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Tag: Angus Hamilton

BlogForest Conservation

Andoany Stump-Toed Frog

Author: Angus Hamilton


In the Throes of Pygmy Toes

My favourite thing about working on Nosy Komba was being able to head out into the forest and conduct herpetofauna (reptile and amphibian) surveys EVERY DAY. At 6:30 every morning, we would leave the comfort of camp and hike to one of MRCI’s 10 survey sites. Even at that time in the morning, the forests of Nosy Komba were teeming with life. We’d find an assortment of astonishing animals every walk: chameleons, geckos, snakes, frogs, birds, and lemurs, and that was before the survey!

In this post, I’m going to be talking about a couple of the teeny-tiny critters that we’d come across during these mornings hikes. But which ones? I’ll give you a hint: they were the stump-toed stars of our surveys!

One way MRCI determines herpetofauna species richness and abundance on the island is to conduct a plot survey. Plot surveys consist of four researchers slowly and methodically picking through the leaf litter in a line. The aim is to record all reptiles and amphibians within a seven by seven metre square, trying to make sure we’ve searched the entire area. This would normally take between thirty and forty minutes. We would note down the species, how big it was, and what substrate it was found on (tree, rock, leaf litter, etc), and all of this information goes into the research papers that ultimately inform conservation action!

We had to be super thorough during plot surveys, as it was at these times that we were most likely to see some of the smallest inhabitants of Nosy Komba. One tiny inhabitant that we always found in their leaf litter home was the Andoany stump-toed frog (Stumpffia pygmaea). It was incredible to see so many of these little guys hopping over your shoes! But what is it that makes these guys so special? Why were we so interested in these frogs?

The Andoany stump-toed frog is a really special little amphibian! For one thing, they are only found on Nosy Be and Nosy Komba but furthermore, they are also the seventh smallest frog in the world. These tiny frogs grow up to twelve millimetres long. Yes, you read that right. Twelve! If they only grow that big, I can barely imagine what the smallest frog in the world must look like in comparison! They are a part of the Microhylidae family, also known as the narrow-mouthed frogs. The narrow mouth of the S. pygmaea gives us an indication that it’s diet would consist of ants and termites, which it would find crawling through the leaf litter.

But more important than their size, these guys are also the first endangered species to be featured here on Life Gone Wild!

Surprisingly, considering their endangered status, S.pygmaea really weren’t difficult to come across on Nosy Komba. Whenever we conducted plot briefings, we always warned volunteers to look out for the Andoany stump-toed frog. These tiny brown amphibians were extraordinarily hard to spot in the leaf litter (great camoflauge huh?) and pretty damn fast. To give you an indication of just how common they could be sometimes, on one 45 minute survey we found twenty of these tiny frogs!

Now I know you’re thinking: If they ARE so common, then why are they endangered?! Stick with me, all will be revealed soon! First, we’re going to look at a cousin of the Andoany Stump-toed frog who also inhabits the leaf litter of Nosy Komba!

The Madagascar stump-toed frog (Stumpffia psologlossa) is a little larger than S.pygmaea, but only just! In fact, they grow barely a couple of millimetres more. Understandably, volunteers found it really tough to tell these tiny little guys apart! The major difference between them is that S.psologlossa is a lighter brown with black spots on its back! Just to make them that little bit more adorable, these spots can actually merge into the shape of a teddy bear! Now, the Madagascar stump-toed frog is also endangered and, similar to our tiny S.pygmaea, can be found on the islands of Nosy Be and Nosy Komba. However, it has also been recorded in two locations on the mainland. On our plot surveys, this little teddy-bear frog was another pretty common find.

Both of these species are called stump-toe frogs for a reason! If you check out the photo below, you can see what I mean! On their feet, they have three relatively normal sized toes with pads on the end. Then, on the inside of their foot they have a fourth toe which is half the size! Very little is known about about these tiny little guys, so unfortunately we don’t know much at all about why the stump-toe evolved, or what impact it has on them. I think it’s such a cool little evolution, and it seems to be unique to the Stumpffia genus of frogs.

Andoany Stump-Toed Frog MRCI 2

Both of the Stumpffia species found on Nosy Komba are leaf litter specialists. They spend almost their entire lives there. Amazingly, unlike many other frog species they reproduce on land and lay non-feeding tadpoles. Their tadpoles develop in foam or jelly nests until they are able to fend for themselves! While they are fairly adaptable little frogs, as with most malagasy wildlife, they are unable to withstand the ongoing threat of deforestation and habitat degradation.

