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 cafĂ© 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.