Field Fiasco: Fabric Fiesta!

Doing field research in a foreign country comes with many issues that you might not encounter in the United States—having to pack all of your equipment to meet airline regulations, adapting to a new culture, and speaking multiple new languages are all challenges I have had to overcome in order to study social relationships in lemurs in Madagascar over the past three years. One of the things that remains a constant battle, however, is converting between US customary units and the metric system. Let’s be clear: I fully support using metric units and often find myself forgetting American conversions. How many ounces in a pound? Water boils at what degree Fahrenheit? Reacquainting myself with the metric system is always an adventure as I measure rain in millimeters, record the temperature 3 times daily in Celsius, try and decide how many kilograms of green beans to buy, and estimate the heights of trees in meters.

While my food estimating skills have improved in my now 4thfield season in Madagascar, my fabric estimating skills apparently still are lacking. While my data collection protocols have remained generally the same (i.e. find lemurs, follow lemurs, record all social behavior), this year I’ve added a new dimension to my research: trees. Inspired by a system I saw as a research assistant at the Ankoatsifaka Sifaka Research Project in western Madagascar, I decided the only way to understand how feeding competition between individuals influences social behavior was to mark every tree the lemurs ate from and every tree that they used for social behavior (grooming, greeting, aggression, etc.). To understand how these trees related to the forest as a whole, we decided to go on random transects (i.e. walking in long straight lines while recording all of the trees at set intervals). Normally, trees are marked with flagging tape – a kind of plastic-y tape that sharpie doesn’t work on, especially in the rain. Figuring that I would want this data next year when I return, I decided to replicate the system of Ankoatsifaka and use local fabric. Having long-lasting, waterproof marked trees and supporting the local economy? A win-win situation in my book.

Thus, my Malagasy research partner and I set out to the market in Madagascar’s capital to buy the needed fabric. We found part of the market with fabric in giant piles and began hunting through for an appropriate cotton to mark trees. We decided on two colors of fabric to mark the trees: lemur trees and transect trees. In an attempt to get the most visible fabric possible, we settled on bright blue and orange (‘Ray Bucknell!). Now for the tricky question: how much fabric should we buy? Having previously followed the sifaka for 3 months, I knew they used a lot of trees, so I figured we should buy a lot of fabric, but not a crazy amount, as I would be returning to the capital in 2 months and could restock. “Dimy metratra mangamanga sy roa metratra voasory.” I told the fabric seller. And we were off with our 5 meters of blue fabric and two meters of orange fabric ready to mark the trees.

My first week in the field, we worked on solidifying protocols, relearning lemur names (man, they grow fast), and deciding on the best division of labor to mark and measure the trees. That first week, we marked 115 lemur trees. How many meters of blue fabric did it take us? 5. Yes, that’s right, what we thought would last 2 months if not the whole field season lasted 1 week. This was a slight problem for several reasons – one of which being that I didn’t know where to buy fabric in my market town.

To fix this problem, we decided that we better go to the market sooner rather than later to track down more fabric. At the rate we were going by our calculations, we might need 40 m or more of blue fabric and some unknown amount more of orange. We arrived on a Sunday, the day before the beginning of Madagascar’s Independence Day celebration. Thinking the fabric would be our most difficult purchase, we headed immediately to the market, stopping at every fabric vendor. After many confused looks from the vendors of why anyone would want 10’s of m of fabric of all different colors, we started slowly accumulating our blue fabric and ended up purchasing 40 some odd meters. Yet, every single vendor we went to did not have any orange fabric. They had every other color except orange. It became our most sought after item as we checked off all of the other things we needed. Worrying that orange fabric was fady (taboo) in Moramanga, we decided to buy a little yellow to substitute just in case. The morning of our departure back to the forest, we decided to make one last pass through the market in pursuit of orange fabric. And lo and behold, we found a vendor who not only had orange fabric, but had 15 m of it. We bought it all, as well as the little bit of blue he had just for good measure.

We arrived back to camp for our Malagasy Independence Day celebration with over 60 m of fabric. It took 2 teams of 2 people each over 6 hours to cut it all into tree-marking strips, count the strips, and package them away in rice sacks. The final total? 1,314 strips of blue; 489 strips of yellow/orange.

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Since these purchases, our rate of tree-marking has slowed significantly thanks to multiple weeks of downpouring rain, but now we know that 5 m of fabric was definitely not sufficient to understand lemur social behavior. Hopefully next year, I’ll be more accurate in my fabric purchasing.

Marking a tree on a transect

Meredith Lutz is a second year ABGG graduate student. She studies plasticity in lemur social networks.

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