On non-charismatic wildlife and fieldwork

Most people’s imagination of doing warm tropical landscapes involves charismatic megafauna. They are there, but they are not the primary experience of fieldwork. They shape the landscape deeply, but it can be a rare even to see them, especially up close.

Here in Gabon, this is especially true. Forest buffalo make tracks all over the land, but it took a bit of luck to surprise this young one by itself in a stream.

Forest elephants, too, remake the forest more than any other animal. Their footprints are found on the many paths they have made, but the animals themselves can be elusive.

It took me nearly two weeks of daily work in this forest to see the back end of this one elephant – a magical experience, and perhaps slightly too close of a sighting.

It is actually the non-charismatic fauna that shape the daily experience of this landscape. Most of the animals, by number, are not mammals – they are insects. They are common, and they are everywhere.

Some, like this caterpillar, make themselves known through their colors. This one appeared on a leaf after a rain storm, its bright hues likely warning of the downsides of eating it.

Others, like this dragonfly, fly past noisily, hunting for prey, only occasionally pausing on the vegetation.

And others, like this creature (an earwig? entomologists, help!) make brief appearances near the forest floor in quiet moments when one is feeling observant.

But the primary wildlife that shapes the daily experience of work are the bees and flies. They are absent in the cool early morning, but as the day warms, and the sun comes out, they take to the air, and head directly to the salty reside of sweat that covers our field clothing and backpacks.

They are everywhere, and it is impossible to stand still without being swarmed, or to swat the air without hitting dozens or more.

Plastic netting provide some relief from them landing on skin, but does not prevent the swarming.

The sweat bees are relentless. Sometimes the only thing to do is to find some inner patience, give up on escaping them, and embrace the buzzing. Here our guard, Elie, is playing Candy Crush on his phone while waiting out a long afternoon in the sun.

And sometimes, through the swarm, other creatures also come. This butterfly made a momentary appearance one morning – and then was gone.

All things little and great, charismatic and not, are part of this place. The elephants make the forest, but the insects do too.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Hi, Ben,
    That lovely, albeit undetermined, insect is a rove beetle (family staphylinidae). This is the second-largest family of beetles, after weevils (family curcurlionidae). No ideas on the genus at present, sorry.

    Jed (one of the carrion beetle research assistants from RMBL summer 2016)

    1. Benjamin Blonder says:

      Thanks, Jed – I appreciate the detective work. Glad you are following the blog!

  2. Rox says:

    Cool photos!

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