Thursday, December 27, 2012

Whiffing the Shit of Three Million Bats

I find bats to be fascinating creatures. Oh, I independently evolved the ability to fly, separately from birds. Excuse me, I also use echolocation to travel in the dark, filling a different niche than the Aves. Yup yup, there's also over 1,200 species of me, accounting for about one-fifth of all mammals. That's impressive radiation right there. *** All photos can be enlarged by clicking 'em.

Light shining into Deer Cave, highlighting a lot of bat guano.
One of our furry cousins we actually got an up close look at.

To continue with elementary facts, lots of bats live in caves, others roost in trees. As for caves, they're a facet of our planet's geology I've personally never had much interest in. I'd say caves are cool if you asked me, but that's it. I've been in a few (all southern Arizonans need to visit Kartchner Caverns, with a meal at the Apple Farm after). They're a subject I know I would dig more if I put forth the effort, like linguistics and Wilco's catalogue (don't get mad, I only own Yankee Hotel Foxtrot).
The first cave Alli and I visited: Langs Cave.
Trying to reach the top, one drop at a time.
But then Alli and I just visited Gunung Mulu National Park in northwest Sarawak state, Malaysian Borneo. Along with luscious, intact rainforest (an island of green in a sea of oil palm plantations) Mulu has got a roster full of caves, some of which are the largest on earth. We walked through a few of 'em. You heard right: Alli went into caves! On her own accord! It's hypnotic and nutty to be inside them because you know you're in a cave, but it feels like you're under a colossal rock overhang. I kept repeating my own denial softly to myself: "there's no way this is a cave!"

Hot dang! Fear getting CRUSHED!.
We spotted a lot bats, too. But saw even more bat shit, scientifically known, and in Grandma friendly lingo, as guano. The poop coated the rocky floor, like a rancid chocolate sauce. Some slopes looked so smooth I bet you could snowboard down those hills, dodging guano moguls all the way to the bottom. This is bound to happen when three million plus bats call this place (known as Deer Cave) home. And remember our guide told us: when you look up in awe make sure your mouth is shut. She needn't say why.
Bat guano in the bright afternoon light. So much to see.
Entrance to Deer Cave. You can kind of tell, there's a huge cave in there.

Parts of the cave's ceiling (that can't be the correct term) looked like they had drums of black paint dumped onto them, as each splotch of dark was a cluster of bats. Some clusters looked to be the size of small lakes. The patterns resembled Rorschach tests on top of rock backgrounds. I thought: there's thrice as many bats here as there are people in the metropolitan Tucson region. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever seen three million of any animal before. Let alone our furry flying cousins. In Deer Cave alone one species accounts for the colony of three million strong: the Wrinkle-lipped Bat (Tadarida plicata), but many other species have been recorded, too.

Massive! It's hard to show in a photo how humongous Deer Cave is.
The Garden of Eden. Deer Cave actually used to be twice as big before this section caved in on itself. Reassuring huh?
Alli and I went through 4 total caves together. And truth be told Alli was a rock star in all of 'em! Conquering fear like it's no big deal. Joe Rogan would be oh so proud. The four caves varied a lot: some had humongous jellyfish sculptures in them; another a river; ceilings that looked beyond the scope of human reach, others we had to duck to get through; a side profile of Honest Abe even presented itself; and due to water erosion in the past, a few rock walls resembled perfectly cooked bacon, you know, the wavy, semi-crunchy variety.
Jellyfish formation.
Roomful of jellies.
Wavy bacon on the ceiling.
Abe Lincoln's side profile with swiftlets flying about.
Deer Cave is the largest cave passage in the world, to learn what that technically means you'll have to ask as Speleologist. Or get your Google on. For us, it was one of the more mesmerizing walks we've ever done. Seriously you could fit a hefty concert venue in there, a subterranean Red Rocks. Another apprehensively fascinating aspect of bats is their role as disease reservoirs, carrying nasty stuff that doesn't always negatively affect them, but can ransack our bodies. See the zoonotic diseases (when disease jumps from animals to us) Hendra, SARS, Marburg, Nipah, and possibly Ebola. More on this later, but for now do me one favor: go read David Quammen's new book, Spillover, on zoonotic disease. It's one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. Bats can carry gnarly diseases, just like pigs and chickens. So while we strolled through this cave cathedral, gazing up at these bulbous, jet black colonies my lips were sealed, I avoided using the handrails (shiny with guano lube) and enthusiastically washed my hands afterward. I think it worked, as far as we know, we're virus free.

More cave photos can be found below (first up Langs Cave):

Drip, drip; like a coffee maker.

Don't really know how to describe these formations.
The ice cream cone is slowly creeping up and up.

