The Great Chameleon SearchSeptember 24 2018
An intrepid search for Africa's rarest mountain dragons. I am conducting an expedition to discover, study, and conserve the chameleons of Uganda. The target of my trip is to find the elusive and cryptic, Tolley's Forest Chameleon, a species that was only just discovered in 2017. Follow along!
Also, check out my website for more information: https://www.danielfhughes.org/
From the mountains to the forest: Kibale National Park
After 7 very long nights of tireless trekking up and down the Rwenzoris, we ended up encountering over 200 chameleons, marking 125 or so, and recapturing around 40, many several times. These data are still being entered, so the analysis is rough. Regardless, these kinds of numbers are staggering. Further, we found nearly 10 individuals of our target species, Tolley's Forest Chameleon. This is a huge boost compared to the 2 individuals found during searches in 2014, 2015, and 2016 at this same location. Safe to say, we are off to a great start!
During one night's search at Rwenzori, I stepped into the forest to begin recording data for a new chameleon and I realized that I was standing in a big depression in the ground and that the forest was destroyed around me. I was soon told that we have been working in the "Elephant Zone", where forest elephants, the more aggressive cousin to the savanna elephant, roam freely. This was exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time. Elephants are huge and could easily get scared and trample us at night while we are focused on spotlighting chameleons. The rangers carry a fully loaded AK-47, which they will shoot in the air in an attempt to scare off any charging beast. Everyone around me seemed calm, so I relaxed a bit, thinking that no way this can happen to me. Little did I know forest elephants are even more common at Kibale National Park, which was our next chameleon destination.
Near the end of our time at Rwenzori, I came face to face with a snake I have longed to see alive in the wild, a forest cobra. I was conducting a search during the day for chameleons in a nearby village, when next to the river, among the tall reeds, we spotted a black, shiny figure near the top, nearly 15 ft up. Turned out to be a cobra, a small, but no less menacing species that has eluded me on previous trips. There was no way I was going to miss this chance. We quickly cut down the nearest long stalk of a reed and fashioned one end into a makeshift fork, with a split down the middle, to use as a pair of tongs to catch the serpent. The pole was long and the snake was perched high, so I had to stretch as far as I could to get the snake's body caught between the two sides of our reed tongs. Once I had the snake semi-secured, I quickly turned to place it on the ground, then it attempted to escape. It darted into the grass, so I used my boot to stop it in its tracks. We then convinced it, with great difficulty, to go inside an old water bottle and then closed the lid. Finally, my first cobra!
We arrived at Kibale on the 13th and immediately began our surveys. So far, we have four surveys in the bag, with three to go. On our first survey, we realized this was going to be very different than our time at Rwenzori. We had found just 7 chameleons in 6 hrs of searching, where we had found 1 every 10 mins at Rwenzori. The chameleon species here are less numerous than there and the elevation is a bit lower, around 1500 m compared to 1700-2100 m. Nevertheless, we managed to find a single female Tolley's Forest Chameleon, which was full of eggs, a very good sign. With three more survey nights, I am hoping that we can find more.
Kibale is home to the most monkey species in Uganda, including one of, if not the, largest group of chimpanzees in East Africa. They are also some of the the best studied. The place is also home to green bush vipers, of which we have found 7 in just 4 nights! A record for me. These vipers are quite small (6 in - 2 ft) but they are gorgeous, at least to a person that can see beauty in a venomous snake. There are also forest elephants, and lots of them. On our second night, while also moving through another ominously titled "Elephant Zone" at night, we heard what sounded like very loud thunder. Turned out to be elephants literally crushing and snapping trees in the forest. So we paused, then we heard it again, but even closer this time. Our ranger cocked his rifle and stepped to the edge of the forest. We slowly peered around the next trail with our flashlights and then saw what looked like the entire forest moving. It was a huge bull elephant smashing through large trees as if moving through a forest of toothpicks. Luckily for us, it went the other way, but we were constantly reminded of their presence with distant sounds of trees snapping under their feet throughout the night.
