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Monday: Hawk Fright and Habitat Partitioning.
On Monday (alatsinainy in Malagasy) the 12th, we tracked the lemur known only as Juvenile Female, or “JuvF” in the clipped argot of the field notebook. It was my first day preparing the field backpacks for the Malagasy research team on my own, and I made sure to include all equipment necessary: ATS (Automated Telemetry System) devices, radio antennae, GPS units, notebooks, and water bottles. As always, it was a profound privilege to witness these rare and enchanting creatures in the environment they evolved for, going about their daily business with little apparent concern for the actions of their human observers. (Pictured, below). Sadly, we ended that day’s follow early. A bird of prey of some sort, possibly the well-known Madagascar harrier-hawk, swooped low over the canopy. The lemur troop deemed it a threat, gave their “yark!” alarm call, and vanished. They seemed to pop into pocket dimensions or something, given the speed at which they disappeared from view, and yet they probably didn’t go very far. Heedless of stealth about their daily business, varibolomavo are second to none at curling up into little brown balls and hiding in foliage when they feel imperiled. Since it was getting on towards noon, they probably went to sleep once they had so conveniently hidden themselves, making it extremely difficult to find them again. The day’s work ended early.
Once I returned, to KAFS, I was privileged by pure happenstance to witness a moment of scientific discovery, in another testament to the atmosphere of intellectual ferment that surrounds the research station. Two of the graduate students, Pamela Narvaez from Mexico and Devin Chen from America, are conducting a fascinating study investigating functional diversity and habitat occupancy in the local rainforest (and very kindly gave me permission to write about it). They had earlier set camera traps in selected trees in the Kianjavato commune, and that Monday, they had spent the morning climbing the trees and retrieving the camera traps. They found that a positive Noah’s Ark of emblematic Malagasy fauna had strolled by their lenses over the last few weeks. Their study has so far logged eight of the nine lemur species to be found at Kianjavato: Prolemur simus (my cherished varibolomavo), Varecia variegata (the big black-and-white ruffed lemurs), Daubentonia madagascarensis (the aye-aye), Eulemur rufifrons (the red-fronted lemur), Eulemur rubriventer (the shy and retiring red-bellied lemur), Avahi peyrierasi (Peyrieras’ woolly lemur, a nocturnal species) Cheirogaleus major (the greater dwarf lemur), and Microcebus jollyae (the local mouse lemur species, cute little orange fellows). I had so far only seen the first four named, and it was fascinating to get a first look at candid-camera photos of the others going about their business. In addition to lemurs, Pamela and Devin’s cameras logged the endemic bushy-tailed rat, the beautiful blue pitta-like ground roller (a breathtaking bird), Malagasy doves, and two endemic euplerid carnivores: the vontsira and the misnamed “Malagasy civet,” Fossa fossana. The Kianjavato commune is clearly an all-star, grand-slam area for Malagasy biodiversity, and thus an area of high conservation priority. This was a reminder that although varibolomavo, aye-aye, and Varecia are MBP’s “flagship” species in the area, our community-driven conservation work benefitted the whole rich species community.
Tuesday: A Cut-Short Critter Cruise and a Conversation with a Child
On Tuesday (talata in Malagasy), the 14th, we followed Fleur of the West One-Two group. Little of particular note occurred. In a repeat of history, the “follow” was again cut short depressingly early, seemingly again due to a raptor-driven alarm. The most important part of the day, however, was yet to come. After Fleur was out of our sight for forty consecutive minutes, despite our best efforts, the follow had officially ended. I left the forest, and I soon reached the main street of Kianjavato. The heart of the village, a tangle of shops and houses clustered around the road, is only ten minutes’ walk from many of the favorite haunts of the varibolomavo. I called KAFS on my little local phone, and they told me that Clariel, the MBP driver in the area, would be around to pick me up in about twenty minutes. Having nothing to do, I idled around the main street, holding my personal backpack and the field backpack. I ended up at the nameless general store, a single open-to-the street storefront selling an array of packaged and canned goods. There, I made the acquaintance of “Hierr,” the fourteen-year-old boy minding the shop. (“Hierr” is what his name sounded like to me, and I did not want to embarrass him by asking him to spell it. It might have been Hery or Pierre or even Thierry, all fairly common names in semi-Francophone Madagascar). When I said hello in French, he said “Miteny fotsiny teny Malagasy aho,” or “I only speak Malagasy.” This made me determined to pursue a conversation with him. Most of the Malagasy researchers I had worked with appreciated my efforts