Monday, October 13, 2008

Back to the grindstone....

Prepared October 13, 2008

Well, I made it back to the United States with all of my samples in tow. All the permits came through, my luggage made it, and I’m in one piece. I’d say it was a success! As always, field work has its ups and downs, frustrations and successes. But I’m coming home with good data and lots of memories. Now comes the other side of the research coin—taking all of this information that I collected and making sense of it. I’ll be working on data analysis and writing for the next year or two. I’ll be sure to post some updates as I get a clearer picture about lemur health in Madagascar.

Thanks to anyone who kept up with my activities this summer—I really appreciate your interest! I’ll be heading back to Madagascar in April to do more capture, this time focusing on the larger lemurs.
That means Indri, so if you’re interested in their teddy-bear looks and unique, erie song, be sure to tune back in.



A little time for exploring…..

Prepared September 17, 2008

After a long hard stint in the field, all I want to do is......sit in a 4x4 for 10 hours on a bumpy road. I know, sounds crazy. But this is actually a little vacation for me now. I just finished my field work for the summer and I’m going to take a little tourist excursion to the Grand Tsingy, a beautiful and unique limestone outcropping north of Morondova about 10 hours. Sharp limestone pinnacles as far as the eye can see, labyrinths and caverns to explore—it’s a beautiful spot.

Secret of our success

Prepared September 7, 2008

Nothing scientific about this folks—mouse lemurs love bananas. Crave bananas. Will even follow the scent of bananas into a strange metallic box, spend the night, live amongst large primates for 12 hours (i.e. us) and then come back for more the next day. Here’s a glimpse into the love of Microcebus for their fragrant fruit. I appreciate the fruit as well, because it made all of our captures possible.

Taste the rainbow....a food montage

Prepared September 8, 2008

As food structures the day around here, I thought I would share with you what a typical day in the life of food at Kirindy Mitea is like.

Breakfast, 6:30 am, Varysosoa, (soupy rice) with roasted peanuts

Lunch, 12 pm, Vary (rice) with loaka (anything that goes with rice…usually beans around here)

Dinner, 6:30 pm, you guessed it—leftovers of what we had for lunch!

It’s hard to forget. I’ve found that with ample amounts of garlic powder, parmesan cheese and Dijon mustard, anything tastes good!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Microcebus Super-Sleuths

Prepared September 5, 2008

It seems as though there are new Microcebus species popping up every week….what once had been defined as an eastern and a western species now has been amended to include several species. This has caused some ongoing controversy as scientists debate which species should be considered separate and which should not. But the DNA will tell the tale—that’s why we’re sure to collect small samples of skin to use for genetic analyses. In addition to this data, we’re also noting all the variations in color and size that we see in the mouse lemurs. Armed with this combination of information, we hope to figure out the complex mystery that is mouse lemur speciation in Madagascar.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Boom & Bust

Prepared September 1, 2008

I don’t know if field work attracts gambling personalities, but it sure seems like that would be helpful to deal with the constant unknown of capture—so much is out of your control. It’s like I buy a Keno ticket every night when we put out our traps, and sometimes our numbers come up. That’s just one of things that keeps life interesting around here. If only I could make money doing this! Just to give you an example of how unpredictable capture can be—in one week we had a few days in a row of no mouse lemurs captured—0 (see my disappointment in the photo to the right). Then the next day we were overrun with mouse lemurs, capturing 10 in one of the grids (see jubilation below). I think they just like to keep us guessing.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Kirindy Mitea turns 10 and has a growth spurt

Prepared August 30, 2008

To counteract the gloomy message of the last entry, I’m going to share with you some great news. Within the last year, the Malagasy government and its park management agency, Association Nationale pour la Gestion des Aires Protégées (ANGAP), decided to expand the size of Kirindy Mitea National Park. Originally formed in 1997 with approximately 70,000 hectares, the park now encompasses almost 140,000 hectares, including a unique marine reserve just off the coast. This expansion successfully protected the largest continuous patch of dry forest remaining in the West, as well as made Kirindy Mitea one of the biggest preserves in Madagascar. Seeing as how the dry forest has experienced more severe deforestation then the eastern rainforest, this expansion is an important victory for conservation. What’s more, recent studies have shown with geospatial analysis of satellite images that reforestation has actually gained forest acreage more so than any deforestation occurring in the park. The challenge will come now, however, in monitoring this expansive range, as well as in garnering support from local communities. My hat’s off to Kirindy Mitea and their dedicated ANGAP crew.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cows and dogs and rats, oh my!

