Sunday, December 30, 2012

Antsiranana (Diego Suarez)

Happy New Year, everyone! As I have not had consistent access to internet for a while, some of these posts are a little backlogged. Tim and I took a lovely trip around Northern Madagascar together and visited several national parks and other interesting places along the way. Now that I'm back online, I can tell you all about it :)

The first day of our trip, we were supposed to fly up to Antsiranana (also known as Diego Suarez), on the Northern end of the island. Instead, Air Madagascar messed up our flight and after much confusion and a night in the capital Antananarivo, we made it to Diego early the next morning.
My first impression was that Diego is a much bigger, much more developed city than I expected. It had beautiful wide boulevards lined with the red flamboyant-flower trees, as well as some beautiful yellow trees. The buildings were old French colonial buildings, now decadent and in some disrepair; one unoccupied building in particular, with trees growing in a courtyard where once there had been a roof, added a lot of character to the city.

The city streets were perpendicular, and many shops opened their doors onto the ample sidewalk. I mention this because most "cities" in 3rd world countries have no planning: roads go every which-way and everyone is allowed to use them (pedestrians, cattle-carts, cars, semis, dogs, and playing children alike). So this felt like a small breath of civilization. 

Diego is situated on a series of 3 bays, and the sad part of the town setup is that there really is no easy beach access. But this is a blessing in disguise because we visited 2 of the 3 bays, and found hardly anyone there, and not a single piece of trash! (Compared to Fort Dauphin, in the south, where the beach is the largest public dump and largest public restroom!)

The beach in Ft Dauphin- notice the hillside of trash
First we visited Ramena, the beach that is the launching point of the boat that goes to Emerald Bay, the largest tourist attraction in the area. Ramena seemed cute at first- little huts roofed with palm leaves that served lunch of grilled shrimp brochettes, fishermen hauling in their catch, children splashing in the water. But after a few minutes it became clear that there was an unbalance in the population: we only saw old white men (no locals) and beautiful young women (no foreigners except me). Sexual tourism was rampant and occurring right in front of our eyes. A girl would sit at a table at one of the little lunch huts, and wait for a creepy old guy to sit down and buy her a meal, before the two left together. Over the course of our lunch we saw this happen with maybe 6 girls. We even witnessed a fight: what I could gather between the shouting and language differences was that a girl was owed some money from a customer who now sat with a different girl, and she threw a tantrum. He gave her some hush money, which was not enough, and she ran, yelled, and cried along the beach until some other girls had to carry her away. Drama!! 

So after that whole mess, and before we were approached (because at this point I'm fairly certain that had I not been present, these girls would have descended like a pack of wolves on Tim), we split and went to the Sakalava bay.

Sakalava was pristine, and but for a few families enjoying quiet picnics, was completely empty. We walked all along the edge of the bay and over this hill to a view of gorgeous turquoise water.

On the land behind us in the photo, we think are several large headstones, as the Malagasy typically bury people facing the water. Couldn't imagine a more peaceful place to spend eternity! 

Here we also saw what is portrayed on a lot of postcards: women wearing a yellowish face paint, to protect their skin from the sun. This lovely lady was kind enough to let me take her picture. I took one photo, then Tim called her "apelasoa" (pretty woman), and she shyly giggled as I took this candid shot.
All in all, Diego offered a relaxing start to our vacation, and I would like to go back to enjoy a little more of what the city has to offer, as well as visit that 3rd bay!!

Colorful Chameleons, Part 2

Hi Everyone! It seems my first post on chameleons was premature, as Tim and I have just travelled a bit around the northern part of the island of Madagascar, and the diversity of chameleons in the region was incredible! Every single day we saw a new species, with a different sort of ornamentation. It must be mating season, because the males were out in dizzying colors, some with horns (one or two) on their noses, some with casques (kind of like helmets) on their heads, and we did see a few females heavy with eggs to lay.

