Countdown to fieldwork

Not long now…

With roughly one week to go until I depart for my fieldwork I should be running around doing last-minute preparations. Instead I thought it might be fun to take some time out to tell you a little bit about what I’m going to be up to for the month.

So where exactly am I going?

My expedition is heading to a part of South Africa that is still relatively unexplored in terms of invertebrate diversity – Maputaland Sand Forest! Even the name sounds cool so you already know it’s going to be awesome. I’ll be driving the nine hours from Pretoria, on a road skirting around the bottom of Swaziland, until I reach my site in the north-eastern corner of the country. I will be working at the fantastic Tembe Elephant Park. Having met a number of researchers who’ve conducted fieldwork there I was repeatedly told what an amazing site it was. I was lucky enough to visit the reserve last month to scout out fieldwork plans and I can now see why everybody falls in love with it. It is such a beautiful place filled with incredible wildlife. And from only one day walking around I can tell we’re going to find some very cool ants there.

The Tembe fact file

Tembe Elephant Park was established the same year as I was born (!) and was primarily developed to protect elephants. The reserve sits on the border with Mozambique and has a subtropical climate. I’ve been told that summer temperatures reach 45 °C and combined with high humidity I’m expecting things to get pretty sticky. Tembe has some of the oldest (and largest) elephants in southern Africa. These enormous animals are known as tuskers. Once you’ve seen a photo you’ll understand why. There are also lions, buffalo, hippos and possibly one of my favourite antelope, nyala. Tembe is also home to a pack of African wild dogs, which are among the most endangered canids in the world. Watching the wild dogs play together, only metres in front of me, is easily in my top wildlife experiences of all time.

An African wild dog comes to investigate us

An African wild dog came to investigate us

Sand forest. Yup, that’s a real thing!

Within the reserve there are swamps and open woodland that are home to incredible plants and animals. However, the bit I’m really interested in studying is the sand forest. This ancient forest grows on relics of coastal sand dunes. It is only found in South Africa in Kwa-Zulu Natal province and in southern Mozambique making it a very rare forest type. Many of the plant species are endemic to the region, as are species of dung beetles, birds and spiders. There is no doubt that a huge array of new species, especially invertebrates, are waiting to be discovered in the Tembe sand forest. And that is where I come in.

A view looking out over sand forest at Tembe Elephant Park

An entomologists dream

When I say that this is a unique place for insect diversity I am absolutely not exaggerating. I only had a few hours looking round the reserve but the diversity of bugs, butterflies, grasshoppers, mantids (and the list goes on), that I saw was staggering. I will be spending a few weeks making collections of ants in Tembe Elephant Park. But I will no doubt be spotting lots of other invertebrates at the same time. I’m sure I’ll make some exciting discoveries and get to do some interesting research along the way. I can’t wait to update you on what I find.

Want to know more?

Here are a few links to blogs about Tembe and a couple of papers on research that has already been conducted there.

Tembe – land of the giants

Tembe – a little known reserve with many natural secrets

Spiders in sand forest

Dung beetles in sand forest

The ants with no names

I’ve been asked by a few people why so many of the ants on the blog have no species names. Many of them are listed by genus and then with a code, for example Camponotus sp. B. There are two possible explanations for this; either I don’t know the species or the ants don’t have a species name.

Identifying insects to species level is a skill that takes many years of time and dedication to master. Even then most entomologists only specialise in a particular group. The process of identification requires the use of keys, which are guides to finding out what your specimen is. At each question on a key there are a number of options describing a characteristic of the species. You pick the most suitable option and move on to the next question until eventually you reach your idenitification. All of which sounds straightforward although that is often not the case due to the use of specialised terminology that can confuse things for a beginner. Having conquered the language barrier the next obstacle in identifying a specimen is actually finding a key to use. For some well studied parts of the world and taxa of high interest there are usually keys available. Unfortunately in many tropical regions and for the majority of insect taxa there are unlikely to be keys. This makes identifying a specimen very tricky indeed.

The second reason for a lack of species name is that the species may not yet be described. In the process of identifying my ant specimens from Namibia I would reach a point where the species description I had didn’t match up with my specimens. After talking to experts in African ants I would find that although the specimen I had was recognised as being different from any known species, nobody had given it a name yet. The process of describing and naming a new species is time consuming and requires a high level of expertise. This means that the number of species far outweigh the number of people who are able to descrive them. The result is a situation where specimens are known to be undescribed species but the chances of putting a name to them are very small.

In both cases, the lack of identifications could be addressed by an investment in the science of taxonomy and in taxonomists themselves. Until then we’ll have to be happy to know these ants by codes and letters.

Pheidole sp D

From Kuzikus, Central Kalahari, Namibia
Collected on 20th September 2011
At bait trap on tree (savannah)

No species level identification yet determined.

Lepisiota sp D

From Gobabeb, Namib Desert, Namibia
Collected on 29th October 2011 (am)
At bait trap on tree 6 (dry riverbed)

Recorded in field notes as small black, but no species level identification yet determined. Looks different to other species collected (BUT check if this is the same as Lepisiota species recorded on 28th October, 29th October pm and 30th October am).

Key diagnostic characteristics: head is subrectangular (?) NOT ovoid, reddish brown colour NOT black

Lepisiota sp C

From Gobabeb, Namib Desert, Namibia
Collected on 28th, 29th & 30th October 2011
At bait trap on trees and on ground (dry riverbed)

Recorded in field notes as small black, but no species level identification yet determined. Check if all specimens shown belong to same species as they were collected from different trees across a number of days of bait trapping. Could be L. canescens???

Key diagnostic characters: Black with ovoid head. No spines on petiole (slightly indented). Long, white, abundant hairs. No key available for Afrotropical Lepisiota but based on characters used for description of species in this group all the specimens here belong to the same species.

Lepisiota sp B

From Kuzikus, Central Kalahari, Namibia
Collected on 13th October 2011
At bait trap on ground (salt pan)

Recorded in field notes as small & black or as unknown species. No species level identification yet determined – check if it’s the same species as sp 25 (listed on here as Lepisiota (Plagiolepis).

Camponotus sp A

From Kuzikus, Central Kalahari, Namibia
Collected on 22nd September 2011 at bait traps on trees (savannah)
Collected on 26th and 28th September 2011 at bait traps on ground and on trees (salt pan)