Hi everyone and welcome back to the blog! It’s Rachel here, the intern on the project and this week I am back with some tales from the field that are not for the faint of heart…
Maybe it was because we were approaching Halloween (the spookiest time of the year) but late this October, some very strange things occured. The moon was full, the enclosure was brimming with things that creep and crawl in the night and our mountain chickens were faced with a number of spooky snacks, some of which were better recieved than others.
The Tale of the Lizard’s Tail
On Monday night, myself and Luke had set out to feed the mountain chickens, which is the most exciting part of the day to day tasks. You get to interact with the frogs and, be it for the love of food or otherwise, it really feels as if they are excited to see you too. Entering the enclosure during the day, it is easy to forget that they are sitting there in hides and nest boxes, their eyes glazed over in a peaceful half asleep state, conserving energy for the nights’ comparative frenzy of foraging and calling to each other as they defend territories.
The night began very normally. The frogs bounded out to greet us, one by one, thumping hungrily out of the bushes. Everyone looked healthy and happy. After a couple of hours of feeding, we had located almost every frog and had confirmed that the few on nests were still guarding.
We were almost done with the nights work when we reached the top of Enclosure 2. As we watched one of the frogs catch sight of a large cricket and pounce on it, myself and Luke squatted down to get a closer look at him. We like to assess each frog’s behaviour and body condition every night we feed and it is best to do this at ground level. Suddenly, Luke felt something kicking at the heel of his boot. What looked like a scaled, grey flailing limb thrashed to and fro at his feet- a lizard’s tail! The mysterious appendage dislodged itself and continued on its journey down the steep hill, cartwheeling through the bushes. Its movements were robotic- twisting to and fro with rigid precision- it was so hypnotic that we almost missed the ground lizard it had detached from, as it leapt out of the bushes and scrambled panic-stricken down the hill, almost airborne in its rush to escape. It had clearly encountered something in the bushes and had shed its tail as a predator-deterrent. Based on our reactions (as biologists who know that this phenomenon happens) I can fully understand how this would completely distract an unwitting predator.
Based on the logic that it had lost its tail now and so no longer had any use for it, we decided that this would make a fantastic spooky treat for a hungry mountain chicken. After all, fully wild mountain chickens have been shown to eat small lizards and treefrogs and Lloydie and the environment guys even saw one eating a racer snake one time!
Carefully dodging frogs, I made my way through the shrubbery until I reached the tail, which by now had lost its initial convulsions and was now just twitching and spasming from time to time. Half expecting it to start maniacally twisting around as soon as I touched it, I cautiously lifted the tail and inspected it. I was astonished to see that the stump that had been attached to the body possessed several prongs, folded and spiraled together, resembling a hand pinching its fingertips together. This bizarre mechanism of tail-dropping is a reflex- the muscles attaching the tail to the body disconnect, rather than knitting together. Besides a likely increase in cortisol (the stress hormone) this action doesn’t have any immediate adverse physiological effect on a lizard, but it takes an extraordinary amount of energy to regrow the missing tail.
We took the tail to 802, affectionately known as Treasure, due to the X shaped marking on the back of his head. He is one of our favourites, having once been one of the smallest individuals but ultimately surviving and becoming extremely healthy. He was initially very confused by the snack being presented to him. Luke twirled it back and forth in front of Treasure’s snout, hoping that the movement would trigger a pouncing response. After a tentative first few minutes, he went for it and stuffed the fleshier end into his mouth. He left the rest sticking out, giving the illusion that he’d just swallowed an entire ground lizard headfirst! Then, he cautiously bit down, apparently gnawing on the flesh. He stayed like this for quite some time, intermittently staying totally still and bearing down on the tail, squeezing out any goodness he could. We watched him for a long time as we had a slight thought that he might swallow it whole and choke. Frogs freeze if you shine a light directly into their eyes, so we thought that maybe he would rather be left alone with his colossal feast. We’re still not sure how he managed it in the end, but when Luke went back to check on him a couple of hours later, the tail was nowhere to be found and Treasure was looking rather pleased with himself.
