Week 5: Microbial Ecology Laboratory, Iowa State University

February 12th, 2015

Kelsey King ’15, Bahnick Fellow in Ecology, Evolution & Organismal Biology

I’ve begun edits on my introduction and  data analysis, which is the main goal for me with regard to finishing up the project. I’m very excited to see what comes out of this research, and also where the project goes in the future. This week, I also got the opportunity to speak with Dr. Keiser about graduate school. My main struggle has been narrowing in on a project I’m confident that I can commit to for some time. Throughout my time as an intern, I’ve gotten many perspectives on graduate schooling and how to find and get into a program I’m interested in. Unfortunately, I was not able to do a final sample, but I had a wonderful last few days analyzing data and saying my goodbyes.

This experience was really wonderful. My time at Iowa State reaffirmed my decision to attend Cornell College for my bachelor’s degree, but also gave me insight into the graduate world and how I might find a school for me. Every lab I visited seem to have a very distinct community full of interesting people, and I’m really grateful that I got the opportunity to work with them.

All that’s left for me to do is to complete the work I have left in order to be able to submit my paper to my capstone committee.  Then I can happily say that my project is complete.

My lab’s building.

Week Six: Azafady Conservation Program, Madagascar

February 6th, 2015

Elijah Schumacher ’15, Black Fellow in Conservation Biology

It’s my last week in Madagascar, but I’ll leave that reality for the end of this post. This week was pretty crazy; time speeds up when you get to the end of an experience like this and you realize you have less left than you thought. Or I do anyways. Early Friday morning we headed out to do a bird survey out near the mangroves and then continued on to visit the flying fox colony. We saw a lot of birds: kingfishers, kites, Vasa parrots, a sparrow hawk, an assortment of colorful pigeons, coucals, and , to top it off, a hook-billed Vanga, an elusive shrike-like bird which Sam said he’d spent weeks searching for up in Northern Madagascar. The flying foxes were much more nervous on this visit although we approached the roost trees as carefully and quietly as possible. There was a lot of evidence of human disturbance in the area; smaller trees right underneath the roost tree recently cut down and so on. We estimated the colony size at between 120 to 160 individuals. Since QMM hasn’t included the colony in their baseline reports of the area (S6 where the bats live will be mined) Sam plans on writing up a short article so that there’s a record of it. I put him in touch with Tammy Mildenstein, Cornell’s resident flying fox expert (and my Capstone Advisor), since he was wondering what an appropriate journal to try to publish in would be and Sam says she helped out a lot.

Baby chameleon

This baby spiny chameleon is only a few days old!

After we returned from our bird and bat expedition, I wrote up a list of review questions for our Club A end-of-scheme quiz and party, and ACP received an official invitation to Raziva’s wedding! (Raziva, pronounced “Rajeeva” is one of the local guides). The last Club A meeting was pretty wild; we held it outside and I got to see Hoby in action as a teacher for the first time. The kids love him, of course, and he’s great at keeping things exciting without getting the kids too wound up and losing their focus. We handed out a ton of stickers and got to hear some impressions of wooly lemur whoops and brown lemur grunts and even a demonstration of a sifaka hopping on the ground. After the lesson we handed out what the British call biscuits and we call…well, sweet crackers, I guess, and juice and Monika and I (the ones who dared to bring cameras to Club A) got absolutely mobbed with shouts of “Photo, vazaha! Photo!”

Club A

Club Atsatsky


After Club A, I went and had a chat with Angelo, the director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens’ project in Sainte-Luce, which is working with QMM to do some conservation work in the forest fragments. Azafady and MBG are working towards a more collaborative approach to working in the same area and I wanted to get Angelo’s perspective and hear a little more about MBG’s work in general. He was polite and provided a clearer view of some of the forest management strategies already in place, including information about the fire-breaks around the forest, fines for cutting living wood in the forest, permits for cutting timber for houses, etc.

On Sunday we went to Raziva’s wedding. It was humbling to be asked to take part in such a personal and important event in his life and to be so welcomed into the community. We didn’t see most of the wedding ceremony because it took place in a crowded house. We waited outside with most of the village until a beaming Raziva and his very serious bride emerged for the gift-giving and sat behind a wooden table while the villagers piled gifts on and around it. I asked Raziva’s cousin, who was hanging out with us why the bride looked so serious and he said that she is supposed to act sad at her wedding since she is leaving the home of her family and she has three sisters and two brothers. After that it was easy to see occasional slips in her serious mask. After the gift-giving, Raziva passed around buckets of tokagasy, the local sugar-cane moonshine and everyone proceeded to dance the night away. It was an incredible experience that I wouldn’t have in a thousand years thought I’d get to be a part of when I first came here.


A serious bride and groom.






…and not-so-serious celebrators!

I spent Monday and Tuesday gathering data for my pandanus project, wandering around the village taking pictures, playing some final football matches, photo-documenting ACP data collection, and enjoying my final days in Sainte-Luce. It was hard to leave on Wednesday morning, but practically the whole village came to see us off and we finally rattled away in a dangerously overloaded camion towards Fort Dauphin and, eventually, home.

Many thanks to everyone who made this an incredible experience; the Azafady staff, the people of Sainte-Luce, the Malagasy guides, my fellow volunteers, my fellowship donors, and the many, many people back home who offered their support, guidance, love, money, and encouragement. And now it’s time, finally, say goodbye to Madagascar and to all the wonderful people I’ve met here. Despite occasional homesickness and missing family and friends, I don’t want to leave, now that it comes down to it, but I’m sure that wherever life takes me and whatever I do, I’ll remember this gorgeous island and everything it taught me and, with any luck, I’ll be back.


Saying goodbye to Sainte-Luce. Nearly the whole village came out to see us off.

