Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Day of Highs and Lows in Haiti

Field biology is full of highs and lows. A day spent looking for two anoles endemic to the western portion of Haiti's Massif de la Hotte resulted in highs and lows that were both metaphorical and literal.

We began the day with a visit to the type locality of the first endemic - the cliff dwelling Anolis rupinae. Like numerous Haitian anole species, A. rupinae is known from only a small area, in this case the cliffs along a small river valley adjacent to the remote mountain town of Castillon. After driving all day long on really bad roads to reach this locality, we were braced for the possibility that the only known locality had been wiped out by habitat destruction. Fortunately, this turned out not to be the case: although we did find the habitat in this region was severly degraded, some forest in the river valley was intact (mostly due to the fact that it exists on sheer cliff faces). After a short hike from of Castillon, we succeeded in finding a few A. rupinae skittering along an impressive rock face (one of the high points of our trip). The males - with their blue and red dewlaps - were particularly impressive to behold (top photo). We took ecological data on the animals we found, and even filmed a pair mating!

After checking A. rupinae off our list, our next goal was to find what we knew would be our most challenging Haitian endemic - Anolis darlingtoni. This highly unusual twig anole is legendary among anole biologists. Discovered as a single individual by the famed coleopterist and biogeographer P. J. Darlington in 1934, it went unseen for 50 years until Richard Thomas and Blair Hedges found a handful of additional specimens in 1984. By the time we arrived, another 25 years interval had passed without a reported sighting of A. darlingtoni. Thomas and Hedges noted that the locality they visited in 1984 was in the latter stages of deforestation,and we were certain it would be in no better condition when we arrived. Nevertheless, our local guide - Willie - ensured us that he knew the location of an intact forest patch that would be appropriate for a twig dwelling anole. Better still, the patch was only a few kilometers from the small shack we were staying in.

We arranged to walk to the forest patch the afternoon after finding A. rupinae. The plan was to hike to the locality with daylight, find the appropriate habitat before sunset, and to lay out a transect ahead of time for our night searching. The real search for A. darlingtoni would begin once the sun had set, as twig anoles are virtually impossible to find during the day (they're much easier to nab while sleeping on twigs at night). We set off with Willie at around 3PM, after being repeatedly ensured that this would give us plenty of time to reach the forest patch with a couple hours of daylight to get the lay of the land. We were dubious from the start, and we hiked HARD. After hiking up and down a slippery mountain trail for over an hour without seeing a single patch of accessible forest, we unexpectedly arrived at the home of Willie's family! With images of THE FOREST transfixed in our minds’ eyes, we were reluctant to stop, but we allowed a dose of genuinely warm hospitality to temporarily melt our callous resolve (second photo from top). At this family homestead, we were treated to some locally grown and roasted coffee, spiced with local herbs (delicious!), and we swapped snake stories (a timeless exchange).

After coffee and a quick greeting, we rapidly resumed our hike, tearing up and down slope and ravine, gaining and losing altitude in chunks greater than 150m numerous times along the way. After another hour we could see forest on the horizon, but it remained miles away (third photo from top). Willie reassured us that we'd make it but our doubts were growing as the sun set.We eventually reached the forest patch, but well after dark and after hours of brutal hiking. We can’t say a lot about where this forest lies, how extensive it is (we did come to several edges, but it’s hard to be conclusive from our night search), or what the surrounding area is like, as we never saw it in daylight. But we can say that the forest was magical after spending the entire day trekking through completely deforested land. Almost everything was growing directly on cavernous, toothy limestone, which is forbidding to work on, and probably largely responsible for the persistence of the remainging patch. The trees were larger than almost anything we had seen in Haiti, and they were luxuriously covered in moss and epiphytes. The patch was incredibly rich in land snails and Eleutherodactylus frogs, which formed a diverse and nearly deafening chorus. And yes, there were anoles! We found common species along the edges, and the beautiful Anolis monticola nearby. One real treat was a brilliant green Anolis ricordi – Haiti’s representative Crown-Giant anole - that we found sleeping on a large branch. Sadly, despite spending as much time as our lights would allow searching the patch, we did not find Anolis darlingtoni.

It was incredibly difficult to turn our backs on the forest without finding this enigma to face the daunting trail back to the vehicle, this time in the middle of the night. Just as we began our hike home, however, we recieved a bittersweet surprise. Luke noticed on the GPS that seemed very close to our truck and that we were taking a different route back. Willie then casually explained that our truck was just over the ridge, only a few kilometers away. What?!? We knew from the GPS that the truck was not, as the crow flies, far away, but we had been told on the way out that a direct path was impossible because of the mountainous terrain. As you can see on the map of our entire journey, this was not the case (bottom photo). We had hiked up and down the mountains for more than 7km to reach a locality that was only 2km from our truck! Yes, it certainly would have required a rather steep ascent, but one that was certainly doable.After plotting the location of Willie's home, the reason for the extended voyage became clear: Willie had brought us to his house for a bit of extracurricular show and tell! Although we were happy to skip the brunt of the return journey, we would have gladly searched longer if we had known the truck was in close range. Due to other circumstances, this ended up being our last shot at the forest patch on this expedition.

We were delighted to have found a seemingly decent patch of forest so close to Castillon, but somewhat less than happy that Willie's antics provided us with only a few nighttime hours to search this habitat. An exhaustive search for Anolis darlingtoni will have to wait for the next expedition (which, of course, is already being planned)!

[post coauthored by D. Luke Mahler]


Matt Brandley said...

Let me know if you need extra field hands next time. After getting A. darlingtoni, let's head over to Culebra to get A. roosevelti too.

Glor said...

If I had a nickel for everyone who'd wasted their time searching for A. roosevelti over the past three years I'd have at least 25 cents... I think there's a much better chance of finding A. darlingtoni alive!

Luke Mahler said...

I'll give you that nickel Rich! I blew my legs out looking for roosevelti too, on a 2008 trip with labmates Liam Revell and Alexis Harrison, and Jose-Luis Herrera of U. Puerto Rico, Mayaguez. My opinion is that roosevelti isn't out of the question, but that small offshore islands in the Virgin Islands are the best bet because of rats and mongooses on the larger islands. That's where you find other endangered reptiles that used to be widespread in the Puerto Rican bank, such as the Virgin Islands Boa (Epicrates monensis monensis) and the St. Croix Ground Lizard (Ameiva polops).

Still I think darlingtoni is a much better bet! It's always been hard to find (Thomas and Hedges were by no means the first after Darlington to look when they bagged it in 84), most of the good habitat is nearly impossible to reach, and few people have looked for it in the last two decades. It's gotta be in that patch or somewhere nearby!

Matt Brandley said...

Go to Ecuador and pick up some laevis group anoles while you are at it.

Susan Perkins said...

Rich, the tale of Willie's meandering journey with ulterior motives reminded me of our walk in the Lower East Side in search of coffee shops!

mfb said...

Great story! Looking forward to more.