Guest Post: My trip to Madagascar, and why you should jump on a plane and go now! (Reptiles, Amphibians, Insects, Plants, and Fishes)

Guest Post by Katy Klymus

Continuing on from my last post, I will now describe some of the reptiles, amphibians, insects, and plants I saw on my trip to Madagascar.

Reptiles
Besides lemurs, Madagascar is also known for the diversity of chameleons (family Chamaeleonidae); including half of the world’s total diversity. With their opposing fused toes and prehensile tail they are well adapted for their arboreal life style. Like the lemurs, chameleons were everywhere during our visit, practically dripping from the trees. Their eyes can move independently from one another giving them a unique perspective on the world. Chameleons can also change their skin color, reflecting behavioral states such as territoriality, aggression, and mating behavior. We also saw the largest chameleon in the world, Parson’s Chameleon (Calumma parsonii), several times throughout the trip, as well as O’Shaughnessy’s chameleon (Calumma oshaughnessyi) and several others that I could not get identified. Geckos were also abundant during our trip, including the bright green, giant day gecko (Phelsuma madagascariensis grandis) and the amazingly cryptic, leaf-tailed geckos of the genus Uroplatus, Among my favorite lizards we saw, were the three-eyed lizard or Madagascar iganua (Chalarodon madagascariensis) and the Madagascan collared lizards (Oplurus cuvieri) found in the southern part of the country. Both of these lizards belong to the family Igaunidae, which is interesting given that iguanid diversity is highest in the Americas. Madagascar is home to only three snake families, Boidae the widespread Colubridae, and Typhlopidae. No venomous snakes are found on the island. During our stay we often saw radiated tortoises (Astrochelys radiate) kept in hotels and tourist areas, but never got to see one in the wild. Madagascar has some of the rarest tortoise species including the radiated tortoise and the ploughshare tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora). The illegal pet trade is rapidly leading these species to extinction. Conservation groups are taking drastic measures to protect these species, including defacing the shells in hopes of deterring possible wildlife traffickers.

Chameleon
Chameleon
Madagascan Collared Lizard
Madagascan Collared Lizard

Amphibians
Having focused on treefrogs for my PhD dissertation, many of you may be wondering what about the frogs? I certainly looked for them, but we came during the dry season, so we did not have the best conditions. Nevertheless at least 240 species are found with all but two being endemic. While in Andasibe, I visited Association Mitsinjo. On a volunteer basis, I had been advising them on the design of their captive breeding experiments of local frog species. Having communicated with them over email many times and working together on a manuscript, it was exciting to finally get to meet their team of workers and researchers and see their facility (note: I was unable to go inside the facility due to security reasons, but that is ok, frogs first is my motto). Some of their work includes caring for a captive colony of the golden mantella frog (Mantella aurantiaca) which has a highly restricted range and subsequently, is highly endangered. Mantellid frogs are known as “Malagasy poison frogs” as they resemble South and Central American dendrobatid frogs in their often bright coloration and toxic secretions, as well as their terrestrial lifestyle.

Insects
I spent most of my evenings chasing various insects that were attracted to the lights in our room, much to the dismay of the engineer in our group. While on our hikes we also had ample time to see more strange and bizarre insects. The giraffe-necked weevil (Trachelophorus giraffa) is aptly named due to its extended neck, with the male having a neck about three times that of the female. Surely there is a sexual selection study waiting to be done on these guys. One of my favorite finds was a caterpillar I saw when we made a quick roadside stop to stretch our legs. I noticed a plant with large pods, similar to the milkweed I am familiar with in North America. Munching upon the plant was a white, yellow and black chunky caterpillar with a couple of red spiky appendages. It turns out that this was the larva of the African monarch butterfly or plain tiger butterfly (Danaus chrysippus), related to the monarch (Danaus plexippus) that we are familiar with. Finally, in our hike through the dry and sandstone formation filled Isalo National Park, we came across a plant covered in brightly colored orange and black grasshoppers feeding on a plant that our guide told us would kill a man within two minutes of eating its leaves. I could not confirm the toxicity of the plant, but looking at these grasshoppers, one might hypothesize that their bright coloration is a warning signal to would be predators. Perhaps these grasshoppers can sequester the plant toxins as a defense mechanism.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Grasshoppers

Plants
Madagascar has over 12,000 plant species, most of which are endemic including: over 1,000 orchids, tree ferns, eight species of baobab (genus Adansonia) on the island (six being endemic), and 170 palms. The rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), which we saw in Isalo, is a flower which contains two chemical compounds that are effective in treatment of cancers (leukemia and lymphoma), and has been used traditionally to treat diabetes. Deforestation and habitat loss is also the largest problem facing Malagasy wildlife. A prime example of this is the illegal logging (trees being logged in national parks) and trafficking of Rosewood (genus Dalbergia) and Ebony (genus Diospyros).

Periwinkle
Periwinkle

Fishes
I’d have a lot more in this section, if I were a better swimmer. I snorkeled while in Ifaty, but I am not a great swimmer, so instead of trying to take pictures of the fish, I spent most of my energy just trying to stay calm and see the fish. Ifaty is an amazing place though, make sure to check it out. It’s a community of fishers, and every morning as they go out in their boats with brightly colored sails made from re-purposed materials, they all sing.

My friend (the engineer) and our boat captain, keeping an eye on me while I snorkel, more like thrash around and snorkel.
My friend (the engineer) and our boat captain, keeping an eye on me while I snorkel, more like thrash around and snorkel.

Conclusion
Clearly, Madagascar is unique in its level of endemic species, but in accordance with the definition of a hotspot, many of its species are also in danger of becoming extinct. Only an estimated 10-20% of the original forest cover remains; suggesting that the biggest threat is habitat loss. For tortoises, other reptiles and lemurs, the illegal pet trade is also pushing species to extinction in the wild. Given these pressures further exploitation by the local community via bush meat, changes in climate, and impact of invasive species will only increase the rate of species loss. Recently several researchers suggested increasing resources ecotourism, local conservation initiatives (such as Mitsinjo and Anja), and expanded wildlife research as a means to protecting the remaining biodiversity. These efforts rely on a better understanding of the biodiversity that is out there, and importantly, active engagement of the local community (as well as that of the larger federal government). During my stay I was impressed by the national parks and local guide system as well as the community initiated conservation efforts, local outreach, and wildlife research. Nevertheless, more needs to be done, so do your share and visit this remarkable island.

Klymus-Mitsinjo

Katy Klymus is an evolutionary biologist and conservation geneticist. She is currently working on environmental DNA applications to species management and biodiversity surveys. For more information visit my website or follow me on twitter @ekate78.

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