Week Five: Azafady Conservation Program, Madagascar

February 6th, 2015

Elijah Schumacher ’15, Black Fellow in Conservation Biology

There is a solid chance that this week will stand out for the rest of my life as “The week I saw the most lemurs.” On Friday, after saying goodbye to Sam Prettyman and Nadja, who are leaving the program, we greeted the newest volunteer, Alex, and headed to the nature reserve, Nahampoana (pronounced “naam-poona”) just outside Fort Dauphin. I saw two iconic, striking lemur species; Verreaux’s sifaka, a beautiful, graceful white lemur that’s so adapted to life in the trees that it can only move on the ground by hopping (which is really fun to watch), and the Ring-tail, the only lemur that spends most of its time on the ground, and the one that everyone pictures in their head when they think of lemurs. I also saw Southern bamboo lemurs and my old friends, the fat-tailed dwarf and mouse lemurs.


A Verreaux’s sifaka, hangin’ out.



Grabbing a ride on mom’s back (and hiding out). This mischievous little lemur spent most of his time antagonizing the other lemurs.

On Saturday, we made the long trek back to Sainte-Luce, though without Helen and Sabina, and settled in for the last two weeks. Sam Roberts, the Conservation Coordinator, came back to start trials of new research methods and formulating a list of conservation priorities for the upcoming year, so this week was a little different in terms of field-work. On Sunday we headed off to a long section of beach in another forest fragment (S17) which Sam had earlier declared “prime real estate for sea-turtles” to see if we could find eggs or signs of turtle nests. After an especially hairy pirogue ride on a choppy sea during which we came within an inch or two of capsizing, we arrived on the beach and started hunting for signs of turtles. We didn’t see any, but we did get to see a humpback whale and her calf playing far out at sea. What an incredible experience to see a whale surge out of the ocean and crash back again!

On Monday, the rain started and it kept up until Wednesday. We’d head out for fieldwork slightly damp and return soaked to the bone without too much hope of really getting dry before it was time to go again. Luckily, I’d experienced weather like this while camping and collecting data in the Boundary Waters with my Ecology class last year, and I was ready to trudge out into the rain, waterproof notebook in hand, and soldier on. Ah, the glamor and romance of field biology. Since lemurs object to rain, we focused on herp sweeps, habitat monitoring, and searching for the endangered Phelsuma antanosy. Luckily, the guides helped keep our spirits up; as we were sitting in the longhouse on a gloomy Tuesday afternoon, they started shouting and singing a song with only one word everyone could understand: “pistache”.  “Are you singing a song about peanuts?” we asked. Instead of answering, Tsiraiky went tearing off to the cook-house, singing and whooping and came back with a bowl of hot, freshly-roasted peanuts. I also learned some Malagasy proverbs from Hoby (who is as kind and fun as I’d thought when I first met him), and Aime, a guide who just came out from Fort Dauphin about conservation: “Hazo tokana tsy ala” which means “One tree does not a forest make” and community: “Tondro tokana tsy mahazo hao – One finger cannot remove a louse.”


Alex and I eating lychees and hanging out with some of the local kids.

I took advantage of the rainy days to make some data collection sheets for Azafady to use in documenting snake species in the area, as well as some for my own pandanus research. My BIO 485 independent project at Cornell (sponsored by Professor Marty Condon) will focus on the potentially mutualistic relationship between pandanus plants and their herp specialists. I propose that herps provide a service to the pandanus plants they hunt, breed, and rear their offspring in by offering a defense against herbivorous arthropods that feed on the pandanus. To investigate this, I’m documenting levels of damage caused by herbivore depredation on pandandus plants and comparing them to herp populations. My theory is that a high herp population in a plant will result in lower damage from arthropod herbivores. I started gathering data on Wednesday as soon as the rain subsided and I’m already learning things! Namely that it takes quite a while to properly search a pandanus plant for herps and herbivore damage; they’re uncommonly sharp and awkwardly shaped plants.

I got to talk to Sam Roberts a good bit this week about our field methods; we discussed some of the reasoning behind them and ways of improving them. We also had a team meeting to talk the conservation priorities for the upcoming year in terms of what species/areas are most at risk of being extirpated or destroyed, what projects Azafady has research permits for, and which potential projects are the most likely to make a real difference with the amount of money and man-power available. I was really glad that Sam made us volunteers part of that conversation because it moved along my understanding of the logistics and planning that go into conservation research.


Research team. From left to right: Solo, Alex, Matt, Hoby, Sam, and Memmu

Week Four: Azafady Conservation Program, Madagascar

February 6th, 2015

Elijah Schumacher ’15, Black Fellow in Conservation Biology

This Friday was our last day in S7. We started the day out with an early morning bird survey down on the river (which people say is crocodile-infested, though there are few sightings and fleeting ones at that) and I found that I could identify almost every bird we heard. Most of the rest of the day was devoted to packing up and leaving S7 behind us. Once we were settled back into base camp in S9, after a pirogue ride across the river (which some people find terrifying but I enjoy) and a relaxing walk back, we sat down and drew up a lesson plan for English class on Saturday. Unfortunately, there’s no Club A meeting, since Tsiraiky has headed back to Fort Dauphin on his scheduled break and the one guide left, Eric, doesn’t regularly work with ACP and doesn’t feel comfortable doing an Club A lesson.


Camp at S7. Simple but comfortable.

English class on Saturday was hectic to say the least. Matt and I taught the beginner’s class about giving and receiving directions with minimal translation help from Eric who focused on helping out with the more advanced class. We instead relied on drawings, pantomime, lots and lots of one-on-one work, and wrapped up with a rousing and somewhat confused version of the hokey pokey (to work on “right” and “left” in a fun way). It was definitely the toughest English class I’ve taught so far, but incredibly rewarding because later, on our way to play soccer, we saw one of our students in the village and asked him for directions to the football pitch and he was able to give a rough, but accurate answer in English!