We saw chameleons from all three genera: Furcifer, Calumma, and finally—for real this time—Brookesia. Brookesia are the smallest of the chameleons, and an additional feature that sets them apart is that their tails are not prehensile: they cannot grasp tree branches with their tails like the other chameleons. They live on the ground disguised in the leaf litter, not in the branches.

Where to begin with describing so many interesting features?? I suppose I could run through all the Calumma first, which seem to be the ones with a diverse range of nose shapes.

This is a short horned chameleon (also known as an elephant-eared) Calumma brevicornis

 You can kind of see on the side of its head why it is sometimes called the elephant eared chameleon, but in actuality, chameleons do not have ears!
The blue nosed chameleon Calumma boettgeri
 This fellow's blue nose changed color when we approached for the photo.
Rhinoceros chameleon Calumma rhinoceratus
We saw the rhinoceros chameleon in Ankarafantsika National Park, right along the path!

Big nosed chameleon, Calumma nasutus
This chameleon likes to hide his big nose by hanging in the trees between dead leaves.

And now for some double trouble, this guy has TWO horns on his nose!
Parson's chameleon, Calumma parsonii

Moving on to the Furcifer genus, the canvases for the most brilliant colors. All of the following are Furcifer pardalis, the panther chameleon. Males are more brightly colored, and females range from a dull pink/orange/gray.

Here, a male panther chameleon (R) tries to impress a female (L) in the branches of a cacao tree

I was very impressed by the casques (helmets) of the Oustalet's chameleons we saw in Ankarafantsika National Park (Furcifer oustaleti). I thought they must be some sort of fatty deposit on their heads to indicate mate quality to prospective females, but I was surprised to learn that there is an underlying skeletal structure supporting it, above the brain case.

 Ok and one last colorful Furcifer, a pregnant female Petter's chameleon (Furcifer petteri). Females bury their eggs underground, to incubate for 10 months before hatching.

And finally, what we've all been waiting for....Brookesia! Itty bitty Brookesia. Can you believe your eyes?

Mt. Amber pygmy leaf chameleon, Brookesia ambreensis, is only found in the Mt. Amber National Park. And it's not even the smallest of the genus!

This is a plated leaf chameleon, Brookesia stumpffi, that we found in Ankarana National Park.
And another pregnant female.
The leaf chameleons are not only small, but also well camouflaged in their environment, making them especially difficult to find. Can you see the spiny leaf chameleon (Brookesia decaryi) in this photo? 
hint: just at the base!
 They have a territory of approximately 1 square meter. 

We went on a night walk in Mitsinjo, and found another pregnant female:
Brown leaf chameleon, Brookesia superciliarus
 Ok that is all the chameleons for now, hopefully enough to hold you over for the new year!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Colorful Chameleons!

So I’ve been meaning to do a post on chameleons, about 50% of which are native to, and found only on, the island of Madagascar. I have seen a variety of colorful chameleons here and wanted to share the pictures and some fun facts with you!

I learned from cartoons as a kid that chameleons change color to match their background, but this is actually untrue; they change color mainly to express emotion, or to attract a mate. This red fellow below is strutting his stuff and advertising himself as looking for a lady—and red is a very obvious visual signal against the green backdrop of the forest.

They are able to change colors because their skin has little sacs of pigment called chromatophores, that expand or contract based on certain stimuli. Here, this chameleon is displaying a blue countenance.

And a green one:

As mentioned in a previous post, some chameleons turn white while they sleep, which makes them very easy to find: they usually sleep at the ends of branches around my eye level.

I took this photo as this individual woke up, and he is mid- color change, see how he is still whitish along his belly.

Here is another sleepy chameleon of a different species (Calumma spp., previous ones all Furcifer spp.) that stayed green while he slept.

When we first found this little guy, we thought he might be a Brookesia, the world’s smallest chameleon and in fact the world’s smallest vertebrate, but he is actually an infant of the Calumma genus.

Chameleons walk very slowly, as if to emulate a leaf rustling on a branch, using their claw-like feet and prehensile tail. This makes them easy to catch!