Prepared August 29, 2008

Mouse lemurs aren’t the only animals that I’m concerned about out here. Expanding human populations, which push the boundary into preserved areas for resource extraction, hunting, subsistence agriculture and cattle grazing, could lead to potentially huge impacts on the conservation and health of wildlife populations. Where humans go, their domesticated animals typically follow, and where domestic animals go, their parasites are sure to tag along. We can simply look to human history to see the implications of animal domestication. One of the major transitions in lifestyle occurred about 10,000 years ago as agriculture developed. By producing our own food and domesticating animals, humans were able to rapidly increase their populations, and began to live in denser aggregations like towns and cities. This increased density, along with the mixing of multiple species (humans and livestock) in a small area lead to an upsurgence of disease. Over 600 known parasites occur in domesticated animals, and over 60% of the over1400 parasites found in humans have come from a domestic animal origin. To make matters worse, all of these densely packed people and livestock attract another player into this equation—rodents. And as we all have learned from the 14th century’s Black Death, rodents are exceptional couriers of disease. Unfortunately, all of these issues are important to consider for conservation in Madagascar. Villages on the edge of reserves raise and graze their cattle through preserved areas, their dogs and cats wander through, and even humans leave their waste in the reserves. Additionally, the black rat (Rattus rattus) has expanded to cover the entire island since its accidental introduction in Madagascar. Even with this knowledge, I was not expecting to capture rats this summer. How wrong I was. It’s a good day if we capture more mouse lemurs than rats here in Kirindy Mitea. Rats can sneak up into mouse lemurs’ preferred habitat (generally above 2 meters in height), potentially competing for space and food resources, and certainly creating the potential for disease to transfer between the two species. I’m collecting rat fecal samples as well (remember, I said this was glamorous?) to see what disease issues we might be against.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Prepared August 25, 2008

Lepilemurs sneak into my dreams at night. It’s not hard, what with their loud, Iwok-sounding calls back and forth filling the forest night air. These nocturnal “sportive” lemurs are a delight to experience. As I brush my teeth, I shine my headlamp through the tops of the trees, looking for their distinctive marble-sized eyes staring back at me. They rest in hollows of trees during the day, saving up their energy to generate an auditory spectacle at night. I have other visitors at night as well—the legendary and elusive Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) comes by my tent at night every few days. A pair of them roams the camp looking for water and goodies, and they also have an insatiable curiosity. They will paw through my campsite at night, poking my tent just to figure out what it is. I sit bolt upright in my sleeping bag, thinking about the sheer millimeter of tent material that separates me from Madagascar’s largest carnivore…..But when my headlamp comes on and I give the tent a shake, the fossas are out of there. Or at least that’s what I keep hoping. Keeps you on your toes.

A sampler of night noises in Kirindy Mitea:

And an update: Well, the fossa did not stay quite so docile this time. Apparently he likes my shoes, or my feet smell like lemurs, because he chewed some nice chunks out of my sandals. A good souvenier story, right?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Implements of Science

Prepared August 24, 2008

Just thought I’d share the implements that I use in my research out here….tubes for collecting genetic and fecal samples, a scale, a thermometer, the applicator for the identification ear tags, the skin fat calipers (I avoid using them on me!), bag to safely house the mouse lemurs during the day, and a flexible measuring tape to get measurements on mouse lemur body length, tail length, and yes, testicle size. That you didn’t really want to know, right?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Eat. Sleep. Breathe. Mouse lemurs. Eat. Sleep. Breathe. Mouse lemurs.

Prepared August 22, 2008

When the sun comes up at 6:14 every morning and goes down at 6:14 every night, you begin to get into a routine, a rhythm of the field. It can get monotonous, but it also feels kind of nice. A relaxed pace that allows you to get lots of work done out here. A typical daily schedule is something like this: early to rise at 6 am, breakfast, go out and check traps for mouse lemurs, health evaluations of mouse lemurs, lunch at noon, data processing, set traps in the late afternoon when it’s cooler, return mouse lemurs at dusk, eat dinner by candlelight, read by headlamp, sleep (9 hours at night!). Whew. Ready to do it all again tomorrow? Embrace the routine—it’s an even, steady roll that’s a satisfying change from our manic everyday lives in the States.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Prepared August 16, 2008

Felt a little sad to miss the boat-pushing, but we had to get a move on to beat the sun and heat. We had 24 kilometers to cover to Kirindy Mitea National Park, which we would cover by foot and in a cherrette, the local ox-cart transportation. It took about 6 hours to get to Kirindy Mitea, and I bet the zebu were ready to be rid of their charges when we arrived (3 people, 150 pounds of luggage, 70 pounds of bananas, plus the cart). We alternated between a slow walk (and I mean slow--I would leave the cart in the dust when I walked beside it) and a chipper little trot. Those cows could move when urged to, but otherwise they preferred slow and steady.

Watch us cross the huge mud flats that edge Kirindy Mitea to the north. A salt operation extracts hundreds of tons of naturally-produced salt from here by hand every year.

Get off the road--I even got to try my hand at navigating for a while!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Fete to get a boat wet

Prepared August 15, 2008

As it happens in Madagascar, there is always reason for a party. Hey, if you can throw a huge celebration when the ancestors are cold (for the traditional Fanadihama), then you can certainly celebrate the first launching of a new boat. This celebration happened to be planned for when we were passing through on our way back to Kirindy Mitea National Park, so we were able to take part. The party weekend found itself in Belo-sur-mer, the picturesque fishing village on the Mozambique Channel. An Italian woman had worked with local carpenters to build a buitre, a huge wooden sailboat constructed entirely from local materials. This construction may satisfy a number of firsts for this village—the first boat built by a white person, and most likely the first built by a woman. Well, to celebrate such an occasion, the entire village came out in full force. A sound system that would have made Aerosmith proud appeared out of nowhere (the villagers definitely don’t rock out every night in their huts) and set up on a stage in the sand, not 30 feet from the water. Every official of import came out in suit and tie to make the requisite kibari (speech). The music (a live band had traveled from Tana to make the party a success) started at sundown and literally went until the next morning. As we walked out of Belo the next morning at 7:30 am on our way to Kirindy Mitea, townspeople were still dancing up a storm. A few hours from then, these same people would be pushing the enormous new boat into the water for the first time.

