Ghana
August 8 - 16, 2018
Early in 2018 I took a good long trip to Borneo, part of the time with herp guide and macro photographer extraordinaire Kurt "Orion" G. Beforehand, while I had been arranging details with Kurt's business partner Monty Najar, Monty mentioned that he had just returned from a trip to Ghana, where he had been nearly killed in an encounter with a nest of wasps.

Naturally, this horrifically painful and life-threatening disaster just made Monty want to go back to Ghana as soon as possible. He and Kurt were planning to return in August with a small number of other herpers to give Ghana a trial run as a potential guided herp-trip destination. Monty asked me if I wanted to be in that small group, and I jumped at the chance. I figured Monty would know how to avoid the wasps this time, and Kurt would spot any venomous snakes before they could bite us, so we should be completely safe.

In the end the small group of herpers solidified into just two: me and Paul Norberg. So there were four of us, plus a local guide named Baturi whose day job was snake catcher in the capital city of Accra. For such a distant location it was a short trip; I flew in on August 8 and flew out on August 16. In that time, we spent three nights in one forest location, two nights in another, and the other three in Accra. Most of the time in Accra was simply required by travel schedules, though we did spend a day and a half in some half-wild savanna lands east of the city.

Our first destination, a few hours inland from the coastal city of Accra, consisted of a lodge, a few acres of cultivated land in which a variety of butterfly-attracting plants were maintained, and the surrounding forest containing a few foot trails. A wide dirt road led to the lodge and continued indefinitely through the forest. We looked for animals by wandering around the grounds, hiking on the foot trails, and walking along the dirt road edges.

Paul and Kurt on the road, near the lodge

As always in tropical forests (and really pretty much anywhere), insects and other invertebrates were much more plentiful and visible than herps. I like a big, colorful, or weird-looking invertebrate as much as the next sensible person, so I will inflict some photos of them upon you.

Pselaphelia sp., I think (a Saturnid moth)

African Snout Butterfly (!), Libythea labdaca

A distinctive long-horned beetle, Pseudhammus occipitalis

A colorful jumping spider, family Salticidae

A large and imposing huntsman spider, family Sparassidae

A very large and very hairy Feather Leg Baboon Tarantula, Stromatopelma calceatum

A couple of impressive tailless whip scorpions, Damon medius

Now comes the parade of katydids, roughly ordered from least to most interesting-looking. I have no more specific identifications except for the very most interesting one.

Your basic katydid

Tiny nymph with rough texture and unreasonably long antennae

Almost-adult apparently assembled by a hyperactive designer

Elegant deep brown adult with shiny crimson mites/ticks/hideous parasites

Your standard green leaf mimic, but with bonus devil eyes

Different and more beautiful leaf mimic, also with the devil eyes

Now we're heading into amazing camouflage territory, with fake age spots and twig-like hind legs, and even brighter devil eyes

Too beautiful to be real. I identified this as Plastocorypha vandicana based on a photo by Piotr Naskrecki.

As everyone knows, among the best insects are phasmids (stick insects) and mantises. In my recent trips to Malaysia I saw dozens and dozens of stick insects, but only a tiny handful of mantises. In Ghana I saw dozens of mantises, and no stick insects at all. Thanks to African mantis expert Nicholas Moulin for identifying my photos to the extent that the photos would allow.

Unidentified nymph

Sphodromanyis cf. lineola, nymph

Sphodromantis aurea (?), female nymph

Polyspilota aeruginosa, male

Polyspilota aeruginosa

And the best mantis I've personally ever found (drum roll please)...

Theopompella sp., perhaps T. aurivilli. The first photo was taken at night, when I first saw this magnificently camouflaged beast. The second photo is from the next day, when I saw the same individual (based on pattern) by day, a few trees away from its previous location.

Marvelous as that mantis was, you are probably wondering by now whether we found any herps at this location. We did, though not in impressively large numbers.