It is now that we start to reach the central issues that these amazing little frogs face! Though they may be common on Nosy Komba and Nosy Be, they have a very restricted range. This leaves them vulnerable to extinction as a result of habitat degradation and fragmentation. If their habitat in the North-west is destroyed, they have nowhere else to go.

Both species are found in the leaf litter of primary and secondary forest. These forests are decreasing at an alarming rate of 0.55% a year! Agricultural expansion, logging for timber, charcoal production, and development of urban areas are the major activities responsible for this continuous degradation of natural forest, and are expected to have major impacts upon these tiny frogs. A rapid increase in the population of Madagascar (four-fold in the last 50 years) and poverty rates that exceed many other developing countries (90% of the population live on less than $2 a day) place increasing pressure on these environmental resources. Coupled with a distinct lack of political attention and legal protection of remaining primary and secondary forest (only 5% of forest is currently protected), land use change is expected to continue to the detriment of specialised species such as S.pygmaea and S.psologlossa.

Over time it will become increasingly clear just how much of an impact habitat degradation and fragmentation is having on species, not just in Madagascar but around the world. It’s an almost horrifying reality that as human populations continue to grow, animals that are specialists in their habitats (such as our little stump-toed frogs) will face increasing pressure. While not much is known about these tiny little guys, it is my hope that the work of conservation organisations, particularly on Nosy Be and Nosy Komba, will be able to ensure the survival of these amazing, tiny frogs.


Photo by: Marcus Lin

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Drongo Bird Nosy Komba MRCI 1
BlogForest Conservation

Bird Species on Nosy Komba

Author: Angus Hamilton

King of the Birds

At the Madagascar Research and Conservation Institute, we didn’t just focus on reptiles and amphibians! Another big part of our research was looking at the abundance of bird species on Nosy Komba! At the time that I left MRCI, we had nearly 20 different sites across Nosy Komba that we used to conduct bird surveys.

On our bird walks we’d conduct point count surveys, which involved silently watching and recording all sightings of birds within a certain distance from the survey site. We would also utilise the identification of bird calls to contribute to our data. These would prove particularly difficult for many of the volunteers that came through MRCI.

At the best of times bird calls aren’t the simplest things to identify, but the bird species on Nosy Komba didn’t make it any easier for us. Some of the most common bird species on the island just happened to have remarkably similar calls. For example, volunteers (and even some of the staff!) had great difficulty working out the difference between the calls of species like the Souimanga Sunbird (Cinnyris sovimanga) and the Madagascar Bulbul (Hypsipetes madagascariensis). These two species had a range of different calls that volunteers would need to learn, some of which you could only differentiate between because one was slightly higher pitched! It could take people months to be able to reliably tell the difference between them!

Drongo Bird Nosy Komba MRCI 1

Photo by: Lucy Prescott

On top of all of that though, Nosy Komba and Madagascar have one more trick up their sleeves to try and make life difficult for volunteers during bird surveys: a mimic.

The Madagascar Crested Drongo (Dicrurus forficatus) is an amazing species with the ability to copy the calls of other birds, and even some mammals. This allows it to do some pretty cool stuff! The drongo is a relatively small bird, with gorgeous black glossy feathers. In a certain light those feathers can even gain a blue sheen, just to further confuse the bird surveyors! The keys that give these guys away though, are the plume of feathers above the bird’s beak and a longish tail with a widening fork. The crested drongo is common throughout Madagascar, and as a result has been judged as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN Red List. However, it is not found in the treeless plains and savannahs of the central plateau of the island, which indicates that it is a forest specialist. This is not overly surprising, as the drongo is a passerine, an order (Passeriforme) distinguished by their toe arrangement. They have three toes facing forwards, and one backwards, giving them an ideal set up for perching in trees.

The Madagascar Crested Drongo has a great variety of calls, hardly a surprise when they are capable of mimicking birds AND mammals! I heard this myself one day while I was checking some of our butterfly traps that had been set up above camp. I was recording and releasing some of the butterflies that we had captured, when suddenly I heard a cat meowing. I was shocked, as I’d been checking these traps everyday for nearly the last two months and had never seen the camp cats anywhere around the survey area. As I tried to spot the cat, I became more and more confused as it was simply nowhere to be seen. Eventually I spotted a drongo in the shadow of a rock. As I watched, I saw it call out. Instead of hearing a bird call, I heard a meow… What the hell? This was the first time I’d seen first hand just how well the drongo was able to imitate other animals, and I hadn’t realised that their mimicry extended to mammals as well! To say I was surprised was an understatement!

