I was volunteering in the forest project for 4 weeks and I thought it was amazing. During my time here I got to see wild lemurs, chameleons, and tons of snakes and geckoes. We would hike on Nosy Komba in the morning, these hikes are tough, but they are also beautiful and I think it was absolutely worth every mosquito bite and drop of sweat. I started studying my species before I got here, and that really helped me when I got to camp. It is so much more fun when you know what you are spotting in the forest and you also feel like you are making more of a difference.
The huts are basic, but that lets the ocean breeze in, which is nice on the warmer nights. The food is good and carb based. Most volunteers go to Hellville on Nosy Be over the weekends. From there you can go to different islands, see the sacred waterfalls and do some shopping, and much more.
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Tag: forest conservation
Author: Roxanne Parker
Welcome to Hell-Ville!
Welcome to Hell-Ville a crazy, chaotic cacophony of noise, colliding colours & cultures that is the capital of Nosy Be. The rainy season means the streets are a muddy maze as yellow Tuks-Tuks whizz by beeping at Vazaha’s (whites) offering them a lift & momentary reprise from the mud splattered roads.
Police whistles stretch as the traffic mounts outside Hell-Ville banana toned market where you can buy local spices, fruit, vegetables, pulses, live chickens & zebu meat from woman with faces masked with Maisonjoany, a vivid yellow face mask made from sandalwood that they paint in their face to protect their skin from the sun. As the 10th poorest country in the world Madagascar is where you see life stripped down to the basic bones.
Everything is reused & recycled, plastic bottles are reused for water, to sell bottled pickles & fermented cabbage at market & second-hand clothes are a valuable commodity with roads full of stalls selling old shirts for as little as €1.50. children pound cassava meal in groups using enormous pestle & mortars taking turns to grind the meal when their limbs tired.
Everyone seems to have a life chicken or duck under their arm as they move through the city preparing themselves for New years – the biggest holiday on the island. Personal space is non-existent as bodies push and press past one another in the crowded market space. On the boat, back to Nosy Komba you wade through the waters of Hell-Ville before sitting thigh to shoulder squeeze between villagers, like chickens and the occasional life goat!
There is every aspect of life unfolding before you, in its insane madness & bustle I find myself loving Madagascar & loving the energy that is Africa. The children are beautiful and although I’m stared at where ever I go a smile & my school French opens many doors & conversations.
Being A Forest Conservationist
Being on the forest conservation project on Nosy Komba means we act like a courier service as there are no roads or cars and we are hiking through the villages every day. This is a local farmer who I brought glasses to that were donated by a volunteer who had left the island. They worked perfectly for him and he could see clearly for the 1st time in months.
On Our Day Off
On our Day off for St Stephen’s day & the 27th we escaped to Nosy Iranja sailing past whales, visiting lemur Island, living with zero electricity, sleeping in straw huts, drawing water from a well and bringing it across a village to use, walking across miles of sand split to the next island and basically being happy & living off the grid with Shandi Di Virgilio, Sarah Sirois, Hannah McCarthy and Felicia Feeley.
Hiked Sunsets on Nosy Komba Island
Sunset on Nosy Komba. Having hiked all day we watch the sunset at the summit and with head torches hiked back through the jungle in the dark to a local hut in the middle of the rainforest where a local family cooked us dinner on long tables outside consisting of cassava leaves chopped & boiled that tasted like spinach, papaya salad which is savoury & dressed in vinegar. Chicken legs cooked in bone broth & jack fruit & pineapple which grow in abundance on the island for desert.
We hiked through the night spotting & documenting Chameleons, Geckos, frogs snakes & spiders before sleeping overnight on a Church floor in the middle of the forest with the skies heavy with stars at 5 am we hiked back to the summit for sunrise then headed back to base camp for breakfast & then back to the forest to hike to monitor bird species. I’ve passed my first exam & know all 43-bird species here – week one done & dusted.
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Author: Angus Hamilton
The Panthers of Madagascar
When I landed in Nosy Be, an island off the coast of north-western Madagascar, after over a day spent in transit, I could not wait to dive in and get started. Although I was apprehensive about being in a totally different environment to what I was used to, I wanted to be in the forest, finding animals as quickly as possible! Luckily for me, it wasn’t long at all until I got my first look at some of the wildlife of Madagascar.
As we sped towards Hell-ville, the main town and port on Nosy Be, and the boat to my new home for the coming months on Nosy Komba, my eyes were glued to the rich green of the forest that surrounded the roads. A mere five minutes after leaving the airport though, a flash of vibrant green by the side of the road caught my eye. Something hanging from a tree branch. A slender body, but with a large casque (helmet-like structure) on its head, and a white stripe running down the side of its body… it was a male panther Chameleon (Furcifer pardalis), a species I was going to get to know pretty well over my first days at my new home.
The next day, while sitting down for lunch I spotted from the corner of my eye a green shape extending from one of the roofs of the huts. At first glance it seemed to be an overly large leaf, but after paying closer attention I realised that it was actually a male panther chameleon!
He had slowly, methodically made his way down to the edge of the roof trying to make his way to safety: a nearby tree branch. It was a great opportunity to witness some of the unique, and somewhat bizarre, adaptations that chameleons have developed over the years.