The music was a lot of fun—it’s called kilalaky—and combines guitar, drums and a lot of human-made rhythm. See what you think:

Friday, September 19, 2008

Eastern mouse lemurs came through

After a slow start at Parc Ivoloina, we finished up at Betampona with a total of 28 Microcebus captures, which I was pleased about. We had only 1 or 2 days without a single capture, and some of our days were chalk full with as many as 6 mouse lemurs. It worked out well, and our hard work slogging through the mud, pulling ourselves up steep slopes and defending our skin against leeches paid off. Thanks to all of the conservation agents of the Madagascar Fauna Group project and their families for all the help they offered. It really does take a village (to capture mouse lemurs).

And at the end of the day, a scientist has to be satisfied with the seemingly small specimen bags and tubes that she or he will go home with. It doesn’t look like a whole lot, but the amount of information stored in those small packages will hopefully be interesting and worthwhile.

Photo credit: Patrick H

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Releasing a wild beast (or something like that)

Believe me, it’s not nearly as exciting as that sounds. After the day relaxing in their comfortable, Malagasy-style bags, these mouse lemurs are excited to get back to their home turf. At dusk we release them at their original location of capture, which is extremely important to do because mouse lemurs can be very territorial. If we released a lemur into the wrong territory, it could mean serious consequences. Mouse lemurs can be quite fierce, you know.

With just a little encouragement out of the bag, the mouse lemurs are springing forth back into their familiar trees, ready for a night of activity. Check out the release of one of our mouse lemurs at Betampona…….

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Fermenting gooey goodness. All in the name of science.

When we’re in a remote field station, that means deliveries and resupplies are a bit out of the question. That applies not only to our rice and beans, but to our mouse lemur bait as well. We use bananas because the mouse lemurs love ‘em, and apparently they may love ‘em even more as they rot, become mushy and begin to ferment in the skin. As the last days of our trapping roll around, the bananas have been sitting for a good amount of time and they are becoming almost unbearable to our senses. It’s just pure delight setting up all the traps and dropping a piece of that liquidy banana into the trap. But we continued to capture mouse lemurs up until the very last day with those odoriferous fruits. I almost think the mouse lemurs wait until the bananas hit this ultra-ripe stage—what animal doesn’t partake in a little fermented fruit juice?

Photo credits: Patrick H

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Malagasy experience is much more than mouse lemurs

A few days ago we received an invitation from our Rendrirendry villagemates--they were about to host a ceremony in the nearby village of Andratambe. We were grateful to be included in the celebration, an important event that involves family and community remembering and honoring the deceased. This particular celebration did not involve exhuming and moving of the bodies, or the “rotating of the bones,” or famadihana, which occurs in another typical Malagasy custom, but it did involve one heck of a party and a whole lot of cow. Villagers up here on the mountain live primarily on rice, beans and some vegetables such as manioc and greens, therefore eating beef (omby), is a rare and important occasion. A cow was purchased and brought up the mountain to the center of the village, where nearly every man, woman and child from the surrounding areas had gathered. (….stop reading here if squeamish…..) It was immobilized and left in the center of the village as the main attraction for a good while. Then suddenly a few men ran out and quickly ended the cow’s life there in the center of town under a couple hundred watchful eyes. Words to the dead were discreetly presented, much betsa and toka gasy (locally-produced sugar cane alcohol) was poured, and the distribution of the cow commenced. About 30 men gathered round the cow and worked together to begin the cutting process, placing each smaller piece on a large traveler palm leaf on the ground. We watched as this huge cow was slowly but surely cut into smaller and smaller pieces, enough so that the entire village was able to take some home for their family for the next several days. I’ve never witnessed a more local, more community-based sharing of a resource before, and I may never again.

To read more about Malagasy ceremonies, check out Bethany’s descriptions of a famadihana in Madagascar on her blog.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Meet Bethany from Mahabo, volunteer extraordinaire

09I certainly got lucky this summer—a Peace Corps volunteer who’s working in Madagascar emailed me out of the blue to see if I could use some help with my field work. She’s teaching English in a small village east of Morondova and had some flexibility in her summer schedule. I wasn’t quite sure what an English major (Duke graduate no less!) would think about all this tromping through the woods, chasing small primates. But she’s been fantastic—a huge help and a saving grace for my mental stability in the field. We’ll look forward to an entry from her later on this summer—she’ll tell us in her own words what it’s like to work with an ecologist in the field. But to tide us over until then, here’s a little video introduction……

Friday, September 5, 2008

Aww, mouse lemur's first haircut.

You can get a lot of information from a capture, so we really try to maximize the time that the mouse lemur has so generously donated to us. One of the samples that we take is a small cut of hair to evaluate long-term environmental stress. This is a fairly new technique in hormone analysis that will hopefully be able to show us the residual stress hormone levels (glucocorticoids) in the mouse lemur’s body over a long period of time. In many previous studies, researchers have successfully evaluated stress hormone levels in fecal or blood samples, which provide a picture of stress from the previous day or hours, respectively, but with hair one can evaluate stress on a longer scale, on the time frame of several months. That’s what I’m really interested in—how long-term environmental stress affects wildlife and may compromise their ability to deal with human exposure and increased rates of parasitism.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Is that really what I think you're doing?