Your basic small brownish frogs sat on low vegetation at night and occasionally on the muddy ground or in leaf litter by day. These belong to genus Arthroleptis, aka Squeaking Frogs or just Squeakers. We had the good fortune of meeting up with Ghana frog expert Caleb Ofori Boateng, who told me that the systematics of Arthroleptis is all messed up right now, and any existing keys to distinguishing species are not to be believed. So all I know is that we saw a bunch of Arthroleptis, which might be a single species or several species.

Arthroleptis sp.

One afternoon I spent at least ten minutes chasing around possibly the smallest frog I've ever seen. I'm reasonably certain that this is an Arthroleptis metamorph, based on the (very thin) vertebral line and (very low-contrast) symmetrical pattern around it, as well as the stripey legs and general shape. It would hold perfectly still until I had my camera set up just right, then leap like Superman to a position a few inches away, where it would be nearly impossible to see due to its tiny size and good color match for the moist ground.

Teeny-tiny Arthroleptis sp. (?)

A small percentage of the small brownish frogs on the forest floor were Phrynobatrachus rather than Arthroleptis. Not just a different genus but a different family: Phrynobatrachidae rather than Arthroleptidae (someone wasn't feeling very creative when inventing family names from the pre-existing genus names). Unfortunately I failed to get Caleb to tell me which species this one was likely to be, and I haven't dug up enough information to distinguish the candidates clearly.

Phrynobatrachus sp., perhaps P. calcaratus or P. natalensis.

At the lodge, we ate our meals on a second-floor deck overlooking a sort of open natural courtyard between buildings. At night a light illuminated this area. A nearly universal rule: lights attract bugs; bugs attract toads.

Flat-backed Toad, Sclerophrys maculata

The largest frog in the area also has the distinction of being the species most commonly consumed by people. We saw a few of these in or near puddles in the dirt road at night.

Crowned Bullfrog, Hoplobatrachus occipitalis. You can see that its eyes are situated near the top of its head so it can float with just its eyes above water.

Large, jumpy Grassland Frogs (Ptychadena sp) also called the dirt road puddles home. Some of these, with relatively smooth and solid-colored backs, were clearly P. longirostris. Others, with more ridged and patterned backs, might have been P. oxyrhynchus. These species are known to cohabit the same dirt-road puddles.

Snouted Grassland Frog, Ptychadena longirostris

Sharp-nosed Ridged Frog, Ptychadena oxyrhynchus (?)

At this first forest location we found only two arboreal frogs, within five minutes of each other.

Probably a Bobiri Reed Frog, Hyperolius bobirensis

Definitely an African Foam Nest Frog, Chiromantis rufescens, the only member of family Rhacophoridae in this area. Kurt spotted a foam nest overhanging a large road puddle, causing him to search for the corresponding frog. And there it was, just sitting there, not corresponding at all.

The lizards we found in this location ranged in size from tiny all the way up to small. Within minutes of arrival at the lodge area I spotted a colony of tiny but excellent ones near the base of a large tree. These are the only members of family Lacertidae in Ghana, the delightful Saw-tailed Lizards, sometimes known in the pet trade as Neon Blue Tailed Lizards. These little guys are fidgety, quick to dash off and squeeze their flattened bodies under flaps of bark. They are known for a form of primitive gliding. They wouldn't let me get anywhere near, but I managed a few photos from a distance with a tripod and 300mm lens. Given how soon after arrival I saw these, I assumed we would be seeing lots of them during our stay, but I guess I just lucked out with the weather conditions; I looked for them a few more times but only got one additional half-second glance as one scampered away.

Saw-tailed Lizard, Holaspis guentheri

Most of the lizards we encountered were small brown skinks. Even with generous help from the expert Dr. Adam Leaché, some of them could only be identified to the genus level.

