Mountains are always exciting places for zoologists. Entomologist Dr Chris Reid revisits his climb up Mt Tatamailau during the Museum's terrestrial expedition to Timor-Leste.

Timor-Leste Expedition 2012

Timor-Leste Terrestrial Expedition #4 Photographer: Chris Reid © Australian Museum

Image: Chris Reid
© Australian Museum

catch clouds

Timor-Leste Terrestrial Expedition #38 Photographer: Jacquie Rescei © Australian Museum

Image: Jacquie Rescei
© Australian Museum

Why is the Australian Museum in Timor-Leste? To assist with conservation planning and more.

I study beetles at the Australian Museum, and have collected them throughout Australia, south-east Asia and the west Pacific. What is most strange about the Timorese landscape is how familiar it is but completely different at the same time.

In the hills the typical vegetation is eucalypt woodland with a shrubby undergrowth – it looks just like Australia – but the mountains are sharp and high. Nowhere more so than the highest peak, Tatamailau – at 2986 metres it towers over anything back home.

Mountains are always exciting places for zoologists. They represent different climate types collapsed into a small area, and climate variation usually equates to biological variation. In other words, the species at the top of the mountain are likely to be different from the species at the bottom and furthermore, are likely to be unique to the top since they are isolated.

So we are keen to get to the top of Tatamailau and see what we can find.

It's not such a big climb. The road ends at the village of Hatubuilico, already 2000 metres high, where we find good accommodation and a willing guide. There's a clear path to the top, but this is a sacred mountain so custom requires a guide for strangers. Better than that, our guide is interested in what we are doing and becomes an extra pair of hands.

The five of us set off on a beautiful morning, sun peeking through the clouds, insects hopping. Along the way it's difficult to restrain ourselves from collecting all the time but we reach the mountain plateau at 2800 metres at midday, breaking through the cloud layer below.

Up here the eucalypts are stunted and there's plenty of moss and bilberries and some good leaf litter – excellent conditions for insects and snails. We get to work. I'm wandering around looking for moist clumps of moss and debris to seive and also standing up and sampling the foliage. There are many species of beetle present.

On the way back we stop every 200m of descent to collect intensively. The vegetation isnt much different from the summit, but there are subtle changes in the insects and snails, enough to suggest that even in the 2000-2800m altitudinal range of our samples there is some zonation.

The clouds have gone, we’ve filled all our bottles with insects and snails, and we part amicably with Tatamailau mountain, vowing to come back one day.

Next comes the hard part, sorting out the catch back at the Australian Museum and finding out what we actually caught.

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