Gorongosa Map of Life

Latest update February 20, 2019 Started on October 11, 2018
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Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique is home to some of the biologically richest and geologically most diverse ecosystems on the African continent. Situated at the southernmost end of the African Great Rift Valley, it encompasses four major ecological zones, each with its own microclimate, water regime, plant communities, and animals. With its buffer zone Gorongosa covers an area of approximately 10,00 km2 and spans the elevation gradient from the sea-level floodplains of Lake Urema to 1,863 m high alpine meadows of Mt. Gorongosa. Its borders encompass caves and deep limestone gorges of the Cheringoma Plateau, vast expanses of the Valley floor grasslands, woodland savannas of the Midlands, and the primeval rainforest of Mt. Gorongosa. Each of these ecosystems is teaming with thousands of species of plants and animals, some of which can be found nowhere else in the world.


The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory at Gorongosa is dedicated to research and education of a new generation of Mozambican scientists and conservation leaders. An important part of our mission is comprehensive documentation of all life of the park, the Gorongosa Map of Life. Our goal is ambitious – we aim to discover and document all species of eukaryotic organisms that live in the park and understand the multiple connections among them. Ultimately, we hope to create a dynamic, multidimensional map of interactions and co-dependencies of species living in Gorongosa. This is going to take time, effort, and resources. But we are getting there – since 2012 we have increased the number of Gorongosa species from 1,122 to 5,785, and their numbers are growing daily. Most of the species that we find are poorly known but likely critically important to the functions of our ecosystem. After all, Africa is not just the Big Five and other “charismatic megafauna,” but thousands of hard-working species on which lions and elephants depend for their very lives.

We invite you to join us on the expedition to document all living things of this magnificent place!

October 11, 2018
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In The Field

A Gorongosa katydid new to science
Sometimes it takes several years of research and a lot of data collection to be able to confirm the identity of a species, especially if that species belongs to a group of organisms that is poorly known. One such group is the katydids (family Tettigoniidae), which have never been systematically studied in Mozambique. At the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory in Gorongosa we have been collecting data on katydids since the inception of the lab in 2014 and are finally ready to publish our results. Not surprisingly, among the 60 species of katydids that call Gorongosa their home, there are species new to science, organisms that no biologist has ever seen or examined. One of them is the incredible, big and spiny katydid that belongs to the genus Enyaliopsis. This new species, whose description will soon be officially published by the Wilson Lab scientists Piotr Naskrecki and Ricardo Guta, is unusual in several ways. To begin, it’s huge! An adult female weights more than 10 grams, which is more than some species of mammals, such as shrews, mice, and bats. This is one of the reasons why this katydid has few natural enemies. But if threatened by a larger predator, a bird or a monkey, it employs two lines of defense. First, it arches its back, pointing an impressive collection of hard and sharp spines at the attacker. If this fails, the insect directs a powerful jet of its own blood from a small opening a the base of its middle leg at the attacker, and the jet of liquid often ends up hitting the attacker’s eyes. The blood (hemolymph) of the katydid is yellow and has strong, sharp smell, which indicates that it is likely full of toxins (notice a yellow droplet on one of the katydids below). Research into the chemical composition of this katydid’s blood will start later this year. These katydids are long lived – we have been able to show that adults live several years, which is an unusually long period for an insect, during which time they molt several time (see the animated photo below). Their eggs also take at least two years to develop before hatching and the nymphs look like tiny replicas of the adults (a photo below shows a female with one of her young). Despite chunky and lumbering appearance they are agile predators, capable of catching and devouring such fast moving prey as grasshoppers. They also feed on plants, including those that contain toxic compounds, which is likely the source of the defensive compounds in the katydids’ blood. And although these katydids cannot fly, they actually do have wings, albeit the wings are small and completely hidden under the spiny part of their thorax known as the pronotum. The only function of such reduced wings is to produce a loud call that the males use to attract females.

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[click on the photos below to enlarge]

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There are some animals that are famous for their acoustic behavior – birds, frogs, crickets – and then there are some that we would never suspect of being musical. One of the latter is the Flag tail centipede (Alipes grandidieri), a very unusual member of the class Chilopoda. Unlike its relatives that use the last pair of legs on their long body as grasping organs that help them move and catch prey, these animals have evolved two large, paddle-like structures that are used to produce sound. When disturbed these centipedes produce audible rustling, not unlike that of a rattlesnake, which warns potential predators of a powerful bite that the centipede can deliver. Interestingly, even if separated from the body, the legs continue moving and producing sound, distracting the predator and allowing the animal to escape, a behavior very similar to a lizard losing its tail to avoid being eaten. Alas, unlike lizards, the centipedes do not seem to be able to regrow the missing appendages. Centipedes are poorly studied in Gorongosa but we suspect that our fauna is quite rich and likely includes a number of yet unnamed species.

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Robber flies are diurnal predators of insects and Helen’s robber fly (Microstylum helenae) specializes in hunting grasshoppers. They perch on vegetation and scan the environment for movement with their enormous emerald eyes. These flies are highly territorial and will chase away any other robber fly trying to hunt in the same area. In Gorongosa we have so far recorded 11 species of robber flies but certainly many more await their discovery.