Trachylepis sp., possibly T. maculilabris, basking in the morning

Trachylepis sp. (maybe same species, maybe not), active on a tree after dark

Trachylepis sp., napping late at night

Panaspis, probably P. togoensis since that's the only Panaspis known in Ghana according to the Reptile Database, foraging around dusk

Short-tailed Writhing Skink, Mochlus brevicaudis, found under a hunk of tarp left over from some research site in the forest. It did in fact writhe quite a bit before I could get it to sit still for a photo.

Maybe a baby Trachylepis sp., maybe a baby Mochius guineensis. African herp experts disagree. This tiny fellow was skittering across the dirt road at night.

One afternoon Kurt spotted a small and beautifully rainbow-colored lizard on a tree trunk near the lodge. We recognized it as a Cameroon Dwarf Gecko. Males of this species sport crazy colors when they are feeling particularly manly. This one wouldn't stop moving, and Kurt caught him so we could pose him on some less easily escapable surface. The gecko had the last laugh, replacing his bright rainbow with very dark colors, nearly black. We let him climb around on a branch over which we had control for at least half an hour in hopes that he would return to his formerly beautiful appearance. He did not play along with our game, and we eventually gave up and returned him to his tree trunk.

Cameroon Dwarf Gecko, Lygodactylus conraui, formerly beautiful

We kept an eye on that tree trunk for the rest of our stay, and though we did often see a pair of these geckos in non-stressed pale uniforms, the pretty colors were never resurrected.

Cameroon Dwarf Gecko, Lygodactylus conraui, just fine but still not so beautiful

Most of the night shift geckos were Hemidactylus sp. that neither I nor Dr. Leaché could identify any more precisely. There are a number of similar-looking species in this area, whose distinguishing characteristics are not typically visible in photos.

Hemidactylus sp.

Hemidactylus (muriceus/pseudomuriceus group)

Hemidactylus (muriceus/pseudomuriceus group or ansorgii?)

One good-looking Hemidactylus species was not at all difficult to identify. We saw one little baby and one adult.

Banded Leaf-toed Gecko, Hemidactylus fasciatus

The last of the geckos we saw at this location was more or less the size and general shape of your typical small Hemidactylus, but didn't have the toe pads. It reminded me of the Cnemaspis rock geckos I had seen in Malaysia. Prior to the trip, Kurt had cobbled together an illustrated list of reptiles known from Ghana from a Wikipedia page (which, in turn, had gotten its data from The Reptile Database a few years earlier) and some Google image searching. This gecko was not on the list, but sure enough Dr. Leaché confirmed that it was a Cnemaspis, specifically C. spinicollis. The Reptile Database lists this species in some neighboring countries but not in Ghana, so it was fun to find one there. (No doubt Dr. Leaché was well aware that they were present in Ghana.)

Cameroon Collared Gecko, Cnemaspis spinicollis

Snakes were hard to come by in the forest. On the first night, Paul started the snake count with this dark, somewhat iridescent, and quite head-shy dude. None of us were sure what it was when it was found, though we had some suspicion that it might be a Slender Burrowing Asp. We decided later, after Paul had let it crawl around in his hands for a while, that it was actually a harmless Western Forest Centipede-eater instead.

Western Forest Centipede-eater, Aparallactus modestus

An hour or two later Kurt found the only other snake of the evening. After watching it squirm around on the dirt road for a while, he and I were trying to decide between weird worm, legless lizard, or blind snake. We did settle on blind snake, which turned out to be correct. We were so proud.

Spotted Blind Snake, Afrotyphlops punctatus

The next night Paul found a couple more snakes. The first one was the same head-shy species as from the previous night. It was caught and kept overnight for photos the next day.

Western Forest Centipede-eater, Aparallactus modestus, just as shy by day

The second snake Paul found was an extremely docile species climbing through a roadside bush. Again, we didn't know what species it was when it was found, but it seemed basically colubrid-ish. Probably not venomous! And it was so slow-moving and gentle. No trouble from this snake, as Paul grabbed it bare-handed and put it in a bag before it could climb away.

