I was able to mingle, make friends, and establish new contacts, particularly with people at the same career stage as I am.

I wanted to go to Tofino because it is a good place to see two mammals, both spectacular conservation success stories. In additional to the recently-recolonised sea otters, I was hoping to see Pacific Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus). The gray whales, or at least the population that lives along the Pacific coast of North America, is believed to be the first whale population to have completely recovered from whaling. The number of gray whales is what it was before humans started hunting all the great whales to extinction. Conservation success stories are relatively rare - much rarer than species in dire situations in need of conservation - and it's always nice to see a wild animal that represents human's ability not to kill animals, but to save them (as long as we care to). To have the opportunity to see two such species in one place is a rare treat.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. The sea was too rough and we weren't able to get out to the rafts of sea otters, who live quite a ways out from shore. This caution on the part of our captain was definitely a good thing. Just a few months later a boat capsized and six people died doing exactly what I was doing. The gray whales, however, were also sheltering from the rough seas. They were in a (relatively) calm bay and we were able to see five of them up close, including a calf playing around its mother. The whales almost made up for the disappointment of missing the sea otters.

An Otter Success (but Jaguar Disappointment)

The next conference on my tour was the Evolution conference in Guaruja, Brazil. Guaruja is a coastal resort-city get-away for the wealthier residents of Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest city. It's also, I learned later from some Sao Paulo residents, not the safest place on Earth, or even in Brazil. Rumor had it that on the first day of the conference a few attendees were mugged, and it's the only conference I've ever attended with police and an ambulance stationed out front. 

Out of all the conferences I attended last summer, the Evolution conference had the most people I knew. Entire labs from my department (Evolution, Ecology & Genetics) at ANU were attending, and there were additional people from my department and from around Australia whom I was friendly with. It was surprising, therefore, that this was the conference at which I felt the most like an outsider. Many people come back from conferences, particularly conferences at which they are the only members of their lab in attendance, reporting feelings of isolation and loneliness. Although that doesn't necessarily have to be the case (see my experience at the last conference), it was my experience at this conference. When I think of the two conferences, and compare their structure and my experiences, I think a lot of the differences in my experience can be found in the size of the conferences, and in their organization.

The Evolution conference was much larger than the ISBN conference, and had in attendance many more "Big Cheeses". The Evolution community is a relatively small one, however when everyone is at the same conference it can feel huge, and moreover most people are already friends with each other. I'm a relative outsider in the field of evolution, and I found this conference relatively cliquey, with most people sticking to their previously-established social groups and not much room for new interactions.

This brings me to my second point. There weren't many opportunities for socializing set-up by the conference organizers. The ISBN conference's very first function was a meet-and-great for PhD students only, and those sorts of socials can help outsiders find their way in. In their absence, I was overwhelmed and lost.

That's not to say I didn't meet anyone interesting. I made a point of looking people up and talking to them if their work related to mine or was something that I was particularly interested in. On a few occasions I was able to connect people with other people I knew who were interested in the same things, which I hope was useful. However I left the conference feeling like I hadn't been able to integrate or become part of the evolution society.

Following the conference I decided to visit a place that was always very high on my "must-visit" list: the Pantanal in far western Brazil. Circumstances had conspired to force me to miss the Pantanal on both my previous trips to Brazil, and I wasn't going to let that happen again! I rented a car in Cuiaba and spent a week driving up and down the Transpantaneira, the only road that penetrates deep into the Pantanal, looking for animals.

The Pantanal is not the Amazon. It's a giant, flooded grassland very similar to the Everglades. The Amazon is full of animals but they are very difficult to see owing to all the massive trees that are in the way. As a grassland, the Pantanal is a much easier place to see animals, and it is well-known particularly for mammals. I went to the Pantanal seeking four animals in particular: hyacinth macaw, lowland tapir, jaguar and giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis). The Pantanal is definitely the best place to see all four, and the only place to reliably see hyacinth macaw and jaguar.

To find jaguar and giant otter I drove to the small village at the end of the Transpantaneira called Porto Jofre. Porto Jofre is idyllically located on the bank of the Cuiaba River. There's a campground there, and I have to admit that camping on the edge of the river looked pretty spectacular, especially as the sun went down. However, after dark I discovered the dark side of this particular campground. For no discernible reason the campground had massive lights that bathed all the campsites in artificial light all night long. To power these lights they ran a diesel generator, a very noisy machine, for the WHOLE NIGHT. What could have been a spectacular experience listening to the river flow as I fall asleep admiring the stars through the mesh of my tent turned into a horrible experience in which a face mask and earplugs were necessary to get any sleep at all.