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Some ant colonies of Gorongosa are unlucky enough to be home of a rather unusual guest. Bombardier beetle Cerapterus laceratus (Paussinae) is a predatory inquiline who feeds on ant larvae and workers. It is a slow moving animal but completely safe among unsuspecting ants thanks to the ability to mimic the chemical signals of its hosts, which it produces in its highly modified antennae. But if this disguise fails for some reason and ants try to attack it, this animal has another trick up its sleeve – these beetles can cause explosions, literally. A gland in its abdomen forms a heavily sclerotized “firing chamber,” which produces an explosive discharge of water, oxygen, and quinones that burn or even kill the attacker. Too small to cause real damage to a human, it will still burn and stain fingers of a naive entomologist who picks up this species for the first time, believe me. The inquiline fauna of Gorongosa ant nests is poorly studied but rich in fascinating, often completely new to science species that we are only beginning to understand.

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Appearing more dangerous than it really is, the Eastern tiger snake (Telescopus semiannulatus) is only mildly venomous and pretty harmless to humans. Things are different if you are a lizard – not only is this snake’s venom very effective on other reptiles but, in addition to striking its prey, tiger snakes strangle their victims while simultaneously chewing on them, making sure that the venom delivered by their rear fangs thoroughly penetrates the lizard’s body. Tiger snake is one of 10 species of rear-fanged snakes of the family Colubridae found in Gorongosa.

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The long, narrow wings of the handsomely colored Tomb bat (Taphozous mauritianus) indicate that this species is a very fast flier who hunts insects high above the clutter of the forest canopy. One interesting characteristic of this species is that it can pull its entire tail into a special sheath on its patagium (the membrane between the legs), perhaps to reduce drag and make its body more aerodynamic. These bats are known for their proclivity to roost on walls of houses where, if disturbed, they prefer to run away rather than fly. The Tomb bat is the only member of the family Emballonuridae found in Gorongosa so far.

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In the 1940’s and 50’s, if a woman wanted to know if she was pregnant, all she had to do (other than waiting) was to take a few drops of her urine and inject it into the back leg of the African platanna frog (Xenopus laevis). The presence of the human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone produced by the placenta, then triggered an almost immediate egg-laying behavior. The test was nearly 100% accurate and, not surprisingly, “frog labs” that performed pregnancy tests popped up all over the world, spreading the frog from from its native South Africa to every point on the globe. Later, after pregnancy tests that did not involve holding a slippery animal and jabbing it with a needle had been invented, the frogs were often released into the wild in places where they did not belong. The downside of it was not only the introduction of an alien species but platanna also happened to be a carrier of a deadly chytrid fungus, the very same that is now wiping out amphibians almost everywhere. For the longest time conservationists blamed platanna for the introduction of the chytrid (some even called it the “Typhoid Mary frog”) but a recent study exonerated Xenopus, instead pointing the blame at frogs from the Korean Peninsula. In Gorongosa we have two species of platanna frogs, the common X. laevis, and a much rarer and poorly studied X. muelleri. A recent phylogenetic study indicates that the latter is in fact a complex of cryptic, polyploid species, and it is quite possible that our population may also be genetically unique.

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African paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis) is one of 25 species of flycatchers (family Monarchidae) recorded from Gorongosa. This spectacular bird can often be seen perched on vegetation at the edge of seasonal pans, every now and then dashing to skim insects that fly right above the surface of the water. Both sexes contribute equally to the nest building and chick rearing and, while building their cup-shaped nests, these birds purposefully weave in light pieces of lichen or spider silk into the walls of the nest to visually disrupt its outline and fool potential predators.

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Rocky slopes of the Bunga inselbergs in the western part of the park are home to the beautiful and elusive Gorongosa girdled lizard (Smaug mossambicus). They are ovoviviparous and females give birth to 2-6 young once a year. Males maintain harems of 2-4 females, which they fiercely defend from other males, using their bright coloration to send highly visible signals to indicate the ownership of their territories. These spectacular reptiles are restricted in their distribution to just a few sites in and around Gorongosa, where they are threatened by collecting for the pet trade and habitat loss.

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Bluefin killifish (Nothobranchius rachovii) is one of three killifish species found in Gorongosa. These incredible animals are perfectly adapted to life in the ephemeral world of seasonal pools left by the rainy season. It takes only 12 weeks for them to go from an egg to a fully-grown, reproductive adult – killifish need to hurry before the water they live in evaporates as the dry season approaches. The eggs they lay will survive in the dry, caked mud for at least a year, sometimes longer - not all eggs will hatch during the next season. some waiting for the following or even third season of rains. This bet hedging increases the population’s chances of survival in case of an unexpectedly short rainy season.

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In the understory of Mt. Gorongosa rainforest lives a fly Glaurocara sp.n., a parasitoid of False shieldback katydids (Acilacris incisus). As all parasitoids do, it eventually kills its host. The katydid, in turn, feeds on the plant Dracaena fragrans, often causing damage to its reproductive structures. The plant serves as a microhabitat to a number of species of invertebrates and frogs. Thus, by constraining the population growth of the herbivorous katydid the fly acts as a defender of the plant and all species that depend on it. The Gorongosa Map of Life project connects the dots.