That’s right, I’m taking the temperature….of one of the smallest primates on earth. It’s important to monitor how the mouse lemurs are doing during the evaluation, and it’s also quite interesting to see how their body temperatures range, especially since mouse lemurs are capable of daily torpor during the colder winter season. We’ve seen body temperatures that range from 92.7° to 98.7° Fahrenheit so far.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Gettin' em' out

Mouse lemurs come in two personality types when it comes to extracting them from the trap. Either they curl themselves into a very small ball in the corner of the trap, or they attempt a bold leap out of the trap and then make a hasty rush for the corner of the tent. Either way they’re pretty amusing to work with, but are quite cooperative patients once we get them in hand.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Friends of the forest

Hiking is never a boring task up here when there are surprises around every corner. You never know when you might run into a ginormous pill bug (Order
Sphaerotheriida). Doesn’t it just make you want to conglobate (aka roll into a little ball?)

Or you could witness one of the amazing leaf-tailed geckos (genus Uroplatus).

Or shake hands with a potentially toxic millipede. Such is diversity in Madagascar!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Squeeze on in!

We provide cushy accommodations for our mouse lemurs here—they get their own penthouse tenthouse during the day of their capture. We set up this tent to conduct the health evaluations, but then the mouse lemurs get to rest up during the daylight hours before they’re released back to their original location at dusk. With three of us in the tent (Bethany, Herman and I) and our mouse lemur friends (as many as 6 at one time!) it can get to be pretty tight quarters. It’s a bonding experience.
Photo credit: Fidy R.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

What's for dinner?

We’re lucky to have the cooking taken care of while we’re up here on the mountain at Betampona. We’ve employed a miracle worker, Anastasy, who can whip up a steaming bowl of beans and rice in no time at all. That helps us focus our energies on the strenuous job of catching mouse lemurs.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Welcome to my humble abode.

The huts are constructed out of dried traveler palm leaves and elevated to avoid the incessant mud and roaming chickens. We have most of what we need in this little hut—a roof over our head for the rain showers, a bed, a small desk and a mosquito net. Come on in for a little tour!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Livin' on the edge

We live on the boundary of the Betampona reserve in the small village of Rendrirendry, which consists of 10 to 15 huts mostly inhabited by the Betampona conservation agents and their families. We experience all of the charming and less charming qualities of village life in Madagascar—the spunky Malagasy kids in the village are definitely a plus. They tend to burst into giggles every time they see us (aka the “vazaha be”, or “big white person”) walking around in our ridiculous outfits. My least favorite aspect of village life is the resident group of roosters who crow at 2, 3, 4, and 5 AM (for practice) and then at sunrise (for good measure).

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Betampona fashion--Paris here we come!

We’re taking field camp fashion to the next level. Brace yourselves.

Not only fashion, but function as well. Now introducing the field work/hiking/catching mouse lemurs/slipping down muddy hills/dodging leaches/ new summer line. Socks and mud included.

We highly recommend the sock look, and not just for the haute couteur look. Socks are essential in keeping out those blood-sucking enemies of ours. The leaches rain down from the sky on wet days, so be aware of large drops that go down your shirt!

Obviously this is a popular style, as it seems that everyone is doing it. I now introduce my male researcher counterpart, with exactly the same sense of style. Patrick H, Botanist.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

No pain, no gain!

There are certain reasons why this preserve has remained more or less intact thus far. The diligent presence of its conservation agents makes a difference, and the watchful eye of the Madagascar Fauna Group certainly plays a role. But there’s another reason why large primary forest trees remain here. It’s steep. Really steep. Every morning we huff and puff up the first 2 kilometers out of camp, a trail that brings us up the steep ridgeside to the rolling ridgetop skirted by the main trail in the preserve, Piste Principal. Whew. Who ever said you didn’t get a work out with field work? Check it out….

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Challenges facing Betampona

Betampona is a fascinating preserve, but it stands as one of the last tracts of eastern low elevation rainforest remaining in the country. Human disturbances have taken their toll in this area--selective logging, rice cultivation, some hunting and a growing human population have all extracted resources from the area surrounding the park. It is truly an island refuge of primary rainforest, as one can see in this recent satellite image. (note the dark green shape surrounded by lighter secondary forest)

Despite disturbances, a broad diversity of wildlife and plant species remain, including 11 lemur taxa, 3 of which are endangered (Indri indri, Varecia variegata variegata, and Propithecus diadema diadema). We’ll continue to focus on Microcebus here, so we’ll set traps every night on many of the trails in the preserve.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Getting there....

We made it all in one piece to Betampona after a 4x4, a canoe crossing, a taxi-brousse and a 4 km slip and slide mud walk.

We even made it with all 9 of our bags (3 bags for the research equipment, 3 personal bags for Bethany, Herman and myself, and then 3 whopping bags of food). You have to bring all of your necessities with you—there’s no grocery store on the corner up here. Although if you get in dire straits, you can always hire a porter to head back down the mountain to the nearest village (~ 4 kilometers away) to purchase anything from the following available items (the typical village stock): Three Horses Beer (THB), the drink of choice in Madagascar, local rum, rice, or crackers. Take your pick! We try to bring up as many fresh vegetables as possible, but when those start to go bad, it’s back to the old standard: rice and beans.