to speak their tongue, but their French and/or English were better than my Malagasy, and it was easy to slip back into one of those languages in conversation. Speaking with Hierr, I would have a truly challenging practice session. And so it proved. We were able to exchange names (sort of: I obviously didn’t quite catch his, and based on his remarks I’m pretty sure he still thinks of me as “Shem”). I said that I was a “siantifika ny tontolo iainana” (environmental scientist) and an “Amerikana.” He said he worked at the store, and was fourteen years old, though to me he looked much younger. Then, the conversation took an interesting turn. I asked Hierr, “Tianao ny biby?” or “Do you like animals?” I then asked “Narita gidro ianao?” (Have you seen lemurs?) and “Manana pictures gidro ity,” attempting to convey that I had images of lemurs on my phone. He shook his head vigorously, said “Tsy naritra, tsy tiako” (I haven’t seen them, and I don’t like them) and launched into a torrent of Malagasy that I didn’t quite catch, but that ended with a mime of bared teeth and a clawed-fingers gesture, suggestive of a wild mammal snarling. The message was clear: animals are scary and dangerous, and he didn’t like them. This made me sad. This boy was a citizen of one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, a hotspot of endemism, and the choices he would make as an adult, a consumer, and a voter would be of great import for the future of the local ecosystems. As it stood, he had not only not seen the critically endangered wild primates a half-mile from his workplace but had allowed his opinions of wildlife in general to be shaped by the snarling street dogs and ragged street chickens of Kianjavato village. This could not be borne. I couldn’t force lemur pictures on him, of course, but I used my rudimentary knowledge of human psychology to good effect. I brought up a varibolomavo image that I had taken that morning, held it so only I could see it, and oohed and aahed over it a bit, making it clear that I thought this very interesting and of great value. Naturally, Hierr and his little sister (or possibly a friend) who had just come in, craned their heads to see it. When they did, Hierr was amazed. Lemurs are pretty interesting for anyone, but at least for a Westerner they can be safely put in the mental filing cabinet of “exotic faraway places.” To learn that they live within walking distance of your hometown must have been like finding a giraffe in an American backyard. Once he saw the picture, Hierr’s face lit up with surprise, and he asked excitedly, “Nahita izany androany ianao?!” (You saw this today?!). I smiled. “Naritra gidro betsaka androany ity, Sangasanga.” (Saw many lemurs here today, Sangasanga-I seem to recall I forgot the pronoun, which in Malagasy goes at the end of the sentence). After this, of course, the floodgates were opened, and I showed him a plenitude of lemur pictures, endeavoring to communicate as I did so in Franco-Malagasy that these biby (animals), these varibolomavo, were special, with fotsiny roanjato (only two hundred) or so in the world. The next time I ran into Hierr, that Friday, he required no prompting to see lemur photos. I like to think that I’ve planted a seed of a changed mind there.
Wednesday: A Multiplicity of Varibolomavo
On Wednesday (alarobia in Malagasy) the 15th, we tracked Juno’s Baby, a yearling from the Northwest One group. The young varibolomavo are so adorable: seemingly relatively free from the adults’ constant angling for food and social status, they retain some elemental primate-youth curiosity, and will come very close to humans, staring at you out of their big brown eyes. We got a full, rich day’s worth of data that Wednesday, watching the lemurs eat bamboo, voapaka leaves, and jackfruit, sip nectar from ravenala flowers, practice geophagy (the eating of soil) chase each other around the canopy in little bursts of social aggression, groom themselves and each other, and more. (Pictured above: Juno’s Baby). Once, in the early morning, we even witness a rare act of violence-Cupid, one of the dominant males of NW1, bit Juno’s Baby on the tail! This reprimand, perhaps in response to some act of disrespect comprehensible only to lemurs, seemingly shocked Juno’s Baby. They (we don’t know the baby’s gender yet) fell from the bamboo stalk they were feeding on, scampered across the ground, and climbed up a small tree, there to nurse its hurt in affronted solitude.
In mid-morning, the Northwest Two group mixed with Northwest One. This is a common occurrence: the varibolomavo groups are better thought of as fluid “friend groups” than clearly defined nation-states, and more often than not the group we are following flows into the feeding grounds of another group, with no apparent ill-will. Some time ago, in fact, before I joined the project, the West One and West Two groups in started living together permanently, and we now describe them as “West One-Two.” On the 14th, however, the advent of Northwest Two was a special treat for me. Northwest Two is the home group of Ghost, and I had been excited to see that peculiar lemur since I first heard of her.
