Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tossing the pigskin

On day four we slaughtered the pig.  I went to photograph it where we kept it by the rock overhang, but couldn't find it.  The cooks were butchering it in the creek.
On the fourth day we slaughtered the pig, and spent a couple days eating it
That night we had boiled pig and rice for dinner.   Chunks of bone, fat, and skin—pretty much the whole pig except the head and internal organs—all cooked in a pot.  I’m an adventurous eater.  Although mostly a vegetarian if left to my own devices, I’m always up for something new.  But here there wasn’t any choice anyway.
There are few foods I won’t eat.  On that day I discovered a new one—boiled pig skin.  The cooks chopped the skin into small squares.  On our plates each piece was mottled pink and brown, with bristly hairs sticking out from the pores on one side, and a squishy layer of fat on the other.  And everything was soaked in pork grease.  I ate a couple pieces, but just couldn’t appreciate the combination of fat and hair.  Fortunately it was dark, and as I picked bits of bone from my plate and tossed them away from camp, I secretly threw out a couple pieces of skin as well.  It broke my heart to waste food, but it was either that or admit to the others I thought it was gross.
The cooks cut the skin into squares and boiled it with the rest of the animal
I enjoyed the opportunity to try something new and learn about the butchering process.  And I appreciated that we ate almost every part of the pig.  But this may have been my least favorite meal in Madagascar. 
No one expects great food in the Marines or grad school, but I have to say I’d prefer Ramen and (most) MREs to this.  I longed for vegetables.  But others in camp were happy to have pork and thought it was delicious.  So I didn't say anything as I sat in the dark, eating what muscle and marrow I could find.  And rice, of course.

For breakfast the next day we ate the liver… 
As for vegetables, I did get some two days later when we had pig stew with carrots and potatoes.
Later in the trip I confessed to Brian that though I gave the skin a fair try, I couldn’t bring myself to like it.  “It helps if you’re really, really hungry,” he pointed out.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Far over the misty mountains cold

Remember how I said major mountains in northern Madagascar each have their own unique species?  That especially applies to montane forest species.  Montane forest forms above 800 m or so, where conditions are cool, misty and wet.  These high elevation patches are separated from other such patches by lowland rainforest.  Species that evolve to live in the perpetual chill and damp are unable to disperse through the drier warm rainforest to colonize other mountain ranges with suitable habitat.  So though the environment is similar on each range, the species that live there are unique and different from those on other ranges.  The lowland forest around our camp was full of life, but in order to truly explore Galoka we had to climb to the montane forest near its summit.
One morning, after a breakfast of rice with zebu soup, we climbed up for our first look at this foggy mountaintop realm.  We followed a creek as long as we could.  The mountain got steep, and we began to climb.  We navigated up muddy slopes and through thickets of tree ferns, climbing up boulders and root mats.  It got cooler and wetter, and the canopy shorter.  Waterlogged rotting wood covered the ground.  The trees were draped with mosses, lichens, parasitic orchids and elkhorn ferns (Platycerium sp.).  Unlike the dark lowland forest, the ground here was covered in places with an herbaceous understory of ferns, melastomes and Pandanus.
Lower canopies at higher altitudes let more light penetrate to the forest floor, resulting in a luxuriant understory

At the top we walked along the ridgeline and passed through man-made clearings full of weedy grasses, ferns and bamboo.  The ridge narrowed in places, bordered by mossy cliffs with overhanging trees framing the mist beyond.  We crossed a narrow saddle only a few meters wide, across a cleft in the ridge with drop-offs to either side.  It was cold.  But above all it was wet.
It rained everyday in the forest around our camp—it was rainforest after all.  But that was nothing compared to the continual damp near the summit.  Mist hovered in the air, a film of water covered every surface, and water dripped off plants and trickled out of rock.  This was montane forest.
Mist-filled gorges create an otherworldly atmosphere atop Galoka

