Day 2: Entering the jungle, warring ants and a close encounter with a python

Nephila pilipes spider

Waking refreshed we left the guest house and wandered around Balikpapan on a successful hunt for food and an unsuccessful hunt for a mosquito net for Ted, practicing our awful Indonesian. Everyone was very friendly and the streets were full of smiles for us. Thee streets were also full of mopeds driving very quickly which made road crossing an adventure. Eventually we wandered back to the guesthouse, grabbed my bag, tumbled into a taxi and rumbled off to our jungle home for the next week or so: Sungai Wain!

We left the bustle of the city behind us and headed down rutted tracks towards the jungle. The road became lined with banana trees and more and more greenery before we eventually arrived in a small collection of houses with a large-ish lodge to our right.

This lodge looked about right for where we were heading but we had no photos or anything to go on, so everything was pinned on hope! We were given some water as we must have looked very unprepared and invited to sit on a table in the main open area of the lodge. We chatted to the vaguely confused looking boss of the place (called Agus Din) until, after about 20 minutes, he eventually realised who we were from previous emails! He was much more friendly after that and was very interested in our slightly indie collection of ID guides: snakes, spiders, birds and beetles. We were shown to our room which was a small hut on stilts next to the main lodge. It was quite basic: two thin mattresses, a loo, a large hole in the floor and a good collection of cockroaches but it was all we needed. Plus, there was a colony of the tiniest bees of the Halictidae family on the door frame! We left our bags (well, my bag) in the hut, grabbed cameras and nets and headed off for a little wander.

Balikpapan streets

Sungai Wain lodge

Our room

Tiny Halictidae bees

Evening wander down the road

We walked down the track looking at the forest edge; breathing in the thick, earthy, fresh jungle air searching for animals. A not-quite-fully-grown golden orbweaver spider Nephila pilipes was one of the first spiders we noticed sat in her web on the edge of the path. This spider makes a large web and sits directly in the centre. She has brightly coloured patches on her abdomen and it is thought that she uses these to attract her prey. The bright colours exploit the visual systems of pollinators causing them to move towards the spider (and into her web) as they think that she is a flower! We also spotted some wonderfully colourful dragonflies.

Nephila pilipes spider

Beautiful dragonflies

The sun was setting quickly as it does here in the tropics and, after a good tea of chicken, spicy rice, wonderful boiled vegetables and bananas we were ready for our first night walk with another guide, Lintar. Pulling on jungle boots, donning headtorches and ensuring my waterproof camera had full battery, we set off into the approaching rainstorm, leaving two fruit bats chattering to themselves in the eaves.

A finished tea

Fruit bats

With trousers tucked into our boots to fend off leaches we walked towards the jungle. The path took us along the edge of the reservoir which we hopefully scanned, looking for crocodiles. Suddenly a very large insect flapped into the bush next to us, a leaf-mimic katydid and the largest that I had ever seen! It was a Eumecopoda species and mimicked a dead leaf fairly effectively to avoid predators!

A shout from Ted and he had spotted an absolutely massive ant under some vegetation. It must have been about 6cm long and was a giant forest ant Camponotus gigas. More than that, it was the Bornean subspecies with its yellow bases to its legs! I was really hoping to see these but there was one aspect of their behaviour which I was most looking forward to, hoping to see it later on… The rain was now falling fairly heavily as we turned off the path around the reservoir and through a door in the fence and entered the forest.

Two big Eumecopoda katydids

Stepping into the jungle the absolute assault on our senses was incredible. The hot forest smell of cloyingly sweet rotting leaves with the musky scent of a million animals, the barrage of noise from a hundred different cicada and frog species all clamouring to be heard, while the air pushed at you with hot, humid tendrils, the jungle gods testing; deciding whether you could be in their realm.

We were on a boardwalk, a narrow wooden pathway that occasionally gave up, above peat forest water full of ripples receding as you shone your torch beam. Amongst the myriad frogs singing to their prospective lovers were the harlequin tree frogs, occasionally stretching their red webbed feet which they use to glide through the trees if the thought takes them.