Two more from Deer Cave:
Whole tonna poop.

Cheesing in a cave.

Dorking out with a field guide outside Deer Cave as we wait for a million bats to fly out at sundown. They never came. To see how incredible the sight can be peruse the web. Or watch Planet Earth, the BBC got better footage than us.

Onto Wind Cave, the third one we did together. This isn't what I was aiming for but it looks snazzy.

Nutty formations everywhere.

Cauliflower rock.

Rajah Brooke's Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana), a stunner of a butterfly. Alfred Russel Wallace discovered' this butterfly in Borneo in 1855, meaning 'official science' found a creature it put a name on. The phenomenal scientist named it after Sir James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak.
Endemic one-leaf plants that only grow at the entrance to Clearwater Cave. Peculiar spots they pick to post up.

Fourth cave down pat for Alli.
In, looking out of Clearwater Cave.
Photos of my trip to Racer Cave, which sadly produced no racer snakes. I went solo on this jaunt:

Squeeze it on through.
Sea shell cemented in time.

Many of these large cave spiders were spotted.
Swiflet nest.
Connected top to bottom.

Cave cockroach - check out those antennae!
An alert cave scorpion.
After an hour of walking in this where we stopped to chill out in Racer Cave.

Previously seen spider eating a cave cockroach. Circle of cave life I guess.
Almost out again.
Last scamper out.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Far from a Wounded Home

I'll always remember where I was on Sept. 11th: first period in high school, we were in the computer lab for some reason. Same goes for when 32 people were murdered at Virginia Tech: reporting class at university. I also vividly recall Alli waking me up, sick in bed, to sadly tell me Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and other Tucsonans, had been shot and killed, only about nine miles directly north of our apartment. While I was scattered around the country (Maryland, Colorado and Arizona) for all these horrid events, one fact is constant: my feet were on U.S. soil. 

Now comes the Newtown, CT massacre. And Alli and I are far from home, around 9,000 miles roughly. I'll remember my location for this one too: we had just arrived at a guesthouse in Miri, a prospering oil boom town in Sarawak state, Malaysian Borneo. We hadn't been on the Internet for over 10 days. Soon I learned part of the story and my breaking the news to Alli showed how accustomed us Americans are to this news: "I think there was another shooting rampage" I said plainly. More info was gained and I learned the grisly facts and numbers we all know - 27 dead, including 20 first grade elementary school children. Reading that hours ago, and writing it just now, takes some air out of you. You feel helpless. Then yearn to get the full rundown on the awfulness that transpired. Then you're sad and feel for the families in Conneticut. And after that, at least for me, you're perplexed, depressed and pissed all at once.

In the end it doesn't mean squat that Alli and I are in Borneo, while our country mourns, and folks in CT try to cope with it all. For me, I'm already wondering if this blog entry is becoming too self-indulgent and I should just give the people want they want: exotic travel photos with pithy commentary. But I feel strange in this hotel room. I guess right now I'd like to be around a bunch of Americans, whether its for comfort, camaraderie or to figure out how the hell something like this can happen.

We all know these shooting rampages are becoming regular occurrences. Just since Alli and I left for Malaysia people have been gunned down in CO and OR. And we once lived less than 5 miles from the Safeway where 6 Tucsonans died and many more were shot. I've bought potato chowder and champagne from that store. Even high school and university shootings were becoming standard, but the event in Conneticut hit a new low: elementary school children. I'm not trying to downplay the other tragedies but this one stings even more. It's high time something be done about these shootings. And if all I can do to help out here is offer my damn two cents, then so be it.

Guns are entwined into our country's fabric. We all know this. I don't own one though. I have shot a few (mainly only to rid Southern AZ of those wretched, invasive Bullfrogs). I understand their power. But guns that can fire 20 to 30 rounds without reloading, with no pause at all, what do we need these for? I know hunters and that's not how they bag deer or elk. And I'm pretty sure not that many bullets are needed for those who feel the need to be strapped when hiking amongst bears or large cats. Last time I checked there was no North American equivalent to the blood ravenous gorillas of Michael Crichton's Congo. Who needs that many bullets? Are we becoming so paranoid that people think they need 30 bullets to defend themselves? 

Before and after the Tucson shooting there was a bill in the state legislature floating around that would have allowed guns on college campuses, with the idea to prevent the next Virginia Tech or Columbine. Luckily that bill never made it out of the statehouse. Is this really the tunnel we want to start going down: arming teachers, movie theatre employees, little league coaches, concert venue bouncers, maitre d's, etc? Is everyone supposed to walk around wide eyed waiting for the next gunman, feeling secure because it's legal to carry a concealed handgun? In Tucson, Jared Loughner sprayed bullets into Gabby Giffords and the nearby crowd. In Newton, Adam Lanza sprayed bullets into a room full of children. I can't stomach a future full of teachers, professors, Safeway clerks and the general public armed to the teeth. Where is the room for error in these scenarios? Is this what the inevitable solution is, to prevent these shootings by firing bullets to prevent more? For the sake of us all, I hope not.

