Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Field Diary: Best Reptile, Amphibian Night Ever

By David Emmett, CI Wildlife Biologist
CI Wildlife Biologist David Emmett was a member of the survey team that discovered the rare Cantor’s giant soft-shell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) in Cambodia’s Mekong River. Here is an excerpt from Emmett’s field diary about another memorable day of surveying in Laos.

Nakai Plateau, Laos: "The morning dawned still and chilly, exacerbated by the cold water bucket-shower that forced my breath from my body. I could hear Soutchai, my translator, in the next room, puffing and gasping from the cold as he washed. The sky grew overcast by the time we went shopping for rice, vegetables, and other food. For the next five days, we would be surveying for reptiles and amphibians in the Nakai Plateau.

My left hand really ached from the bamboo cut and IndoChinese Water Dragon (Physignathus cocincinus) bite, but I was confident it would be okay for the survey. We set off along a dusty road toward Ban Don village, where three local guides joined us. Together we drove toward the river, where a boat awaited us. As we headed upriver, there were a few kids playing on the sandbank next to an abandoned village. After an hour, the sandy banks gave way to huge boulders, creeping lianas, and overhanging trees. I took some photos of a pair of beautiful white egrets in the shallows.

We saw fresh signs of Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus). Dung lay on the sandbars and half-eaten bamboo was strewn along the riverbanks. The guide told us to be quiet, as the elephants were nearby and could be dangerous. Researchers had estimated that this area held around 170 elephants in three large herds. I really wanted to see a herd! But it was not to be – they stayed in the forest and all we heard were some distant crashes and squeals.

About 2 km further upstream we hit a set of impassable rapids, so we stopped and located a camp site. It was late, so we had dinner. Then Soutchai and I went out exploring. After we found a couple more frogs along the main river to add to the species list, I went a few hundred metres up the dry stream-bed to have a look. Scrambling over rocks, I came to water! The river was partly subterranean.

The next three hours were like a dream – by far the best reptile and amphibian-collecting night I’d ever had. After searching just a few minutes, I found and took photos of two Asian Leaf Turtles in small rock-pools (Cyclemys dentate). I also found a huge, threatened Asiatic Softshell Turtle (Amyda cartilaginea) that vigorously tried to bite me (they can crush bone, so I had to be careful) before hurling itself into a deep pool. I caught a snake (only mildly venomous), and then went back to get Soutchai. He had to be part of this!

Together, we walked several kilometres up the stream with our torch-lights playing through the trees, across leaf-litter, and shining into dark pools. We caught frogs I’d never seen before, and added at least 10 more species to our inventory list. There were fat, spotty bullfrogs with red armpits and thighs (which turned out to be a species undescribed to science), moss-coloured tree-frogs (Taylor’s Treefrog, Rhacophorus bisacculus), and a grey-coloured frog about 25 ft up a tree that we couldn’t identify. Soutchai dislodged it with a long bamboo stick, and I caught it one-handed as it fell (great teamwork!). There were enormous green Large-eared Rock Frogs as big as our hands, tiny red frogs called Inornate Froglet (Micryletta inornata), multiple species of brown leaf-litter frogs, an attractive-looking Striped Sticky Frog, and many more.

We returned to camp around midnight; tired, muddy, and very happy. I felt that after overcoming all of the difficult logistical challenges to conduct this survey, we really deserved to have a night like this. It had been great! I washed in the cold river by moonlight, watched the river for a while, and then clambered into my tent. I was lulled to sleep by the sound of the river and the chorus of frogs."

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