Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Slight change of venue!

One more post before my flights... I'm leaving on Saturday, and arriving in Fort Dauphin on Tuesday, so it will be a long journey. Since so many people have asked, my flight plan looks like this:

29 Sep MCI 12:09 - IAD 15:36 Kansas City to Washington DC
29 Sep IAD 16:50 - JFK 18:14 to New York
30 Sep JFK 11:15 - JNB 08:30  to Johannesburg, South Africa
01 Oct JNB 10:00 - TNR 14:10 to Antananarivo, Madagascar
02 Oct TNR 06:30 - TLE 07:45 to Toliara (Tulear)
02 Oct TLE 08:00 - FTU 08:45 to Taolagnaro (Fort Dauphin)

 At least I have my French phrasebook and several PDFs on lemur ecology to keep me busy on the plane. ALSO*** Super excited to hang out with Jenny during an overnight layover!

In the past few days or so, there have been a few big changes on the project. To bring everyone up to speed so far: Tim has been in Madagascar since June attempting to start data collection on four groups of hapalemur: 2 in the continuous rainforest, and 2 in the fragmented littoral forest. He has an established site in the littoral forest, called Mandena, where he completed data collection for his Master's degree at Oxford Brookes a few years back. He has, however, encountered some difficulty in setting up a site in the continuous rainforest.

First, his original proposal specified Andohahela (Malio), but he was also planning on checking out Ivorona (in Tsitongambarika) first. As he was leaving for Ivorona, he was called back because people said that the area was insecure. There was a group of roaming bandits moving through the forest and the surrounding villages, stealing zebu (cattle) from the locals, and it wasn't just the one incident; multiple attacks on various villages occurred over the course of the next two months, with the Malagasy military attempting to round up the bandits. It was after this incident that Andohahela was closed indefinitely, thus not allowing him to go check it out for feasibility etc.   (A very brief article lacking in substantial detail about it was posted later on BBC, but I don't know if these are the same cattle rustlers:

The sites in South-East Madagascar

Luckily, Tim had the opportunity to visit Tsitongambarika with his former Master's supervisor and another student, which is a tract of forest larger than Andohahela. The site he visited there is called Ampasy. He only went there because Ivorona was within the valley corridor where the bandits / military were. There has been research conducted here previously by BirdLife International, Asity Madagascar, QMM, and a number of other smaller NGOs. This research was compiled into a monograph. Unfortunately, nothing really peer-reviewed has been published from this forest, and so that is why relatively little is known. (possible new species discovery?! I'm told I can't give any further details, but stay tuned! ohh see what I did there? Cliffhanger!).

To me, this sounded like a difficult area to be in: steep hills, leeches, cold nights. But that's all part of what we signed up for, right? So Tim spent several weeks setting up a camp, training locals as guides, and setting up traps as it was impossible to follow the Hapalemur, essentially a last ditch effort. It was simply by pure luck that he caught one and was able to collar it. I know working with animals, and especially field work, requires mountains of patience, so it was a relief for me to hear that after nearly two months of daily trekking, a hapalemur was finally wearing a radio collar and could be more easily followed.

Sounds like things went downhill pretty quickly after this bit of good news. Aside from the lemur chewing off the PVC collar (thankfully I still had a few days in the US to order a replacement of stronger, more suitable material!), one of the local guides became upset with his wages, emptied the traps, and later returned to break the traps. While I am greatly simplifying the details here, Tim decided that rather than submit to this blackmail and endure a negative working relationship for the remainder of the study, and rather than risk a disgruntled ex-employee continuing to cause harm to the project and potentially the subjects of the study, he instead pulled out entirely from Tsitongambarika and opted to search for a new site. Furthermore, attempting to capture a hapalemur or simply continue habituation would require at least another 6 months, if not more. Too much time was being spent with very little to show for it.

There is one other option, a secondary forest fragment called Manatantely that sits in a mountainous grassland/agriculture matrix, which we hope to explore the week after I arrive. Though it seems that after several conversations among Tim and his supervisors that it might be better to start on collaring the hapalemurs at Mandena (the original littoral fragment site), and make that the central focus of his PhD thesis. Instead of a comparison between two forests, he will focus on Mandena, and then also conduct surveys throughout southeast Madagascar, for example to collect population density data, and fecal samples for analysis of genetic diversity, from hapalemurs in the sites already mentioned and a few others (Ambatosirongorongo, Grand Lavasoa, Lokaro). However, so much forest has been cleared for agriculture, and people hunt, so we really don't know if hapalemur will be present in all sites.

While I am slightly relieved to be arriving after all this chaos and while the dust settles, nobody escapes a PhD unscathed, and I know that anything can happen in the field. Or as Tim's supervisor more eloquently put it, 

"If you go to a foreign country and do the research you designed at your desk at home, you are likely to miss the niceties of biology."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Never resist.

"In life you can choose two paths: The path of least resistance, or the path you can't resist. - Never resist."         -Island Company Doctrine

After waiting all summer, it is finally coming together in just 10 days from now. I thought I'd done a great job packing, but after attending a conference and visiting family and friends, I returned to my bedroom to find that I had left out a few essential items--can't forget my binoculars!-- as well as several packages that had been ordered online and delivered in my absence.

Ummm I think this came from Thailand?! Leech proof socks, everybody. Definitely gonna need those.

I am off to spend a few months in Madagascar, comparing the feeding ecology of Southern lesser bamboo lemurs (Hapalemur meriodionalis) in a pristine rainforest and a fragmented littoral forest. More details on this later.

Introducing the Hapalemur meridionalis (Photo by Tim Eppley)

"Why lemurs," you may ask?

"Why not!"(Remember the Doctrine...)

This should not come as a surprise to those that know me; in fact, you may recall that time I traveled from Los Angeles to Uganda to follow wild chimpanzees around the forest (re-live the adventure here: and see photos here:

This time around, I will be joining a brilliant student, Tim, on his PhD project based at University of Hamburg, in collaboration with University of Antananarivo. Though I have already collected/analysed/deleted/analysed/deleted/slaved/analysed/deleted/analysed/deleted/analysed/written/defended/graduated with my PhD, I know that I still have a lot to learn. (Mostly sounds like I need to work on my analysis skills!) No but seriously, I have focused for several years on great ape cognition, so this study will be a fun and different challenge.

So many analyses! The less glorious side of working with primates is fitting models and data.

I could go on and on about what challenges I expect to face while roughing it in the forest (rain drenching my sleeping bag, malaria, bathing in the river with crocodiles, not bathing at all, not speaking the local language...) but for now I need to tackle my current challenge: fitting all this stuff into my backpack!

Probably going to pay some baggage fees...
Please stay tuned for updates as I venture out of the basement office and back out into the wild!