Table of Contents
So we conduct research. That’s obvious. But where are we conducting research? And why? Why is it so important that we head off to where ever we work to collect this data? And how are we collecting this data, anyway? What kind of questions are we trying to answer? And who is doing this work? My tax money better not be helping some long-haired tree-huggers hug exotic trees!
No, none of your tax money is going towards this research. We don’t get federal funding, which is not awesome. But what is awesome is that you are already thinking like a scientist with all of your questions. This page will answer them. Feel free to use the handy table of contents box to your right to navigate the page. It took me an hour to figure out.
Between 2000 and 2010, one new species was discovered in Madagascar every week. Madagascar is home to many, many, many species, many of which are endemic, meaning that they can be found nowhere else in the world. This is because Madagascar broke away from other landmasses over 80 million years ago. Many different species evolved to take advantage (or merely survive) Madagascar’s diverse environments in absolute isolation from humans (until no more than 3,000 years ago). When humans first landed on Madagascar, they were faced with lemurs the size of gorillas and elephant birds!
The spiny forest of southern Madagascar is perhaps one of the strangest environments in the world, with the (spiny) plants adapted to the extremely dry climate. 95% of the plant species in the spiny forests can only be found there. The dry forest of western Madagascar is left in the rain shadow of the eastern escarpment, causing a dry season during which trees lose their leaves. Finally, there is the rainforest of eastern Madagascar, which gets the full brunt of weather coming from the Indian Ocean. All of this precipitation allows the forests to stay green all year long and provides plenty of water for the many plants and animals living there (including terrestrial leeches).
We work smack dab in the northeastern rainforests (perhaps the wettest areas of Madagascar), in the largest (and newest) protected area in Madagascar: Makira Natural Park. Makira is connected to Masoala National Park, creating the largest protected area complex in Madagascar. Within the bounds of the Masoala-Makira protected area complex are our seven study sites and (at least) six carnivore species, over 20 lemur species, 85 bird and 30 small mammal species. The place packs a lot of biodiversity (and terrestrial leeches) into one forest complex.
Humans heavily influence the natural world around them. Logging, hunting, and the introduction of exotic species like dogs and cats to places where they aren’t normally found can negatively affect wildlife. Our goal is to provide important information on how these three factors affect Madagascar’s native species, before it’s too late…
- What carnivore, lemur, bird, and small mammals species live in Makira and what surveyed sites are they present at?
- How many fosa live in Makira and Makira’s neighbor, Masoala National Park?
- What are the size of lemur populations in Makira?
- Is the presence (or occupancy) of native species increasing or decreasing through the years at our two long-term study sites?
- Do native species prefer undisturbed or disturbed forests?
- How are hunting rates impacting the presence of native species in the forests?
- Are native species avoiding areas that exotic species use?
- Are native species changing their activity patterns to avoid interacting with exotic species?
- How can we decrease deforestation rates and encourage reforestation or agroforestry practices in Makira?
- How can we encourage sustainable hunting practices of common species and discourage the intensive hunting of threatened species?
- How can we limit the presence of exotics in Makira’s forests?
- How can we increase the quality of local livelihoods while still protecting Makira’s unique biodiversity?
Over the six years this study has been underway, we have amassed a huge amount of data: 125+ GB. This is equivalent to:
31,250 copies of your favorite song or 62 copies of your favorite movie, 3,181 complete sets of the Wheel of Time Series (including the prequel!) or 5,682 copies of the first five books of A Song of Ice and Fire for Kindle…
It’s a lot of data, is what I’m trying to say.
Out of all that data, we have over 20,000 wildlife observations, including: 1,000+ of lemurs, 3,500+ of birds, 2,400+ of small mammals, 1,700+ of native carnivores and 2,000+ of exotic species. We also have the equivalent of the student body of the University of Montana in pictures of people (~12,600).
How did we collect it all? Using two techniques: camera-trapping and line transects.
First off, we aren’t trapping cameras.