One of the coolest things about a chameleon is its eyes: chameleons have a 360 degree visual field and can rotate each eye independently.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Maki Group

Remember my post about the ring-tailed lemurs at Nahampoana?

A few years ago, one ring-tailed lemur escaped the park, and somehow made his way to Mandena, where there are no other ring-tailed lemurs (locally known as Maki). The maki has joined a group of hapalemur (known as Halo), and appears to be well integrated: he travels with them, responds to their vocalizations, and vice versa. Today I was very surprised to see that he also grooms with them! I was also surprised to see that a female hapalemur has a baby-- I was under the impression that it was not the season, or perhaps not a good year, since I have not seen any hapalemur infants small enough that they still ride on their mother.

Today while working on habituating the Maki Group, I observed an interesting sequence of events: the maki joined the halo mother and infant, greeted mama with a kiss, and then the infant started to play on a nearby branch. Meanwhile, the mother moved away from the infant, who attempted to ride on the maki's neck (as young infant hapalemurs do with their mothers, not with males, nor individuals of a different species!). The mother quickly returned to pick up her infant, but I was shocked nonetheless. Here are some photos from the day:

Mother & infant

Maki greets mama with a kiss

baby starts to climb the branch

mama exits to the left

baby tries to get on maki's neck

Monday, December 3, 2012

Call and Response

We have spent a lot of time this past month searching for the hapalemur, without much luck. If only there was an easy way to call out to them! While searching for the hapalemur one day, my guide started whistling a strange tune. It took me about a minute before I realized that the response was coming from a rambunctious group of piggy-snorting collared lemurs! The tune he would whistle mimicked the sound of the collared lemurs, and they would respond to him and move closer. I thought it was too good to miss on video, here I filmed the moment the lemurs caught up with us. You can hear their full call at around 18 seconds- compare it to the whistle at the beginning.

Under the Sea!

Panorama of the snorkeling cove at Lokaro beach
Sorry it has been so long since my last post-- my internet connection has not been great and I have not been able to upload any photos. Furthermore, we have not seen many lemurs lately and I did not want to tell that same old story. So this weekend we got out of the forest and went snorkeling at a beautiful beach called Lokaro.

Above is  a trigger fish (thanks Rachel for the correction!)

one fish, two fish, green fish, black and white fish. Dr. Seuss said it better.

All the beautiful types of coral, and a sea urchin

I can't believe we saw 3 lionfish!! The one in the center here is my best shot. Lionfish spines are very venomous, so I didn't want to get too close.
Squid beaks

Can you see the mudskipper in this photo? It's kind of like a striped worm in the bottom-right, on the rock. They are common in tidepools because they can stand up on their pectoral fins and rest on land.... the missing link between sea and land. But as Sebastian the crab would have us know, "Darling it's better, down where it's wetter, under the sea!"

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ew Gross!

If you are squeamish, or have just eaten, don't read this post....

But if you are like me and have a strange fascination with seeing someone use a safety pin to remove a live parasite from my foot, carry on.

Today I wore my wellies while walking through the forest and swamp areas, and because my pants are tucked into them, they serve as funnels for all the leaves and twigs to fall straight to the bottom of my shoe. I stopped several times today to empty out the debris, but kept feeling like there was something stuck under my left foot. Trying not to be a princess and the pea, I continued walking. But finally, I could stand it no longer, and after finding nothing in the bottom of my shoe, I took off my sock. And there it was-- the unmistakeable sign of what is locally known as a paresh, a swollen bump with a dark black center.

It is an egg sac of a fly, laid into the bottom of my foot. I don't know how long it had been growing, but it was big, so probably a while... :-/

To remove it, one must be very careful not to puncture the egg sac, or leave any of the sac under the skin, otherwise it will continue to grow (and next time you try to remove it, you will have to dig under a layer of scab! ugh!). Thankfully, one of our field guides helped me out, and so we grabbed a safety pin and rubbing alcohol. A few minutes later, it was removed successfully (and it only hurt a little).