The purpose of the drongo’s mimicry is, for lack of a better word, brilliant. It will perch on a branch in the forest, waiting, and watching. At the opportune moment, it will loudly mimic (for example) the shriek of the Madagascar Buzzard (Buteo brachypterus) or the alarm call of another bird. This scares other birds into a frenzy, doing whatever they can to escape the area and avoid becoming the ‘buzzards’ next lunch! In the chaos a whole array of insects will be disturbed from their hiding places, with a number of them taking flight. It is at this point that the drongo swoops down from its perch, and feasts upon its now easily accessible prey.

It also engages in some other pretty sneaky behaviour when it comes to finding food. The perches that the drongos prefer tend to be in the mid-canopy of the forest, particularly though in a very specific situation. The drongo notices when a bird, normally a larger species, sits towards the top of the trees and when a smaller species hunts lower to the ground. The drongo will stand watch, waiting for the opportune moment. As an insect tries to escape the hunting birds that sit around the drongo, it might move to the other side of a tree trunk. When it does so, as the other bird can no longer reach the bug, the drongo plucks it off the trunk and enjoys a comparatively easy easy meal!

Drongo Bird Nosy Komba MRCI 2

Photo by: Nathan Dunn

If you look at these behaviours, it seems that the crested drongo can be a pretty mischievous little bird! But just how cheeky is it? Though no studies have been conducted of the Madagascar crested drongo specifically, they have been done on other species of drongo on mainland Africa. During this study, they recorded the Fork-Tailed Drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis) as having 51 different alarm calls. It has been shown that the drongo could obtain nearly a quarter of their daily food intake through stealing the prey of another species, which is a crazily high amount all things considered!

These are just two incredible behavioural adaptations that the Madagascar crested drongo has developed! The success of this kind of opportunistic hunting has helped the drongo to become one of the most common birds around Madagascar. Another thing that has helped to make the drongo so successful though is their natural aggression. The drongos are surprisingly aggressive little birds, that have been known to scare off larger birds. Staff members at MRCI told me about times that they witnessed a drongo attack and frighten off a buzzard, the largest bird of prey on Nosy Komba! That’s no mean feat for such a small bird!

The drongo is a bit of a special bird in Malagasy culture too, and could even be described as a bit of a known quantity! In folklore, the drongo is known as the ‘king of the birds,’ but the story of how it gained this title will not sound overly surprising to you!

Drongo Bird Nosy Komba MRCI 3

Photo by: Lucy Prescott

There was a great fire, raging through Madagascar and many animals were doing whatever they could to try and fight the fire. One animal in particular was pulling more than their own weight. The fruit bats were having a great impact upon the fire, by far the most of any animal. However, the drongo saw an opportunity. They swooped down and covered themselves in the ashes of the fire, turning their feathers black, and flew to see God. They claimed the work of the fruit bats as their own, and God in turn rewarded them, giving them the title of either ‘king of the birds’ or ‘king of all creatures’ depending on which part of Madagascar you are from. The fruit bats flew to God, and explained that they had been the ones to put out the fire, that it had been they that had done all the work. But God did not believe them. And thus the drongo, cheeky and mischievous as it is, became the ‘king of birds’ in Madagascar.

While the drongo is one of the more common species on Madagascar, the ‘king of the birds’ is also definitely one of the most interesting. Its amazing ability to mimic the cries of other birds, and remarkably opportunistic hunting repertoire, has allowed the crested drongo to thrive. Despite just how common it is; it was a species worthy of much greater appreciation than what I gave it during my time in Madagascar. Looking at it now, I can see that it is one hell of a little bird!


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1. Gardner, C. J. & Jasper, L. D. 2014. A record of vertebrate carnivory by the Crested Drongo (Dicrurus forficatus). Malagasy Nature, 8: 105-106.

2. Deception by Flexible Alarm Mimicry in an African Bird, Tom P. Flower et al, Science May 1 2014

3. IUCN Red List, ‘Madagascar Crested Drongo’

4. Satanic+leaf-tail+gecko Nosy Komba
BlogForest Conservation

Uroplatus species of Nosy Komba

Author: Angus Hamilton

Uroplatus species of Nosy Komba 1

Tales of Camouflage and Leaf-Tails

During my time at the Madagascar Research and Conservation Institute, going out and searching for reptiles and amphibians was one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. Day or night, I was (almost) always keen to get out and conduct another reptile survey. Night surveys were particularly interesting. We tended to conduct these only once a week, rather than the at times every day of the daytime hikes, which meant that these were a special (but tiring) treat.