We are using cameras tied to trees to take pictures of wildlife. An animal walks, glides, flies, runs, jumps, skips, crawls (and on occasion, dances) in front of a camera and the camera takes a couple pictures. We look at the pictures, identify what species it is and how many there are, and then enter it and other information into a database. We have two cameras per camera “station” and around 24 camera stations per study site.
Camera traps get the majority of the species we study. But for the lemurs, we use…
Line transects are very simple.
Step 1: Mark out a straight path of considerable length through the forest.
Step 2: Put up little flags to tell you when you are at certain points (50 m, 100 m, 150 m, etc.).
Step 3: Walk (don’t run) the path and look/listen for lemurs. When you see/hear lemurs, identify the species, take a GPS point so you know the location, count how many there are and write down other important information.
Step 4: ???
Step 5: Profit!
…. At least, that’s the theory. Our reality is:
Step 1: Plan to mark out a straight path through the forest (2 km or 1.25 miles, in our case).
Go straight about 100 m and end up on the edge of a precipitous drop.
Turn in a better direction (i.e., anywhere not facing a cliff) and decide to continue going straight that way.
Fight through the wall of thorny tree trunks and thorny vines. End up on the edge of a precipitous drop.
Repeat 5 times.
Step 2: Throw up your hands and decide to follow the trail.
Step 3: Put up little flags that tell you when you are at certain points (50 m, 100 m, 150 m, etc.).
Realize halfway through that you are using a measuring tape with the first 26.3 m torn off, thus making the previous distances on marker flags incorrect.
Decide to go back and correct the marker flags after you finish, and continue on, hoping that you are writing down the correct distances.
Step 4: Wake up at the crack of dawn on some other day, get to the start of the transect through some strenuous hiking and walk the path for lemurs.
Step 5: Do some more strenuous hiking (2 km worth). Flick off leeches. Trip once for every five leeches you flick off.
Step 6: Get to the end of the transect, not having seen or heard one lemur. Write down the survey end-time and stare at the water-proof blank pages of the Rite in the Rain book, just sitting there…mocking you.
Step 7: Turn around and see a whole (gaggle?) of lemurs that you can’t write down because the survey is OVER.
Step 8: Make it, aching in every bone and muscle, back to camp, eat a plate of rice and count your bruises.
Step 9: Thank the powers that be that you don’t have to do a nocturnal survey (tripping rate increased by 100%) and go through your plan to pay off your student loans in 50 years for entertainment purposes.
We did diurnal and nocturnal lemur surveys at all but one study site while our camera traps ran. We walked 511 miles to get all 1,000+ lemur observations. How far is that? Here’s a handy map!
This is probably the most important section of this website. The WHY section. WHY do we do everything we do for some bird pictures and lemur sightings? WHY do we have to know how habitat degradation and exotic species affect native species?
And, most important of all: WHY should YOU care?
I’ll answer that right now: I don’t know. It’s not my job to tell you, dear reader, why you should care. My job is to give you the information objectively and let you draw your own conclusions. If you find that you couldn’t really give a rat’s behind about some weasels and monkey wannabes halfway across the world, what I say isn’t going to change your mind.
But I can give you three reasons as to why I care, and why I find this important. Maybe you’ll agree with me by the end of this.
To make any sort of conservation decisions, you need to do the groundwork and answer the basic questions as listed in the What section. What species are where, how many of them are there and what is going on with them as time goes by? You can’t decide that a species is threatened unless you know how many individuals there are, and you can’t decide a patch of forest should be a protected area unless you know what species are in there, and if they actually need protecting.
That’s the practical reason. My personal reason: novelty. A little-studied area or species offers the kind of visceral surprises and excites the kind of instinctual curiosity that must have driven our ancestors as they walked out of Africa (or at least made the trip better). Nowadays, there are very, very few places that people haven’t been on Earth, but there still remains species that no one knows anything about. There are still questions out there that need answering.
John Hammond: How can we stand in the light of discovery and not act? (Jurassic Park: the Movie)
Ignore the fact that I just sided with (at best) an old naively arrogant movie character and (at worst) a greedy book villain that is the epitome of hubris. Onto the next reason!