One of the benefits of the generator was that I had no trouble getting up in time to watch the sunrise. I also discovered that there was a giant river otter den right next to my tent. I got to watch four of the massive animals play and catch fish as the sun rose and I drank my morning coffee. Giant river otters are not only the longest of the otters, but are the longest of the Mustelids, and can get almost 2 meters long! They are huge.

Unfortunately, I was not nearly as lucky with the jaguars as I was with the otters. I hired a boat to take me looking for jaguars all day on the banks of the Cuiaba River. Porto Jofre is known as the only place in the world to reliably see jaguars in the wild, but even there it's not easy. The jaguars are seen when they come to the banks of the river to sunbathe, drink, hunt and bathe. They often don't hang around very long, so the trick is to be in the right place at the right time to see them. Working to the advantage of hopeful jaguar-spotters is the sheer number of people who want to see them. Many boats patrol the river ever day, looking for jaguars. If one is seen, the driver of the boat that spotted it gets on the radio and lets all the other boats know where it is. All the other boats race over to where the jaguar is to try to get a glimpse of it before it disappears back into the bush. Two jaguars were spotted the day I hired a boat to go looking for them. Unfortunately, I had not thought about horsepower when I hired the boat. My boat had the weakest horsepower motor available (60 hp, I think) and it was depressing watching all the other boats zoom past us on the way to see the first jaguar. My boat was left far behind and by the time we got to where the jaguar had been, it was long gone. By the time the second jaguar appeared, in the late afternoon, we had already run out of petrol and had returned to Porto Jofre. Credit to the driver of the boat, though, he really tried to find that jaguar. He searched for so long that we ran out of petrol in the middle of the river and had to wait for more to be brought from Porto Jofre. Hiring that boat cost R$600, more than I was expecting. I would have hired a (faster) boat again the next day, but I hadn't taken out enough cash before heading down the Transpantaneira. There is no ATM, and no credit card facilities, in Porto Jofre.

An otter that belongs in the sea, but not the one I wanted to see

After a week in the Pantanal I flew to Rio de Janeiro for my second Brazilian conference, the world congress of the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO). On paper, this conference and the last conference I attended, Evolution, were very similar. Both were large international conferences put on by big academic societies in large Brazilian cities. However, they couldn't have felt more different. 

I think the major difference between the two stems from their relative importance to their fields. The Evolution conference is probably the biggest, most important conference in the field of evolutionary biology (though there are other conferences that would argue this point, it's definitely one of the biggest). Because of this, I think it attracted a great majority of the players in evolutionary biology from around the world. Had the conference been held in America, Europe or Australia, most of the same people probably would have shown up.

The IBRO conference, by contrast, was noticeably made up of mostly researchers from Brazil and around South America. I think this is because the IBRO conference is definitely not the principle neuroscience conference. That would be the annual Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference, which takes place every year in one of three American cities and attracts over 30 000 attendees. The IBRO conference was big, but not even close to THAT big. 

I also think it has to do with the number of people in the field. Neuroscience is one of the largest academic fields period and so the pool of people that can be drawn on to attend the conference is huge. Evolutionary biology is a much smaller field and even its largest conferences struggle to have an attendance a tenth as big as SfN. So a neuroscience conference could be decently sized and still only host mostly researchers from South America, while an evolution conference of only South American attendees would be noticeably smaller. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing; many people prefer smaller conferences and I know lots of people who refuse to attend SfN due to its overwhelming size.

I really enjoyed the IBRO conference. The only neuroscience conference I regularly attend, SfN, is dominated by North American and European researchers, and it was great to see all the interesting but relatively unsung work that's being done in South America. Rio de Janeiro is also home to one of my favorite research groups, the lab of Prof. Suzanna Herculano-Houzel. This lab is consistently coming out with cool research in the field of evolutionary neuroscience, and is one of the few labs in the world doing so. Dr. Herculano-Houzel herself is an excellent speaker and advocate for Brazilian academia, and has written several books on neuroscience-related topics in Portuguese. I am lucky to be friends with several of the people in her lab and was invited to her lab's celebratory dinner before the conference's closing party. In addition to Dr. Herculano-Houzel's lab I got to visit with a future lab-mate. It's always nice to make friends with lab members before joining a lab, as joining itself can be a jarring and disorienting experience. It's nice to have people that already know you and can help you adjust.