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Giant African snail (Achatina immaculata) is one four species of the genus Achatina found in Gorongosa. These massive mollusks are some of the world’s largest terrestrial snails, reaching the shell length of over 15 cm. Their reproductive behavior involves hermaphroditic mutual insemination (each individual has both male and female reproductive organs), albeit younger, smaller snails can only play the role of males – they can inseminate other snails but cannot produce eggs until they reach a larger size. Large, fully mature individuals both impregnate and get pregnant at the same time. Strange stuff.

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Flora of Gorongosa is as amazing as its fauna, and no group of plants evokes more awe than the orchids. Fifty two species of orchids have been recorded from the park so far but certainly more await discovery. Darwin used orchids and their pollinators as a prime example of co-evolution, correctly guessing that an orchid species from Madagascar with a particularly long spur – the long part of the flower that is filled with nectar – would be pollinated by a then unknown species of hawkmoth. Years later his suspicions were validated by the discovery of a moth with a particularly long proboscis. In Gorongosa Kotschy’s orchid (Aerangis kotschyana) is another great example of such evolutionary co-dependence. Its long, corkscrew-like spur means that it can only be pollinated by a very well-endowed (with a proboscis) moth. And sure enough – we have confirmed that hawkmoth Agrius convolvuli, known to pollinate this orchid, occurs here. Now we only need to find pollinators for the remaining 51 species.

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After heavy rains, if we are lucky, we occasionally have an opportunity to see in Gorongosa a remarkable snake, the Zambezi blind snake (Megatyphlops mucroso). These reptiles are completely subterranean and their morphology reflects this fact in the small but massively calcified skull, hard “beak” made of thick scales that allows them to push through the soil, and incredibly smooth body that minimizes frictions as they tunnel underground. The eyes are vestigial, hidden under a semi-translucent scales, and are visible only as darker, light-sensitive spots on the sides of the head. Unlike other snakes they also lack a distinct tail – the body pretty much ends in a cloaca and all that remains of the tail is a tiny, sharp spike, their only defensive weapon. Needles to say, blind snakes are completely harmless. They produce no venom and may even lack teeth in either the upper or lower jaw. When caught they try to poke the attacker with the tip of the tail, which is about as effective a defense as being licked by a puppy (still, the first Megatyphlops I saw in Mozambique was an animal being hacked to bits by villagers afraid of its imaginary venom.) They feed mostly on termites and ants, and “rake” their insect prey into the mouth by stretching and pulling back their short upper jaw.

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One of the most astonishing organisms in Gorongosa is the Candycorn caterpillar (Acridotarsa integer; TIneidae). They are found only in the nests of termites Schedorhinotermes lamanianus, often in very high numbers. Although it’s been known since early 1900’s, nobody has a clue as to what the nature of the relationship between these two groups of insects is. It is tempting to speculate that the caterpillars' strange candy-corn processes produce something that the termites like but this is not the cases. They appear to have a purely sensory function and are not connected to any glands. Even more strangely, the caterpillars seem to have little tolerance for termites and often chase them away if approached. At times, however, they allow termites to lick something from the dorsal part of their abdomen. The larvae sometimes accompany the termites on their foraging trips at night but what exactly they feed on is unknown. But we will find out.

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Preparation

One of the first animals listed from Gorongosa, the Elephant shrew or Sengi (Petrodromus tetradactylus) was recorded in 1907 by French naturalist Alfred Grandidier from the foothills of Mt. Gorongosa when he was passing through Mozambique. Elephant shrews, called that on the account of their cute, wiggly snout that resembles an elephant trunk, are members of the mammalian order Macroscelidea and are, in fact, more closely related to elephants then shrews. In Gorongosa we see them mostly in forests that grow on well-drained sandy soils, where they hunt insects and other invertebrates. So far this is the only Sengi species that we have recorded albeit there is a high possibility that a second species might occur in the park.

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Expedition Background

Our goal is ambitious – we aim to discover and document all species of eukaryotic organisms that live in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, and understand the multiple connections among them. Ultimately, we hope to create a dynamic, multidimensional map of interactions and co-dependencies of species living in the park. This is going to take time, effort, and resources. But we are getting there – since 2012 we have increased the number of Gorongosa species from 1,122 to 5,785, and their numbers are growing daily. Most of the species that we find are poorly known but likely critically important to the functions of our ecosystem. After all, Africa is not just the Big Five and other “charismatic megafauna,” but thousands of hard-working species on which lions and elephants depend for their very lives.
Our expedition involves a group of experts and students from Mozambique, and all over the world. Twice a year Dr. Piotr Naskrecki, the expedition leader, organizes month-long biodiversity surveys that explore a different part of the Gorongosa ecosystem. Last year it was the caves of the Cheringoma Plateau, this year miombo forests of Coutada 12, next year we hope to ascend Mt. Gorongosa and explore its unique rainforest. This series of species vignettes highlights some of our discoveries.

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