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For the Love of Lemurs and Monkeys

Black and white ruffed lemur

Black and white ruffed lemur (photo by Rose Marie Randrianarison)

I recently returned to Madagascar after a five-year hiatus. Even though these days I am steeped in research and conservation work in Asia, I was thrilled when the opportunity arose for me to revisit the island. As a scientist, I am not embarrassed to profess my fondness for lemurs because there is nothing embarrassing about transforming one’s passion into action. And lemurs are the reason why I became a primatologist in the first place.

I still vividly remember my very first lemur encounter. It was with a group of sifakas. In the lush rain forest, enveloped in a shroud of mist and fog and breathless from hiking up what I thought was the steepest trail in the world, I was astounded by the sheer beauty of these animals. There I stood, quietly watching the sifakas move about from tree to tree, so elegant in their posture, like ballet dancers pirouetting across an emerald stage. By the end of my field season, despite all the rain and leeches, I was absolutely hooked on lemurs!

Fast-forward 20 some years: Madagascar still excites me in the same way and my fervor for lemurs has not waned. At Maromizaha, which I visited on this trip, I was enthralled by the myriad of creatures that call this forest home. On my first morning walk, 6 of the 13 species of lemurs greeted me. Maromizaha, like many rain forests along the island’s eastern strip, is a true naturalist’s paradise!

Brown lemurs

Brown lemurs (photo by Zafison Boto)

The most impressive lemur is the indri. Weighing about 17 pounds, it is the largest living lemur species in Madagascar. Indris are known for their operatic singing ability. Often in the morning, male and female indris can be heard singing duets to announce their presence in their territory. There is another lemur in the forest with a well-endowed voice, the black and white ruffed lemur, although its vocalization is more a cacophony than a melody! Lemurs are so interesting to me because of their biology, and through this exploratory trip I hope to learn more about the lemur community in Maromizaha.

North of Maromizaha is a famous national park called Mantadia. Just a little to the west is another well-known preserve called Andasibe (also known as Perinet). These three forest parcels at one time were connected and quite large—but today they appear as isolated specks on a map. Slash-and-burn agriculture, logging, and mining are the main contributing factors to these ever-shrinking forests. From one of the highest points in Maromizaha, I could see where this paradise ends. Beyond is a much different world—a barren landscape devoid of all vegetation and lemurs. How do we protect a paradise like Maromizaha?

Diademed sifaka (photo by Chia Tan)

Diademed sifaka (photo by Chia Tan)

The answer is conservation partnerships with a focus on scientific research, local capacity-building, rural development, and education. So when my colleague, Professor Cristina Giacoma from the University of Torino, Italy, learned about the successes of our camera trap research, in-country training, and education program for schoolchildren in Fanjingshan, China (see posts What Might Monkeys Be Up To?, Monkeys, Leopard Cats, and Bears, Oh My! and March of the Little Green Guards), she invited me and San Diego Zoo Global to partner with her Biodiversity Integration and Rural Development (BIRD) project in Maromizaha.

This approach to biodiversity conservation is not new but it has been proven effective. Our initial camera trap work in Maromizaha and a survey of Malagasy children’s preferences and knowledge of wildlife have produced very promising (not to mention some surprising!) results. Cristina and I will soon meet in China where our partnership continues, and she will witness firsthand the ongoing conservation and research projects we have with partners in Guizhou and Beijing. There, our labor of love will help conserve leaf-eating monkeys, such as the highly endangered Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys and François’ langurs.

Chia Tan, Ph.D., is a scientist in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

 

 

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With a “Headstart,” Local Turtles Make a Comeback

Researchers carefully placed radio transmitters on five western pond turtles to keep track of them after release. (Photo by Ken Bohn)

Researchers carefully placed radio transmitters on five western pond turtles to keep track of them after release. (Photo by Ken Bohn)

Barely bigger than an English muffin, the dark-shelled turtle flails his webbed feet, and cranes his neck to peer at the people carefully applying epoxy to his shell. Usually a reclusive conservation celebrity, this pint-sized reptile is one of five turtles being released into a San Diego watershed to bolster wild populations of California’s only native freshwater turtle species. For western pond turtles (aka Pacific pond turtles) Emys marmorata the team of federal, state, and zoo scientists releasing the juvenile turtles into the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve is a much-needed effort to prevent their extinction.