It was weird, and a shock to the system for me, that two conferences that looked so similar on paper, held in almost the same place and only one week apart, could have produced such opposing experiences for me.

After the IBRO conference it was time to head back to Australia for the final conference on my tour, the Behavior conference in Cairns. The only flights from South American to Australia are from Santiago, Chile to Sydney, Australia. I could have gotten a flight from Rio to Santiago, but they are shockingly expensive and the flight from Santiago to Sydney was already expensive enough. Instead, I got a much cheaper flight from Rio to Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, and spent the next two weeks traveling overland to Santiago and my flight home to Australia. I think that entire two-week trip cost less than the Rio-Santiago flight, and produced many more memories. 

Some of those memories were produced at the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve north of La Serena, Chile. The reserve is not only an excellent place to see Humboldt penguins (of which we saw several) but is also probably the best place north of Santiago to see one of the world's least know otters. The sea otter of North America is the most well-known otter-that-lives-in-the-sea, and it's the only one that has a truly pelagic existence, where it needs little to no contact with the land to survive, but there is another otter species, much less well known, that lives primarily in the sea. The marine otter (Lontra felina) is native to the Pacific coast of South America and lives in the littoral zone (the area close to shore) of the coast. It's very specialized to this area and rarely enters fresh or even brackish water. And yet it looks almost identical to the two American freshwater Lontra otter species. That it's internationally listed as endangered just adds to its air of mystery. Seeing the marine otter in the wild was an excellent way to end my overseas conference tour that started with a failure to see the sea otter.

An Otter Australian

The final conference on my tour was the Behavior conference in Cairns, Australia. Sadly, Australia is otter-free, the closest otters living across Wallace's Line in places like Borneo. However, I went to Cairns the weekend before the conference to try and see some of the cool wildlife that does live there, such as tree-kangaroos, green ringtail possum, and golden bowerbirds. To see these animals I travelled to a town not far from Cairns called Yungaburra and hired Alan Gillanders of Alan's Wildlife Tours to help me find these amazing but hard-to-find critters, which we did successfully. Particularly spectacular was the nighttime spotlighting portion of Alan's tour. Rare possums and gliders were illuminated in bright red light from special spotlights. Red light is used instead of normal white light because the possums and gliders can't see it, and so are not disturbed by our tour.

However, one animal that I didn't need Alan's help to find was Australia's version of an otter, the spectacular platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus). Yungaburra has its very own platypus hide, and at dusk I visited it along with some backpackers and was able to watch as a platypus emerged from its burrow for its nighttime forage. Now, platypus are very easy to see in the wild in Canberra, where I live, but it's shocking to see just how much smaller they are up Australia's north compared to the south. Up in Yungaburra they're like adorable mini-platypuses.

After my wildlife tour it was time for the Behavior conference. Behavioral ecology and evolutionary biology are ostensibly different fields, but the people who do them are generally interested in both to the point that I don't think I could tell the attendees of the Behavior conference from the attendees of the Evolution conference in Guaruja based on research topics. 

Interestingly my experience at the Behavior conference was the opposite of mine at the Evolution conference. At Behavior I felt integrated, got to know people, and had great conversations with a wide variety of people about lots of science topics, including with people that I had not known previously. Here, I think the big difference was that I not only had friends in attendance, but also more senior academics who knew me and had an interest in my academic progress. In particular, my co-supervisor Prof. Martin Whiting, chief of the Lizard Lab, was in attendance. Martin made sure that I met people who had interests relevant to mine and opened doors in terms of talking to the right people. And it wasn't only him. Other senior academics in attendance were great in helping me meet people and feel included in the society. This made me realize how important it is to have good supervisors. Especially in the absence of the right social functions at conferences, they are key to meeting the people you need to meet as an early career researcher in order to become part of the academic world.

Epilogue: An Otter Jealousy

After the Behavior conference my tour was over. I had to get back to my office, to the grind of analyzing data, making sense of the results and writing papers. However, at the same time my partner got her first taste of conference travel when her supervisor sent her to a conference in the United States. After the conference she went to visit her aunt who has a house near Monterey Bay, California, and low-and-behold she sent me the picture below. They may just look like little specks in the ocean, but she made sure I knew what they were: real, live sea otters!