Bridging the language barrier

Sunday was a relaxing day. We pirogued over to a little island and I had some time to swim, catch too much sun, and read “Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions” by David Quammen. This has turned out to be the perfect book to read in Madagascar because it talks quite a lot about Madagascar itself and how islands in general have greatly influenced our current understanding of evolution, particularly as it relates to species and ecosystem dispersal, immigration, and extinction. It’s exciting to read about an ecological issue, for instance the SLOSS (single large or several small) debate regarding the optimal method of setting up nature reserves in fragmented habitats, and see the immediate and currents implications of that issue. This book gives me a lot to think about, and I’m constantly discovering in new ways how relevant it is in our modern world as humanity continues to spread and species continue to vanish.


Traveling by pirogue. The tall tree in the background is called the ‘traveller’s palm’ and is endemic to Madagascar.

On Monday and Tuesday we found ourselves short staffed; Tsiraiky and Sabina had both gone back to Fort Dauphin early and Helen had hurt her foot and was in no shape to be trekking around doing field work. We did some lemur transects and habitat sampling, but all in all, they were laid back days. On the plus side, that gave me some time to think about my pandanus research. On Wednesday we made the trip back to Fort Dauphin. The camion was as bumpy as I remembered it, but the trip was fun especially since we got a load of lychees (the best fruit in the world, in my opinion) directly before we left. Lychee season is in full swing right now; they’re absolutely everywhere and oh, so delicious.

Fort Dauphin was a bit of a shock after the calm and relative solitude of Sainte-Luce; sort of like going from Mount Vernon to New York City, but even more so. It’s more or less impossible to accurately describe Fort Dauphin in any sort of a concise way, so all I’ll say is that is can be an awfully hectic and, to me, wildly interesting city. We met Hoby (pronounced “hooby”), the head guide for ACP, in town and he’ll be coming back out to the bush with us. Hoby was a school teacher in Fort Dauphin for years and, after meeting him, I can tell that he was excellent at it. He’s soft-spoken and has a certain kind, balanced quality to him which some of the volunteers who already know him call his “Hoby-charm.” He also seems to know almost everyone in Fort Dauphin in some way and is the perfect person to help us navigate the crowded streets and bustling open air market.


Hoby, the snake-whisperer.



I discovered in the market that everyone will try to speak French to vazaha because Madagascar was, until 1960, a French colony. This was bad for me because my French is worse than my Malagasy. My mantra became “Tsy mahay francais. Kely-kely mahay Malagasy,” meaning “I’m not skilled at French” (which is an understatement) and “I’m a little skilled at Malagasy” (which is pretty generous). This statement was usually met with a laugh when I inevitably failed to understand the Malagasy very much better than the French, but most people seemed to appreciate the effort. I also got to type on a French style keyboard for the first time, which was a little challenging at first. I had hoped to e-mail Marty Condon and Tammy Mildenstein (my advisors for this trip) and give them an update on my time in Madagascar so far and some of my project ideas, but it seems that Cornell’s IT department doesn’t accept log-on attempts from internet cafes in Madagascar which was, although initially frustrating, reassuring in a way. My time in Fort Dauphin has been interesting; it’s unlike anywhere else I’ve been, but after a couple days, I’m ready to get back to Sainte-Luce and research.


A street-view of Fort Dauphin

Week Three: Azafady Conservation Program, Madagascar

February 6th, 2015

Elijah Schumacher ’15: Black Fellow of Conservation Biology

Hi again! Already on to week three! It seems that time moves differently in Madagascar; for the most part, the weeks have flown. So let’s see: this week I need to make good on my promise to talk about the research I’m actually doing here in Sainte-Luce.

So for the last two weeks we’ve been focusing on lemur research. There are two forms of lemur research that we conduct here at Azafady: population documenting and behavioral observation. We gather population data on the three nocturnal lemurs of Sainte-Luce:  the wooly lemur (Avahi meridionalis), a smallish lemur (though larger than dwarf or mouse lemurs) that lives in family groups consisting of a mated pair and one or two offspring and has an eerie whooping call; the fat-tailed dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus medius, which is the most common lemur in Sainte-Luce and really does have a fat tail: they store fat in it for hibernation; and the mouse lemur (Microcebus spp.), a tiny, big-eyed fluff-balls that can move blindingly fast when they want to. To find these nimble tree dwellers we walk lemur transects at night, rough paths that run from one side of the forest to the other.

We move slowly through the forest with our headlamps, trying to avoid catching spider-webs with our faces and scanning the trees above us. It takes awhile to learn the best searching technique: a thorough (but not leisurely) sweep through the trees, paying special attention to spots where lemurs are most likely to be perched works well. “What are those spots?” you may ask, but I can’t really tell you; knowing where to look is 85% instinct and 15% crooks in branches. The moment when I spot eye-shine, those two glowing orbs staring straight back at me always gives me a rush. At this point, I can generally recognize species just by their eye-shine. Wooly lemur eyes glow a bright, fiery orange while dwarf lemur eyes are a paler yellow. It’s nearly impossible to confuse either for mouse lemur eye-shine since mouse lemurs are so much smaller and favor the trunks of small saplings and understory trees while the larger species prefer the branches of canopy trees.  After we find a lemur we write down the species, time, sex, life stage (adult, juvenile, infant) what it was doing when we found it, the species of tree it was in, how far it was from the transect, etc. etc. All this data will be entered into “Vortex” a form of population viability analysis software which will provide a range of possible population densities for each species, how long a viable population might be expected to persist, and possibly even how a species might respond to continued pressures, as well as other information.

