KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — The days of gargantuan field expeditions with names like Charles Darwin, Edmund Hillary or even Theodore Roosevelt, to simply document species diversity may be over, but today there are still teams of dedicated scientists who are making explorations and discoveries in remote and sometimes hostile environments.
One such team supports the Defense Department with a very unique mission: to identify and analyze all wildlife involved in collisions with aircraft, which is one of the major causes of damage to U.S. Air Force aircraft. The Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab works in partnership with Air Force and Navy units around the world to assess and manage wildlife hazards near airfields. As a member of the Air Force Safety Center’s Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard team and a wildlife ecologist, I was invited to join and assist on one such focused and coordinated expedition.
Currently in Djibouti, a country in the Horn of Africa region, about 70% of wildlife species are properly identified following an aircraft strike investigation due to a lack of known species available in online DNA libraries. These online databases contain more than 219,000 wildlife species from around the world, however it is estimated that more than 734,000 species are not. While researchers are working hard to build DNA libraries, many species from remote or understudied areas are still lacking.
The objective of the expedition was to help close that gap.
Knowing the wildlife species involved in a strike is crucial to the development of strategies to mitigate risks these animals pose to safe flight operations. A few examples of these mitigation steps include altering flight schedules, making airfields less attractive to the animals and harassment techniques.
This wildlife assessment to Djibouti included myself and two scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, Christopher Milensky, collection manager in the Bird Division, and James Whatton, a research assistant in the Feather Identification Lab. Both have traveled to dozens of countries on extreme expeditions and are experts in the field of ornithology. Together, in coordination with Djiboutian nationals, we traveled to Djibouti’s interior and collected targeted specimens in environmental extremes such as mountain forests and mangrove swamps. Previous surveys covered the main airfield environment, but this expedition focused on species that occur off base property to provide an all-encompassing look at the species diversity of this poorly studied region. These surveys are also useful to document the biodiversity of plants and animals that may be harmful, poisonous or venomous to military personnel.
In total, we collected 93 specimens that will provide necessary DNA samples from 81 birds and 12 herptiles, which include various species of reptiles and amphibians. Once processed, the sequences from the specimens will be included in the Barcode of Life database. Some of the bird species sampled include the Hemprich’s Hornbill, or Lophoceros hemprichii, and the Gray-headed Batis, or Batis orientalis, and eight species of Palearctic migrants that will migrate north through Europe and Asia and have the potential to be involved in aircraft strikes. The reptile samples collected included Ragazzi’s Fan-footed gecko, or Ptyodactylus ragazzii, and the common long-tailed lizard, or Latastia longicaudata. These species may be food attractants for common BASH bird hazards.
A highlight for me included finding and photographing the critically endangered Djibouti Spur fowl, or Pternistis ochropectus, which is believed to have as few as 250-500 individuals remaining in the wild, and is Djibouti’s only unique, or endemic species. However, the opportunity to remove a Saw-Scaled Viper, or Echis, from a small village topped the list of memorable experiences.
Trained in snake removal, I was notified one evening that an unidentified snake had been spotted in a village about two kilometers from our camp outside Dittilou. Upon arrival, I was greeted by about 15 people, mostly young teenagers, who were interested in watching me search for this hidden critter. After about four hours, I captured it with my small audience in tow.
After the capture, local residents asked me for tips to keep venomous snakes away from their village. This was a perfect opportunity to provide a basic human wildlife avoidance class and engage the local villagers with tips such as keeping the vegetation low, moving trash away from homes, and placing scrap metal in a central location, as these provide great locations for hiding serpents.
It was an incredibly rewarding feeling to have these villagers thank me for removing this deadly serpent, and be able to provide life-saving information on human wildlife interactions to our Djiboutian partners.
Per the World Health Organization, between 81,000 and 138,000 people die each year from venomous snake bites. The Saw-Scaled Vipers are considered the deadliest and are believed to be responsible for more human deaths than all other snake species combined worldwide. The main reason is because it is small, adapts to live around humans and will eat a wide variety of prey items from rodents and insects to small lizards.
Overall, this expedition into rarely traveled locations in Djibouti was amazing, and I felt blessed and humbled to be among such experts in the field. The team successfully collected museum specimens, with accurate data and samples that will be useful for scientific research for this region far into the future and will make a positive impact on a remote village in the mountains of Djibouti. Additionally, the specimens will be critical in identifying birds involved in aircraft collisions and help tell the story of what is really out there in the wilds of Djibouti, and the Horn of Africa region.