Three years of collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), California Department of Fish and Wildlife, San Diego Association of Governments, and the San Diego Zoo are invested into this pilot project to “headstart” pond turtle youngsters and remove nonnative species from their habitat. “We have raised these turtles at the Zoo to get them large enough to avoid predation after release,” explained Thomas Owens, San Diego Zoo senior keeper. “It’s been like reverse quarantine for them. They are isolated from animals in the collection and we make sure they are handled according to protocol to ensure we will not transmit any diseases to wild populations when we release them.” With a three- and four-year “headstart,” the juveniles are no longer bite-sized morsels for other animals.

Two days before the release, staff gathered at the Reptile House at the Zoo to test and attach the radio transmitters. Clean and dry (unusual for a turtle), each turtle was weighed before the three-gram “radio pack” was attached and then weighed after it was attached. The rule of thumb is that radio packs or GPS devices should not exceed five percent of the animal’s body weight. “Large species like elephants and crocodiles, among others, have been tracked using GPS devices,” said Thomas. “But with these small turtles, which only weigh about 300 grams, it’s necessary to use tiny battery-operated devices like these radio packs. These weigh one to two percent of the turtle’s body weight.” The battery will last about three months. The antenna is carefully glued to the turtle’s scutes to not interfere with its shell growth. After much measuring and trimming of the wire, it was carefully held in place until the epoxy hardened. The first four turtles stayed safely tucked inside their shells throughout the procedure, but the last one was more rambunctious and dared to look around, urinate, and squirm in the scientist’s grasp. “The turtles all have their own personality,” said Thomas. “Some are shy and some are more assertive.” That also explains the significant size difference between them: the oldest is not the biggest, but rather a more aggressive feeder. When they hatch, the pond turtles are about the size of a quarter, so they can be easily predated by a variety of other animals. Now, at three and four years old, these guys are past the appetizer size and appear robust and healthy; they won’t go down without a fight.

Release Day

Brandon Scott (L) and Thomas Owens, reptiles keepers at the San Diego Zoo proudly hold their headstarted turtles. (Photo by the author)

Brandon Scott (L) and Thomas Owens, reptiles keepers at the San Diego Zoo proudly hold their headstarted turtles. (Photo by the author)

We met up with Thomas and two other reptile keepers, Rachel and Brandon. The five pond turtles were secured in a box with a wet towel, ready for their journey to East County. After close to an hour’s drive, the road turned dusty and wound through rustic riparian forest dotted with car-sized boulders: we entered the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve. Staff from our partner organizations joined us at the gate to the reserve. Another short drive and a short hike landed us at a pool with all the things a pond turtle loves: logs and granite rocks for basking, fresh, cool water for swimming, cattails and willows for shade, and plenty of insects and invertebrates to eat. Placed gently on the water’s edge, each turtle swam swiftly into the murky pond to begin its life anew.

USGS Zoologist Denise Clark released a western pond turtle. (Photo by the author)

USGS Zoologist Denise Clark released a western pond turtle. (Photo by the author)

The released turtles will be checked on daily by USGS and Zoo staff will radio track them three times a week. “Once they have established their mircrohabitat, they won’t have to be monitored so frequently,” said Thomas. Shortly before the transmitter batteries run down, scientists will catch the turtles again, give them an exam, and attach a fresh radio pack. Nonnative predators like bullfrogs and sunfish have been removed from the area to improve the turtles’ survival. “It’s exciting to partner with organizations to help restore native species to local watersheds,” said Thomas. For the mysterious western pond turtles, the project is going swimmingly!

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global.

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Biodiversity at Cocha Cashu

Early morning on the lake at the Cocha Cashu Biological Field Station

As someone interested in nature, and as a scientist with San Diego Zoo Global, over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to see four of the world’s eight bear species in the wild. Often these sightings occurred in circumstances that left my heart pounding with wonder, although I admit that once or twice I’d have preferred to know beforehand that all would end well. How many bear species can you list, without referring to a reference? Similarly, how many primate species can you list? They may be big charismatic mammals, but both bears and primates are a tiny fraction of the biodiversity in our world. On a recent trip to the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in southeast Perú, I gained a much better appreciation for the biodiversity of the lowland Amazonian rainforest. You’ve probably heard that tropical rainforests have incredibly biodiversity, but it’s one thing to ‘know’ in your head that the rainforest features amazing biodiversity, and it’s something else to ‘know’ it from experience.

