Field Notes: In search of the social sifaka

Anyone that knows me well understands that I spend a good deal of my time thinking or talking about Madagascar (or lemurs). Three years ago, though, I had never set foot on the island that now consumes a good portion of my time.

My relationship with Madagascar began when I was an undergraduate in the Animal Behavior program at Bucknell University. I was fascinated by primate social behavior, especially how it might function in a natural context. By the time I graduated, I had traveled to Madagascar twice. My first trip was through with SIT Madagascar: Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management, a study abroad program during my junior year. This was when, through language and culture classes as well as field exercises, I began to gain a larger understanding of how conservation and biodiversity fits in the larger society in Madagascar. Because the last month of my program was devoted to independent study, I was also able to spend a month in the Maromizaha Forest (which is located in the eastern rainforests of Madagascar) studying how factors like time of day, rainfall, and height from the ground affect how primates called diademed sifaka (pronounced she-FAK; Propithecus diadema) play with each other. Thanks to some research grants from Bucknell, I built upon this research the following summer by studying how their play behavior changed seasonally. A lot has happened since my graduation from Bucknell, but my visits to Madagascar have been a consistent feature in my life; I’ve been back to start research related to my dissertation at UC Davis on the nature and drivers of social network plasticity in primates, and I plan to return this June to Maromizaha to begin pilot work.

A frequent site in the rainforest - fog and clouds rolling over the mountains
Maromizaha Forest

For all of these projects, our methods are similar. We follow the animals around the forest daily. The sifaka that I study don’t have any sort of radio collars for tracking, so we begin each morning early (around 6:15 or 6:45) by hiking to where they slept the previous night and looking for them. Sometimes that process takes 10 minutes and some days we never find them. Often, though, we find them by 9 am, and spend the rest of the day with them, generally hiking back to our camp around 3 or 4 pm.

Diademed sifaka in Maromizaha Forest
Juvenile sifaka ride on their mother’s back for up to 1 year.

During the day, I do behavioral observations on each animal of the group. For my study, that means that I record every behavior (playing, grooming, moving, sleeping, sitting close to another animal, feeding, scratching, etc.) that they engage in and the times that it occurs. This could seem like a fairly straightforward data-collection protocol, but I can assure you that when the sifaka decide to jump over to the next mountain (and you end up collecting data in the river between the two mountains), it is not always that easy! I’m primarily interested in play behavior, which is rare in sifaka, and I often try to record it on video whenever it occurs. Here, for example, you can see a subadult male named Tandra playing with an adult male named Irana. The sounds you hear in the background are the Indri (Indri indri) calling. Indris are the largest of the living lemurs, and they live in male-female pairs that sing this beautiful duet (it kind of sounds like the songs of the humpback whales) in the mornings.


Sifaka playing

In order for this study to work, there are a couple of things that need to be in place. We rely on the animals being habituated, which means they are used to people being around and do not alter their behavior in our presence. Because my group is habituated, they more or less ignore me during the day, which allows me to make detailed observations about their behavior. Not only am I recording all of their behavior but I am also recording all of the animals that they are interacting with. To do so, I need to be able to individually recognize all animals in my group. For some species, this is very challenging, and so the animals are fitted with individual collars or other markings that help researchers identify everyone. Because the sifaka allow us to come pretty close, I do not have to rely on collars. Just as you identify your friends, I am able to use various facial features, as well as body size, to tell who’s who.


Data collection

Some of my favorite things about fieldwork in Maromizaha is seeing all of the other cool things in the forest. Obviously, I am pretty focused on what my sifaka are doing, but we frequently see other animals (and cool plants – yes, even animal behaviorists can admire plants from time to time) in the forest. This is possible mostly because we are just being quiet. In the primate department, we’ve happened upon groups of bamboo lemurs (Hapalemur griseus griseus), brown lemurs (Eulemur fulvus), wooly lemurs (Avahi laniger), black and white lemurs (Varecia variegata editorum), and indris just by watching silently. There are also tons of reptiles, birds, amphibians, insects, and other mammals that never fail to surprise us. I remember one particular time where we were being so still that a chameleon climbed onto my mud-stained rain jacket. I didn’t notice until we had hiked down a mountain following the sifaka, and the chameleon was still hanging onto my jacket.


Some of the lemur diversity of Maromizaha

Although most days are spent in the forest following animals around, I would be amiss if I didn’t also mention living in Madagascar. In camp, I live with my field team, which includes me, my guide (and fellow bird- and lemur-imitator), my Malagasy research partner, and our cook. Generally, there’s also an Italian team at the research center. French is the only language that everyone shares at camp, so is generally the language spoken, but in the forest and town, I mostly speak Malagasy. In fact, some of my favorite memories from Madagascar aren’t in the forest. They are in the adjacent village talking with the local people about the latest news, in the market buying our food and amusing the vendors with our latest field stories, going to parties with my host families, and sitting around the fire learning from Malagasy people about their own heritage and the stories that they know about the forest. While I am incredibly privileged to be able to learn about the wildlife in Madagascar, the animals and the forest ultimately belong to the local Malagasy people.

Field team
Field research is always a team sport.

If you want to learn more about my experiences you can follow my field blog, which includes updates from my past 3 trips to Madagascar. Look for more field updates this summer when I return to my Malagasy home in Maromizaha to begin studying primate social networks and how they change spatially.

Meredith Lutz is a 1st year student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis in Dr. Damien Caillaud’s lab. She broadly studies social network plasticity in primates, specifically focusing on the seasonal and spatial drivers of social network plasticity in lemurs.

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