Check out the resourceful porters carrying our beast-sized bags…they will most likely still beat us up the slippery mountainside. In flip flops no less.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mission: Betampona

We’re on to our next site—Betampona Strict Nature Reserve. It takes a little more effort to get there…..1 4X4 ride, 10 porters, 1 canoe, 1 taxi-brousse, and then 6 more porters and a 4 kilometer slog through the mud, and voila! We’re there!

We’ll be in Betampona for a little over 2 weeks, and we’ll focus on Microcebus capture there. No computer access in this part of town, so we’ll check in when we’re back in range! Keep checking the blog, new entries should be popping up periodically!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Our first eastern mouse lemur!

We captured our first mouse lemur on the east coast—a strapping young lad we named “Tokana,” or “the only one,” in Malagasy. We caught him after a full moon night, which may affect how active the mouse lemurs are.

Monday, July 28, 2008

And now introducing.....Herman

Just in case you were getting bored with me, there’s a new character to introduce into this story—I’ve been joined recently by my Malagasy counterpart, a master’s student in the Department of Primatology and Biological Anthropology at the University of Tana, Herman Andry Rafalinirina. The Malagasy Ministry of Water and Forests and the park management agency, ANGAP, have devised a system whereby all foreign researchers are assigned to sponsor and mentor a Malagasy student from a relevant department at the university. For the duration of the research project and on into the future, I will be working with Herman to develop his master’s project, analyze his data and help him with revisions on his thesis. (Hey, wait a second, did I just get signed up to work on a second dissertation?!) It’s a system that aims to train a huge number of young Malagasy environmental professionals, who learn methodology and project management from their mentors (you mean me??) Obviously you can tell that this is all new to me—we’re figuring it out as we go along. So far things have been going well. After several discussions, Herman will be working on a project separate but complementary to mine. He’ll be comparing water content and characteristics of fecal specimens from Microcebus species on both the west and east coasts. More fecal!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Parc Ivoloina

We’ll be on the east coast for the next month or so, continuing to trap Microcebus and evaluate human influence on parks out here in the rainforest. First stop is Parc Ivoloina, a small reserve (~ 400 hectares) privately managed by the Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG), a consortium of conservation organizations, institutions and zoos that share a common mission of conservation in Madagascar. Ivoloina serves as an important park for public education—almost 14,000 visitors and Malagasy students a year come to Ivoloina to see lemurs up close (they have both captive and free-ranging lemurs here) as well as to learn about environmental issues in Madagascar. Additionally, MFG runs training programs for Malagasy environmental professionals, sponsors an agro-forestry demonstration station, and runs a captive breeding program. I visited this reserve last summer as well, where we were able to capture and do health evaluations on almost all of the free-ranging lemurs in the park. We’ll be attempting to repeat that again this year, targeting the Eulemur coronatus, E. rubriventer and E. albifrons, in addition to our ongoing Microcebus capture. Because the free-ranging lemurs in the park are fairly habituated to the human visitors and staff, it’s slightly easier to capture them. We use an effective capture cage system designed by one of the staff members here; the cage can be suspended from a tree and has a trap door that can be closed remotely. When lemurs enter the cage for the fruit and vegetables inside, we can then enclose them and extract them easily. Voila!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Finding Ndrina

I had another reason to visit the Analamazaotra Special Reserve and the nearby village of Andasibe—a colleague of mine worked with a Malagasy guide for her dissertation research here over 15 years ago. She’s maintained a friendship with this guide and has been worried about his troublesome health. She asked me to try and find him in the village this summer, find out about his health, and present him with a letter (Malagasy postal system is a little less than reliable). She promised that the village was small, that everyone would know this particular man—but of course I did have some skepticism. How would I actually find this guy? But I shouldn’t have had any worries—within minutes of entering the village and asking one person, we had Ndrina on the phone and set up a meeting for later that night. It was great fun to meet him and spend the next day with him in the park. And it was a good thing I had him with me--his experienced eyes spotted a recent indri baby for me to see. Think cuddly.

Check out a sneak-peek into everyday life in the village of Andasibe.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Indri spectacular

I recently visited Analamazaotra Special Reserve for a couple of days--I had a number of excuses to visit. First of all, Analamazaotra (or the French name, Perinet) is one of the most well-known parks in Madagascar. It’s probably the easiest place to observe Madagascar’s largest living lemur, the indri, a huge teddy-bear-like lemur that munches leaves all day and has the most beautiful, eerie vocalizations of any of the lemurs. I fell in love with the indri last summer when we captured a number of them in Betampona Strict Nature Reserve.

Because Analamazaotra receives so many visitors, Malagasy and foreigners alike, it’s a very interesting park to examine for issues of lemur health. I plan on coming back here next spring to capture indri with Dr. Randy Junge, the Director of Animal Health at the St. Louis Zoo, and also one of the founders of the Prosimian Biomedical Survey Project. Much of my data will contribute to this larger dataset of lemur health evaluations—over the last 6 years 450 lemurs have been included in this project. I spent a few days in the park exploring the trails and the infrastructure as a bit of reconnaissance.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Shall we brousse?

