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.
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.