The answers to the effect questions in the WHAT section seem a bit obvious, and in a global view, repetitive. Cats eat birds and small mammals? Chopping down trees is bad for animals? Really? Are you sure?
Across the world, people are trying to figure out how habitat degradation and exotic species are influencing the species in their study system of choice. Why? Because we can usually guess how habitat degradation and exotic species will affect things in general. But when it comes down to specific systems and species, who knows?
For example, we’ve found that crested ibises actually do better at study sites that have a mix of rainforest and degraded forest patches. Meanwhile, the ultra-common magpie-robin does much better at study sites with more rainforest. I didn’t predict that….in fact, I thought that the opposite would happen.
Fosa are in pretty much every patch of forest, whereas most apex predators can’t handle habitat disturbance. We’ve got similar observation rates for lemur species at intact and degraded sites, whereas I was sure that we’d be observing a lot more lemurs at intact sites.
And as for cats…well, that seems to be going about as we thought, although there needs to be more research. Cats = bad for native species.
So, Reason #1 that we should look at the effects of things like habitat degradation and exotic species is: sometimes, what seems obvious or common sense isn’t actually right.
Reason #2 is: you can’t tailor conservation actions to a region if you don’t know what’s going on in that specific region. It’d be like getting invited to a formal event, but not knowing what type of event it is. You know what formal dress is, but is it a business dinner? A wedding? What if you dress for a cocktail party and end up at a funeral?
Because we actually did the work in Makira, we are now able to tailor conservation plans towards Makira. What the preliminary results are showing us is that habitat degradation isn’t the biggest problem for most species, at least not compared to hunting and dogs/cats.
This is what makes conservation more efficient and more likely to work. Which leads us to…
We know why we are gathering the basic data: so we can have a foundation to work off of.
We know why we are looking at the effects: so we can know what the problems are.
Now we just have to figure out how to solve them.
This is where it gets messy. Because now we have to start working with humans.
This is where we get a lot of ardent armchair conservationists typing furiously on their laptops, saying that we have to set up a protected area and keep everything out and save the precious animals.
First, what they are suggesting is 1) extremely expensive and 2) more than likely in violation of numerous human rights laws.
But more importantly, they are forgetting (or just not wanting to acknowledge) that the developing world (where most of the habitat destruction and biodiversity problems are occurring) is simply late to the party.
Before conservation was a thought, the people of the now developed world were performing the same actions under the guise of colonizing, settling, manifest destiny-ing and “civilizing” the natural world. We chopped down trees like it was going out of style, rerouted rivers and leveled mountains. We killed entire species for their skins/feathers/meat or for fun/prestige/science. We saw it as our duty to God and the greater, pioneering Spirit of Man to impose our will upon nature and bring her to heel like a well-trained, well-manicured dog.
And now we sit on the results of our spoils and tell others that they can’t do the same. Glass houses, anyone?
In the coming years, we are going to have to face the fact that human livelihoods and wildlife conservation are (and always have been) intricately, confusingly and irritatingly knotted together, like strands of Christmas lights thrown willy-nilly into a box. And taking a butcher’s knife to that knot isn’t going to help anything; we have to sit and patiently, carefully, pry out each strand and determine how everything is connected.
What is going on in the developing world is a test. We cannot keep others down just because they didn’t have the foresight to be destructive while it was still popular. But neither can we sit back and allow species to go extinct. You can’t just make the locals stop chopping down trees, especially if that is their one source of cooking fuel, or how they build their homes to live in or their boats to travel in. Nor can you “just make” the locals stop eating that species, especially if that species is a cheap way of adding necessary protein to daily meals that might just be huge helpings of plain white rice.
All over the world in biodiversity hotspots like Madagascar, there is a growing population of people are going to go do what most people do: determine what they need, determine how much money/time they have and find the most cost-effective solution to their needs.
A lot of the time, the native species are going to lose out…unless we figure out a solution.