Behavioral data collection focuses on another lemur; the larger red-collared brown lemurs (Eulemur collaris) which live in troupes and do a great deal of traveling. These feisty creatures aren’t active specifically at night or during the day; their schedule is more up in the air (although they do seem to operate in some sort of a 24-hour cycle which includes sleeping, feeding, resting, grooming, playing, traveling and other normal behaviors). This lifestyle is referred to as cathemerality and is actually fairly common among primates. However, despite their seemingly eclectic schedule, I have never seen a brown lemur at night although I have seen them probably about half the days since I’ve been here. There are two or three troupes of brown lemurs, which consist of seven to ten animals, in the S9 fragment, which covers about 377 hectares (that’s about 90 acres) of forest. They have fairly regular movement patterns and often come through (or at least near) our camp. Azafady already has a solid sense of what the brown lemur population density is like (since they have large home-ranges and are easy to detect due to their group life-style) so we spend a lot of time documenting their behavior. On these behavior observation excursions (which are really fun) we trek around until we find a troupe of lemurs and then settle down to watch them. We record the number of individuals in the group, the sex and life stages, and then document the behavior of a focal individual (usually the first adult spotted) who serves as a bellwether for the group. Behavioral observations are recorded every two minutes for an hour. Sometimes we spend the hour sitting on the ground, watching the lemurs rest and groom each other or feed in the trees and sometimes the lemurs decide to go on the road and we struggle to keep up as they leap gracefully from tree to tree while we stumble around, pick out way through the underbrush and try to keep an eye on the focal individual. These sessions are exhilarating and, as often as not, they end before the hour is up as the lemurs casually leave us in the dust, huffing and puffing and craning our necks as we peer up into the tree-tops, hoping for a glimpse of a fluffy tail or straining our ears for their characteristic grunting.


A female brown lemur. Females have grey markings while males have black ones.

On Monday this week, Jane and Graham headed out; Jane to see more lemurs elsewhere in Madagascar and Graham to Thailand to explore his interest in Eastern Mysticism. I’m sorry to see them go, but excited for the adventures they’re moving on to! Graham left with this wisdom: “Man, I got pooped on by a lemur! Some of it got in my beard but it changed my life. It’ll happen to you too and it’ll change YOUR life.”  He had a point; getting pooped on by a lemur is a very real occupational hazard out here, especially when collecting fecal samples, and it brings a certain zest to field biology. Somehow though, I don’t think I’ll need to get pooped on by a lemur for this experience to profoundly affect my life and my career choices.

A good-bye game of "Bali" for Graham with the Saint-Luce Footballers.

A good-bye game of “Bali” for Graham with the Saint-Luce Footballers.

On Tuesday we packed up and headed out to a secondary field location. ACP works primarily on two protected fragments, S9 and S8, which are next to each other and within a reasonable walk from our camp in Sainte-Luce. However, they also do some work in S7, a fragment across the river which will be destroyed for ilmenite mining sometime in the next few years, possibly as soon as 2016. Ilmenite is a titanium-iron oxide mineral which occurs in the mineral sands of Sainte-Luce and is used as a white pigment base in paint, paper, and plastics. It is black in its raw form and lies mixed in with the sand, it can be seen by just scratching away the top layer of sand with a stick. QMM, a subsidiary of mining giant Rio Tinto, has an eighty year contract to extract ilmenite in Sainte-Luce and two other sites along the Southeastern seaboard. When all’s said and done they will have cleared nearly 60% of the remaining littoral forest. Research at S7 focuses on the Phelsuma antanosy, a critically endangered day gecko which is a pandanus specialist. S7 contains a significant proportion of the entire species which will need to be translocated before QMM begins work.


…and its worth cutting down half the forest to get at.

Life in S7 is a lot like life at base camp, but wetter. It rained fairly consistently, most notably on one evening when Sabina, Prettyman, and I, guided by Solo, set off for a distant transect to do a herp sweep and got poured on for three and a half hours. On the upside, we saw seventeen (!) Madagascarophis colubrinus, a Malagasy cat-eyed snake that hunts frogs on rainy nights. Herp sweeps consist of moving slowly through the forest and searching for any and all herpetofauna; frogs, geckos, snakes, chameleons, et cetera for one hour. We document the species, life stage, sex (if possible) and habitat type. I vastly enjoy herp sweeps; you get to slow down and really examine every bit of your surroundings and find a lot of tiny, interesting creatures, but they’re more fun when it’s drier out.


A Phelsuma antanosy. These gorgeous little lizards are critically endangered and about to lose a significant portion of their native habitat

Thursday night we sat out under the stars and watching a lightning storm in the distance. We talked about how incredibly sad it is to think that we are some of the last people to see this part of the forest; that everything we’re studying and trying to protect here is going to be uprooted and dredge-mined within just a few years. Even though the forest has been here for thousands of years, that knowledge gives it an ephemeral feel; a sense of impermanence and foreboding. For me, that highlights the importance of conservation work and instills a sense of urgency. I don’t want my generation to be the last to walk through the woods and watch lemurs playing in the trees, to experience wild-life actually in the wild.

