Adventures in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Shy young elephant, Kruger Nat'l Pk, S. Africa
Shy elephant, Kruger Nat’l Pk, S. Africa

It’s been a few weeks since our adventures in South Africa, particularly our daytrip to Kruger National Park. To tell you the truth, I’m just calming down enough to be able to re-live the experience. Once the photography was deemed accomplished, our most generous hosts Frances and Peter Taylor suggested we take their pickup truck on the two-hour drive to the world-renowned Kruger National Park. Since this was a last-minute whim, we were unable to get reservations to spend the night in the park, so we were day visitors. But we did see many more animals than I ever imagined in one day in the park. On our way into the park via the Punda Maria gate, we went through the town of Thohoyandou, where  The University of Venda is located and where the traffic police were lying in wait. I was stopped for speeding. (more…)

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Mamba Mountain

Valerie’s photo of a huge black mamba with head raised, as seen in the bottom foreground

Valerie Linden and Sina Weier, graduate students from Germany doing research on the bats in this area shared an exciting bat netting experience with us during a braai last night at Peter and Frances Taylor’s home in Louis Trichardt, South Africa.

Valerie and Sina were trapping and netting for bats one night last week in a rocky area of the Goro Game Reserve dubbed “Mamba Mountain,” due to the number of Black mambas (Dendroaspis polylepis) in the area. These snakes are endemic to sub-Saharan Africa and are the longest venomous snake in all of Africa, averaging around 2.2 to 2.7 m (7.2 to 8.9 ft) in length.

Within one hour of bat netting, these two fearless women had three encounters with mambas,“considered the most-feared snake species in Africa, and also possibly in the whole world.”

Their first encounter of the evening was when Valerie unknowingly stepped on a juvenile, which quickly escaped. Next Sina saw an adult about 3 meters long. She quickly jumped upon a rock to get out of its path. The mamba came towards Sina on the rock, looked up at her, then went around the rock and out of sight. When Valerie saw the mamba in the photograph, she first saw its body draped over a rock. She followed the body down to the ground, realizing the raised head of the snake was within a meter of her foot! (See head in bottom center of photo) She jumped backwards a couple of meters and took this picture of the snake she estimated to be 4-5 meters long. After the third black mamba sighting in one hour, the researchers decided to pack up their nets and work elsewhere. 

Merlin's signing copies of Nat'l Geo magazine and bat prints for Valerie and Sina, aka Valerina
Merlin’s signing copies of Nat’l Geo magazine and bat prints for Valerie and Sina, aka Valerina


We wish them continued good luck on the rest of their work here in South Africa–Be Safe!!!

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Rare Lesser woolly bat caught

Merlin and Koos taking a break from bat netting to eat a South African favorite dish--bobotie
Merlin and Koos taking a break from bat netting to eat South Africa’s favorite dish–bobotie–made by Koos’ wife Riekie

Merlin would like to photograph Long-eared bats (Laephotis) catching green stink bugs which are a pest of macademia nut orchards here in South Africa. Koos Steyn has been providing invaluable help in netting and trapping for Long-eared bats on a mountain where they’ve previously been found. But even though the rains have ceased and the temperatures are warming up a little, it’s still cool in the evenings, and we’re not catching very many bats.


IMG_1642Unfortunately, we didn’t catch any Long-eared bats, and on our way back to the Taylor’s home, we got a flat tire we had to change.

But the next morning, Koos checked the trap and found a rare Lesser woolly bat (Kerivoula lanosa) inside. Here are the photos Merlin got.

Lesser woolly bat (Kerivoula lanosa)
Lesser woolly bat (Kerivoula lanosa)
Lesser woolly bat (Kerivoula lanosa)
Lesser woolly bat      (Kerivoula lanosa)

We couldn’t have gotten the Lesser woolly bat without Koos Steyn who teaches agronomy at the University of Venda and has his own macademia orchard. Koos has been finishing up his PhD and working with his colleague Peter Taylor in documenting local bats and their feeding behavior for the past several years.


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Bats eating stink bugs

Common Slit-faced Bat (Nycteris thebaica) eating a green stink bug in flight

Thanks to help from a local macademia grower, Koos Steyn, here in South Africa, we finally got approximately 100 green stink bugs, the most costly pest of macademias, and were able to coax our common slit-faced bat (Nycteris thebaica) to carry a couple of them through  an infrared beam before eating them beyond recognition. In the process we used up nearly all our stink bugs, but on the last shot of the night, after hours of failed efforts, we got a nice photo.  Merlin still isn’t completely satisfied, so we’ll be trying for more.