One couldn’t get around Madagascar without another of the quintessential Malagasy public transportation systems-- the taxi-brousse or “bush taxi.” They can take you most places you want to go in Madagascar—as long as you don’t mind going with at least 20 other people (and/or chickens, ducks, or sacks of rice) in the small mini-van. The taxi-brousse will be my mode of transport between the east and west coasts, mostly because it’s pretty convenient and it’s darn cheap. Instead of a $400 flight from coast to coast, I can make it from Morondova to Tamatave for about 50,000 Ariary, or $30. What you gain in savings, though, you lose in time--the trip takes 20 hours from Morondova to Tana and another 7 hours from Tana to Tamatave. But it’s all part of the adventure, right?

Check out my recent taxi-brousse experience on my way to Andasibe, a small village on the perimeter of the Analamazaotra Special Reserve in central Madagascar.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

rain in spain (or ivoloina)

For a little change of pace, I'm headed to the east coast!

After spending a few days checking out Analamazaotra Special Reserve, where I will begin a project next year, I will head to Parc Ivoloina and then Betampona Strict Nature Reserve.

I'll be leaving the warm, dry climes of the west to the wet east. It's hard to get too much work done when the rain falls like this in the rain forest. Just like the lemurs, researchers have to hunker down and wait out the storm. I'll let you know how it goes!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Row, row, row your pirogue...

Yesterday we made it back to Morondova after our last few days of trapping at Kirindy Mitea. I’ll be back to this park in August, but it was sad to part ways for a little while. We traveled to Belo-sur-Mer, a small fishing village and boat-building center right on the coast. They build huge buitres, which are enormous wooden boats to take people and goods up and down the coast.

It’s a gorgeous little town and the people were exceptionally friendly. I guess you can’t be too uptight when you live a town full of sand, sunsets and palm trees (and I can’t forget to mention the punch coco! (a delicious mix of coconut milk, rum, and vanilla). We caught a ride up to Morondova on a boat with a motor, which saved us the 30 hour trip in one of the motor-less pirogues….(no wind = no moving).

Sunday, July 13, 2008

a small point of clarification

Some of you might be suspicious of this whole “field research” thing--do you suspect that really I’ve been in an internet café in Tana this whole time, posting blog entries? How else does the blog get updated when I’m presumably “in the field?” Well, with the beauty of technology, and the never-ending brilliance of the google team, I can pre-post! I know, sorry if that takes the mystique out of it all, but I’m just trying to keep you all (one, two of you?) reading the blog during the times that I’m out of contact. Oh, the world-wide-interweb, you constantly amaze me. So yes, in fact, all this talk about rice and beans and no showering…alas, it’s true.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


The Verreaux’s sifaka is one of the most gorgeous lemurs on the island, if I do say so myself.

I thought you would like to learn a little more about these guys from an expert in the field of sifaka social behavior. Dr. Rebecca Lewis is an Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department at UT-Austin, and has studied these sifaka more than anyone else I know. She knows virtually every individual in the 8 groups here in Kirindy Mitea by name, by birth, by family tree, by personality and by hairdo (Titan has a fuzzy Elvis look to him). She’s been generous to share with us how she and her team go about collecting their data….

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Hope springs eternal.....

…..when it comes to trapping mouse lemurs. I’ve been setting out the traps for the last week or so with some success. We place the traps in their designated treatment areas around dusk, so as to avoid a lot of time when non-target animals (i.e. anything other than a mouse lemur) can interfere with the trap. It’s the alluring smell of banana that brings them into the trap--mouse lemurs LOVE bananas (as do field researchers craving fruit.) Every morning around 7 am we go out and check each trap to see if it was successful. Often we have a trail of ants instead of a mouse lemur, but there are those fantastic moments of peeking into the trap door and seeing those big ears and big eyes starting out at you.

The nights have been cold and long, and the mouse lemurs are staying indoors (i.e. tree holes and nests). That’s my theory for why our capture numbers haven’t been off the charts thus far during this first week of trapping. It’s been interesting seeing where they have been—definitely more so in the pristine corners of the grid system, as would be expected. With warmer weather moving in, we’re keeping our fingers crossed for mouse lemur extravaganza.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Shakin' hands and kissin' babies....

We had to do our rounds today—every researcher in the area needs to meet with the mayor of Belo-sur-Mer and with the president of the fokitany (local town), Antsira, both about 20 kilometers from our camp. It’s good that they know who we are, what we’re doing, and that we’re not just crazy hermits who like to wander the forest trapping mouse lemurs for our supper.

The mayor certainly looked the part—he was dressed to what is the nines here—a coat and dress shoes even, in a city of no roads, just sand. He put us to shame in our field clothes, that’s for sure. In the small but quaint mayor’s office he regaled us with stories of naughty lemurs that steal things from the town (or at least that’s what I’m told, as it was all in Malagasy). In any event, our faces will be recognized around town, kids will wave, and the adults will know we’re all out here for the lemurs. To study the lemurs, that is.

Monday, July 7, 2008

To Independence!

In honor of Independence days everywhere (happy July 4th!), we celebrated Madagascar’s independence last week on June 26th. A few rituals were the same—fireworks in the sky, fireworks in the streets (mostly set off by adolescent boys)—it was a whole family affair. For days leading up to the 26th I saw all these colorful paper lanterns being sold in the market. Could these really be for decorating a family’s home? I soon came to realize their true purpose after witnessing a band of small children swinging illuminated lanterns with reckless abandon in the dark streets that night, shrieking with joy and singing the national anthem. What I also realized was that these lanterns were lit with a real candle, and probably could burst into flames at any moment. No US toy regulator would let those go through. Ah, liability. Check out the kids walking back after the fireworks through the streets of Morondova…..