Week Two: Azafady Conservation Program, Madagascar

February 6th, 2015

Elijah Schumacher ’15, Black Fellow in Conservation Biology

What a week! To quote Bill Watterson, “The days are just packed!” Friday morning (and yes, I know it’s weird to start blogs with Friday, but I’m sure we’ll all get used to it) I got up at the crack of dawn and headed into the woods with Matt (my Site Mentor and Azafady’s assistant Volunteer Coordinator), Tsiraiky (the interim head guide) , Sam, Graham, and Monika (fellow volunteers) and Babaly (one of the fantastic local guides) A bird survey consists of sitting in one spot and watching and listening for all birds in the area. Each time we hear or see a bird we take down the species (identifying them is a breeze for Tsiraiky and Babaly and a battle for the rest of us) and document whether it is within fifty meters of our position or farther away. This gets tricky when there are several individuals of the same species in the area; you have to try to recognize differences in calls from individuals of the same species or keep a constant eye on the bird so you don’t accidentally count it multiple times. This would be pretty much hopeless for me at this point, but Babaly and Tsiraiky’s “forest eyes and ears” keep us from over-counting. Some birds common to the Malagasy forest are Malagasy coucals (a type of cuckoo with a distinctive booming call), Souimanga sunbirds (you can think of them as the Old World equivalent of a hummingbird), Vasa parrots, vangas  shrike-like passerine birds native to Madagascar and the Comoros Islands) and Madagascar turtle-doves. The bird survey was a lot of fun because I got to practice training my ear to different calls; an invaluable skill when it comes to bird identification, as any ornithologist will tell you.

Later in the day I went for a stroll in the forest near camp to look for pandanus plants. My last course at Cornell before coming out here was Plant Morphology and thinking about what a plant “sees” or “feels” in that class sparked a hitherto undiscovered enthusiasm for plant evolution and plant “behavior.” I discussed the possibility of researching the unusual pandanus plants of Madagascar with Professor Marty Condon, who was enthusiastic and supportive (classic Marty qualities) and we set up a Bio 485 independent research project directly before I left. Pandanus plants are fascinating: long, spiky leaf-blades with deep V’s indented in the middle sprout from a central rosette and splay out and upwards to catch water and falling detritus, which they funnel towards the center of the plant. These remarkable leaves act essentially as roots thrust up into the air instead of down into the soil. This is a good adaptation for life in sandy, ocean side soils which drain quickly and are relatively nutrient impoverished. But wait; it gets better: the water that runs down the leaves collects in little pools in the leaf axils (where the leaf connects to the plant base) and supports aquatic microcosms; functioning ecosystems in miniature, complete with specialized apex predators which come in the form of frogs and day geckos.  It’s a system that has been woefully understudied and offers dozens of intriguing questions and possibilities, but I’ll come back to that later. Back to my walk. So I was poking around, trying to get a feel for how many pandanus were out there (a lot) and how many of them had herps in them (also, a lot) and how easy it is to actually look around inside them and see what’s there (it’s not), when I found a little mouse lemur sleeping the day away inside one! I’d never heard of mouse lemurs sleeping in pandanus (they usually sleep in tree holes during the day) and I’d never seen one so close! I felt pretty accomplished about the whole experience; I was able to do some reconnaissance for my own research and observe a lemur behavior that I hadn’t been aware of. However, as I was chatting with Matt a bit later, I discovered that solo walks in the forest are forbidden for vazaha for a variety of reasons; Azafady doesn’t want to lose a volunteer and “Koba”, the forest police, worry that unattended vazaha in the forest may be carrying out scientific research without the proper permits. This just means that all future excursions into the forest need to be made with one of the local guides.


Mouse lemur in a pandanus. One of the cuter things I’ve seen.

On Saturday morning we headed out to teach Club Atsatsky, which literally means “Club gecko,” our weekly conservation class. Club A and English classes had formerly met twice a week in the local school until the school-teachers decided that this gave them the power to start making unreasonable demands (that Azafady build a new school despite the current one’s good condition, that they build them a new house, etc).  Azafady’s refusal to give in to their demands on the grounds that there are many more pressing uses for funds and volunteer labor resulted in the loss of the school as a Club A meeting place, which is tragic since Club A and Azafady’s English classes are the only education many of the children in the village receive. Lack of a meeting place has forced Azafady to cut down to one class per week.  That one class is exciting, though! We started off with a rousing round of loud, enthusiastic song. This was my favorite part of the lesson because I don’t have to understand the words to feel the music. There’s a certain kind of magic in a hundred voices committing fully to a song without particular attention to getting the tune or timing quite right; it’s not discordant, rather engaging and raw. After the singing, Tsiraiky asked review questions from the previous lessons, while we handed out stickers for correct responses, and then went over the lesson plan (which we had drawn up the night before.) This week, the focus was “forest sustainability,” which we defined as not using more than your share of something; leaving enough for other people, the animals, and your children; and allowing the forest enough time to replenish itself. We decided to start off by having the kids shout out everything they could think of that the forest provided. After we had a good list on the board, we presented the question “What happens when people take more of those things than the forest can produce again?” We then went on to discuss other ways the forest benefits them, one example being that it prevents erosion and keeps Sainte-Luce from being washed away into the sea when the cyclones come. The lesson wrapped up with “the Sustainability game,” which I won’t describe in minute detail, but essentially serves to demonstrate that everybody benefits when people take only their fair share of a communal stock of goodies (stickers) even if they have the opportunity to take more. The game went over remarkably well and nobody took more than their fair share of the stickers and everyone ended up happy.


Some downtime in the longhouse

In the afternoon, Matt, Graham, and I taught the beginner’s level English lesson with translating help from Tsiraiky. We demonstrated conversation for buying something in the market and went over relevant vocabulary such as “mango”, “banana”, “pineapple”, “How much does it cost”, and so on. Students took turns coming up to the front of the class and practicing a simple exchange with a partner. After everybody had a turn to work on the new phrases, we spent a lot of time one-on-one with students practicing material from previous lessons and working the new stuff in after we had a firm grip on exchanges like “Hello” “What’s your name?” “How are you?” etc. Although Club A was more lively and exciting in many ways, I found the English lesson much more rewarding because I was able to take a more active part in it and help some of the boys improve their English understanding and pronunciation. And I picked up a little more Malagasy in the process! Unfortunately, girls almost never show up for English lessons. Madagascar has a male-centric society and little emphasis is put on women’s education outside of the home, especially in rural areas where learning English is considered useful primarily to men who hope to be guides and not much of a concern for women. I suspect that the girls are expected to help take care of children and work in the house in the afternoon rather than attend English class. In an effort to combat this, Azafady has been focusing some English lessons towards women in the community, but that’s a part of one of their other programs which I’ll discuss in a later post.