Our male (let’s call him Kobi) was precariously dangling from the edge of the roof. His back feet were clamped firmly onto the plant material used to create the roof; his prehensile tail wrapped tightly, acting as an anchor allowing him to reach (for the branch just out of his grasp).
Watching his efforts, the ingenuity of evolution and its work on chameleon feet left me in awe! Incredibly there is no perfect scientific description for their feet! “Wait… what?!” It’s true!! Chameleon feet are bizarrely unique in the animal world. How cool is that?
They fall somewhere between two categories: didactyl and zygodactyl. On the one hand (or foot!), they have a tong-like appearance which at first glance looks like two toes on each foot. This would give chameleons what is known as didactyl feet. Other didactyl species include sloths and many cloven-hoofed ungulates (hoofed mammals). However, upon closer inspection it becomes evident that there is more to each of these ‘toes’ than meets the eye… In fact, they are a bundle of toes fused together. On their front legs, the outer bundle has 3 toes and the inner has two. This is reversed on their back legs. The closest scientific description that we have at the moment is ‘zygodactyl’, which describes the feet of parrots and the majority of arboreal bird species. BUT, and here’s where it gets fascinating! They only have two toes on each side. The third chameleon toe in the different bundles removes them from fitting properly into that category. So there we have it. The lonely chameleon.
So why do chameleons have this cool, confusing adaptation? Scientists believe the enigmatic feet of these cold-blooded panthers are perfectly adapted for an arboreal lifestyle. The ‘tong-like’ formation of the toes allows the chameleon to wrap them around smaller branches and clasp tightly, providing excellent grip and stability. Each toe of the chameleon also has a small claw at the end. This claw allows them to walk along branches and climb trees that are too large for them to grip.
These arduous tasks are also greatly helped by their tail! The prehensile nature of the tail is another indication that panther chameleons have adapted to life in the trees. Prehensile tails are unique to animals that spend their lives in the tree canopy. Many ‘new world’ primate species, for example spider monkeys, possess a prehensile tail. Prehensile tails provide a couple of key benefits to our tree dwellers. Arguably the most useful benefit they provide is a point of anchorage, which the panther chameleon will use in many different situations. The tail is able to support the entire weight of the chameleon, allowing it to hang from branches (or roofs) and gain access to new parts of its habitat. When hunting, panther chameleons will wrap its tail around a tree for stability when using its weapon of choice… its projectile tongue. This anchorage is a necessity when you realise that the tongue can be as long as the chameleons body, and is ‘fired’ at prey from a distance!
As I watched Kobi trying to reach his goal, I got a look at just how well he was able to anchor himself (to the roof using his prehensile tail and tong-like feet). You’ll all be very relieved to hear that Kobi did in fact achieve his goal. Once he finally managed to clasp his front feet onto this small branch and lever himself into a stable position, he let go with his back legs and grabbed the branch with them. At this point he uncoiled his tail from the roof, and off he went in search of his next meal.
The panther Chameleon is one of the most common chameleon species in the North/north-west of Madagascar, and definitely one of the most versatile. Populations from different areas of the country display different arrays of colour. Contrary to, well every belief really, chameleons aren’t able to just change to any colour that they like. Thanks Pascal! All colour changing chameleons have a set palette. Most of the time their colour change isn’t a conscious choice, but a product of physiological necessity. So the colour range of Furcifer Pardalis is insane!
Or is it? A 2015 study by Grbic et al. has thrown significant doubt on the conservation status of the panther Chameleon. Prior to 2015, all of these locales were thought to be the same species: F.pardalis. Now it has been revealed that there is sufficient genetic and behavioural, behavioural being a significant lack of interbreeding between locales, evidence to suggest that what was initially thought to be only one species is actually eleven!
Furcifer pardalis is currently listed as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN, the International Union of Conservation for Nature. However, this classification is based on the idea that all locales are the same species. Each of these newly discovered Furcifer species will need to be individually assessedto decipher how threatened they really are. Only based on that information can management strategies be updated to ensure the ongoing health and survival of all 11 species of the panther chameleon.
The panther chameleon, similar to most arboreal chameleons, prefers areas surrounding waterways; it generally struggles to survive in areas of dense forest. Instead they tend to spend most of their lives in more open areas, such as in trees that overhang streams, or, as has been identified on Nosy Be, overhanging roads. A study by Andreone et al 2005 espoused the importance of an area of buffer vegetation between roads and either forest or agricultural land, as it was in these areas that the panther chameleon was most commonly found. While being around roads presents other issues for slow-moving chameleons like Kobi, these findings suggest that a buffer zone between roads and panther habitat is an important management step for the ongoing survival of the panther.
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1. Grbic, D., Saenko, S. V., Randriamoria, T. M., Debry, A., Raselimanana, A. P. and Milinkovitch, M. C. (2015), Phylogeography and support vector machine classification of colour variation in panther chameleons. Molecular Ecology.
2. : F. Andreone , F. M. Guarino & J. E. Randrianirina (2005) Life history traits, age profile, and conservation of the panther chameleon, Furcifer pardalis (Cuvier 1829), at Nosy Be, NW Madagascar, Tropical Zoology, 18:2, 209-225.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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’ http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22706952/0