This morning we opted for a change in tactics. Still rising before the sun could bake off the overnight dew and drive our quarry into hiding to escape the day's heat, we though we'd try at lower elevation.
If ever anyone doubted the importance of label-information, our struggles are ample evidence to the contrary. One of the at-first-sight more mundane things we systematists appear to do is label things. In the field we carefully note in our workbooks such things as date, time of day, locality, substrate composition, sunlight, precipitation, who collected the material and so on. Much of this is replicated on a sturdy label prepared in the field with indelible light-proof ink and inserted into the specimen vial with the critters. Notebooks get lost, people forget things, and computer records can become corrupted. But a label in a jar will always stay with the critters in that jar. The label is precious. Mark has recently worked out some taxonomic enigmas on the basis of original labels left in vials long lost and forgotten since they were put there by A. E. Verrill in the 1780's!
For some who are following this we are well aware that sorting out some species name might be less than compelling. But there's more wealth of information to labels in jars. If we knew, for example, what time of year Mahebdella has been successfully collected, or where in particular on Morne Blanc, or what kind of leaf-litter or substrate, or on what species of gastropod, or even at what time of day, whether it had rained that day or the night before. All we know is Morne Blanc, and Morne Seychellois. But Morne Seychellois refers to a mountain and to a park, and Morne Blanc is in that park too.
We find ourselves grasping at straws trying to figure our way out of this mystery. Reasoning that if the species is on Morne Blanc and Morne Seychellois (which is now inaccessible), we though to try in between the two. Lower elevation, yes, but still in a damp forest sheltered from the blaze of the rising sun. We picked up and examined every gastropod we saw. Big ones, small ones, round shelled, conical shelled, even several shelless species that should provide uninhibited biting surface to a hungry leech. Nothing. Nada. Rien. Tsy Misy. We are stumped. If only we had more information. If only this was recorded by someone in the first place and reported in Richardson's paper.
We are done here for now. Spent, disheartened and disillusioned. We are doubting our own abilities. We are both on edge and find ourselves becoming short with each other (apologizing profusely later). We know this is silly, for we've had no difficulty finding snails of all sorts (and trying to be convincing to you by showing you pictures!). Not only gastropods, but enormous pea-sized mites, spiders as big as your hand casting webs across what substitutes for a path, centipedes, millipedes, and even opalescent oligochaetes (cousins of leeches) happily living between remnants of bark and decaying wood on the forest floor. Yes, we are looking everywhere!
The afternoon heat drove the snails and us from plain view in the jungles of Morne Seychellois. We desperately drove around looking for another access point to wet forest. The entry point for Mare aux Cochons on our map was nowhere to be found. Likewise we could not find access to Morne Seychellois, even as we wistfully watched it begin to cloud over and wondered whether or not that would be enough to bring the leeches out of hiding some 700 metres above where we stood.
Having been on this tropical isle for 4 days without having explored its world-renowned beaches, and having to leave for Silhouette tomorrow at daybreak, we gave ourselves a much needed break. Between our 5.00 am starts and the heat of mid-day we have not been eating much besides bananas and nutrition-bars to get us through our sweaty days. This afternoon we drove down to Anse Takamaka (named for the endemic tree of the same name that lines the sandy cove) and found a sand-floored place on a beach for lunch. Mark, being sufficiently annoyed with gastropods, was pleased with the prospects of eating them and ordered the curried limpets on the menu (oddly listed as "barnacles"… practical invertebrate systematics has its uses even in identifying what's on your plate).
Many thanks to those who have communicated with us via text message (please remember we only receive the first 100 characters and no indication who it is from unless it is signed). We trust Evon has made it back with her croc samples and wonder how odd it might be for her to read of our lack of progress since her good luck left us.
We get to sleep in to 7.00 am tomorrow and catch a helicopter ride to the granitic island of Silhouette; home to the putatively related Idiobdella species. As the sun goes down on our sojourn in Mahe, Silhouette seems to beckoning, or perhaps taunting, us from far away on the horizon. We are restless. Eager to have more success. It is not lost on us that our thirst for leeches has not been slaked in more than a week now. Nor is it lost on us that in this age of genomics, and with the facilities we have at our disposal through the Lewis Cullman Program at the Museum, the real limiting factor in successful research is what we are doing here… getting on the ground and looking for leeches.
Yet we are not done with Mahe. We still have 3 days after our return from Silhouette to try again. And try we will. Justin Gerlach, who is on Silhouette with a group of visiting geology students, is going to be cornered by us for every scrap of information we can get… anything for a clue. Anything to substitute for the lack of label data.