Ghost is one of those interesting anomalies sometimes thrown up by a natural system. She’s the daughter of Phoenix, one of the core females of the Northwest Two group, and has been monitored by MBP all her life, since her birth in 2017. She earned her unique appellation, and special attention from human observers, due to her coloration. A mysterious mutation has given her a distinctive ventral region: the “front,” from our perspective, of her head, limbs, and torso are not the usual varibolomavo brown, but pure white. (In Malagasy, one of her many cognomens is “Varibolomavo Fotsy,” or “The White Greater Bamboo Lemur.”). She may also be, scientifically speaking, a mutant individual, which makes her sound like a science-fictional X-Lemur but is in fact a perfectly normal part of evolution in the wild (see more below). Her white ventral region makes her instantly recognizable from a distance, which is a great boon to researchers as it means she can be easily and reliably tracked without the trouble and expense of fitting a radio or color collar. As far as any of us know, she is the only such partially white Prolemur simus ever reported anywhere in the world (forgive me if scientific literature currently inaccessible due to limited internet access proves me a liar). In short, she is an animal of considerable interest. Furthermore, I have arrived at a time that promises exciting developments in the Ghost saga. She is old enough to be sexually mature, and the birthing season in mid-September is coming up, her first since leaving the status of “juvenile” behind her. She may now, for all we know, be pregnant, and if she is pregnant, and gives birth in September, it will be extremely enlightening to see if she passes on her unique genes to her offspring. Since the phenotype (expressed physical trait) of the white ventral region is so rare, Evan and Kate (the previous varibolomavo volunteers) hypothesized that the genotype was recessive, or perhaps spread across multiple alleles (locations on or “versions of” a gene) to decrease the likelihood of inheriting a full set, or both. If the genes for white ventral regions, as expressed in Ghost, were preexisting in the Prolemur simus population, this is probable, and would mean that Ghost’s children are overwhelmingly likely to be the normal brown. Alternatively, this could be a brand-new mutation, born of some stray ray of cosmic radiation (or other environmental factor) that altered the DNA in one of Ghost’s parents’ gametes (sex cells, i.e. sperm or eggs). Although less likely, if this is the case the trait for white ventral regions could still be dominant, and thus each of Ghost’s children would have a fifty-fifty chance of being “ghost varibolomavo” like their mother. Since Ghost appears to be surviving fine in the wild, there seems to be little selective pressure against this trait. If more white lemurs are born and live successful lives, it could lead the trait spreading throughout the population, a new local color variant for the species. A fascinating thought. Perhaps in the year 2050, the white-fronted varibolomavo of Kianjavato will be especially noted on ecotourism guides for their beauty and uniqueness-presuming, of course, that the local and international community ensure the population’s safety until then. Either way, when Ghost procreates, this year or the next, we shall learn a little more about her genetics.
(Note: if any part of my amateur hypothesizing here is incorrect, I positively urge any of the many highly experienced geneticists at MBP and among my readers to send corrections for my next blog. I speak under correction, based primarily on memory of undergraduate biology courses).
(Pictured below: a triptych of Ghost).
Thursday: A Day of Self-Care
On Thursday (alakamisy in Malagasy) the 15th, we had the day off. It was Assumption, and the Kianjavato area is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, so many important dates in that faith’s liturgical calendar are set as vacation days for all Malagasy personnel. And without Malagasy staff and researchers, as I have endeavored to make clear in this blog to date, we Western volunteers are so many “babes in the woods.” I elected to spend the day performing “self-care,” taking care of all the little activities of daily living that fall by the wayside in the excitement of days with lemurs. I allowed myself to sleep in, read some of the books I had brought with me, did my laundry, and took a shower. These last two sound like perfectly anodyne, unremarkable events, yet life at KAFS lends them a certain spice. There is no running water in the area, and the local rivers have extremely high levels of bilharzia parasites. Thus, we are all forbidden to touch surface water in the forest or village, and we get all of the station’s water from two wells. The wells are down in the main area of KAFS, with the dining hall and the main building, and all my dirty clothes were at my tent site, a good quarter- or half-mile uphill. After drawing the water from the well and lugging the resulting bucket that distance, I poured in some of my Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 soap, a brand brought from home and enlivened with the religious ramblings of the business’ founder on the label. I then added my dirty clothes, two or three at a time, to the bucket of soapy water, and endeavored to imitate the action of a washing machine using pure elbow grease. Rather surprisingly for a cosseted young American such as myself, who had never previously been sans washing machine for longer than eight-day camping trips, I performed rather well. Soon, I had effectively removed the considerably offensive odors and grime that had accumulated upon my wardrobe. I spent an agreeable hour or so rereading Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel on my Kindle in a hammock, and then, as it grew dark, took a shower. The KAFS showers, men’s and women’s, are just adjacent to the well. They rather belie the term shower, being simply wooden stalls with a drain in one section of the floor. The shower component is user-generated, and consists of a bucket filled (by the showerer) with well water, and a cup to pour it over oneself. It’s frightfully cold at first, but quite exhilarating and enjoyable by the time you’re scraping the dregs of the bucket. Then, it’s time to drip-dry, chivvying away the mosquitoes assaulting your trembling corpus, and put on a new set of field clothes. One shower generally is enough for me for four or five days.