Night walks gave us a fantastic opportunity to get out and spot some of the more mysterious species of Nosy Komba. The daylight walks were great but there were many species that we’d never get the opportunity to see on these walks. It was only once night fell that we’d get the best opportunity to find some of these bizarre creatures.

At night, the day geckos (Phelsuma) would largely disappear (funnily enough), and in their place would emerge a variety of new nocturnal geckos, each one perhaps more bizarre than the last. This was highlighted by a particularly cool gecko that could shed all of it’s scales when grasped by a predator, leaving just a pink, slimy little body and a predator with a mess of slime and scales! What the hell?!

A couple of the nocturnal geckos are absolute masters of camouflage, and are unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

The leaf-tailed geckos of the genus Uroplatus are extraordinary! There are two branches of gecko within the genus, categorized by their camouflage. The larger, mossy or bark-like leaf-tailed geckos (like U.henkeli, or U.sikorae) and their smaller siblings, the leaf-like leaf-tailed geckos. Across the board, these are some pretty cool geckos, but the larger leaf-tailed geckos are out of this world! The Uroplatus henkeli is found on Nosy Komba, and their camouflage makes them ridiculously difficult to spot. Almost every volunteer that came through our camp dreamed of being able to see one of these elusive reptiles! However, these geckos have only ever been found on one of our transects. To make it even more difficult for the volunteers to see one, we only get to do nocturnal surveys at the site in question as part of a semi-regular overnight hike. So to say that they were a rare find was an understatement!

Now, let’s get into a bit more of the nitty-gritty of the Uroplatus species of Nosy Komba!

Henkel’s leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus henkeli) is a simply awesome specimen of a lizard! They are a fairly large species, recorded to grow up to nearly 30cm long. This makes it one of the largest of the leaf-tailed geckos, and one of the largest geckos in the world! They have mottled brown colouration, with a large, flat head and tail. But what is it exactly that makes this (so far) relatively plain sounding lizard such a camouflage aficionado?

Well, on top of their mottled colouring which matches the trees that they rest on, their bodies have developed a little adaptation which helps mask them even further. The Henkel has grown little tubercles along the sides of its body, specifically along the underside of the jaw, and its body up to the back legs. This fringing breaks up the outline of the gecko, making it near indistinguishable from the bark of the tree. It sounds crazy and hard to believe, but having seen it first hand, when they lie flat against the tree trunk they are nigh impossible to make out unless you happen to be looking at the tree from a particular angle. During a walk through Lokobe National Park, I had a henkeli pointed out to me but was simply unable to see it until I changed the angle that I was looking at the tree in question. This experience made me fully appreciate just how good the camouflage capabilities of the mossy leaf-tailed geckos actually is.

There was another thing that made this species such a fixation for volunteers though. When describing this gecko to volunteers, we always made sure that this particular behavioural adaptation was highlighted because it was just SO strange. When threatened, the henkeli would raise its head and tail, open its large mouth wide, and let loose a shrill, piercing scream! To further add to it, over the years a fady (or taboo) developed in relation to the scream of the henkeli. Should a henkeli scream at you, it brings bad luck NOT to scream back at the gecko! Funnily enough, lots of volunteer’s kind of loved the idea of being ‘forced’ to scream at a gecko.

The ‘mossy’ henkeli is not the only species of leaf-tailed gecko on Nosy Komba though! The island is also lucky enough to be home to one of the smallest of the Uroplatus’, the Spearpoint leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus ebenaui). These little guys are perhaps my favourite lizard on Komba! On top of being a cute little gecko, their heads look just a tad dragon-ish with little horns above their eye sockets. What’s not to like! Despite lacking the mossy camouflage of its larger brethren, they still have developed some pretty sneaky little adaptations that allow them to blend into their arboreal homes.  They have small bodies, and lot of little ridges of skin running along their bodies. These skin folds have a neat little effect. In a similar sense to the henkeli, unless seen at the right angle, these ridges gave the ebenaui a distinctly leaf-like appearance as they sit themselves across a twig waiting for insects to fly, or crawl, past.

