Things That Go Bump in the Forest

By Katherine Scott, Research Manager

With Halloween on the horizon and the start of the rainy season upon us, it seems only apt that we pay homage to the creepy (and frankly downright weird) creatures that come out of hiding around here. This year, as with the last, El Niño has treated us to an extreme dry period at Cabang Pant. For several months, our logistics canoes were not able to reach camp and so an alternative method for resupplying the research station had to be sought. This occurred in the form of local villagers who helped us carry large loads of food and research supplies up to camp on a weekly basis.
Apart from a few summer weeks of fruiting, the forest has remained bare. Orangutans have had to resort to their second-choice ‘fallback foods’ such as bark, young leaves and termites, and we haven’t really encountered many animals along the trail system. The dry spell meant that researchers had several months of sweet relief from the almost-constant barrage of leeches and mosquitos we usually find on our forays into the forest (which was nice!).
A scorpion found trying to hide under a dead log.
However, everything must come to an end, and a few thunderstorms last week heralded the start of the longed-for rainy season. Alas, this has meant that relatively pleasant orangutan follows have now become a constant battle against the creepy-crawlies that have come out of hiding.
Field-clothes now look like crime-scenes; leeches hitch a ride unnoticed and stay put until they have their fill, leading their victims to an awkward conversation with the laundry ladies. Mosquitoes are unrelenting in their quest to buzz us into insanity and then cause non-stop itching for several hours. Fire-ants are back and raring to swarm anything that happens to interrupt their night-time missions and the toilet block looks like the Bornean Encyclopedia of Every-Arachnid on This Island Ever!
A Spiny Stomach Spider (Gasteracantha) found while searching for orangutans.
Caution must be sought when hiking through the forest with an open mouth, especially if you are in the front of the group and taller than your average Indonesian. Our new volunteer, Becky Curtis, almost ate a golden orb spider as she walked right into its web on a search day. We are also not immune from the foliage right now either. Sindora, (a rather spiky seed-podded fruit) is being dropped from the treetops by hungry orangutans. These dangerous fruits often hit researchers on the head, or in a worse-case scenario, have been sat on by the unsuspecting follower. Think bed of nails but with the element of complete surprise. And involving your posterior.  Not a pleasant experience!
Sindora, a particularly spiky fruit that we must watch out for!
Every evening after dinner, camp is treated to an aerial display from the resident bats as they swoop into our camp to eat the flying termites that have come out of their underground hiding places. When picking anything up, such as clothing items or your bag, it’s wise to give it a good shake, as centipedes love these damp, dark spaces and can inject a painful neurotoxin if you accidentally touch them.
Although the forest may have some dangerous inhabitants, it has also treated us to some pretty awesome events. When searching for orangutans a few days ago, we were stopped in our tracks by a young cobra attacking a frog. The assistants told us it meant good luck. It was extremely exciting to watch, although I’m sure this opinion wasn’t shared by its amphibian victim. We were also extremely lucky one morning while drinking coffee on the porch at camp to see a family of 6 otters cross the river right in front of us and go scurrying up the trail. Although not strictly in the theme of ‘creepy’ or ‘weird’, it was definitely a surprise.
At camp it feels like Halloween is surely upon us and it has been great to see so much biodiversity ‘wake-up’ in such a short space of time. Hopefully this also means that musim buah (fruit season) is almost upon us and that orangutans will come out of their hiding spaces as well!