The rest of the week was full as well. Besides our normal field work of walking lemur transects and doing habitat sampling (which I’ll address in detail on my next post, I swear) I visited a flying fox roost site, followed a group of frisky brown lemurs through thick forest, conducted a sea-turtle survey and searched for signs of eggs, got to know Helen and Sabina (the Research Assistants) better, tried a new method of lemur location, met Sam Roberts (Azafady’s Conservation Coordinator) brainstormed my pandanus project, had some furious football matches (uh, I mean soccer games) with Tsiraiky, Matt, Graham, Sam, and the whole Sainte-Luce team, spent some time getting to know the insect inhabitants of Madagascar, and went to a mangaliba (bush party) and heard a Malagasy band in full swing.

This little jumping spider was waving his pedipalps (those white, mustache-looking things) at me.

This little jumping spider was waving his pedipalps (those white, mustache-looking things) at me.

I have to say, it was an incredible, rewarding week. My view of the world is constantly being challenged by the people around me; never before have I been exposed to such a range of ideas, struggles, life-styles, and norms so diverse and different from what I’m used to. The infectious enthusiasm and positivity of the people of Sainte-Luce in the face of staggering poverty and difficult living conditions is constantly humbling to me. Even something as simple as walking through the village is an experience as the children run past and shout greetings “Salaama vazaha!” or “ ‘ello!” Some of this attention from the kids is due to the fact that I’m a vazaha; an oddity and a bizarrely red one at that (I have a brilliant sunburn), but it goes further than that; they’re just friendly people. The Sainte-Luce villagers possess a sense of community that’s seldom seen these days in the good ol’ U.S. of A. and nowhere is this better illustrated than in Tsiraiky, whose name literally means “not (Tsi) one (raiky)”; he is not alone; always supported by his tribe; a part of a whole.


The Azafady team. From left to right (standing): Sabina, Helen, Monika, Zahra, Nadja, Christine, Jane, Ben (an Azafady English teacher), Sam Roberts, Sam Prettyman. (Sitting): Matt, Graham, Me, Vaya (our fantastic cook).

Week One: Azafady Conservation Program, Madagascar

February 6th, 2015

Elijah Schumacher ‘15, Black Fellow in Conservation Biology

This marks the beginning of my six week stay in Madagascar where I am working with an NGO called Azafady. Azafady means literally “let it not be taboo to me” in Malagasy; it’s sort of an all-purpose word and can be used in a variety of situations. Azafady (the organization) is a coalition of two NGOs, one based in Madagascar and one in the UK. The Madagascar branch does most of the actual relief work which includes building schools and latrines in rural areas, teaching nutrition and sexual health, promoting sustainable livelihoods, and working to support the local environment. The UK side of things is primarily involved in writing grant proposals and securing financial and volunteer aid from international sources. I have elected to work with Azafady’s Conservation Program (ACP) as a volunteer, gathering habitat, population, and behavioral data on lemurs and a variety of herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) for six weeks, from October 31st through December 11th. I’m also assisting with English and conservation education in Sainte-Luce, a rural village about 45 kilometers north of Fort Dauphin. Fort Dauphin, also known as Taolagnaro, is the capital of the Anosy region of Madagascar and is located along the shore of the Indian Ocean on the Southeastern tip of the island.

Madagascar map

I’m excited to be applying my Cornell education to the real world!  Already, I see my work in Environmental Studies and Biology serving me well as I engage with Azafady’s research and begin confronting convoluted sustainability problems. I’m also seeing one of the greatest strengths of a liberal arts education; an ability to think critically and look at an issue from multiple perspectives.  This is especially apparent as I consider the inherent difficulties in supporting the human community while at the same time working to conserve the natural environment.

Anyhow, Alefa Madigasikara, which is to say: “Onward to Madagascar!”

After a couple long days of traveling–during which I got my first glimpse of Madagascar in the hubbub and confusion of Antananarivo (the capital), experienced a bumpy internal flight and landing in Fort Dauphin, met my fellow volunteers and Azafady staff, and rode a jolting and bucking camion (French for “big truck”) out to Sainte-Luce–I came at last to rest at the Azafady research site just outside the hamlet of Ambandrika in Sainte-Luce.  As the rest of the gang and I tumbled, exhausted, off the camion we were greeted by a host of village children and a troupe of lemurs! What a welcome to Madagascar! We watched the playful red-collared brown lemurs (Eulemur collaris) leap around and feed in the trees for awhile before heading off for a tour of camp and the facilities.

brown lemurs

Lemurs are incredibly acrobatic. They have no problem hanging upside down to grab hard-to-reach fruits.