His next goal is to photograph a Botswanan long-eared bat (Laephotis botswanae) plucking a stink bug off of a macademia branch. This is a real challenge, especially since we still haven’t even been able to catch one of these bats! The nights have been quite cold this whole trip, likely accounting for this failure. But we’ll try our luck again tonight in Koos’ orchard.


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Guest Speaker at the South African Macadamia Growers Assoc.

Merlin's talk to the Levulu Macademia Growers
Merlin gave a talk to the South African Macadamia Growers Association

We have been in the Levubu Valley outside the town of Louis Trichardt for the past two days, staying with Merlin’s bat research colleague, Peter Taylor, his wife Frances and children, Ben and Robyn, who all have been enthusiastically helping with the bat photography. Our goal here is to photograph bats catching green stink bugs. Stink bugs are the most costly pests of macadamia orchards and also a favorite on local bat menus. Dr. Taylor has documented that at least five out of six bat species examined feed substantially on these pests, and macadamia growers are quite interested in attracting more orchards.

Mops midas
Midas free-tailed bat      (Mops midas)

 Yesterday, about 60 local growers got together at a macadamia processing facility to hear Merlin speak on bats and the possibility of attracting them to artificial roosts. Several, especially Koois Steyn, are enthusiastically helping Merlin obtain bats and stink bugs to be photographed in his portable studio. Koois brought us several common slit-faced bats and our first dozen stink bugs yesterday morning. The bats were very cooperative, immediately taking mealworms from Merlin’s hand, but after releasing them into the studio, they were extremely difficult to recapture. They are incredibly agile flyers!


Zulu pipistrelle, (Pipistrellus zuluensis)
Zulu pipistrelle      (Pipistrellus zuluensis)

Unfortunately, the weather has continued to be mostly cold and rainy, and under these conditions  bats require even more food than usual, severely stressing our limited mealworm supply. Just three bats ate nearly 100 mealworms last night! We hope to begin photographing the bats catching stink bugs by tomorrow evening, but much depends on our ability to obtain an express delivery of mealworms later today.

In the meantime we have taken portraits of two additional bat species. Peter and his son Ben caught several Midas free-tailed bats (Mops midas) in their attic, and Koois brought us a pipistrelle trapped in his macadamia orchard which Peter has tentatively identified as a Zulu pipistrelle  (Pipistrellus zuluensis). Getting the shots of slit-faced bats capturing stink bugs remains a major challenge. Stay tuned for further updates.


Map of the area in South Africa where we are working. Louis Trichardt is an hour’s drive north of  Polokwane.



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Visiting the Meletse Bat Research & Training Ctr.

Merlin with Ernest Seamark at the entrance to Gatkop Cave
Merlin with Ernest Seamark at the entrance to the cave

We spent three days at the Meletse Bat Research & Training Center in the Meletse Mountain Valley at a very nice facility owned by Aquila Steel South Africa. This company also owns the nearby Gatkop Cave, home to one of South Africa’s most important bat caves, which it protects along with surrounding habitat in collaboration with AfricanBats (AfricanBats Facebook Page) a nonprofit conservation organization founded by Ernest Seamark. The company has generously permitted use of its facility as a center for bat research. Mining operations will be located approximately four kilometers away.

Short-eared trident bat (Cleotis persivali)
Short-eared trident bat (Cleotis persivali)

The Gatkop Cave is home to as many as 250,000 Natal long-fingered bats (Miniopterus natalensis) and at least seven additional species of bats, including four of our favorites, the Short-eared trident bat (Cleotis persivali), the Peak-saddle horsehoe bat (Rhinolophus blasii), the Common slit-face bat (Nycteris theobaica) and the Sandevall’s leaf-nosed bat, (Hipposideros caffer).


Peak-saddle horsehoe bat (Rhinolophus blasii)
Peak-saddle horsehoe bat (Rhinolophus blasii)

On our first night, we were joined by two Ph.D. students, Stewart and Terrence, from Dr. Wanda Markotter’s lab at the University of Pretoria. They joined Ernest and Merlin in setting a small bat trap in a flyway near the cave entrance. Over the next two evenings we were able to capture and photograph eight bat species there. Also, Merlin enjoyed the opportunity to discuss shared concerns regarding recently sensationalized reports of diseases linked to bats as well as management options  for the cave.

