Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Travelers and Transects - The Bangladesh Python Project Part II --Guest Post--

By Jon Hakim

Make sure to start at Part I.

I arrived in Lawachara to join a motley crew of Americans and Australians who were interested in contributing to the conservation of herptofauna in Bangladesh.  Our ranks included ecologists, wildlife photographers, a veterinarian, and regular weekend field herpers.  The trip was the brainchild of Scott Trageser, an ecologist and wildlife photographer who met Caesar through a mutual friend in 2013.  In an effort to provide Caesar's project with more manpower and financial resources, they came up with an idea that blended ecotourism with real science work.  Scott put together a program combining time in Lawachara National Park, the Ratargul Swamp Forest, and the Bangladesh Sunderbans with extended training on radio telemetry research, wildlife surveys, and wildlife photography.  With the help of another ecologist/wildlife photographer, Ash Wisco, they worked the internet and their own connections to figure out who might want to pay for such a trip and help fund Caesar's project in the process.  That's how our troupe ended up descending upon Bangladesh.  We hoped to see what we might have to give to the country, and what the people and the herps of Bangladesh might have to give back.

It is no exaggeration to say that we hit the ground running.The team's first 24 hours included a goodwill-building visit with Lawachara's head park ranger, python radiotracking, a transect survey down a jungle trail, a road cruise for snakes in the rain, the snake call to Fulbari Village, a photography session with several snakes, the visit by the Bangladeshi journalists, the tortoise health check and radio-transmitter placement, the educational visit to Baghmara Village, and the release of the radio-tortoise.  Our role was to assist in the project's radio-tracking, education, and publicity efforts while doing as much surveying of the herptofauna as we were humanly able.  The blessing of doing conservation work in a place like Bangladesh is that almost anything you do is breaking new ground.  The downside is that no one has broken any ground.

A stranger happening upon us in the field at night would hear something like this:

Calotes emma!”

“You sure?  It has the head spines?”

“Uh...yes, definitely emma.”


Microhyla berdmorei!”  
“Fan-throated Lizard!  Scott, you hear me?  Got a fan-throated lizard!”

“What's it doing?”
“Sleeping, on a thin branch about 8' up.   Got the GPS?”

“Another wolf snake.  Zawi again.  And it's eating something!”  

It was a strange sight.  Six people with head-lamps and flashlights slowly inching their way down a forest trail at night, stopping for far more time than they moved.  At random intervals the silence would be punctuated by a frog, lizard, or snake's scientific name, followed by an observation of the animal, confirmation of the GPS coordinate, and then back to the search.

On a transect that took place the very first night, one of the team members encountered a frog that appeared to fit within the Micryletta genus.  Until this year Micryletta were unknown from Bangladesh, but a few months ago one was identified from a photograph and tentatively assigned to Micryletta inornata, a species whose closest known range is hundreds of kilometers away.  But without a specimen in hand, how could they be certain that the frog in question was inornata and not a new species?  Some felt that the assignment of the frog to Micryletta inornata based solely on a photo was premature.  And our own team's photo was no better.

“That's Micryletta.  It's got to be.”

“But look at these pictures of Micryletta inornata.  This is what we see in Thailand and Vietnam.  This one looks...off.  Could it be Microhyla rubra?”

“Look at the body shape...no way that's Microhyla.  It's got to be Micryletta.”

“And the eyestripe...yeah, it's definitely Micryletta...but not Micryletta inornata.”

And so the debate went.  What we needed was a frog in hand.

The group focused trail and stream transects on the area where the previous Micryletta had been spotted.  Flashlights were trained on the ground, and in the process we encountered the first Bird-Poop Treefrog (Theloderma asperum) spotted in the park since 2012.  One night we collected what appeared to be two different species of bent-toed geckos (Cryodactylus sp.), even though only one species was known from the park.  It wasn't until days had passed and hours of field time had been spent on searches before another Micryletta was found.  Scott spotted it hopping up a clay berm on the side of the same trail as the previous frog.  This time the frog was collected for more extensive morphological analysis and DNA sampling.

Of course, on the way out from that successful search, I decided to walk the road instead of waiting for the car to pick us up.  And sitting right there on the road, too small to be noticed from a car, was another Micryletta.   And another.  And another.  And among the tiny hoppers were dead frogs squashed onto the road by the dozens.  Within 20 minutes I had seen over 100 of the little frogs dead and alive on the road.  And on future nights I would find them there again and again.  These previously unknown frogs weren't rare or even cryptic at all – they were sitting right out in large numbers on the main road of an accessible national park!  It's just that no one had known what they were looking for.

In comparison to North American landscapes, Bangladesh's wilderness has been subjected to virtually no study, especially where herps are concerned.  Lawachara is quite well-known, but until Caesar's arrival the park checklist stated that only 4 amphibian and 6 reptile species were found within the park boundaries.  That's remarkable for a place where 12-15 frog species can be found on the road in a given night, and where nearly 40 snake species have been recorded by Caesar in the last 3 years.  Our group's various surveying methods, including trail and stream transects, roadkill counts, and nighttime car cruising, added to a growing body of knowledge that hopes to shed light on many aspects of the wildlife assemblage that exists in this part of the country.  Bangladesh is still at the point where the mere presence of a species can be striking.  On our third day, our group came across a nearly 2-meter long water monitor (Varanus salvator).  This species, rarely found this far from the coast, had never been recorded in the province before.  How do you miss the 2nd-biggest lizard on Earth?  

The opportunity to find a country record, to get your name published in a herpetological note, or even to discover a new species, can be powerful motivations for wildlife enthusiasts.  And the desire to add new information to the body of scientific knowledge was a big part of the “why” we were going out on trail transects.  But that's not why I loved them.  Just about every person who takes the time to be a wildlife researcher does so because they are a wildlife enthusiast at heart.  The meticulous nature of our surveys focused my attention, and the slow pace gave time to enjoy every find.  Every frog was ID'd, every lizard had its neck-spines stared at (Calotes versicolor or Calotes emma?).  There was time to notice a fantastic array of weevils and caterpillars and orb weavers.  And the joy we took in the little things only accentuated the moments when an Indian Crested Porcupine (Hystrix indica) scurried away, a Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) looked down from its perch, or a troop of Hoolock Gibbons (Hoolock hoolock) or Phayre's Leaf Monkeys (Trachypithecus phayrei) made a ruckus in the trees.  For someone who lives in the middle of India's hot and dry Central Plain, not exactly the epicenter of biological diversity, it is a joy to be in the jungle. 

Of course, the work wasn't all joy.  Our attempts to discover cryptic species and write up distribution notes forced some of us to spend hours in the field station counting scales and filling in boxes on ID sheets.  It takes a certain kind of patience to twice recount 150+ ventral scales on multiple snakes, or to strain your eyes through a magnifying lens trying to figure out how many upper labial scales a tiny skink has (not to mention temporals, parietals, loreals, prenasals, postnasals, frontals, supraoculars, etc. etc.).  But without that careful lab work, the field time wouldn't be very profitable in the long run.  And all that scientific and conservation profit is a good excuse to justify to myself (and my wife!) why I was spending my entire two week vacation having fun in the jungle.  You gotta do what you gotta do.

Don't Miss Part III Tomorrow.

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