The next morning, when we released it from the bag for photos, it had adopted an entirely different personality. It flattened its head like a viper, striking repeatedly from a semi-coiled position. Paul, Kurt, and I were taking turns snapping photos and trying to identify it from the Kurt-compiled illustrated Ghana herps list I mentioned earlier. Now that it was angry and making viper-face at us, it was easy to recognize as a harmless White-lipped Herald Snake, since the photo of this species that Kurt had chosen for the herps list showed a similarly perturbed individual. After some time it gave up on trying to scare us and reverted to looking like an ordinary colubrid again.

White-lipped Herald Snake, Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia

The third night was when Ghana frog expert Caleb Boateng Ofori came by the lodge with his wife and daughter. He was surprised we had seen so few snakes, because an earlier survey in this same forest had been quite successful with the snakes. But he realized that the earlier survey had been during the wet season, and we were visiting in the dry season, and that might have made all the difference. We saw no snakes on the third night. We did see a pangolin way high up at the top of a tree, but mostly just its tail.

Back on the first night hike, a noisy disturbance in the roadside vegetation turned out to be an adult Dwarf Crocodile. Not something we were really expecting, far from any known body of water. Monty performed a flying Steve Irwin impersonation and extracted our new friend to the dirt road for photos. This cute and probably cuddly crocodilian was between three and four feet long. After we had our fill of photos, we left the croc in a decent-sized puddle on the road.

Dwarf Crocodile, Osteolaemus tetraspis

The next day Kurt and I were returning from a hike when we found Baturi and a local friend bringing another Dwarf Crocodile back into the forest; apparently they had caught it the previous night and kept it overnight. We took a few photos on a drier section of the dirt road and let them on their way. Looking at the photos now, I realize that this is the same individual as from the previous night (dried mud on the same scales, e.g.). So now I'm confused about when and why it was kept overnight. I sure hope it was actually released back into the forest.

The same one, dry

Two or three hours of driving took us between the two forest locations we visited. In the middle we took a break at the Linda Dor Highway Rest Stop, consisting of a few small shops and restaurants. The grounds were patrolled by a squadron of large and wary agamid lizards. Agama systematics are in flux these days. Dr. Leaché ID'ed these as "Agama africana or Agama picticauda (some people call this Agama agama)".

Agama something-or-other

The second forest location had no lodge, nor road leading to it, nor cultivated area, nor amenities of any kind, other than those lugged uphill on a narrow path for an hour or so by us and a couple of extra people Monty had hired for this purpose.

This is what our comfortable forest dwellings looked like at mealtime

This is what our comfortable forest dwellings looked like at watermelon-seed-shooting time, which occured just after mealtime. I think Kurt hit Monty from this distance at about a 50% rate.

This is what Monty looked like after climbing up into the stilt roots of a swamp-dwelling tree. Note the sort of reverse pants-wetting look, sure to soon be popular among the more fashionable designers.

Monty in the swamp. We called it a pond because that sounds nicer.

There were lots of good bugs in this forest also, and for the most part different ones. Here are a few of my favorites.

Slug Caterpillar Moth, family Limacodidae

No clue, other than that it's some kind of cool caterpillar that doesn't want me to touch it

Mimetic Swallowtail, Papilio cynorta. Looks like someone sloppily attached the front part of a Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) to the back half of some more boring butterfly.

Big ol' moth, family Saturniidae

Mating pair of big ol' moths, Aurivillius triramis

A Leatherleaf Slug, family Veronicellidae

Different member of that family. Weird-looking slugs!

A large, no doubt friendly spider, family Sparassidae

A beautiful crab spider. I'm guessing this is Platythomisus sp., based on similar ones I saw online.

Crazy grass-mimic grasshopper, Acrida sp.

