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  • Writer's pictureORC collaborator

The early bird gets the worm, but the early termite gets the freezer…

It’s high biomass season here at Ongava which means ORC’s Bio-Indicator Project, funded by Nedbank’s Go-Green Fund, is in full swing. The project has been developed to sample across the ecosystem annually to capture long term information on environmental change. The samples are stored in ORC’s repository and are available for international and national researchers to use. We collect everything from water to soil, to plant and animal materials, yes, including termites.

For the last two years I have been helping the team write our forthcoming field sampling guide, Bio-Indicators for Beginners, while the Covid-19 pandemic kept me in Australia. But finally, I am here for the field work, where we head out to pre-determined waterholes (seasonal and artificial), to pre-selected termite mounds and throughout the reserve to opportunistically collect other samples (like ticks and mopane seeds).

Clockwise from left: Purple-pod terminalia seeds; Marsh terrapin hatchling; cheetah marking tree (for faeces sampling), trumpet thorn seeds, water, and termites on the mound.

The first sample type I collected was a termite sample (50+ individuals). After loading the termite mound locations and the data collection app of choice onto my phone, we set off with a 50 mL vial, two pairs of tweezers, a hammer, and a short piece of metal. Upon arriving at the termite mound, we chipped open a small hole (big enough to have two pairs of tweezers extracting termites, but still small, to minimise damage that the termites need to repair). Sometimes we hit gold and the hole is teeming with termites straight away. Other times we have time to sit, have our morning tea, and wait until the workers – on a repair mission – and soldiers – hoping to attack the home invaders – come to the opening. Then, two of us pluck the unfortunate first responders up, putting them in the vial until we have over 50 termites, which are then frozen for a humane death and long-term storage. It was at this point that my hilarious* quip ‘The early bird gets the worm, but the early termite gets the freezer’ was born.

From left: termite extraction, extraction close-up and me with my first collected sample (56 termites in a vial)

We’ve also climbed trees to collect seeds from four locally abundant species, launched into waterholes to catch terrapin hatchlings (and dodge pythons) and walked around thick grass to offer ourselves as bait to lure ticks. The season has been immensely successful, which I mostly credit to ORC’s amazing Simeon who knows the reserve like the back of his hand and is always the first one to jump into a waterhole, or up a tree. Thankfully his tree climbing skills leave me in the dust! Opportunistic sampling occurs throughout the year, but intensive sampling won’t start up again until early 2023, for which I hope to join ORC again.

Some of the project’s challenges (from left): the ‘after’ photo of catching terrapins in muddy waterholes; seeds aren’t always at reaching height, sadly; and often other ‘collectors’ get to waterholes before you do.

* Hopefully you read this how it was intended - dripping with sarcasm.

Author: Rebecca Dannock


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