Scanning high with our headtorch beams, a pair of luminous green orbs shone through the darkness. Turning all our lights towards the mysterious source we could make out a thick tail leading to a grey-furred body and darkened face; a Bornean striped civet! These beautiful mammals are quite common in Borneo and are, apparently, a pest of chickens when they occur near humans! Although ‘pest’ is probably a nice way of putting it. More seriously, these civets are becoming more threatened recently as they are being captured for the Civet coffee trade. The civets are kept in small cages and fed coffee beans which are collected on the other end of the civet. Am not entirely sure what it does to the taste but it surely can’t be worth what the civet has to go through!

Camponotus gigas borneensis ant

Harlequin tree frog

The glowing eyes of a Bornean striped civet

We were reaching the end of the boardwalk now and a raking torch beam down to our right by Ted revealed our first snake: a painted mock viper Psammodynastes pictus. This species is fairly uncommon but not rare and has a preference for the swampy peat forests of lowland Borneo where we are. This pretty little snake is quite bitey but has relatively harmless venom and preys on frogs mostly.

Painted mock viper Psammodynastes pictus

Stepping off the boardwalk we entered deeper jungle, the hot testing air closer and more pressing than ever. Our torchlights illuminating tiny patches of light in the inky blackness. Ted’s torch was predominantly pointed up as he was hunting for arboreal snakes hanging from trees. Stopping under a promising looking bush he had failed to confidently assess his footing. Suddenly an anguished shout and a rapid declothing ensued -  he had unwittingly been standing on a fire ant colony that had climbed up his trousers, luckily missed the important bits, and continued under his shirt to start biting furiously.

Carrying on more tentatively, we kept on hunting. Having headtorches in the jungle is vital if you want to see animals. The light coming from basically eye level picks out hundreds of tiny pinpricks in the forest in its beam – the eyeshine of nocturnal creatures. This eyeshine is produced by the light reflecting off the tapetum lucidum (in latin meaning bright carpet’) which is a layer of cells behind the photoreceptor in the eye. This exists to give any light that misses the photoreceptor a second chance of hitting it by reflecting the light back. The tapetum lucidum increases the visual sensitivity, especially in low light. It also makes searching immensely exciting as it is only when you get close enough can you see what the animal actually is.

I followed one bright pinprick to its source on a large leaf to find one of Borneo’s many huntsman species Heteropoda venatoria, a male with his pale triangle of fur pointing backwards behind his eyes. He was sat on the leaf, feet planted solidly and was vibrating furiously in short bursts, emitting a faint buzz. He has found a patch of female pheromone and is now calling to attract her attention. Incredibly the sound he is producing is very similar to that of a flying insect the female would normally consider prey. This means the male is actively exploiting the female’s hearing biases to the sound of prey to get her attention so she will come over to investigate and he has a chance to mate with her! Spiders are amazing animals and there are so many here!! Really looking forward to finding more. Having this spider ID book is so useful! 

A male Heteropoda venatoria 

Carrying on I spotted a pair of the giant forest ants facing off against each other on the tree; the behaviour I was so wanting to see! These ants live in colonies of about 7000 but this number is spread over multiple nests, one main one where the queen lives and then periphery groups. The ants of the periphery nests forage for honeydew sustenance to bring back home before specific transport ants ferry the food to the main nest and the queen.

Despite powerful jaws and the potential to spray acid, these ants are quite docile and easily handled. If you’re feeling a bit mean and/or very hungry their abdomens are full of salts which are difficult to get in the jungle.

Amazingly these ants are highly territorial and some individuals will meet every night and perform ritualised fights to determine territory borders. They will choose tree trunks as battle grounds and their wars can last months! Because the ants’ colony size is relatively small, the cost of death to the ants is high and so ritualised fights occur in the no-ants land of the border tree trunks. Champions from each colony pair up and proceed to fight in the following order: The ants drum their gasters (abdomens) on the ground, both now rear up and open their mandibles – squaring off against each other. If neither ant is intimidated by this, they then wave their front legs at each other in a show of strength which generally determines the outcome with the ant that can hold its legs up the longest winning. If they are evenly matched however, the ants will grapple eachother and try and force the other off balance with their large mandibles. Rarely, if neither ant has backed down by now, the fight will escalate and they will spray acid, normally causing one or both ants to die. The winning ant will now rub her abdomen on the ground, pheromone marking a new boundary of her side’s territory. These rules are strictly adhered to by both sides and territory disputes last long periods of time with both sides making small incremental advances in their territory boundaries.