My first couple days at Sainte-Luce were for relaxation (no field-work on Saturday and Sunday), which was much needed. I settled into life in the bush, got to know my fellow volunteers and the Azafady staff, met some of the local guides who are our “guardians in the forest” and went to the beach. Our walk to the beach was interesting because I got my first real look at the layout of the Sainte-Luce “village,” which is composed of three hamlets. The Azafady camp is located on the outskirts of Ambandrika, which is the largest hamlet and where the Chef (Chief) lives. We walked through Ambandrika and towards the ocean, passing through Ampanasatomboky (literally “The place where you wash your feet off”, so named because of the river running through it and the muddy road from Ambandrika), and ending up on the ocean-side hamlet of Manafiafy. The beachfront in Manafiafy is the fisherman’s hub (which is by far the leading occupation in Sainte-Luce) and is crowded with big sea-going pirogues (traditional, long dug-out canoes,) fishermen hauling the catch in, chopping it up, trading, stocking the shared chest-freezer, or heading out toward the next village, their catch thrown over their shoulder, to trade for vegetables.  Needless to say, this is not a great beach for swimming, so we hiked along the shore and over to a nice, quiet little bay. The local luxury getaway resort, the Manafiafy Lodge (which, by the way, has excellent reviews on TripAdvisor as an “ecologically conscious” vacation spot) pretends to own this beach and frequently has staff patrolling it to intimidate locals away so their affluent guests can enjoy an idyllic evening on their “private” beach (which is, in fact a public beach, like all beaches in Madagascar) sans pesky natives. Azafady does their best to remind people that the beach actually belongs to them, the Malagasy people, not a rich French guy and tries to set an example. However, being fantastically wealthy, especially by Malagasy standards, the owner of the Lodge, gets away with a fair amount of bullying.


Scene at the Manafiafy beachfront

On Sunday night we went on the first of many night walks, although this one was just to look around and get a feel for wandering the forests of Madagascar by the light of the moon and our head-torches. We saw a several fat tailed dwarf lemurs (more on these peculiar little lemurs later) and two types of chameleons; one of them was a variety of Brookesia (a genus of tiny chameleons) and was only about two inches long! We also saw a hedgehog tenrec, a rare find in Sainte-Luce these days. As a species, hedgehog tenrecs aren’t endangered but there are fewer of them today than there once were and due to their cryptic habits, they’re rarely seen. Tsiraiky told us that they have few natural predators and their greatest threat is man. All in all, it was a good introduction to the nightlife of the Malagasy forest.

On Monday, Tsiraiky brought Jane, Nadja, and me (the newcomers to Sainte-Luce) to meet the Chef. The Chef was a singularly composed and gracious man. It’s hard to describe what I mean, but he had an aura about him. He welcomed us warmly to Sainte-Luce (with Tsiraiky translating) and asked each of us why we chose to leave our own countries and travel all the way to Sainte-Luce. The three of us answered in our own ways, of course, but all to the effect that we were entranced by the amazing biodiversity of Madagascar and wanted to play a part in preserving it. The Chef told us that he asks that question because our responses help him communicate to the people of Sainte-Luce that their land is something special and rare, full of plants and animals not found in the rest of the world, which should be treasured and protected. Sainte-Luce is a particularly isolated and impoverished region of an already poor country. Most villagers live on less than 1 USD per day and look to the forest for firewood, shelter, trees to build pirogues ( a huge part of their livelihood) and plants for medicinal as well as food purposes; these factors will always play a larger part in their considerations than questions of protecting biodiversity or scientific interest. Unfortunately, as the forest shrinks, largely due to mining, pressures on the remaining fragments increase as does the pressure to preserve what’s left. I have the greatest admiration for the Chef, a man of vision who has seen a way of life and the very landscape diminish during his years in Sainte-Luce and who continues to work to support his people and their land.

The rest of the week was filled with my first tastes of fieldwork, fresh mangos, exploring the littoral forest, jumping into Malagasy bali (soccer), and much more. However, since these will be recurring themes, I’ll talk more about them in following posts. Overall, this first week was a whirlwind of new experiences, new perspective, and new people. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t overwhelming at times, but what an adventure! I can’t wait to see what comes next. Thanks for reading!


A prickly meal: this Madagascar cat-eyed snake (Madagascarophis colubrinus) is eating a large spiny chameleon (furcifer verrucosus.)

Week 4: Microbial Ecology Laboratory, Iowa State University

February 6th, 2015

Kelsey King ’15, Bahnick Fellow in Ecology, Evolution & Organismal Biology

I got the opportunity this week to tour the turtle lab of Dr. Janzen. It was really interesting for me, after working with ornate box turtles at Cornell, to see the different research occurring at ISU. In this lab they aren’t working in endangered systems, so they’re allowed to collect turtle eggs and study different developmental stages across species. The work that I’d done previously was mostly around trying to protect the baby turtles while also getting as much information as we can from them. So it’s not surprising that I was a bit shocked at first to think about killing baby turtles for research.

This week I’m more focused on writing my paper, as much as it can be written before I start working up the data later this week.  I’m also focused on getting the most out of my time here by visiting labs. Last week, Dr. Keiser and I mostly finished with the methods, so I’ll be working back through all the papers I read to compile that information into my introduction.

Computer work :D

Computer work :D


I did have a sample day. It was a very busy day surrounding my sampling. First, I got to go to the Janzen lab meeting. The lab started off by catching up with everyone and it was definitely more of a friends getting back together kind of meeting. The best part was that I listened to the planning for the graduate recruiting day. Just seeing the other side of recruitment was really informative and made the whole process seem much less scary.

I also got the opportunity to talk with a post-doc from another lab, mostly about the social side of being at a large school and in a graduate lab environment. Then I got a tour of yet another lab from a graduate student who was really helpful in discussing how to pick out a lab and project that you’ll study for 5 years. In all this week has really got me thinking about what kind of lab I’m interested in, and how I might start to narrow down what people I’d like to work with.