A fine-looking leaf-mimic katydid

A finer-looking leaf-mimic katydid

The finest-looking leaf-mimic katydid (of the ones I photographed at this location)

Miomantis preussi, nymph

Another Miomantis preussi, nymph

Macrodanuria elongata, about as stick-insect-like as a mantis can get

On to the herps! As in our first forest location, the most commonly seen herps were small brown Arthroleptis frogs. These were typically perched in low vegetation, one to three feet off the ground. As I mentioned earlier, these can't be IDed to the species level.

Arthroleptis sp.

Smaller even than the little brown frogs, this little greenish frog had a beautiful mottled pattern.

Phrynobatrachus sp., probably P. tokba

The smallest frog I saw in this forest seems to be a tiny neonate of the same greenish species. The cricket in the photo (which is admittedly closer to the camera, but only a little closer) is a very small cricket. The frog would have fit on my pinky fingernail.

Probably Phrynobatrachus tokba again

This location featured a stream and a large shallow permanent water body, the so-called "pond" I mentioned earlier. It was basically an area of medium-thick forest with a foot or two or three of water at the bottom. I found it pretty difficult to navigate through, but the frogs were very happy with it.

I saw only one ranid-type frog in this forest, this Forest White-lipped Frog. It was perched in the vegetation in the middle of the pond.

Forest White-lipped Frog, Amnirana albolabris

All of the other frogs I saw in the pond vegetation were your standard arboreal-type frogs. Let's call them treefrogs, without assuming that this means only the family Hylidae.

Foam Nest Tree Frog, Chiromantis rufescens

Night Spirit Frog, Leptopelis spiritusnoctis

Caleb says this one is probably a Bobiri Reed Frog, Hyperolius bobirensis

Caleb says these two are definitely Bobiri Reed Frogs, Hyperolius bobirensis

Bobiri Reed Frogs, Hyperolius sylvaticus, males. Yes, this is the same English name as Hyperolius bobirensis. No, this is not the same species. Not my fault.

Bobiri Reed Frog, Hyperolius sylvaticus, female

Baumann's Reed Frog, Hyperolius baumanni

Variable Reed Frog, Hyperolius concolor

Variable Montane Reed Frogs, Hyperolius picturatus

Afrixalus sp., probably Afrixalus nigeriensis

Afrixalus sp., the one with the bright red toes

Afrixalus sp., the one with the bright yellow toes

The second-best frogs we saw in Ghana were Ivory Coast Running Frogs. These fat, beautifully-marked glops of frog were typically perched in low vegetation, less than a foot off the ground, head facing down. I think they were looking for passing bugs to ambush from above. Their legs are too spindly to propel their fat little bodies in a significant jumping motion, so they typically walk, or walk quickly, hence "running frogs".

Ivory Coast Running Frogs, Kassina arboricola

The best frogs we saw in Ghana were the critically endangered Togo Slippery Frogs. This species was thought to be extinct for a couple of decades until it was rediscovered in 2005. Eventually populations were found in a handful of locations in Togo and this one location in Ghana. And now, recent studies have revealed that the DNA of the Ghana population is sufficiently distinct to warrant separate species status, so the ones we saw were not Togo Slippery Frogs at all but a soon-to-be-named sister species known only from this one location. Now that's a rare frog!

Conrau cf. derooi. Seems like we should call this the Ghana Slippery Frog.

Lizards were even more difficult to find in this second forest. I saw only a couple of geckos, one of which was willing to pose nicely on a leaf. Too bad I don't even know what species it was,

Hemidactylus sp.

So much for lizards, but at least there was another species of four-legged reptile to entertain us. We saw four or five of these little guys in the shallow parts of the pond each night.

Dwarf Crocodile, Osteolaemus tetraspis, baby

On our first night in this forest, we found a grand total of one snake. Here's what it looked like when we found it.

What's that up there?

We managed to wake up and capture this little fellow without it escaping into the vegetation, but we didn't recognize what species it was. So we brought it back to camp so we could do a proper scale count and compare with our list of Ghana snakes the next day. This led us to the conclusion that it was a juvenile Thirteen-scaled Green Snake (with a name like that, you can see why counting the scales was important).

