Field Notes: A tale of extremes

When I tell people I work in Madagascar, I usually get one of several reactions. High up on that list is something along the lines of, “Like the movie Madagascar?” Well, thankfully DreamWorks has at least brought the island nation bustling with 26 million people a little bit of fame here in the United States, but to answer your question: no, Madagascar the country is nothing like Madagascar the movie. While there are no lions, zebras, penguins, or hippopotamuses currently on Madagascar (pygmy hippos went extinct approximately 1000 years ago), Madagascar is most well-known for the high endemicity of its flora and fauna. Approximately 85% of the plants and animals currently living on Madagascar live nowhere else in the world [1]. Couple that with rapid population growth causing the remaining natural habitat to shrink, and Madagascar is classified as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots [2].

Some of Madagascar’s endemic wildlife including rainforest-living common brown lemurs (Eulemur fulvus), chameleons of all sizes and habitats (Family Chamaeleoninae, pictured is Furcifer sp.), and dry forest-living red-fronted brown lemurs (Eulemur rufifrons)

Due to the level of endemism and the conservation threats currently facing Madagascar, there has been a flurry of research on Madagascar’s biodiversity – from lemurs to chameleons to orchids to mongoose-like fossa to palm trees found nowhere else in the world. As one of those researchers working to better understand Malagasy wildlife, I travel to Madagascar yearly to work alongside talented Malagasy scientists to study the behavior of several highly-endangered lemur species. While much of my field work takes place in the humid rainforests of the eastern mountains, my most recent trip took me to the western dry forests – a land governed by stark contrasts between the cyclone-filled rainy season and the desert-like dry season. [They don’t call Madagascar the 8th continent for nothing – there’s as much climatic variation within Madagascar as within a normal continent]. Such variation often causes our field season to be the tale of two extremes in all facets of life. Particularly salient this season were extremes in water and sleep.

Water:

Posing with some of the big fishing boats during our brief beach party.

Even though this field season was timed for rainy season (which corresponds to sifaka mating season, a particularly eventful time in the lives of adult sifaka), we somehow still experienced extremes in water. Early in the season, we had several small storms, much akin to a midwestern, afternoon thunderstorm. At that point, I was convinced that rainy season was no big deal. Until tropical depression #1. After a day of nonstop pouring rain to the point of overflowing our rain gauge and wind knocking down trees in the forest and camp, we decided to evacuate camp and seek shelter in the fishing village 21 km away. Evacuating by moped, bicycle, and our own two feet, we made it out of the forest and to the nearby mud flats, approximately half way to our destination. If I hadn’t been there many times before, I could have easily been tricked into thinking we had reached our ocean-side destination. Let’s just say it’s a lot faster to cross the mud flats in the peak of dry season rather than wading through knee-deep water. Not to worry, though; our field team of 13 safely made it to the fishing village less than 8 hours after we found out we were evacuating camp. While waiting for the storms to pass, we spent several days enjoying each other’s company, dancing to all the local bars’ blaring music, and having a beach party in the only 1 hour break from the rain.

Part of the mud/salt flats in the peak of dry season (left) and roughly the same spot at the beginning of the tropical depression (right).

You’d think with so much water, we’d be set for the duration. Unfortunately, several weeks later, our well pump broke, meaning water for drinking, cooking, and showering had to be brought in jerry cans from 15 km away by charety [Malagasy: ox cart]. Malagasy time, however, means that sometimes the water does not come when it is supposed to. Water thus had to be strictly rationed, and lowest priority was showering. That’s pretty unfortunate when daytime temperatures are around 100°F, and you live essentially on a red dirt road. If it was raining, collecting the extra water could allow for bucket showering. Showering, however, in a rainstorm in the open air showers requires some level of skill at timing the breaks in downpours or a strong will to be clean no matter how wet your clothes get. Needless to say, we were happy when the water finally would come [yes, we were waiting for water in the middle of a rainstorm…], allowing us to shower at leisure, rain storm or no rainstorm.

Camp flooded after what would ultimately be considered a “small” rain storm.

Sleep:

Along with a team of talented Malagasy graduate students and local assistants, one goal of our field season was to understand how variation in hormones [tiny molecules circulating in our bodies that modify behavior] creates behavioral variation in lemurs. What does that really mean that we did? Well, beyond our normal protocols of intense behavioral observations, we all became incredibly fixated on one liquid: sifaka urine.

Research in a variety of animal species suggests that two particular hormones [oxytocin & arginine-vasopressin] play important roles in shaping affiliative behavior [3], the focus of much of our behavioral research. While the team at our field site in Ankoatsifaka has amassed over 10 years of longitudinal data on the Kirindy Mitea sifaka population [a huge misaotra betsaka (thank you) to ekipa (team) Ankoatsifaka for their dedication in following the animals day in and day out], we were missing those critical biomarkers to understand what was causing at the molecular level the behaviors we observe. While many hormones of interest can be analyzed through fecal samples (read: poop), oxytocin and arginine-vasopressin are best analyzed in urine, which tells us about the immediate behavioral context.