Common slit-faced bat (Nycteris theobaica)
Common slit-faced bat (Nycteris theobaica)


Sandevall's leaf-nosed bat, (Hipposideros caffer)
Sandevall’s leaf-nosed bat, (Hipposideros caffer)




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Sterkfontein Dam and Nature Reserve, South Africa


For the past week we’ve been mist netting for bats, mainly Lesueur’s wing-gland bats (Cistugo lesueuri) at the Sterkfontein Dam and Nature Reserve in the Free State Province of South Africa which lies on the northeastern side of the Drakensberg Escarpment, about a four-hour drive southeast of Pretoria. The Kingdom of Lesotho lies west of the Drakensberg mountain range. It’s a tiny nation of about 2 million mainly Basotho people atop the windswept escarpment, reached by four-wheel drive vehicles on only the one road. The African subcontinent’s highest peak is Thabana Ntlenyana (beautiful little mountain) in the Drakensberg Mountain Range, an impressive 11,417 feet (3,480m) above sea level.PKT_SA_C2_8506

Each night we set up multiple nets in different parts of the reserve that look like they have potential for finding our bat. But winter is setting in, and we’ve been hammered by gale-force winds and temperatures around 40 degrees F (4 C), conditions where most bats are not active.

PKT_SA_C2_8811Twice we mistook a Cape serotine (Eptesicus capensis) for a Lesueur’s wing-gland bat (Cistugo lesueri), only to find out the disappointing truth upon closer inspection back at our chalet. The two species are easily confused in the field, however they actually belong to different families. The genus Eptesicus is found nearly everywhere and belongs to the family Vespertilionidae. Cistugo has recently been recognized to represent a new family, the Cistugonidae. Despite its distinctiveness, based on skull and genetic characters, it is only recognizable in the field by its pointed tragus, compared to the blunt ones of Eptesicus, sometimes not easily seen in a very small bat when being extracted from a mist net. Merlin has already photographed all 18 of the world’s other bat families, so he wanted to add this one once it was recognized.

(Eptesicus capensis) Cape Serotine
Cape Serotine (Eptesicus capensis)

These bats have seldom been caught, and previously only in South Africa’s summer. We hoped to still find them in fall. Unfortunately, the cold weather arrived early, precluding our ability to find them despite the expert and tireless efforts of our South African colleagues:  Ernest Seamark, Teresa Kearney, Johan Watson and Leon Labuschagne. It’s difficult to imagine having a better informed, harder working team. Night after night they led netting efforts, often under extremely miserable conditions. Last night Merlin was forced to wear both his down vests, a long-sleeved fleece, long underwear and a windbreaker, and he was still cold. All of us were! Thanks to our wonderful and much appreciated team, Merlin was able to photograph four species, despite trying circumstances.

Rhinolophus sp?
Horseshoe Bat     (Rhinolophus sp?)
(Myotis tricolor) Temminck's hairy bat
Temminck’s hairy bat   (Myotis tricolor)

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Pretoria, South Africa to the Drakensberg Escarpment chasing Cistugo

photoMerlin and I flew from Austin to Houston, Texas last Tuesday the 25th of March, and flew overnight to Frankfurt, Germany,  waited 11 hours in the airport and then caught another overnight flight to Johannesburg, where we were met by colleagues Teresa and Ernest Seamark. After a day of rest at the Seamarks’ home outside of Pretoria, we’re loading up the vehicles with all of our equipment, and we’ll go in search of Lesueur’s wing-gland bat (Cistugo lesueuri) on the Drakensberg Escarpment, where these bats live in cliff-face crevices. We will spend the next week attempting to net and photograph these bats. They are quite difficult to catch with only approximately 30 specimens in museums. We are hopeful that we will catch them, but have our fingers crossed because it is autumn and quite rainy, making it a challenge to catch these bats. It’s mostly open area near a reservoir, so not an easy place to net bats, and these bats are seldom caught, so we’re allowing a week and hoping we can catch one by using a 100-foot long by 26-foot tall mist net. Wish us luck!

Merlin and I are off to the Drakensberg Escarpment with Leon Labuschagne, Teresa and Ernest Seamark to try to catch Cistugo!
Merlin and I are off to the Drakensberg Escarpment with Leon Labuschagne, Teresa and Ernest Seamark to try to catch Cistugo!




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