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Getting to know Kirindy Mitea...

The first couple of days I spent getting to know the place and exploring the trails with Rebecca, who’s been very helpful in introducing me to the possibilities here. At Kirindy I’m going to focus on the experimental component of my lemur health project. Experiment you say? Like white lab coats and cooking up chemicals? Not quite, but I am trying to make it a controlled study in the midst of field conditions that are hard to control. I’m interested in how the intense dry season here in the west affects the health of lemurs. I’ll be looking at general body condition, stress levels, and parasite diversity in Microcebus over the course of the dry season in both disturbed and less disturbed habitat. My hypothesis is that as the dry season progresses, which decreases the amount of nutrients and water available to lemurs, their stress levels and general body condition will decrease, which will leave them more susceptible to parasite infections and disease. And all of this will be worse in the more disturbed habitats. More than you wanted to know, right?

I’ve marked out two of the four grids for my health study so far, and I set up the evaluation room (well, ...tent), where I’ll check out all of the mouse lemurs that I capture.

To test out methodology I set out 10 traps a few nights ago, and had some success on the first day! Meet our first subject, KM 001. A cute little guy, if I do say so myself.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Maztoa a Kirindy Mitea!

A mere 6 days after I left North Carolina…and I arrive at my destination, Kirindy Mitea National Park. A glorious arrival. I was greeted by Dr. Rebecca Lewis, the founder of the research station here, and researcher on sifaka social behavior from the University of Texas-Austin. She’s worked in Madagascar for several years now, but only recently began working in this park. Starting a new research station means a lot of work and a lot of waiting—for permits, for water, for the process to work its way through the Malagasy system. With a lot of patience, she just recently established the gridded trail system and infrastructure for research at Kirindy Mitea. She gave me a tour of my new home, which is comfortable and beautiful, but didn’t take long to tour……see for yourself!

The camp is a colorful, friendly mix of researchers, camp staff, and a Malagasy student, which means 3 languages may be spoken at any one time (Malagasy, French, or English, in that order of frequency). We all eat our meals together, which generally consist of rice with roasted peanuts for breakfast, rice and beans for lunch, and rice and beans for dinner. We try to spice things up a bit and throw in a few new flavors every once in a while. The grated parmesan cheese I brought from the US was a hit, although it was met with some skepticism at first. You mean…….cheese……….as a powder? After some inspection and a little smelling, the staff tasted it. “Tsara,” they replied, which means “good” in Malagasy!

(Top L-R) Tagloire (cook), Vagely (trail maintenance), Dr. Chris Kirk (Physical Anthropologist).

(Bottom L-R) Renari (driver & mechanic), Felana Rakotondranaivo (Malagasy master’s student), Dessy (camp manager), Dr. Rebecca Lewis (camp founder, Primate Social Behavior).

The Lepilemur sing us to sleep and the fosa keep us on our toes--I’m really going to enjoy living here!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Public transport, Mada-style.

Of course, if this 4x4 thing doesn’t work out, I always have another option for transportation.

Introduce: The charrette, the local transportation of choice.

Kirindy Mitea or Bust!

Getting to Kirindy Mitea National Park is no easy feat—in fact, it’s virtually impossible by road for most of the year. Over the 70 or so miles from Morondova, there are several river and water hole crossings only passable in the dry season. Be careful if you try a bit too early—your car may wash downstream into the Mozambique Channel. Visitors and researchers will often take a motorized pirogue (wooden canoe) down to a coastal town, Belo-sur-Mer, and then walk to the park. We’ll try that later this summer, but for now we’re cruising in the 4x4.

I’m excited to reach Kirindy Mitea and see what it will be like—I’ve spent many months wondering about this moment. Onward to the river!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Indri indri? Call for you!

Working with Indris last summer definitely captured my interest. They are beautiful, graceful and stately lemurs, and they possess a great importance to the Malagasy people. Tradition states that the Indri, or Babakoto in Malagasy, is the "grandfather of the forest," an ancestor to the inhabitants of Madagascar.

Click to hear the eerily beautiful call of the Indri. Groups of Indri use this call to communicate and demarcate their territory.

To learn more about this gentle giants, read here.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Catch a falling star

This summer I'll be focusing on the smaller species, namely the mouse lemurs. But last summer and in the future I'll continue to work on Eulemur and Indri, who both require a little more complicated capture strategy.

People often ask just how exactly we go about catching a lemur, so I thought I might share this little video and describe the process.

The capture team, made up of a darter, a couple of spotters and 4-5 people designated as runners, walks slowly through the forest. If a lemur is spotted, the darter waits and maneuvers to get the perfect shot. The dart gun, pressurized with carbon dioxide, is fairly accurate, but you usually only get 1 chance before the lemur is long gone. No accidents here over 450 lemur captures, the Prosimian Biomedical Survey Project has not had a single lemur injury. If the dart successfully hits the lemur (it's best in the meaty rump!) the team watches to see the lemur's reaction. I've seen some lemurs take off and cover 300 horizontal feet through the forest in a matter of seconds. Other lemurs, such as the Indri, gaze down and wonder peacefully what has transpired. In either case, the runners of the team position themselves under the lemur and....wait. And in some cases, we wait and wait and wait. I've seen an Indri take over an hour and a half to go under the anesthesia, but some will take just 10 minutes. See our neck muscles of steel in the picture above.