Mountains of the Moon: Blue Snakes and Chameleon Mani-Pedis
After several long days of travel, we reached Rwenzori Mountains National Park in far western Uganda on the 4th October. This region straddles the equator and has one of the highest peaks in all of Africa with glaciers at the top reaching over 5,100 m elevation. It also has 7 chameleon species, including Tolley's Forest Chameleon, for which we found a single female in 2014 and one male in 2016.
Our plan is to hike from the foothills up to 2,200 meters every evening for 7 total nights to search for chameleons as we descend down to camp. Chameleons are most easily spotted at night with flashlights while they sleep in the trees and on bushes. We are marking the chameleons in a unique way--we paint their nails with fingernail polish! So far, we have given mani-pedis to over 75 chameleons in just 4-nights and we have seen over 120 chameleons during that time! We have also seen 5 individuals of our target species, Tolley's Forest Chameleon, and have marked three of them, one of which we found again the next night.
While hiking down around midnight after some chameleon surveys, we found a beautiful Gunther's tree snake with a sky blue belly. We have also seen numerous bush babies, several species of monkey, and a few days ago I saw an otter when I was near Mityana, a first for me in Uganda.
All is going great at the Mountains of the Moon. We have four more nights of surveys here and likely many more chameleon surprises to come!
The 11th hour: Final preparations
My flight leaves tomorrow evening at 5:50 PM from Chicago heading to Brussels, then from Brussels to Kigali, and finally from Kigali to Entebbe. I will be picked up from the airport by Bob Katabazi at 11:00 PM and we will drive the 40 miles or so to his place in Kampala. Then, I will sleep for a few days. At least, that is how we planned it.
But that is tomorrow. Today I am packing, all day. Getting ready for an African expedition is like preparing to study for a test that hasn't been written yet. It is hard to know exactly what you will need in the bush or what will break, so I take two, of just about everything. Getting all that into a few crates with a 50 lb limit is an adventure. Check out the picture below for a sense of what my office floor looks like at this very moment. Of course, there are your field essentials, your absolutely must-haves while exploring: baby wipes (for a quick shower and just about everything else); books (expeditions are long periods of waiting followed by intense activity); flashlights (chameleons are best found at night); permethrin treated clothes; anti-malarial pills (taken daily!); camera (I take many, many pictures); and snacks (chocolate candies, beef jerky, and instant coffee).
I have just heard from all members of the chameleon team and they are all very excited to begin our search for Tolley's Forest Chameleon. We have high hopes of finding our target species. We also anticipate running into some of Uganda's awesome snakes, like the Bush Viper we spotted 5 m up a tree in 2016! Check out the picture below.
In 2017, I described a new species of chameleon from Uganda, known as Tolley's Forest Chameleon. This chameleon species is essentially unknown from an ecological standpoint, as only a few individuals have ever been studied. This expedition is to find and study this new species so that we can protect it before its too late. On 29 September 2018, I will travel to Uganda to begin a nearly 6-week long journey to find this rare chameleon species. During this expedition, I will also search for other chameleon and reptile species, as well as amphibians.
The Great Chameleon Search really began in 2014 on my first expedition to Africa, where we searched for chameleons in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for nearly 2 months. It has been an adventure that has taken me to some of the most remote locations in Central Africa. Since that first trip, I have dedicated my research to understand the diversity, distribution, and ecology of chameleons. This passion for chameleons has produced some exciting new results. We have discovered that some widespread species in the Albertine Rift highlands are in fact several species, many of which are completely new to science. Chameleons are lauded as jewels of the forest and they play critical roles in the various environments they inhabit, yet more than 30% of them are threatened with extinction. Habitat loss, climate change, and illegal harvesting have put the world's chameleon species at risk. I am optimistic that we can collect the information needed to protect these rare chameleons before they are gone forever.
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