TIMOR-LESTE 2011

Victor Valley College Tropical Research Initiative
Herpetofauna of Timor-Leste
Phase V

Dili, Dili District

On the wind down for Phase V the final specimens were photographed and processed.

But has it all been worth it ?

The team works up final data and specimens. The photographic set next door.

Given the considerable amount of time and resources involved in the type of research we do, it is obviously critical to produce results. Having now completed Phase V of our Amphibian and Reptile Survey of Timor-Leste, was it worth it?

When we set out, we had some clear goals in mind, primarily involving a survey of a region in Lautém District that we had not covered before. Furthermore, we wanted to secure additional specimens of what we consider to be a new species of Bent-toed gecko (genus Cyrtodactylus), which Laca first captured near his home village during the survey for his own project at UNTL. We also wanted to capture additional specimens along the Meleotegi River in Ermera District to add to our relatively sparse material of what may well be a new species of Forest skink (genus Sphenomorphus) and Snake-eyed skink (genus Cryptoblepharus).

Bent-toed gecko, Cyrtodactylus sp.
from Raça
Snake-eyed skink, Cryptoblepharus sp.
from Meleotegi River

For our fieldwork, Timor-Leste has been a charmed country in terms of finding new and exciting things, and it did not disappoint now. During our first survey on the grounds of Com Beach Resort, we realized that some of the house geckos (genera Gehyra and Hemidactylus) were morphologically distinct from what we had found elsewhere. We will have to see what our work-up of the specimens can tell us about how they fit into the existing taxonomic scheme, but there may be a couple of surprises even among so visible a group of organisms. Our visit to Raça, Laca's home village, the following day brought us two more specimens of the Cyrtodactylus from inside a cave, along with what appears to be a different species of Sphenomorphus, characterized by a yellow middorsal stripe. A specimen of an unknown Eremiascincus got away and left us only its tail, but since there is no known medium altitude species of this genus known from eastern Timor-Leste, this may yet turn out to be an exciting discovery. Two days in Lautém, two or three potentially new species—that is already a highly significant result.

Our survey near the Mainina sinkhole gave us specimens of Cyrtodactylus and Sphenomorphus that were very similar to those we found in the cave near Raça, but only close examination in the lab will allow us to determine whether these are the same or different. It is worth remembering that limestone karsts are well known for producing a highly diverse fauna, and given that the distance between the Raça karst and the Paitxau Mountains is over 30 km across the Lake Ira Lalaro polje this may be significant in terms of the conditions for evolution in these areas.

Bent-toed gecko, Cyrtodactylus sp.
from Com pousada
Snake-eyed skink, Cryptoblepharus sp.
from Com wharfe

We conducted the first herpetological survey of Jaco Island, finding a lizard fauna composed of Carlia, Eremiascincus, and Sphenomorphus, with Tokay geckos clearly heard above the sound of the waves rolling onto the sand. Our local guides reported the presence of a small darkly colored snake as well. As before, we will need to conduct a careful investigation to determine the taxonomic assignment of the specimens we captured.

Our survey in the immediate environs of Com produced not only our only live snake captures of this Phase, we also were able to make a suitable collection of what clearly are new species of Cryptoblepharus and Cyrtodactylus.

Lastly, the survey of the Meleotegi River was highly successful because we were able to find the additional specimens we were looking for. In addition, the small series of Timor river frogs (Limnonectes timorensis) poses some interesting question based on the coloration of the individuals. Are these really Timor river frogs, whose defining specimens are from a lesser elevation in West Timor, or are they something else?

Timor treefrog, Litoria everetti
from Meleotegi River
Timor river frog, Limnonectes timorensis
from Meleotegi River

 

In summary, Timor-Leste is remarkable in how much unreported herpetological diversity there is. Even after five phases of survey work, we continue to add new species. And when one discovers new species, how can an expedition not be considered a resounding success?

Who knows what surprises Phase VI holds for January-February 2012.

"I don't know what got into the American students on the last but one morning (July 4th 2011), they were hopping all over the place and singing "God Bless America" every time I walked past, must be something in the water!"

Crazed young Californians not withstanding, the first task today was a venom extraction (aka milking) demonstration using an Island pitviper (Cryptelytrops insularis) with an improptu lecture on what defines a pitviper, how they hunt etc. The snake then obligued by biting through a prepared parafilm membrane over a petri-dish. Any venom collected goes to the Australian Venom Research Unit which has research interests in Southeast Asia and with whom Mark holds a research fellowship.

Demonstrating the hinged fangs of an Island pitviper,
Cryptelytrops insularis

The lecture and 'milking' went well and we moved onto more mundane tasks that face an expedition in its closing stages, ie. packing specimens for export, packing kit for shipping or storage until next time, admin etc etc.

That all done Hinrich arranged a special final meal for the expedition (some curious significance about the date) to which the Jets and Mark, the token "limey", were of course invited. Feigned a headache did not work, and soon we were gathered in the restaurant of the Timor Lodge Hotel, sans several of the students, oddly at the time. The table was also festooned with dozens of tiny Stars and Stripes flags - most curious!

The Last Supper for Phase V;
note the U.S. flags.

The team pose under the Timor-Leste flag.

 

When the students returned we ate a pleasant meal, drank a few beers (only those of us over 21), took lots of photographs, reminisced about humorous moments on the project and then Hinrich presented his summary of what had been achieved. Phase V was done, we are now looking forwards to Phase VI in early 2012.

When we got back to the villas and Hinrich and Mark went into there's all the Americans crowded in behind, and then we discovered what they had been up to - Mark's room had come out in a rash of American flags, on the walls, doors, cupboard, ceiling, in the bathroom, on the light switches (he kept finding them, even in his books) accompanied by a full rendition of "God Bless America".

 

Good end to a great expedition.

 

 

Mark's room seems to have developed a rash of Stars & Stripes flags.