Rice paddies, rampant leeches and (most importantly) really cute lemurs!
Salama! I’m back at Centre ValBio (CVB) now after spending 3 weeks in the field at Mangevo collecting data on ruffed lemur vocalizations and social behavior. The hike to Mangevo was 7 hours of Carly falling waist-deep into rice paddies while the local Malagasy laughed at the mora mora vaza (very slow non-Malagasy person). BUT, it was so worth it because the next day, I saw wild Varecia for the first time and simultaneously cried/screamed/fell to the ground in excitement.
That first day we deployed my 4 passive acoustic monitoring (PAM-which is funny because that’s my sister’s name) devices, which continuously record vocalizations in any direction within a given frequency range from up to 800m away. The great thing about these units is that once you configure them and attach to a tree, you don’t have to do anything with them for weeks! They run 24/7 and only need to be checked when the batteries or SD cards need to be replaced.
While these are running, my amazing field team and I are doing full-day focal follows of the different ruffed lemur subgroups, collecting behavioral and proximity data as well as recording some of the quieter, low-frequency vocalizations that aren’t easily picked up by the PAM devices. This is done with a handheld recorder connected to a shotgun microphone protected in a windscreen/rainsheet. My team includes me, Malagasy student Mendrika Nina, CVB research tech Francois, local guide Ezafy, and cook Tolotro. Ezafy is from the village of Mangevo, which is ~1 hour hike from the camp site we work out of, and is a lemur-tracker-extraordinaire.
Ezafy knows the name of every tree and plant and bug and bird native to the area and has a mental map of the trail system that has put my GPS to shame. He also makes “special” alternative paths for me when he thinks the trail is too slippery or steep and Francois has literally hoisted me over his shoulder to cross over-flowing rivers. They are pretty much the only reason I’ve returned un-injured, much to my mom’s relief. Francois is an amazing technician who somehow has the ability to simultaneously record proximity & vocal data, keep track of the focal animal, identify other individuals in the area and make jokes about his love for and my hatred of trondromina (dried fish). The 5 of us make a great team and I feel so incredibly lucky and honored to work alongside such devoted, inspirational, and hard-working researchers.
It’s necessary to have a great attitude amongst the team because Mangevo is no easy place to work. It’s very difficult to get to to begin with, it rains a lot and is cold (we’re 1000m above sea level and this is the Malagasy “winter”), you will have at least 20 leeches to pick off your body each day, and it’s constant up-and-down terrain that you hike for 10 hours/day. When it rains, it pours-literally, and then the leeches come out in full force. Even if you pick them off you, they leave a parting gift in the form of an anti-coagulant they inject to keep you bleeding so that 3 more leeches can find the bite spot a few minutes later.
HOWEVER, all of these things are worth it because I get to spend my days staring at these cute little fluffy cotton-balls within the trees beside wonderful people. I’m completely off the grid in the forest so there’s no technology, modern amenities (shower=bucket, toilet=squat latrine), or anything like that which is an incredibly refreshing adventure. Being off the grid, I don’t have emails to constantly be checking, grant proposals to be working on, manuscripts to be writing, conferences to go to, and the constant pressure of higher education and academia. It’s also amazing to be able to watch this critically-endangered species in one of their last rainforest strong-holds. We’ve seen mutual grooming, vicious inter-group encounters, lemurs falling out of trees, 10 different vocalizations, 20-foot leaps between tiny branches of trees, and lots of eating while hanging upside down (which I really wish I had the ability to do…). Varecia are so weird for so many reasons, but that makes them so fun to study! I can’t wait to get back to the forest and continue this project. Stay tuned for more updates and #fieldworkfails! Mandrapihaona (see you later)!