Intensification of forest for coffee production affects mammals in Ethiopia

During the second half of 2014, we studied the effect of the intensification of natural forest for coffee production on large mammal communities using camera traps in Ethiopia. Now the results are out and published in the conservation journal Oryx (see below).

The high demand for coffee internationally results in an ongoing intensification of natural forests by clearing understory and removing trees resulting in few undisturbed forest left in Ethiopia. Although overall species diversity remained constant, large and medium sized carnivores are the first to disappear and diurnal activity patterns are shifted to nocturnal. The increased accessibility of coffee forests decreases the diurnal activity of large mammals and specifically affects the top predators in the ecosystem.

This is the first study in Africa that studied large mammals in coffee forest. Although Ethiopia is known for its high number of both animal and plant species that do not live anywhere else in the world, there is a concerning lack of conservation activities to preserve the biodiversity locally. Moreover, the extent of agricultural land is rapidly increasing at the expense of natural forest, resulting in a significant loss in biodiversity. Coffee forest, however, has since long been proposed as a more sustainable agricultural system, conserving biodiversity while providing income for local communities. We found a mammal diversity in coffee forest comparable to that of mature natural forest. This study therefore indicates the importance of coffee forest in Ethiopia for mammal conservation, where coffee has been cultivated as a shade crop for more than 1,000 years.

However, this study also showed that large carnivores such as leopard and African civet had a tendency towards natural forest, while crested porcupine and Ethiopian hare were typically associated with coffee forest. The latter two species are not commonly associated with forest, so their presence in coffee forest may be related to increased forest accessibility and a well-developed herb layer in coffee forest compared to natural forest. Moreover, mammal activity in natural forest peaked during daytime whereas the activity pattern in coffee forest  was predominantly crepuscular and nocturnal. This may be a direct adaptation to frequent human disturbance. Both forest buffalo and leopard, for example, were only observed at night in coffee forest. This study therefore also shows that, despite the high mammal diversity in coffee forest, it is important to recognise it cannot fully replace natural forest as a habitat for large mammals.

The complete loss of natural forest in combination with increased human disturbances may result in the local extinction of top predators such as leopard, which can subsequently trigger negative effects on other forest components such as decreased forest restoration due to higher pressure of herbivores. Therefore, a balanced landscape mosaic of coffee and natural forest may be a valuable conservation option, contributing to local economy while safeguarding the diversity of large mammals.

We compiled a video showcasing a handful of the inhabitants of the study area.

If you would like to read more about this study, the paper ‘From natural forest to coffee agroforest: implications for large mammal communities in the Ethiopian highlands’ is now freely available until 31/12/2018 in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation. The study was funded by the Rufford Foundation and Idea Wild.

Digitization-identification pipeline accelerates museum collection management

Curating Natural History Museum collections includes cataloging all material and making the information available to scientists worldwide. This is a daunting task for the millions of invertebrates in collections. Bringing some structure in these collections is challenging because many specimens lack identification or are sometimes even misidentified. Finding the correct name for invertebrates requires an up-to-date knowledge of the taxonomic status of the group and often a decent amount of experience to look at the right diagnostic features to recognize the individual species. For this reason, taxonomic experts are generally invited to contribute to the identification process. Classically, this meant to either send the material to the expert or have the expert visit the collections. Sending specimens is expensive and risky, there are several recent examples of type material that was “lost” at international borders. To help with this challenge, BINCO developed a digitalization-identification pipeline which was based on volunteers and a cheap setup of a point-and-shoot camera. This method limits the material that needs to be exchanged with taxonomic experts and accelerates the identification process and the organization of natural history collections.

In a pilot project, BINCO digitized all specimens and associated information of the genus Calligrapha (Coleoptera - Chrysomelidae) in the collections of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science (RBINS). In collaboration with the taxonomic expert Jesús Gómez-Zurita, the identification of specimens was accelerated. This allowed the reorganization of this part of the RBINS collection. Results of this project were published in the journal Biodiversity Informatics and can be found here.

New longhorn beetle from Cusuco National Park – Honduras

This charismatic new species of longhorn (Derobrachus cusucoensis) from montane forest in Cusuco National Park adds to the biological valorisation of the area. A small isolated mountain, part of the Merendon mountain range, Cusuco National Park is a cloud forest park characterised by a high endemism. As in many other places in Honduras, deforestation is a serious threat. The newly described large beetle is a frequent visitor of the light trap surveys as part of the yearly repeated biodiversity monitoring by Operation Wallacea in collaboration with BINCO. BINCO specializes in the documentation of smaller and less studied taxonomic groups to complement local conservation efforts and help protect these unique ecosystems. The species is described in the scientific journal Zootaxa and can be retrieved here.

New publication: using compact cameras in digitization projects

In the scope of a digitization project at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, we developed a new method to facilitate digitization of museum specimens. The new method had to be relatively cheap and fast. These requirements were met by use of a compact camera with focus stacking functionality which allows the camera to take multiple images at different focus depths. Afterwards, these sets of images are combined to form one picture in which the entire specimen is in focus. The development of cheap and fast methods is important because most museums face a shortage of personnel and infrastructure to keep up with digitizing their ever-growing collections. Our method is currently being used in project Chrysomel’ID with the valuable help of several volunteers.

The results of our research have been published in the open access journal ZooKeys. The pdf file can be found on our publication page.

Sheka, Ethiopia, Biodiversity Express Survey – Report available

Outcomes of the biodiversity survey on our second expedition to Southwest Ethiopia are published in the fifth Biodiversity Express Survey report. The Sheka forest is a UNESCO biosphere reserve and is one of the largest remaining forest fragments in the country. Sheka forest reserve hosts a wide range of habitats from highland bamboo moorland to lowland riverine forest, and little is known on what species can be found here. We therefore surveyed amphibian, mammal and bird diversity along with opportunistic observations of reptiles, butterflies and epiphytic orchids. Additional information will be added to this report as it becomes available.

Newly discovered populations of the Ethiopian endemic and endangered banana frog (Afrixalus clarkei)

As the natural forest cover in Ethiopia is already less than 3% of what it once has been, the banana frog species Afrixalus clarkei, dwelling exclusively in the remnants of the country’s southwestern forests in only two populations, is exposed to a great risk of extinction.
Through our BINCO express survey in 2015 in the Beleta-Gera forest we extended the species’ range, thus making the first steps to saving the charming frogs.
The geographical range of the Ethiopian banana frog has been expanded by roughly 40 km towards the North and 70 km to the East. Its altitudinal distribution already reaches a maximum of 2030 metres above sea level, compared to the previously known maximum of 1800 m.

The study is published in the open-access journal ZooKeys and can be downloaded here.

Short note: Crested rat in Ethiopia

During our expedition in Southwest Ethiopia last year (2014), we discovered a crested rat (Lophiomys imhausi) on one of our camera traps which, to our knowledge, is the first capture of this species on a camera trap in the wild. This elusive rodent has never before been recorded in Afromontane rainforest West of the Rift valley. In this short note, published in the African Journal of Ecology, we add our observation to its previously known distribution.

The original camera trap recording:


Article with recent findings of the shining guest ant in Flanders

Our finding of a worker of the shining guest ant (August 2014, during the translocation of wood ant nest domes) was not the only one in recent years. According to the Red List of endangered species the shining guest ant status is vulnerable, but probably the species is more common than we think. Her presence often goes unnoticed because of the hidden lifestyle and small size. Observations of this species, along with a suggestion to revise the Red List status were brought together in this article (English abstract only) in the Bulletin of the Royal Belgian Entomological Society.