Week 3: Microbial Ecology Laboratory, Iowa State University

January 29th, 2015

Kelsey King ’15, Bahnick Fellow in Ecology, Evolution & Organismal Biology

MLK Jr. day is a holiday for ISU, though I didn’t treat it as a three-day weekend considering I worked all day Monday on various aspects of the project. I had to flush my samples, but that takes  two hours maximum. Then I got to hang out at home and read papers. Then, on Tuesday, I had to sample again. The machine has been acting a bit odd, and my hands were killing me by the end. Even with gloves on, the syringe can really rub your fingers the wrong way. However, there’s not sampling again until Saturday, which I’m grateful for. We also planned out the week, and set up the game plan for finding lab visits,which will hopefully take up some time my last week and a half here.

Displaying IMG_1807.JPG

Gas syringe for sampling

Wednesday was a quick day. Just running over to another lab to begin carbon and nitrogen content testing, then replacing some lost moisture and helping a colleague with gas sampling. I’m now at the point where I can teach other people how to use our set up, which is great. I also searched the Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology Department for potential lab visits. After that, I drafted a very formal email to a professor in a turtle lab. This was very strange. Rarely, if ever, have I needed to be so formal with a request from a professor, except of course when I emailed the Cornell alum about interning in this lab. I suppose that I should expect to get used to this, however because I’ll soon be drafting extremely formal emails about graduate school.

Lab meeting day!!!! So today we collectively reviewed a paper that the head of the lab (Dr. Hofmockel) wrote herself. Gulp. This meeting was so intense. Members in the lab group were encouraged to tear apart anything in the paper.  As more of an ecological scientist, reading a bioinformatics/metagenome paper was hard, but it was nice because then I could tell her how understandable it was to someone who had exactly no experience whatsoever in the area. It was really nice to see how the group worked together through different problems in the paper. Additionally, it was great to see that no one was afraid to disagree with Dr. Hofmockel.

This weekend I’ve got to sample again, but I’m most excited about next week, where I’ll be doing lab tours and meetings with graduate students to talk to them about their lab and their experiences. It was much more difficult to set these up than I’m used to. Normally, I can just walk up to a professor and ask them for help, or even email and get a response pretty quickly (depending on the time of the block). However, here it’s a very different atmosphere. A personal connection seems to be really important. A graduate student in my lab forwarded my name on to other grad students that she knew. This tactic was successful, and the professor that I emailed responded, though I did have some connection already. Anyway, next week will be mainly focused around my lab visits because I only sample on Thursday.

Week 2: Microbial Ecology Laboratory, Iowa State University

January 21st, 2015

Kelsey King ’15, Bahnick Fellow in Ecology, Evolution & Organismal Biology

This week was the busiest of my entire time, lab-wise. We began the final 60-day incubation study. On Monday, I filled and labeled 63 sample vials. Then I made solutions to be used as the experimental substrate. The downside of classes beginning is that I no longer have the lab all to myself. The undergraduate research assistants are back. On the plus side, I do have a small team of students that can help me wash my dishes–amazing! I still peel labels and remove the peat soil, though. I’ve been there with the uber-dirty dishes, and it’s not fun.

Sample vial

Sample vial

Tuesday was the big day. The day where all the solutions were completed and added to the experimental vials. Then the vials were sealed, and all CO2 was removed from their air. If I messed anything up here, I could ruin the experiment. It’s not too worrisome, though, because I have plenty of other places where I could make an experiment-ending mistake. Needless to say, after this day I was exhausted.

Flushing vials (29/63)

Flushing vials (29/63)

The next day the first step was clean up. All these solutions made a lot of dishes (too many for the lab assistants to do on their own and keep up with all the other stuff happening in the lab). Then I sampled the gasses inside the vials and measured how much CO2 had accumulated since I cleared the air. And then there was plenty of data to be entered into the computer. I’ve learned this at Cornell: never put off entering data and setting up your analysis.



Morning dishes again on Thursday. However, it was also lab meeting day. We reviewed a paper that is in the process of being published (outside of the lab group, but pertinent to much of the lab’s research). Amazing. Everyone went around and talked both about the good writing that was in this article (which will be published in the Ecological Society of America) and the science. Nothing has been more stimulating than watching the other people in this meeting sharing their expertise, because we all come from different scientific backgrounds, and discussing ingenuity and the flaws of this experiment. The amazing part was that I even got to contribute something useful to the discussion. Being a part of discussions like these are invaluable experiences that just aren’t quite the same as in a group of undergraduates.

Back to my experiment again where I added moisture to our incubating samples because we don’t want the moisture levels to drop beneath a certain percent, since moisture is very important in the bog system when it comes to the function of the decomposers. The peat we’re using features a depth approximately 30cm below the water and up to 20cm above the water. This sample peat therefore has all sorts of decomposers that work best at varying moisture levels from underwater to baking in the sun. Since moisture is not a variable we’re testing, we need it to be consistent.

Friday!  Dishes again. Unfortunately, the lab assistants are not in on Friday mornings and so there is no one to kindly get to my dishes before I have a chance to. Then we reviewed data, looked at the methods I’ve written up, and flushed our samples to prepare for the Saturday sampling. Working on Saturdays is a bit creepy because the building tends to be pretty much empty, but I do love working in the building when it’s quiet. Among other things, I’ve discovered that when people talk to me while I’m working in a lab (as opposed to the field), I tend to mess up.

My work station

My work station

Iowa State University is vastly different from Cornell College.  Instead of the huge, welcoming, close community I feel at Cornell, there are small pockets of community and friendship here. I always knew I loved Cornell and that I’m lucky to have found the school, but I never imagined how much I would’ve disliked being an undergraduate at a large public school. I definitely found the right school for me.

Professionally, however, I do think I would enjoy working at a large school.  There’s so many interesting projects going on all the time, and having access to all the wonderful scientists in our lab and in the same building is really great. I’m going to make a point next week to pay a visit to a few other labs while I’m here, just to see what they’re like and meet more researchers.


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