Friday: A Full Day in Madagascar
On Friday (zoma in Malagasy) the 16th, we tracked the radio-collared male varibolomavo known as Cupid, the patriarch of the Northwest One group (he who had bitten Juno’s Baby that Wednesday). As an interesting note, P. simus is one of only two lemur species for which the word “patriarch” is appropriate. All social lemur species, except my varibolomavo and a species of social dwarf lemurs in the genus Cheirogaleus, are strongly matriarchal, with the females competing for mates, territory, and resources. Prolemur simus may have evolved its unusual patriarchality as a response to the practice of feeding on bamboo, which tends to grow in groves more open to the sky (and thus, aerial predators) than forest fruit trees. The males took on the duty of acting as sentinels and alarm-callers for the group, and somewhere along the line got enhanced food privileges as well.
Another interesting aspect of varibolomavo behavior that I don’t believe I’ve previously mentioned is that their tolerance of feeding alongside their neighbors can extend even beyond species boundaries. For several days this week, the greater bamboo lemur group we were following mixed for some time with a group of red-fronted lemurs, Eulemur rufifrons. The “rufies,” as we call them, tend to have grayish or reddish bodies, with distinctive red facial markings, in place of the uniform golden-brown of the varibolomavo. Their calls are instantly recognizable due to their similarity to the stereotypical grunt of a pig: it can only be rendered as “oink!” These oinking, boisterous cousins of Prolemur prefer fruit to bamboo, and so can feed in close proximity to a varibolomavo group with no competition for resources. (Pictured above: a “rufie” staring down at me from a tree).
Cupid settled in to rest in a tree fairly early that day, with Juno and her baby, along with Moira, another Northwest One female, slumbering a few meters from him (all animosity long forgotten and forgiven). While we waited under the tree, taking repetitive data points on the lemurs’ behavior, I had a great time chatting with Rasolo and Mamy, two of the local researchers. Rasolo kindly offered me the fruit of Aframomum angustifolium, a perfectly unearthly-looking local wild plant whose fruits have an extraordinarily sour and acidic taste, bearing the same culinary relationship to lemons as lemons do to grapefruit. Rasolo enjoyed his fruit, but I couldn’t finish mine, though I thanked him all the same. I also took the opportunity to learn a lot of new Malagasy words, from kapa (shoe) to vita (finished) to loha (head) to avia and avanana (left and right).
When we were picked up after the day’s forest work by Clariel, the MBP driver, I struck up a conversation in Malagasy with Rasolo and a few other MBP staff members sharing the transport. (Carpooling is beyond a norm and well into a way of life in Madagascar: we often have seventeen or twenty people sharing the MBP van). Just after I said “Mandrapihaona alatsinainy!” (See you Monday) when Rasolo got out, Clariel said that I “Miteny gasy tsy vazaha,” or “speak Malagasy not like a foreigner.” I treasured the kind compliment, and resolved to redouble my Malagasy practice.
Friday was also notable in that the KAFS dining hall served bread at both breakfast and lunch, a welcome rarity in rice-centric Madagascar. After a delicious tomato-and-butter sandwich, I spent the afternoon entering data into the P. simus team laptop and composing the biweekly report with Theoluc. I went to bed rested, refreshed, and profoundly happy to be living and working in an environment as stimulating and rewarding as MBP’s projects in Kianjavato Commune of Madagascar. My profound thanks to the many researchers, administrators, and volunteers before me who have labored to establish this incredible endeavor!
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I'm Sam Matey, an environmental scientist and University of Southern Maine graduate. I founded The Weekly Anthropocene because I believe the world needs a succinct, accessible rundown of environmental news.