When the lemur is ready, it's grip will slip on the tree branch and we are there to catch it. This was a million dollar catch of a black-and-white-ruffed lemur from almost 100 feet up. Gol!

At this point the lemur health evaluation process begins, which takes about 40 minutes. We'll hold the lemurs (and sometimes keep them warm under our jackets) until they've fully recovered. Then they're released to their original location.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Morondova--last stop before Kirindy Mitea National Park

Greetings from Morondova, gateway to the Baobabs! I flew in yesterday morning early on a small D60 plane, with propellers and all. There wasn’t a safety presentation, but needless to say, for once in my life I read through the safety card thoroughly, cover to cover. But all was well, even when the pilot got the plane steadied at our cruising altitude and started reading the daily paper. Such is life here….

I love Morondova—it’s a bustling, friendly town on the shores of the Mozambique Channel, a mere 300-400 kilometers from the African continent. I head down to Nosy Kely, the strip of land that juts out into the channel for dinners, where I can watch the sunset on the beach, eat lots of fresh seafood, and sip Malagasy rum flavored with lychee (there are perks to fieldwork). I watched a local woman come into a restaurant last night carrying freshly caught langostines, or lobsters. They were gorgeous, with bright blue, yellow and red coloring.

I’m getting all my supplies (i.e., toilet paper and chocolate) ready to head out for my first stint of field work. I’ll be in Kirindy Mitea National Park from tomorrow until the 4th of July, with a possible break on the 25th and 26th of June to come back to Morondova to take part in Madagascar’s Independence day festivities. I’m sure it will be a party! I’ll send stories from the field when I get back….wish me luck with the ol’ mouse lemurs.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tana: the land of rice and taxis

Tana is an interesting place—the largest urban center in Madagascar and the political, economic and industrial capital of the country. About 1.7 to 3 million people live here, most of them perched in small houses on the hillsides. The flat valleys are reserved for rice production, right smack in the middle of town.

Tana is fairly spread out, so it’s best to take a taxi if you need to go to the downtown area. I love walking around the city, checking out different streets along the way, but I think saving my lungs from sucking down fumes will be worth it in the long run. The town is overrun with taxis so you never have to wait long. And no taxi ride is the same—on several of them now my driver has asked for my fare early so that he could fill up with just enough gas to get to our destination. That usually ends up being about 2000 Ariary, or about a $1.30. Gas (or l’essence, as I’m learning) is pricey here—about $8 - $10 a gallon, which makes our $4 a gallon hike in the US seem measly. Most of the taxi drivers have taken to popping their old puttering Peugots into neutral down the steep hills of town to save gas. Never a dull moment, I tell you.

Last night I met 3 American researchers on a countrywide quest to find the blind, un-pigmented, cave-dwelling fish that live only in Madagascar. I felt rather run of the mill with my lemurs!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Landed in Tana!

After a near-miss of my flight at the Paris airport (a minute to spare), I made it to Tana, where miraculously all of my bags arrived as well. Things are looking up, since last summer I spent 3 weeks without my luggage. A change of clothes is a beautiful thing not to be taken for granted.

I'm here in Tana for a few days to arrange for all of my required permits and my extendable visa. Madagascar has a fairly serious permitting process, with a full application and review process that takes about 3 months, so researchers have to apply far ahead of time. The process is facilitated by MICET, an organization that supports and coordinates visiting researchers throughout Madagascar. Each foreign visitor that does work in the country also sponsors a Malagasy student. I met my assigned student today, a master’s student named Herman. He’s interested in comparing the feeding preferences of mouse lemurs in the dry and wet forests, which will fit in nicely with my project. We did pretty well with our communication, although my bad French and his limited English will be an interesting combination.
Photo: Steve Evans, 2005, Wikipedia

Monday, June 16, 2008

Lemurs back in the wild

The Duke Lemur Center (DLC) plays a central role in lemur conservation. Who knew that the second largest grouping of lemurs--other than Madagascar--lived right here in Durham, NC? With a captive population of almost 300 prosimians, the DLC sponsors research, a breeding program and educational programs to help people learn about Madagascar.

Duke helped to release 13 black-and-white ruffed lemurs back into the wild in Betampona Strict Nature Reserve (one of the sites that I will visit this summer) over 1997, 1998 and 2001. Some of these original lemurs have learned how to live, eat, and mate in the wilds of Madagascar.

Check out the story in this short video clip from Duke Research:

Sunday, June 15, 2008

What is a lemur health evaluation?

We can get very useful information from the lemurs when we have them in hand. For the larger lemurs, we need to capture them with a dart gun (more on that later), but for the smaller lemurs, such as mouse lemurs, we can use small traps that don't hurt the little guys. Put a little piece of banana in there and the mouse lemurs love it.

During the evaluation, I'll note a lot of information about the individual, such as age, sex, any abnormal behavior, and general coat, eye and teeth condition. I also take a small hair sample to later measure stress hormone levels in the lab, a fecal sample (mmmm....yes, my life is glamorous) to look at intestinal parasites and a small skin sample to get DNA from each individual.

All this data will come back to the US for analysis, and combined with geospatial and habitat data, we can tell a great deal about lemur health.