I knew a couple who had spent a lot of time in the Congo in the 1950s. He was doing primatology, and she was the wife of a primatologist. And when she spoke of the Congo or Uganda, where they spent most of the time, she always said two things that always put me off a little. First, she would Uganda and Congo as “Africa” (which is technically correct, but I’ve yet to hear of someone saying “I’ll spend Spring Break in North America” on their way to Cancun) and she’d always say “The thing about Africa is that there’s no place to sit down.”
It turns out that there are plenty of chairs and benches and other things to sit on in “Africa” though if you go into the deep forest to hang out with the Efe Pygmies siting down can get a little dicey. But what she really meant is that there is no place to sit where there will not be a bug or a spider or something either where you want to sit, under where you want to sit, or flying around where you want to sit.
It isn’t really true though. When I first went to the Ituri some people quite thoughtlessly (i.e., they did not put any thought into what they were saying) advised me to bring bug spray, because the place would be thick with mosquitoes and such. So I brought a couple of small jars of bug spray, an after I arrived, I found the big basket hanging from the roof of the supply hut that contained all the other containers of bug spray that various researchers has brought there over the previous five years or so, only to discover that there was no use for such a thing. “Maybe we’ll have a garage sale someday” I thought as I added my bug spray to the rest.
So, an Efe camp is usually in the middle of the forest, and that is a good place to sample the invertebrate life in that habitat. There are not clouds of mosquitoes or flies in the rain forest, or at least not in this rain forest. Why? There are too many bugs! If any insect tried out the strategy of being in a horde some other insect would come up with the strategy of eating the entire horde, and said strategist would simply wait round, in numbers, under wet leaves somewhere, for the next horde to come along. Really, clouds of insects, like the mosquitoes or lake flies or black flies we get in the norther states and provinces of North America exist because there is a winter, from which the landscape emerges, and into which swarm hordes of insects, one horde after another, until deadly winter returns again. A set of evolutionary stable strategies resulting in this pattern have developed in this region. If you got rid of the winters (though you could not get rid of seasonality) there would be few swarms of flying insects in a highly species rich forest environments. Swarming insects are more likely to be found in habitats with a winter, in low species diversity forests, and grasslands (including marshes and swamps). Not so much in tropical rain forests.
But that does not mean there are not a lot of insects. There are plenty, and even sitting in a camp is a great way to discover new ones. One day as I sat on my Efe Chair a whopping big slow moving thingie came along and started to climb up the chair leg. I managed to guess that it was some kind of cricket … bear in mind, though, that crickets in the African rain forest are as much like our temperate crickets as an elephant is like a hyrax. I asked the nearest Efe what it was.
He looked. Shrugged his shoulders. “No idea.”
I was surprised. Normally the Efe knew the name of anything I pointed to (and yes, I did verify their knowledge using various techniques … they weren’t usually making stuff up, though that could happen now and then). We kept an eye on the slow moving creature as it explored around on my chair and the nearby ground, and everybody who came along got asked.
“What is that thing?”
“Huh. No idea. Strange looking.”
Eventually, an older man picked the thing up with a stick and moved it several hundred feet into the rain forest and let it go. Why do that instead of ignore it or squish it? Well, the Efe don’t squish an insect or other invertebrate unless they know what it is. With good reason.
- Please visit the other posts in this series:
- No Place to Sit Down
- The reason the Efe won’t normally kill an insect …
- “We Live In Little Houses Made of Beans”
- “Excuse me, there’s some food in my bugs!”
- Bug Girl and Greg Laden Speak Skeptically with Desiree Schell
- Day of the locust. Yum!