In conclusion, this research provides many things to many people. It provides natural history information for bookworms that just want to learn more about certain species. It provides further evidence of the effects humans are having on their small, local world. It can provide tailored suggestions for actions to conserve the biodiversity in the Masoala-Makira region.
Perhaps most importantly, it can provide another opportunity to figure out how to integrate the needs of the environment and the needs of the people. We’re going to get many opportunities to practice this, and we’ll need to practice, because the way things are going, soon this necessary integration won’t just be a tightrope the developing world will have to walk. All of us will be walking that rope.
Who is a rather vague question, so I’m going to hit it from all angles. Who are we, the researchers, the boots on the ground collecting data? Who are our collaborators, without whom we could have never done half the analyses we’ve done? Who are our sponsors, those fine, fine organizations who decided to throw money at us? And who are the people of Madagascar? Before you ask, yes, there are actually people living in Madagascar. Over 20 million of them, in fact. Let’s start there.
The first thing you need to know about the Malagasy is that they LOVE rice (vary). They have it with every meal and will eat heaps of it, because they believe it makes them strong (matanjaka). The second thing you need to know about the Malagasy is that they think any foreigner who isn’t Middle Eastern or white (vazha) has to be Malagasy. The people of Madagascar and their culture is an intoxicating mix of Austronesian, east African, Arabic and French. The Asian side brought the rice obsession, the African side brought the cattle (zebu) obsession.
In the late 1800s, Madagascar was colonized by the French, and didn’t gain independence until 1960. Like many a young, independent country, it has had its troubled political times, of which the 2009 coup is an example. In many ways Madagascar is a young country, with almost half the population teenaged or younger.
There are multiple ethnic groups and dialects in Madagascar, depending on where you are. In the center of the island is the capitol, Antananarivo, a sprawling red metropolis filled mostly with the Merina, an ethnic group that visually harkens back to the southeast Asian heritage. As you go towards the coasts, you begin to encounter people who look more African than Asian. In the northeast, where we do our research, we have the Betsimisaraka ethnic group. Although they do have their own culture, my impression of the Malagasy (the Betsimisaraka in particular) was that they wouldn’t look out of place on the streets of Oakland, San Francisco or New York, that they are great dancers and have amazing taste in music and food.
The Researchers and Collaborators
The in-country group:
Lemur specialist extraordinaire: Felix Ratelolahy (Wildlife Conservation Society, Madagascar Program)
Makira small mammal expert: Vonjy Andrianjakarivelo (Wildlife Conservation Society, Madagascar Program)
Malagasy field assistants/vazha babysitters: Donah, Mark’helin and Wilson
Local/short-term Malagasy guides and cooks: C.B. Beandraina, B.A. Salofo, R.C. Christian, Didisy, B. Papin, Rabeson, Tobey, Cressent, Sassid, Zoozy, Augustain and Donne
Translator/local kid with extraordinary potential: J. Fernando
Further acknowledgement must go to the locals who helped hike our equipment into the field
The out-country group (a.k.a, the vazhas):
Pioneering researcher/dedicated father: Dr. Zach Farris (Virginia Tech)
The (laidback) advisor and analysis expert: Dr. Marcella Kelly (Virginia Tech)
The (driven) advisor and grant-getter: Dr. Sarah Karpanty (Virginia Tech)
Honorary Malagasy and career student: Asia Murphy/me (Virginia Tech)
Small Malagasy mammals whisperer: Dr. Steve Goodman (American Museum of Natural History and Association Vahatra)
Statistical genius: Brian Gerber (Colorado State University)
Expert on bushmeat hunting in Makira: Dr. Chris Golden (Health and Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages, Wildlife Conservation Society)
Research assistants/volunteers: A. Evans, T. Nowlan, K. Miles, H. Doughty, K. Galbreath, C. Miller, J. Larson, H. Davis, E. Ranney and T. Russell
Overachieving undergraduate: Hailey Boone (Virginia Tech)
Data enter-ers/minions: multitudes of undergraduates
In-country mental support: the PCVs and Monkey House
Thanks for giving us (and our collaborators) money and/or on-the-ground logistical support!