I also really hope the gun lobby, which make no mistake is a massive K street bulldog, finally can come to grip with what has just occurred and please check their insincere bullshit paranoia at the door. No politician in their right mind is going to propose an outright ban on guns in the U.S. But I think a few things could start to change. Banning assault weapons. Reducing the number of bullets in a magazine. Restricting who can buy guns and bullets. Working on the numerous loopholes, which are gargantuan-sized, involved in gun shows. Improving mental health services in our country (I realize these are five huge issues to work on).

Let's actually do something positive for once after these tragedies, instead of insisting that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." Or stating that an armed populace is a safer one. I'm not calling for everything in the above paragraph to happen at once or even relatively soon, but considering the pace American politics runs at, it would be nice for the dominoes to at least start falling. I'm 28-years-old now. I was in high school when Columbine happened; at university when Virginia Tech occurred; sick in bed when fellow Tucsonans of mine died last year; and now I'm sitting in Borneo mulling Newtown over, and trying to think of something poignant to say about how the future will be different, or at least better. But it's tough. 

Columbine happened in 1999 and it feels like shooting rampages have become all too familiar since then. I like to be optimistic though. That's why I hope in this age of bitter politics and log-jammed brinkmanship, where each side is an endless pissing match with the other, we can move forward. It would be such a relief. In case you didn't notice, I failed to find something poignant to say. So I'll leave it at this. I send everyone in Newtown my condolences. My heart goes out to them. Hopefully by the time Alli and I get home for Christmas next year, I won't have sent another round of condolences to another town that will be branded in our nation's memory for all the wrong, tragic reasons.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Krunka-delic Komodo-ing

When you're really into something certain activities must be undertaken. It's why  Star Wars fans still camped out for days for those three newer flicks we all knew would probably suck.  It's why today's young-ins (and probably folks my age too, I guess I'm just a luddite when it comes to phones) go ga-ga and wait in line for hours to get a grasp of the new iPhone. And it's why someone who loves lizards (and all herps for that matter) just has to set foot on Komodo island once in their life. Yeah, I worked with Gila monsters (Heloderma suspectum) and while they are the cream of the crop for American lizards, they never even grow longer than two feet.

Alli at the park entrance on Rinca island. Woo-hoo! Dragons bout to get seen.
*** All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them. ***

When I see a fat adult monster walking toward me I get amped and run in its direction, burning inside with an eagerness to see if its a specimen I've had the pleasure of meeting before. I've seen many a video on Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) and read quite a few words on these beasts. I never found that it's a smart idea to run toward them. On their islands these beasts reign supreme, and if I really did jog up into one's personal space, I'd probably look like a much bigger idiot than any Star Wars fan decked out in one of the saga's character's costumes. I also could get dead. 

The Lady and I spent three days looking for Komodos (22 - 24 Nov; a dragon Thanksgiving). Largest lizard in the world. Have killed people and ate children. Live on only a handful of dry Indonesian islands. The lore around these herps could fill up a moldy East coast basement with ease. In reality it's very easy to see them. No romantic trekking through the desert savanna into remote territory looking for colossal lizards was undertaken. Our first day was spent on Rinca island, slightly smaller than Komodo and way less famous. Rinca (pronounced rin-cha) is the Alfred Russel Wallace of the Komodo's range. Everyone knows of Komodo and Darwin. The first two we spotted were a male (below photo) and a female both taking a siesta in the shade of a tree, right next to the visitor center! Komodos seen!

I think most people would be satisfied with this. Me? Hell no! I want to see these lumbering giants walking about, moving around on those flesh-ripping claws and flicking their tongues. Before we even started our guided trek four more dragons were seen taking it easy under the staff's kitchen (two can be seen below). The smell of food draws 'em in. Their sense of smell is beyond impressive.

Our "long" trek on Rinca produced the following: three more dragons, all females. Two were guarding their nests and one was passed out under a sprawling tree, splayed out on a slab of rock. The protective females were a sight to see, alert and watchful. You looked at them and they had their eye on you, with their tongue flicking and head up, knowing intruders were in the area. In an interesting tidbit of natural history the ladies guard the nests for the first 3 months and then says "ahhh, you know what, fageddaboutit," and moves on. Adult dragons will also make a meal out of the juveniles, which is why their first years of life are spent up in the trees, not touching ground. Total dragon count on Rinca: niner.