This stick insect was one of many mountaintop residents we found
As we collected that day, and as I practiced my Zen method, I pondered a bit about Buffon’s Law.  This old and simple observation is one of my favorite “rules” of biogeography.  It points out that different regions of the world have different species.  Although deceptively simple, the rule hides a complex message, consisting of two important ideas.  First, the same habitats in different places do not have the same species.  Rainforests in Africa and South America have similar climates, but different species.  The same goes for North American and European rivers, Arctic and Antarctic ice floes, Australian and Asian grasslands, etc.
Second, for species of a given habitat, the most closely related species tend to be found in different habitats nearby, rather than the same habitats in a different region.  Australian rainforest animals are more closely related to animals of Australian deserts than to those of rainforests on other continents.  Rather than universal species that live in specific habitats around the globe, instead each region contains groups of related species specialized to live in different habitats.  In Australia there are rainforest kangaroos, desert kangaroos and even kangaroos that live on cliffs.  The same habitats elsewhere on Earth lack kangaroos, and instead contain mammals not found in Australia.
Christian navigates a muddy slope on our way down the mountain
With taxonomists the collecting never stops.  On our way down we halted in a tree fern thicket as Brian and Clive collected ants below us.

Why did I think of Buffon’s Law here on Galoka?  To an animal as small as an ant, the isolated patches of montane forest in northern Madagascar are separate worlds.  Brian has found that ant species unique to any given mountain range are often more closely related to species in the surrounding lowland rainforest than they are to species living on other mountains.  Although Buffon himself thought on the scale of continents, this patchwork of independently derived mountaintop faunas illustrates his rule quite nicely.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The squishy things in life

I don’t pay enough attention to flatworms (Phylum Platyhelminthes).  Most people probably don’t.  If you’re like me, flatworms just aren’t something you encounter everyday.  And they’re certainly not large.
The rainforests of Madagascar, however, are home to some spectacular flatworms.  “Hammerhead worms” of the genus Bipalium are large, conspicuous, fast-moving predators of the leaf litter.  They’re a far cry from the tiny pond dwelling Planaria you may have seen under a microscope in an intro biology class.
I found a few of these guys on Galoka.  The first one I found while peeing.  As soon as I finished my business I excitedly picked it up and ran back to our lab bench to show Christian.
Bipalium sp., in contrast to some more familiar flatworms, can be large and colorful...
 ...and fast

Sunday, April 14, 2013

It's always about size with chameleons...

Do you remember the Parson’s chameleon, Calumma parsonii, from eastern Madagascar a few posts back?  It’s a contender for the title of world’s largest chameleon, and it took me two hands to hold it.
 Parson’s chameleon, Calumma parsonii, takes two hands to hold
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the stump-tailed chameleons, Brookesia sp., some species of which are the smallest known chameleons.  On Galoka two Brookesia species were common, one of which was small enough to fit on a fingertip.  Although these tiny lizards are a famous Malagasy specialty, I never dared hope to find one.  All the more exciting when I ended up finding several.
 At a few inches long, the larger of the two Brookesia species I found on Galoka was a relative giant
  The smallest Brookesia species are the world’s smallest chameleons, and easily fit on a fingertip
 A diminutive Brookesia navigates the topography of my fingers

