Dark familiarities

by Wender Bil

The night upon arrival at the Comoé research station I was immediately impressed by the wildlife around the camp. Since we arrived in the middle of the night my first animal encounters mainly took place indoors, during the exploration of my bedroom. It turned out my room housed a lush variety of species, a welcoming commission comprising centipedes, gecko’s, huge flat spiders and many more creatures selected for their ability to pass through the small slit underneath the door. Since it was already quite late I decided to keep my house exploration brief in order to get some rest for the upcoming day. Before going to sleep I carefully placed the mosquito net around my bed in order to prevent my welcoming commission from unwanted intimacy during nighttime.

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My bedroom at the Comoé research station. I am still doubting if they wanted to ease the thought of home (Friesland) by putting a mattress with some kind of farm scenery, or if its just coincidence. I hope the first.

Once laying quietly in bed I started noticing the sounds emanating from the vast darkness outside of the open window. Somewhere behind the constant wall of sound produced by nearby cicadas I heard lots of howling, clicking, barking and squealing noises of which I was uncertain if produced by mammals, birds, frogs or insects. Within this cacophony I could discern a sequence of short screams produced in regular intervals, becoming gradually more terrifying with each uttering. Starting as a low howl and ending up in what could well be a scream of agony. Next to that there were irregular short barks coming from close-by with its source seemingly changing location between every new call.

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The night sky as seen above the Comoé research station.

After a while of listening to the seemingly intensifying variety of sounds outside, I started noticing a scratching sound from inside the room. Though barely noticeable it seemed to come from somewhere inside my bed. Uneased by the thought of what could well be some sort of easily agitated aggressive insect, I sat right up trying to find out its exact location. After a minute of listening I concluded that the sound was gone, and decided to lay down again. Once my head touched the pillow the sound returned, and this time more intense. It took me a few seconds to realize that it was actually coming from the inside of my pillow. Whatever was in there, it was definitely not pleased by the crushing weight of my head on top of it.. In a split second I sat right up again, grabbed my headlight, and emptied the pillow cover above the mattress. In the dim light of the headlight I could see a small dark colored creature shooting out of the pillowcase and immediately covering itself underneath my sleeping bag.

Unable to identify the creature during its quick escape from the pillow, I slowly lifted the sleeping bag on the spot where it disappeared. Again the creature came spurting out, this time straight towards me, jumping over my upper leg on its fleeing attempt, only to find itself trapped inside the mosquito net on the feet end of the bed. Warned by my fellow travelers for scorpions that were found to climb upwards inside of the mosquito net, I had carefully wrapped the net around the mattress, now leaving me caged with this creature inside of it.. Heart pounding I took a closer look at my intruder, which was now sitting frozen in the corner of the mosquito net. It took me a few seconds to deform the search image in my mind (i.e. some kind of dangerous insect) into what was really sitting there in front of me. I could not suppress a sigh of relieve when I found out it was actually a small lizard gazing back at me. After a short moment of laughter I lifted the edge of the mosquito net to release the lizard from its uncomfortable position. It instantly jumped of the bed, rushing into the darkness of the room.

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A conspecific of my pillow-lizard, most probably the neighbor called “Lenny” (named by Jake: an English chimp-researcher with whom he shared the room) leaving the house for daily business.

The next evening, more skilled by the experience of the previous night, I first checked the inside of my pillow before going to bed. I was quite surprised to find the exact same lizard inside. Somehow it had managed to enter the mosquito net during the day, apparently not willing to give up its residence. From then on it became routine to first shake the lizard out of my pillow before going to bed. Usually it took just a few jolts to get it out. So one evening about a week later when nothing happened after some firm shaking, I expected the lizard to have finally moved on to a quieter place. The following evening it was the same story: the lizard did not come out. “Theory confirmed” I thought. It was the same moment that I first noticed the smell in my room: an unpleasant moldy odor. Quite tired after a day of work in the field, I took it for granted and quickly fell asleep.

The next morning I woke up with the smell all around me. It was clear that something was decaying inside of my room. Sniffing around I could trace the smell back to the head side of the bed. Suddenly the source seemed kind of obvious to me.. No wonder it appeared to be all around.. I quickly unwrapped the pillowcase to find the dead lizard inside of my pillow, surrounded by a concentration of the scent I was looking for. Most probably the poor guy had refused to come out the previous evening, and subsequently succumbed underneath the weight of my head..

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A male standard-winged nightjar: having two elongated wing feathers (presumably making it quite heavy-handed) one of the oddest birds I have ever seen. Like other nightjars its also active during nighttime, though almost non-vocal.

Almost two months have passed since our arrival in Comoé. In the meantime I got used to the sounds around the camp at night. I now know from asking around that the gradually worsening howling is produced by the Hyrax: a mammal from the forest that looks remotely like a rabbit (hence the nickname we gave it: ‘terror-rabbit’). And the barking sounds around the camp turn out to be nightjars, nocturnal swallow-like birds of whom there is a great variety of species in the Comoé national park. It all seems familiar to me now. So was the moment when I first encountered a new lizard underneath my pillow last week…

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During nighttime its literally buzzing with life around the camp, sometimes you hear seemingly huge insects passing by, which could well be these moths. This insect activity again attracts specialist nocturnal predators like bats and nightjars to join the nightly cacophony around the camp.