Notes from the (concrete) jungle: January 2020

Happy New Year (& decade)! It has certainly been awhile since I returned from Madagascar, so I thought it was high time for me to write another blogpost. The weeks immediately after I returned to NYC were filled with frantic studying for my qualifying exams (“comps”), and the semester started shortly after. During fall semester I took classes in biostats, paleoanthropology, and career/professional development as well as an independent study with the Wildlife Conservation Society. I worked as an intern in the Education Evaluation department at the Bronx Zoo, directed by a former NYCEP-er! I assisted on transcription, data analysis and visualization, and creating presentations to convey results to zoo administration.

The department uses visitor surveys to study why people go to the zoo, demographic information about visitors, what their favorite part of the zoo is, etc. Fun fact-sea lions are VERY popular and have amassed quite the following among the NYC 5-18yo demographic. The dept also conduct studies using different conservation messaging strategies to assess visitors’ perspective on wildlife conservation. Given that I typically work on the biology side of conservation, it was really interesting to work on the social science side and see what motivates people to care about endangered wildlife.

You are probably interested in hearing about the ruffed lemurs of Mangevo, so some brief updates-many of the adult females had infants, a decent majority of which are still doing well today (they are now ~4mo). Some other lab members and I are currently working on writing a scientific paper about the mating behaviors that we observed this summer. It’s going to be quite the task academically describing the game males play during mating season. They’re afraid of the females because most lemur species are female-dominant, but they’re kind of driven by a biological urge. So they approach females very, very slowly and use a vocalization only emitted by males, during the 1 week of mating. Sometimes the females are ok with it, sometimes they chase the males away, sometimes it’s a very long staring contest. It’s quite the scene, and I had to regularly hold back fits of laughter watching this all play out.

The passive acoustic recorders that I had up during the summer continued to run through the end of the year. Quick recap: the devices are kind of like motion-triggered cameras, but these are triggered by sound. They run remotely, so you can put them up, throw some batteries & SD cards in and go about your month. My AMAZING Centre ValBio research technician, Francois, continued to check the devices every month after I left Madagascar.

Now, I have something like 20,000 hours of recordings. But fear not, I have a assembled a team of undergraduate research assistants to help me create a machine-learning based model that will do most of the work for us. Basically, you compile a bunch of files that are labelled as calls of interest (e.g., lemur call), background noise (e.g., a river), weather (e.g., rain), non-lemur calls (e.g., birds), etc. You then feed this into the computer model and the computer “trains” itself on this labelled and pre-processed data. It uses the training dataset to then go through those thousands of hours of recordings to find the calls of interest.

I do have some preliminary results that I’m going to present at a conference in April, so stay tuned for post on that. Teaser trailer version: males and females emit different calls at different rates, call duration is highly variable, group size affects calling rates, and individuals differ in how frequently they use different call types.

I’m hoping to be back in Madagascar in early 2021, and that trip will be longer than last summer’s pilot study (~10 months or so). That’s all dependent on when I defend my dissertation proposal and if I get enough grant money. While I do not miss the leeches and 7-hour hikes to the campsite, I miss those fluffy tree pandas something fierce. Until then, on to more data analysis…

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