Dragon nest, non-active though.
Alli about halfway through our trek on Rinca. We had the valley to ourselves.
Two more kitchen dragons - one lady and one man.
Stare off.
The next two days our feet were on Komodo island soil. The first day on their namesake island we got their early (700 hrs or so) and looked like a glorious morning to see 'em out. Recent rain had cooled the weather down and clouds were blotting out the intense Nusa Tengarra sun. Komodo (and Rinca) are not typical tropical islands - they are furnace hot, dry desert-esque savannas. Some large green trees exist but there's no luscious canopy to keep you cool. Hiking in the exposed sun of these islands is just like trotting around the Sonoran desert in July: steamy as my hiccup prone mouth after a plump spoonful of sambal sauce. In other words, my clothes were etched in sweat after we were done walking around.

This and the two photos below are of the first female we saw on-the-go that second day.

This was the morning the dragons, which are actually just big-ass monitors, wowed Alli and I. On our trek we saw two females out walking, eyeballing us and flicking their large snot-yellow-colored tongue repeatedly. It's quite the feeling to have a 2-meter-plus lizard walking directly toward you. Not running or sprinting, just strolling, knowing it's the boss. That or either it's so used to see camera toting tourists at this point it could care less.

The second lady as she walks on by (I was not relaxed to Isaac Hayes at this point, heart was thumpin').
Tongue flick - it's the color of your snot when your sick. Dark yellow.

Comin' at ya!
Me: "Holy shit!!!!" as I'm about to get my squat on. I think Alli was thinking the same thing.
Christmas card?
Overlooking Loh Liang, and not too sweaty.
At the end of our trek, close to the VC kitchen of course, were two bruiser males. These guys were easily over 3-meters (9 ft. in America speak) and chunky to boot. When first seen they were quite spread apart until one got up (very slowly, you almost expect to hear their bones creak) and walked toward the other. Eventually personal space was breached and the marauding male was forewarned by a rumbling breath by the sitting male. The two then sat down and kicked it.

Our faces in this photo and below are priceless.

It's impossible for me to look at this photo and not think of Boddy De Niro's famous Taxi Driver line.
The Lady and I got our tourist on and snapped photos like the paparazzi. You'd a thought we'd a caught Obama having a relapse smoke we clicked so many digital shots. All the while maintaining our distance (don't worry Mom!). Another family had to be repeatedly reminded to move their kids away from the lizards. I don't know how parents can't realize how easily a chunky 3-meter monitor could swallow their under 1-meter child. What morons do to get those "perfect" holiday photos. That brought our second day total to four. We called it after that.

Double trouble.
Up close and personal. Hello good sir.

But right as we were heading to the dock to meet our boat what do we see passed out in the welcome hut to the park at the pier. A dragon of course. Ventral down on the ground and eyes closed. We let this one sleep. Around its back and onward to the boat we went.
Blogger doesn't want to cooperate with this photo I already altered so you get the sideways edition. Our goodbye Komodo in the welcome hut.
 Our last day Alli and I hiked from Loh Liang (the main visitor's center area) over to Loh Sabita (another bay where there is a small national park presence). The valley we passed through is the most famous one on the island. This area is where Walter Auffenberg, an American herpetologist, clocked lots of time studying dragons and producing the Behavioral Ecology of the Komodo Monitor, which delved into numerous aspects of the animal's natural history. Notice the non-sensationalized title used, something I have not abstained from.

Kampung Komodo on the right. The only village on the island. The people actually have a high respect for these lizards even though people have died because of them.
 The hike was about 6 miles one-way, scorching as a July Tucson day. No dragons were seen, but the views were splendid. Sweat poured outta me, I looked like Christian Laettner (the bearded later version) in the 4th quarter, only after 15 minutes or so in the sun. I made enough salt that day, you could have wrung my shirt to season a basket of nachos. Totally worth it. The various valleys of Komodo were finally seen, along with the collection of neighboring islands. And actually walking through "natural" Komodo habitat put a little optimistic dread in my step.

Heading up the hill from Loh Liang.
Sweatiest man on Komodo. Guaranteed.
No other herps were seen either, except one species of Gliding lizard I didn't have time to identify. All the snakes were wise enough to not be out in this heat. Only salty tourists. The bird life was a bonus treat, as we saw several gorgeous Yellow-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea, see below for a marginal photo), which are actually critically endangered (boo!), and Black-naped Orioles (Oriolus chinensis). This now concludes my krunk-adelic Komodo ramblings, as I know I've gone on long enough. Enjoy the photos folks!

Overlooking Loh Sebita and islands east of Komodo, including Siaba.
The parched, dry landscape.