The Ultimate Showdown
We’ve done some much-needed enclosure maintenance now, but at the night of the stick insect, the enclosure was very overgrown. The foliage appeared to spring up overnight, growing a foot or more per week, due to the intense rainfall we’ve been experiencing in the last few weeks.
I was making my way painstakingly through the bushes, a bucketful of crickets in one hand, using the other to bash branches and grasses out of my way. Eventually I broke through and made it to the clearing where we were next locating mountain chickens. We follow a set path for walking around the enclosure so as not to squash any frogs accidentally. They like to hide in thickets of grass and to bury themselves in piles of ashy leaves. Believe me when I say their camouflage renders them almost invisible.
Once in the clearing, I spotted a wide-smiling frog, pouchy belly eagerly awaiting the contents of the bucket. I reached in and felt something brush my hand- it turned out to be the biggest stick insect I had ever seen! Of course, we figured that this would make a novel new treat for our beloved mountain chickens. So, camera at the ready, Luke placed the 20cm long insect in front of the frog. We were ready for this showdown. It was going to be epic, we were certain.
The stick insect’s antennae were almost as long as its body and they wafted around inquisitively, certain, we thought, to capture the attention of the frog. But the frog’s eyes remained unfocused, staring into the middle distance with a wan smile, oblivious to the potentially sumptuous meal we had laid out for him. A few times, the tickles from the antennae got too much for the frog and he batted them away in irritation. This happened about 4 times in total, before the frog tried to pluck them off- a most undignified blow for the stick insect. Seeming to be unaware of this, the insect didn’t even flinch. After a few fruitless minutes of the insect walking off and being placed back in front of him, it became apparent that the mountain chicken just couldn’t see it or maybe, to our disappointment, couldn’t care less. Then ensued a very long and intense staring competition between the two creatures. Eventually, the tension broke and the stick insect wandered off into a spot where he could go on with his wavering without being bothered.
Eventually we admitted defeat and accepted that maybe this wasn’t going to be the epic showdown that we had envisioned.
An 8-Legged Dessert
After the night’s excitement, we were enthused. We locked up the enclosures and I ran back up the hill to the wiggly path that takes us back to the parked jeep. After the steady, measured footsteps in the enclosure to avoid frogs, I often overcompensate and enjoy walking freely outside the enclosure. “STOP RACH” Luke shouted suddenly. “You so nearly stomped on a tarantula!” I froze- it was true- a hunched tarantula was a millimetre away from my shoe, trying to avoid the dreaded enormous boot that had crashed out of the sky. He was safe this time, but we had other plans for him. The night was not over yet- we unlocked Enclosure 1 again and located a frog. 810 practically bounded up to us, excited for another round of food. We delicately placed the tarantula in front of him, poking it closer with a pencil, and within seconds, he had stuffed the spider in his face with his hands and started the chewing process. Our mountain chickens adore tarantulas and they are a huge source of protein. He took his time squashing the spider with his powerful jaws until it was flat enough to swallow. Every time this happens, the frog leaves all the legs poking out the sides of their mouths, as a smug demonstration of their find to the other frogs. This was one meal that was gone in a flash.
I’ve always been told to be careful walking anywhere around Montserrat barefoot. We have a strict shoe-wearing policy anywhere that we do fieldwork due to hidden centipedes and scorpions, but I had yet to see any scorpions until this point. The cherry on top of this week of unusual creatures was when I saw something moving one night in the light of my headtorch. A tiny scorpion, about a centimetre long was strolling along, tail poised. It was a yellowish brown colour and had an ambling disjointed walk. Despite their miniscule size, these creatures pack a painful sting in their tails. It is pretty amazing to think about how many tiny hidden creatures are hiding in plain sight, if you look close enough. Part of me wondered if a mountain chicken might want to eat it but a large part of me was just very grateful for the shoes-in-the-enclosure policy!
Our fearless frogs dined like kings and queens this week, proving their hunting skills and demonstrating some amazing natural behaviours. We hope that they continue gaining weight and broadening their diets, sampling whatever strange and spooky delicacies come their way.