Uroplatus species of Nosy Komba 2

They also have a significantly shorter tail than other Uroplatus species, shaped like (funnily enough) the tip of a spear. When compared to either other species in the leaf-like ebenaui-phantasticus complex, such as the Satanic leaf-tailed gecko of Ranomafana National Park, or the larger leaf-tailed geckos, such as the henkeli or the Mossy Leaf-Tailed Gecko (Uroplatus sikorae), the Spearpoint’s tail is significantly shorter. This can probably be attributed to their preferred substrates. The ebenaui tends to prefer to sit on small, thin branches which means a smaller tail might help them to not stand out. The mossy complex prefers, instead, to spend their days resting one to two meters off the ground, faces pointing downwards and flat against tree trunks. Here a longer, flatter tail would help them blend further into the tree, maximizing their camouflage.

I was lucky enough during my time travelling across mainland Madagascar to come across two other species of Uroplatus. My experience with these enigmatic geckos only further cemented them as my favourite lizards in Madagascar.

While exploring Ranomafana National Park, nearly a seven-hour drive south from the capital Antananarivo (Tana), our guide showed us a small tree and excitedly told us that somewhere on this plant was a leaf-tailed gecko. After a quick search, practically right in the middle of this little tree, was a gecko; Uroplatus phantasicus, or the Satanic leaf-tailed gecko. Getting the name from its devilish ‘horns’ above their eyes, presumably, this species has a larger tail than the Spearpoint leaf-tailed gecko, and looks almost exactly like a dead leaf! They have a paler line running down the center of their body, and thin, leaf-vein-like lines running all over their body. To complete their dead leaf-look, males of the species even have notches on their tails, ensuring the camouflage is accurate, and thus effective, as possible. Unless you knew what you were looking for, these geckos are incredibly difficult to spot.

The other species that I came across was during my time walking through the range of parks surrounding Andasibe National Park, three hours east of Tana. Here we found the Mossy leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus sikorae). One of the smaller species of the larger, bark-like leaf-tailed geckoes, once again I was simply blown away by just how good the camouflage of this gecko was! Check out the photo below, and you can see just how much the sikorae looked just like a lichen growth on the tree. It was a great example of how the fringing does a great job of breaking up its outline against the tree!

Currently, 14 species of Uroplatus are recognized, ranging from the Giant Leaf-Tailed Gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus) which grows over a foot long, to the ten centimeter long ebenaui. Almost all of these 14 leaf-tailed gecko species of Madagascar are listed as being at least ‘vulnerable’ with the IUCN already. Only the Satanic leaf-tailed gecko is listed as ‘least concern.’ However, due to their incredible camouflage these geckos are highly sought after in the pet trade, and as a result have been listed on the CITES appendix II. This tells us that though they are not immediately threatened with extinction, the trade of Uroplatus species must be carefully controlled.

In 2004, all species within the Uroplatus genus were listed in the WWF’s ’10 Most Wanted Species’, a list designed to highlight the animals most at threat from “unsustainable trade and consumer demands” (WWF). Even within protected areas such as national parks, Uroplatus species are still being captured and sold into the illegal pet trade, making it extraordinarily difficult to maintain conservation strategies to help the long-term survival of these incredible geckos.

There is still so much we don’t know about these incredible geckos though. For example, it is thought to be almost certain that there will be more than just 14 species of Uroplatus out there. Scientists are pretty sure that a number of species exist within the current U.ebenaui complex, and it is only a matter of time until more of them are recognized as being separate species. In a similar fashion to the Panther chameleon we’ve looked at previously, once these new species are officially discovered an individual evaluation would need to be conducted. It is difficult to see how a number, if not most, of those new species would not be considered endangered to some degree, considering the survival status of the known species.

Unfortunately, these masters of camouflage are also at great risk from the loss and fragmentation of their habitat. All Uroplatus species depend on intact, relatively healthy forest to survive, and the ongoing deforestation within Madagascar is making this less and less common. Funnily enough, without trees their camouflage is not nearly as successful. When you consider that many of the leaf-tailed gecko species live in isolated pockets of forest, this becomes a little bit more troubling. At the end of the day, the forests of Madagascar are becoming ever smaller.


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Arkive (2017). Satanic leaf-tailed gecko videos, photos and facts – Uroplatus phantasticus | Arkive. [online] Arkive. Available at:

CITES (2017). How CITES works | CITES. [online] Available at:

IUCN (2017). Uroplatus ebenaui. [online] Available at:

IUCN (2017). Uroplatus henkeli. [online] Available at:

IUCN (2017). Uroplatus phantasticus. [online] Available at:

World Wildlife Fund (2017). WWF Announces ’10 Most Wanted Species’ | Press Releases | WWF. [online] World Wildlife Fund. Available at: