For two weeks in March 2019, PI Dr. Chris Parkinson and PhD Student Erich Hofmann traveled from Clemson to South Africa as part of a collaboration with The Maritz Lab (Drs. Bryan & Robin) from the University of the Western Cape. This was the Parkinson Lab’s first ever trip to Africa, with the goal to collect samples of rear-fanged snakes in the Lamprophiidae family. Erich’s dissertation work looks at both the protein composition and the molecular backbone of venoms from rear-fanged snakes–especially those with specialized diets–in order to determine if highly-divergent species with specialized diets have evolved similar mechanisms for tackling their prey items.
In order to find these species, fieldwork involves a lot of flipping large rocks in hot, open grassland areas. Our sampling took us all over the province of Mpumalanga. While our first few days at Buffelskloof Private Nature Reserve was incredibly fruitful (five sampled genera, in addition to finding several Berg Adders, Bitis atropos, and threadsnakes, Leptotyphlops sp., thanks in large part to student Adriaan Jordaan), the weather proved very dry over the majority of the trip, limiting snake activity and subsequent sampling. We were, however, successful in sampling our target species Aparallactus capensis, as Robin spotted a large adult crossing a gravel road while walking back from the first day!
Additional sampling efforts (flipping thousands of rocks) led us to some other amazing finds, including several Herald snakes, Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia, a beautiful juvenile Harlequin snake, Homoroselaps lacteus, and several Mozambique spitting cobras, Naja mossambica. After a hard 10 days of sampling in the heat, we decided to fulfill a necessary tourist stop, spending two nights in Kruger National Park in order to see elephants, lions, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, African wild dogs, and more amazing wildlife in the wild!
The broad range of snake species sampled will provide an excellent first look at venom diversity in this group, laying the groundwork for future trips and additional sampling in the area. As our sampling improves, so does our ability to test hypotheses about how and why venom has converged or diverged between different species and within populations of the same species. Stay tuned!
FINAL TRIP TOTALS:
Hours flown: 16 hours direct each way
Rocks flipped: ~10,000 between four people
Large rocks flipped that rolled down a hill on a direct path towards the rental car and had to be chased after by Erich: 1
Ticks, thorns, and seeds removed: a bunch
Gloves ruined: 3 pair (the rocks are surprisingly sharp!)
Snakes found: 20 (10 genera, 10 species – including 2 major targets of the trip)
Braais, the superior South African equivalent of a BBQ, enjoyed: all of them