Sleeping sifaka, much more visible than the typical sifaka at 4 am

This all sounds great and good: just collect some urine, watch the lemurs and write down everything they do, and correlate the two, right? Well, unfortunately step one of that process isn’t nearly as easy as we’d like. Thus, I now present to you the best tips on how to collect sifaka urine: a step-by-step guide.

1) Wake up at 2:45 am to quickly get dressed, prep the day’s thermoses with ice from the solar freezer [after all, urine samples must remain frozen from collection til analysis, a task made harder by the 100°F daytime temps], and eat a quick breakfast of vary sosoa sy voanjo [Malagasy: a traditional breakfast kind of like oatmeal, except substitute rice for the oats with a side of roast peanuts].

2) Begin hiking to the sifaka sleep tree. Given that it is sifaka mating season, the sifaka get up before sunrise to start grooming and eating, so time is of the essence. This does however mean this hike is by headlamp – white light if you want to see and don’t care about bugs and red light if you want to only see 2 feet in front of you and don’t want bugs swarming your face that early in the morning.

Two sifaka sleeping together in a sleep-ball. Many times these balls are buried even further in branches and leaves and may contain up to 5 individuals in a line.

3) When you get to the sleep tree, quickly switch to red light to avoid waking up the sifaka. Attempt to find the sifaka in their sleep balls. It can get cold overnight in the dry forest, so sifaka generally sleep balled up with several group members and are often nestled in the leaves to protect themselves from the fossa – Madagascar’s largest endemic carnivore. While this is excellent fossa protection, it is also great at concealing them from researchers at 4 am trying to find them in the dark.

4) After finally locating the adult male [all of the animals in our study population have different colored ID collars, but we also use unique physical features, such as eye color and ear markings], begin collecting behavioral data waiting for the first urine of the morning. When the male starts to urinate on a tree, quickly [and quietly!] place aluminum foil on the ground to catch it before pipetting it into our collection tubes. When inevitably they urinate too fast for the foil, we became experts in pipetting small droplets off tree trunks and leaves into our collection tubes. These tubes go in our thermoses to be returned to camp and processed midday before the thermos warms back up.

Collecting urine from a tree trunk quickly before it dries in the hot Malagasy sun.

5) Back in camp, all tubes must carefully labelled and recorded before being placed in liquid nitrogen to be shipped back to the US for hormone analysis. All of the behavioral data must be entered before dinner and bedtime to get up the next morning (middle of the night?) to do it all over again.

While this field season may have provided a low level of sleep (sound familiar?), we had plenty of highlights keeping us going, including high-intensity dominos marathons, laughs about falling over something in the forest, ample observations of sifaka mating, beach dance parties, afternoon tea time telling the sifaka stories of the day, meals of kabaro [Malagasy: a big bean similar to lima beans, and everyone’s favorite meal], endless jokes from our guardians and cooks at all hours of the day, and competitions to respond the loudest to the cook’s cries for our forest lunches.

While my work in Madagascar may not line up with many Americans’ preconceived notions of the Red Island, I’m thankful for a community of students, local families, and Malagasy professionals who are the reason I still have hope for Madagascar. Beyond that, they’ve taught me that while yes, I am there for work, there’s always time for a big cup of dite mafana [Malagasy: hot tea], a conversation, and a dance party.

Entire Ankoatsifaka team (left: photo taken by local MNP Agent) getting ready to leave camp for the season. In Morondava, graduate student team in charge of early morning urine collection celebrates sleeping in til 7 am with visiting the Avenue of Baobabs.

Meredith Lutz is a 2nd year graduate student studying social plasticity in primates, hence spending a lot of time in Madagascar. She’d like to thank the entire Ankoatsifaka team, the local community in Antsira, Mavonjy, and Belo Sur Mer, and Madagascar National Parks – Kirindy Mitea for their invaluable support and friendship. All images taken by Meredith Lutz, unless otherwise specified.

References:

[1] Goodman, S. M., & Benstead, J. P. (2005). Updated estimates of biotic diversity and endemism for Madagascar. Oryx, 39, 73-77.

[2] Myers, N., Mittermeier, R. A., Mittermeier, C. G., da Fonseca, G. A. B., & Kent, J. (2000). Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature, 403, 853-858.

[3] Donaldson, Z. R., & Young, L. J. (2008). Oxytocin, vasopressin, and the neurogenetics of sociality. Science, 322, 900-904.

To learn more about the Ankoatsifaka Research Station and Sifaka Research Project, please visit their website.

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