Camp life

What is it that I, or other biologists, actually DO once we get to a place like Galoka?  My family and friends know I travel and experience nature, but they have a hard time picturing my actual work.
Our mission was to explore the forest fragment on Galoka.  What does that entail?  In this part of Madagascar, like many places on Earth, each major mountain has unique species that have evolved there and live nowhere else.  Since few biologists, and perhaps no zoologists, had ever surveyed this area, we hoped to find and document these Galoka endemics, all of which would be species new to science.  It wasn’t just the “new” species we were interested in, however.  Any species we collected would extend our knowledge of the distribution of ants in Madagascar—information that is useful for understanding the evolutionary history of the island and vital for conservation planning.
Describing species and mapping where they live are the basic steps that must be done before any further investigations take place.  Mapping genomes, detailing the history of life, curing diseases, improving agriculture, making decisions about land use and conservation… all the applied benefits of biology begin with species names and maps.  Basic exploration like this is the grunt work of biology.  Only after this foundation is laid can theory be developed, questions answered and decisions made.  And in cases like Galoka and elsewhere around the world, where natural vegetation is being quickly eaten up by farmland, the opportunity to lay that foundation is disappearing.  Hence our visit to this small and dwindling forest.
We set up camp near the forest edge
 Our finished camp included a lab area, a kitchen and a rock shelter for the chickens
  Black lemurs, Eulemur macaco macaco, kept us company and filled the camp with their eerie calls
We spent over a week searching the mountain, collecting specimens and conducting field experiments.  Each day on Galoka brought some new experience or discovery, but I did have a basic routine.  I would wake each day around 0430 to the sounds of the cooks building a fire and preparing breakfast.  I got dressed, went outside for a pee and brushed my teeth.  At 0530 the cooks banged two pot lids together to announce breakfast.  They did this at every meal, and everyone in camp shouted “sakafo!”—food.  We greeted each other around the pots as we shoveled food onto our plates.  Every meal on Galoka, and generally in Madagascar, was rice and some sort of meat, with some vegetables mixed in on good days.  After breakfast, around 0600 or 0630, we left for our various projects, sometimes in a group and sometimes separately.
When together, we’d hike to a place in the forest and split up from there, to collect on our own.  I spent these first few hours of everyday sifting through leaf litter, digging, searching plants and splitting open rotting wood in search of organisms.  Visibility in tropical rainforests is about as terrible as it gets above the earth’s surface, and you can lose sight of someone after only a dozen meters or so.  Communication by sound is the rule.  Around 1000 Brian gave out a couple loud hoots, and everyone hooted back.  Guided by each other’s voices, we met up for a snack of peanuts, chocolate, cheese and biscuits.  Brian and his team sat in a circle on the forest floor and went over all the specimens each had collected that morning.  After a while we resumed collecting and returned to camp around 1230 or 1300 for lunch.
 Light from the forest edge illuminates the normally dark understory
 We discussed the morning’s discoveries over a daily snack of peanuts, cheese, chocolate and biscuits
I spent the afternoons working around camp or doing field experiments.  I bathed, washed clothes and filled my water bottles in the creek.  I hung my clothes on trees to dry, and put them in my tent during the daily rains.  I read, wrote and napped for the rest of the afternoon until dinner at 1830.
 We got our water from the creek, just before it flowed out of the forest into bright tavy
In the evenings we collected alates.  Alates are winged ant queens that fly away from their mother colonies to mate and found new colonies.  When it got dark we turned on a small generator and plugged in a light that we hung in front of a white sheet.  Insects attracted to the light land on the sheet where they can be sucked up with a pooter.  At 1930 or so, after an hour of collecting, we turned the generator off and went to our tents, where I read and wrote until I fell asleep.  My two book selections for this trip—Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and Steven Vogel’s Life in Moving Fluids.
Above all I observed, taking notes and photographing the life around me.  It was, after all, extremely unlikely that I would ever return here, and there’s a good chance no scientist ever will.  Given how quickly this small forest is disappearing, there’s a distinct possibility the world of Galoka will disappear altogether in just a few years.  The bits we bring back—the specimens, notebooks and photographs—are a material record of life in this small corner of the globe.  One day, possibly soon, these scraps may tell us how things “used to be” on Galoka.  In this context, note taking and photography are not just good practice, but a desperate salvage operation.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Zen and tandem running

Early in the Ant Course in Uganda in 2012 the instructors taught us different methods for finding and collecting ants.  The photographer Alex Wild shared with us what he called the “Zen method of ant collecting,” in which after turning over a log or finding a suitable spot, you just sit, wait and observe.  Not as exciting as trapping ants in your arm hair, another trick he taught us, but probably more useful.  Among other things, the Zen method allows you to find ants that freeze or play dead when disturbed, and only start moving again after things calm down.  Beyond that, the method is a great approach to nature observation in general.
Whether in your backyard or on a Malagasy mountaintop, one of the best ways to discover life around you, especially things you don't expect, is to just sit and wait.  Whatever else you’re doing, keep your eyes and ears and nose open.  I tend to have great luck finding organisms while peeing.
One day on Galoka I spent some time sitting on a mossy rock, practicing my Zen method.  On a nearby fallen tree I saw two Bothroponera workers engaging in tandem running.  In tandem running, one worker leads another to a food source.  The second worker doesn’t just follow the leader, but actively communicates with her by touching her with her antennae.  For her part, the leader goes slowly and only continues if she knows the other is following.  If the follower lags behind or gets off track, the leader waits for her.  The leader's sacrifice combined with active feedback from the other constitutes teaching.  Indeed, tandem running in ants was the first known example of teaching outside of humans.  Filming this cool behavior was just one of many surprises awaiting me on Galoka.

In tandem running, a Bothroponera teacher shows a pupil the way to a food source, stopping and waiting for the pupil when she lags behind.  The pupil lets the teacher know she's following by tapping with her antennae.