Field Notes: Leaping Through the Year with Lemurs

While I’ve written several times about my field work on this blog and posted many field frames showcasing the amazing Malagasy wildlife I get to see daily, I struggled to figure out how to begin this piece. I mean, I’ve had plenty of field experiences since my last piece – 8 months of them to be precise. In July 2019, I “moved” to Madagascar attempting what many people told me (okay, still tell me) was a crazy dissertation plan. I wanted to understand how and why animals change their social behavior based on their local environment. I had pilot data from previous seasons suggesting that there were seasonal differences in who animals spend time with and also interesting patterns in where in their habitat they chose to socialize. I am particularly interested in how we can use this sort of information to help inform conservation policies and practices. While most research on animal behavior and conservation does not focus on social behavior, for social animals, such behaviors govern many aspects of everyday life, so may be important indicators to examine.

As I was designing my study, I wanted it to be as comprehensive as possible. While my previous work relied almost exclusively on behavioral observations of diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema), I decided to expand this season in several ways. My team, composed of dedicated Malagasy graduate students and local guides, began following common brown lemurs (Eulemur fulvus) and added fecal sample collection, camera traps (cameras which remotely trigger whenever an animal passes in front of them), and botanical sampling to our previous data collection protocols. But maybe the best way to sum all that work up isn’t through words, but through pictures demonstrating the seasonal changes that governed our past 8 months.

August – September 2019: Arrival, training, and data collection begins

Upon arrival in Madagascar, I was able to attend the 56th annual congress of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, held in Antananarivo, Madagascar [Upper right]. Along side my colleagues, I presented our preliminary findings on diademed and Verreaux’s sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi) social behavior [Upper left; Photo Credit: Rose Marie Randrianarison]. Upon reaching Maromizaha, our field site, my team was greeted by an early start to dry season. Black and white ruffed lemurs (Varecia variegata editorum) and sifaka feasted on the ripening fruits [Center left and lower right], I could take my computer work outside without fear of a rainstorm [Center right], nap time was accompanied by brilliant blue skies [Center left], and we began to watch the new sifaka babies get their characteristic grey and orange fur [Lower right]. All this dryness, well, had to be interrupted by the occasional rainy day just to remind ourselves that we do work in a rainforest. As rotra mena fruit became available [Lower left], we spent day after day at the same trees as both the sifaka and brown lemurs finished off the tiny magenta fruits.

October – November 2019: Dry season in full swing

The full emergence of dry season in October and November may be one of my favorite times in Madagascar. In the local market, mangos, lychees, and pineapples abound. In the forest, life bustles (including with the dreaded fuzzy caterpillars [Center right] who frequently clump together on trees) as it’s finally not raining everyday. This season brings the peak play time for the sifaka [Upper and center left]. November also brings ripe kijy, a coconut-sized yellow, sticky fruit. Sifaka are not the cleanest of eaters [Lower right] and will spend hours opening and devouring fruit after fruit [Video]. While these months may be the easiest for sifaka watching, they proved to be what we thought at the time were the hardest for brown lemur watching. Fruit became scarce in the forest (as the kijy fruits are too hard for a brown lemur to break into), making finding the fruit-eating brown lemurs difficult. When we did find them, they too engaged in some social behavior, such as grooming [Center left], albeit for very short intervals. Brown lemurs seemingly have the attention span of, well, a brown lemur, and change behaviors rapidly. Most grooming bouts only last a few seconds, interrupted by feeding on fruit, grooming themselves, or staring into space. In this time, we continued watching the brown lemur babies grow up who in contrast to their sifaka counterparts began moving and feeding independently. When we could find the brown lemurs, they often took their midday seista huddled in the shade on top of tree ferns [Lower middle]. Brown lemurs are cathemeral, meaning that they are active on a 24-hour cycle, rather than just during the day [dirunal] or during the night [noctural]. This means, however, both their days and nights are filled with long periods of sleep – our record was 4.5 hours of watching essentially motionless animals.

December 2019 – January 2020: Rainy season begins

December was a month I had feared: the beginning of rainy season. I’d completed many “little” rainy seasons before in Maromizaha, but this was my first “big” rainy season. Much to our surprise, we had a few afternoon thunderstorms, but no cyclones or major weeks of nonstop rain common to the little rainy season. I wasn’t arguing though, and neither were the reptiles of Maromizaha [Upper and center right], as they began their mating seasons. Our trails remained clear, and the bright red, 15-20 cm millipedes [Upper middle] and brown lemurs [Upper left] took advantage. While these pictures may not look like it, rainy season found us in January. We had a beautiful sunny week amid the rain, with lots of play [Center left], naps in the shade [Center left], and babies that were finally more or less independent from their mothers [Center right]. Our tree marking [Lower right; Photo credit: Grace Davis] got much more challenging in the rain when we learned that sharpies do not write on wet fabric. With all this rain, the fungi [Lower left] came out in full force, showering the forest floor in a confetti of orange, white, blue, red, and brown fruiting bodies.

February – March 2020: Rainy season picks up

While our early experiences in cyclone season were seemingly no big deal, as the season dragged on, we continued to get bombarded with rain. Cloudy mists/downpours over the forest [Center left] became the norm as we searched on the ridges for our animals each morning. Previous trails became flooded rivers [Center right]. Even though it was rainy, the forest was still buzzing with activity, including the lemur-imitating blue couas [Coua caerulea; Center left], croaking frogs [Lower right], and streaked tenrec babies [Hemicentetes semispinosus; video; Video credit: Herinjatovo Maminirina]. The brown lemur babies [Upper right] who had been just born six months ago got big enough to be mistaken for adults as they dash in and out of view in the canopy of the fruit trees. To pass the time during rainstorms, we also began creating herberium specimens of the different lemur foods [Upper left] for scientific identification. In typical field style, we had to improvise a little on the preparation, resorting to spreading the rubbing alcohol on the samples (for preservation) with a laundry brush [Upper middle]. For a blissful weekend, the clouds parted, revealing beautiful pink and orange sunsets viewable from the hill above our camp [Center right]. Unfortunately, March also brought the news that COVID-19 was getting worse worldwide, and we needed to evacuate. At our “goodbye for now” party, my team [Lower left] surprised me with the chocolate cake [Lower right] that I had been craving, decorated with pear slices spelling Soava dia [Malagasy: Safe travels]. While I miss them and our forest life, I’m looking forward to the day we can return to uncover the mysteries of lemur social behavior and witness the seasonal changes in the forest.

Looking back on the past 8 months, I’m thankful we got to witness as many seasonal changes as we did: babies being born and growing up, rains coming and staying, and various forest animals coming in and out of activity. While certainly not the end to the field season I thought we would have, as we still have another 7-8 months of data collection that is uncertain with COVID-19, the cycle continues just as it has for generations. Until I can get back, I’ll be sitting at my computer analyzing our data, trying to understand the relationship between social behavior, the environment, and conservation.

Meredith Lutz is a 3rd year Ph.D. candidate in ABGG in the Caillaud lab. She studies behavioral flexibility and how it relates to wildlife conservation and evidently spends a lot of time in Madagascar. The work described here is made possible by close collaborations with Le Groupe d’Etude et de Recherche sur les Primates de Madagascar (GERP), the University of Antananarivo, and the local communities surrounding the Maromizaha Protected Area.

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