A very grainy photograph of the ritualised fight of Camponotus gigas

Because this is a peat forest, there are a lot of still water bodies. Some spiders are able to float on top of the water in order to hunt their prey. We spotted a large white sided water spider Nilus albocinctus drifting somewhat menacingly on the surface. I wonder what they eat, she was really big (15cm legspan) and so frogs and fish are potentially on the menu, would love to see them hunting!

Nilus albocinctus spider

A tree next to us was crawling with termites and while we were watching the continuous black stream, we noticed a piece of bark next to the torrent occasionally reach out and grab one of the termites. A closer inspection revealed that this was not a piece of bark at all but was in fact an ant-snatching assassin bug, Acanthaspis sp.! This bug covers itself in sawdust created by the termites burrowing through the wood and sits near the termite runs, preying on the occasional unfortunate one. Interestingly, some other Acanthaspis species have a more morbid camouflage and will use the husks of its previous ant meals to camouflage itself chemically (the dead ants on its back make it smell like an ant so it isn’t attacked by either other ants or jumping spiders). Because the termites do not pose much of a threat to this Acanthaspis bug, I wonder if it uses sawdust instead of termite bodies to better camouflage it from predators such as birds so it can continue hunting in the relatively exposed locations of a termite run! An amazing animal.

An Acanthaspis ant-snatching assassin bug

By this point it was nearly half 12 and our jetlagged souls were beginning to flag. As we stopped for a rest, our guide who was only a couple of years older than ourselves stopped for a cigarette and got out his phone to play Westlife music! Westlife seem to be doing especially well in Indonesia despite having faded somewhat into oblivion in the UK. Thoroughly surreal experience sat deep in the hot jungle teeming with the sounds of cicadas and all manner of creatures with some sickly sweet Westlife lyrics blaring out. Luckily we soon moved on and began our walk back!

Trudging along the narrow track a cat-sized mammal bumbled across the path; a mouse deer! These tiny deer are about 30cm high and have noses vaguely like mouses. I think they go around eating large insects and vegetation but this one quickly carried on its way through the forest.

As we neared the reservoir again our feet began to drag and we began to feel the effects of our 30-hour journey and the 8-hour time difference. Walking along the reservoir edge we were still scanning for animals but surely missing a lot more than at the beginning. Suddenly I felt a tightening around my ankle and glanced down to see a reticulated python wrapped around, ready to strike my other boot! Ted appeared in my peripheral vision, ready to grab it before I quickly exclaimed ‘Wait, I need a photo!’. Fumbling with my little camera I fired off a couple of shots of the snake around my leg before letting Ted expertly grip it just behind its head. A closer look revealed just how beautiful (and cross) it was. It was only a juvenile and must have recently shed its skin as it shone with the most wonderful blue iridescence. These snakes can grow to over 6 metres but this one wasn’t much more than 1.5m and so I was quite confident that I wouldn’t get eaten.

Full of energy after that incredible snake we fairly bounded back to our little hut. Throwing open the door we made a mental note to close the windows tomorrow to reduce the cloud of potentially malaria carrying mosquitoes in the room and began to get ready for bed. We only had my one-person mosquito net and so we had to push our matresses right next to each other, turn the net sideways to cover our top halves, and hope that our sleeping bag liners were thick enough to keep the mozzies from our legs. I pulled the net around me, adjusted my pile-of-clothes-in-a-bag pillow, and turned over to go to sleep when a disgusted shout from Ted brought me back. He had just taken his socks off and was bleeding profusely from eight leech bites! He spent the next few minutes throwing any leeches he could find far away and trying to stop the blood. I however, was very tired and so went to sleep, excited for what the next day may bring.

A beautiful, if cross, reticulated python