Field Fiasco: A scaly, slithering serpent

It was pitch black, in the early hours of the morning. We all walked with our handlamps down to the ground in a straight line on the trail. None of us spoke, it was too early for chit-chat. Three silent bright lights walked one by one through the dense understory of the Congolese rainforest. We were on our way to the sleep site, where our group of bonobos had chosen to sleep for the night.

As research assistants at the Lui Kotale Research Station, we were responsible for the daily operations of a long-term study of a wild group of bonobos. Bonobos are a species of ape that are similar to chimpanzees, yet are only found in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  As one of only a few sites in the world that studies wild bonobos, we followed them daily from when they awoke in the morning to when they went to sleep at night. The arduous cycle ensued: awaken at 3am, hike to the sleep site, follow bonobos all day, put bonobos to bed, hike home. Then repeat.


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Suzi, an adult female bonobo in the study group at the Lui Kotale Field Site in Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo.

As the first in line of several tired and grumpy researchers, I kept the pace at a quick rate. I wanted to keep everyone awake, including myself, and the exercise helped. I cruised along, checking the trail markers periodically to ensure we had not deviated from our intended course. Aiming to arrive before our group awakened and left the scene, we bustled along with heads down to avoid tripping over protruding roots or a newly fallen log.

Suddenly, I heard some rustling up ahead of me. I shined my head-lamp upwards to illuminate an enormous scaly snake-like tail shimmying up a tree. By the size of the tail, it looked like the beginnings of the largest snake I had ever seen. In an instant, all of the deadliest poisonous snakes of the Congo flashed before my eyes. I halted in my tracks and let out a brief, yet obnoxious shriek. I threw out my arms and braced myself as my colleagues piled-up behind me.

Now stopped, we shone all of our lights on the desperately clambering culprit. As all three headlamps converged on the creature, it was clear that it wasn’t a snake at all, but rather a harmless pangolin. Though its exterior was similar to a snake in that it was covered in scales, the pangolin is a quadruped mammal.

The long-tailed pangolin of central Africa (Manis tetradactyl) [Source]
The lone pangolin took one backwards glance at us, before crashing through the foliage to seek refuge from the harsh light of our torches. We all looked around at each other in awe.  A wild pangolin sighting was rare in these forests, as they are highly endangered in this region. The rest of the trip to the nest was chock full of friendly conversation about the pangolin, as well as other rare animals we had seen in the forest recently.

When you are a part of a team conducting research in a remote location for a long period of time, it is easy to grow apathetic of your monotonous daily routine. This particular experience was a nice reminder that even when your days in the forest feel tedious and tiresome, you must remember to keep your head up and eyes open, because you might just find something as rare and beautiful as a long-tailed pangolin.

Author: Josie Hubbard is a 1st year PhD student in Animal Behavior. She studies non-human primate social behavior. This field fiasco occurred during her gap year working as a research assistant for the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Cover photo Source

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