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  • Lotte van den Hout

Notes from the field: November

View looking out across Ranomafana National Park from Mangevo

A Varecia Tale

In June, I packed my bags and my endless amount of equipment to begin my adventure. I had always hoped to be able to study primates and now here I was starting out as a research assistant for Dr. Andrea Baden’s Varecia Project. I was going to study Black and White Ruffed lemurs in Madagascar! What an incredible opportunity. Even as my time here begins to come to an end I’m still amazed that little ol’ me, all the way from NZ, is in a forest in Madagascar studying lemurs.

One of our study subjects exhibiting its characteristic suspensory feeding posture

My job on team two is to collect nutritional ecology data for Dr. Baden’s PhD student, Nina Beeby. When our focal animal starts feeding I record time duration, the number of bites or fruits it takes and the plant species. At the end of each expedition we collect samples of the plant parts the Varecia ate (fruits, flowers, buds and leaves). These are gathered from their feeding trees, or close to them. Sometimes the trees are really high so we use slingshots to shoot fruits down. Pierre (a technician) might climb a 20m tree! Big sticks can used to whack down branches too. The Malagasy are very resourceful.

Following the Varecia is not always easy. It can be an uphill battle, quite literally. The slopes at the Mangevo study site can be pretty much vertical. I’m not exaggerating! This can be a problem when the lemur is travelling. It flies through the canopy while we are scrambling, in the undergrowth, up and down the slopes. Boy, does that make you fit! Lately, they have been travelling so fast and far that we lose them and we have to use radio telemetry to find them again. Counting bites can also be challenging. The canopy vegetation might be too dense, the light could be in your eyes or the focal has its back to you. Nevertheless, this job is so rewarding. Whether it’s being able to see all the bites all day or keeping up with the technicians who are chasing the travelling lemurs. I always find myself improving in every aspect. Plus, the Varecia are awesome to watch!

Lotte working closely with team members to identify Varecia food items

We learn about many things out here. Of course how to do our jobs but other unexpected lessons too: How you should move through the forest. What plants and bugs sting, itch or spike. Fluffy caterpillars are very itchy! How to live in another culture and learn a language. How to work as a team and cope with miscommunications. What the best way to wash yourself and clothes in the river. Be very, VERY, careful going down to the river with your bucket of hot water, I learned this the hard way and got a bad burn. How to hand dry your undies by the fire without melting them. How to do a 22km hike. How to make a leaf nest to sit on while the lemur rests. Resourcefulness. What things are important to bring/not forget. How to use a moon/diva cup with a squat latrine and cup of hot water. The value of snacks. And, how truly beautiful the forest and its creatures are.

I have met many wonderful people during my time here. It has been hard saying goodbye to new friends. It will be harder saying goodbye to Madagascar and my new family. Here, I had one of my favourite days ever! We were watching lemurs in a tree while they rested and ate flowers all day. The skies were blue and there were many butterflies in the top of the same tree. It was stunningly magical and awe-inspiring. Our world is an incredible paradise and we need to protect it. I hope every person will be able to experience the same awe from nature as I have. I’m forever grateful for this experience. Thank you to everyone who has made it possible.

If you would like to hear about more of my tales from Madagascar you can follow me on:

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Love our world,

Lotte van den Hout

Research assistant for the Baden Varecia Project

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