Thirteen-scaled Green Snake, Philothamnus carinatus

The next night we found two more of the same species, both before 10:00 or so. We left them in the forest, so my only pictures are fairly distant in situ shots like this:

Another Thirteen-scaled Green Snake, Philothamnus carinatus

Everyone other than Kurt and me hit the sack by about 11:00. Kurt was not willing to sleep on his final night in a Ghana forest without seeing some more interesting type of snake. I tagged along, and an hour and a half later Kurt spotted what he had been looking for.

Western Bush Viper, Atheris chlorechis, in situ

Same snake, posed

So once again, not many snakes to be found in the forest, but at least we saw one really good one. The next day, we hiked back out of the forest, passing a few skinks and agamas along the way (but only the same kinds we had already seen). Then we drove back to Accra and somehow ended up eating random fast food at a big mall.

The next morning we drove out to some savanna habitat in hopes of seeing a different assemblage of herpetofauna. We met up with Baturi's nephew Issah, who came pre-equipped with a recently caught chameleon (Chamaeleo senegalensis) and spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis). The chameleon was very dark after being kept in a cloth bag for I don't know how long, so it was placed in a small, solitary tree to allow it to warm/cheer up. Meanwhile, everyone except me gathered round the cobra, which had been released from a bag of its own and was not in a good mood.

Monty, Kurt, Paul, Issah, and the cobra

I'm generally only interested in photographing herps that I have seen while they were wild, so I didn't want pictures of the cobra or the chameleon and I wandered off to a nearby pond to see what I could stir up. I stirred up a large number of very small, jumpy frogs.

Accra River Frog, Phrynobatrachus accraensis

Meanwhile the rest of the gang were done messing about with the cobra, only to discover that no one could find the chameleon. The tree in which it had been placed was small and nearly devoid of leaves, and there were no other trees within twenty yards at least. Still, the chameleon was never seen again. I didn't think chameleons could fly, but now I am not sure.

We spent the rest of the morning wandering about the savanna looking for more herps. I did glimpse one more fairly large snake, but I saw it only as it was disappearing into some thick grasses, and Kurt and I could not rediscover it.

In addition to the many Accra River Frogs, I saw exactly one other frog. Just when I had a decent side-view photo lined up it turned its body, then hopped away, disappearing into a patch of vegetation. I managed to get one photo after it turned but before it hopped. Not a good photo, but enough to identify it.

Galam White-lipped Frog, Amnirana galamensis

Occasionally we saw a small agama dash from vegetation patch to vegetation patch. One of them dove into a small burrow, and Issah dug it out, but it escaped again before we could get any photos. A little while later I spotted one of them in the mottled light beneath a bush, and armed with my 300mm lens and tripod managed to get a photo.

Senegal Agama, Agama sankaranica

Unlike Monty and Paul, Kurt and I had late flights on our final day in Ghana, so we had time to head back out to the savanna with Issah for one final shot at finding herps. We carefully inspected areas where green mambas were reportedly seen reasonably often, but no green mambas were seen by us. In fact, we saw no herps at all that morning. We had to settle for a few good invertebrates.

This grass-mimic mantid hopped around like a flightless grasshopper. It was identified to the genus level by two different African mantis experts. Unfortunately they chose different genera.

Compsothespis sp. or Hoplocorypha sp., adult female

Another grass mimic, this one an actual grasshopper, Acrida sp.

Widespread and common but gorgeous Variegated Grasshopper, Zonocercus variegatus

Large and friendly Common Emperor Scorpion, Pandinus imperator

So in this short trip we didn't see as many snakes and lizards as we might have hoped, but we saw many excellent animals overall. Also, the company was good, the local people were friendly, and the food was good (though do note that I did *not* try the rat; Monty did, and unsurprisingly he regretted it). Also, nobody was attacked by wasps, or nearly died in any other way! I would happily go back, though I'd probably try a different time of year.

John Sullivan
March 2019