A white-fronted capuchin monkey at the Cocha Cashu Biological Station

Jessica Groendijk, education and outreach coordinator for the Cocha Cashu Biological Station, has written about how she and I began a morning at the field station. We saw giant river otters in the wild! Thus began a truly memorable day in the field. After returning to camp, I quizzed Jessica over breakfast on her interpretation of the otters’ behavior, and various aspects of their ecology. Patiently she explained what was known and not known about giant river otter behavior, ecology, and conservation. She politely refrained from reminding me that most of this information was included in the book on giant river otters she co-authored with her husband. I did read the book, honest! It’s just that I read it a few years ago, and I hadn’t yet had my first cup of coffee…

After fueling up, we grabbed our gear and left camp with Cesar Flores, director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station, and Luis Ramirez and Samantha Young, both of San Diego Zoo Global’s Conservation Education division, to become more familiar with the habitat and animals surrounding the field station. I’ve spent much more time in the cloud forest, and the tropical dry forest, than in the lowland Amazon rainforest, so the Amazon is like a different world to me. In my humble opinion, it is truly wonderful, in the full sense of that word.

The forest canopy at Cocha Cashu Biological Station

By the end of this day at Cocha Cashu, Jessica and I had not only seen giant river otters (!) and numerous bird species, we’d also seen seven species of wild primates: white-fronted capuchin monkeys, brown capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, common squirrel monkeys, red howler monkeys, saddleback tamarins, and emperor tamarins. My heart got a decent workout.

Cocha Cashu has long been known as a great place to conduct biological field research, to better understand how things work in the lowland Amazon rainforest. After seeing the improvements Cesar and his staff have made since I last visited the station, and talking to these folks about their vision and goals, I’m hopeful that Cocha Cashu will continue to be a source of knowledge, and that this knowledge will help guide efforts to conserve the lowland rainforest and its diverse components.

Thanks again, Jessica, for allowing me to share a wonderful morning on the lake at Cocha Cashu, and thanks to Cesar and all the other people in Perú and in the US who made our visit, and our involvement at Cocha Cashu, a possibility.

Russ Van Horn is a scientist in the Applied Animal Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Are Wild Areas a Luxury?

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Facebook Winner Joins Us in the Field

From left to right: Facebook winner Jeff Williams, research technician Frank Santana, UC James Reserve Director Rebecca Fenwick

When we got to the gorgeous University of California James Reserve in the San Jacinto Mountains, the sun was high and the sky was a clear, deep blue. We lucked out. It was the perfect day to take our Facebook winner, Jeff Williams, with us into the field to take part in our mountain yellow-legged frog project. It was also apparent by the conversation we had in the two-hour car ride up to the mountains that Jeff was the perfect candidate to take with us.

An avid outdoorsman, Jeff’s passion for nature and the wildlife therein was palpable. It turned out that Jeff used to breed blue dart frogs, a hobby catalyzed by an encounter he had with wild frogs in Costa Rica. “I thought it was amazing to come across these fluorescent spots of light in the forest all around you,” he said. A love of wildlife also runs in Jeff’s family. After learning that meat came from animals at the age of four, his daughter chose to be vegetarian. “It’s kind of a good thing because it forces us to eat healthier,” Jeff said.

Jeff was also very interested in the project, and asked Frank Santana, our lead field technician, a million questions about mountain yellow-legged frogs (MYLF) and their plight. We learned that the chytrid fungus is the main reason for the frog’s alarmingly rapid decline. The fungus affects the keratin layer of skin and impairs the frogs’ ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide through their skin, resulting in a slow suffocation. The species also faces threats from pollution and introduced predators like brown and rainbow trout. I also learned that historically there were 160 populations of MYLF in the region, now there are just 9. In fact, 33% of all amphibian species worldwide are threatened by extinction, with threats from habitat loss, pollution, introduced species, and chytrid. This knowledge gave our work renewed gravity and purpose in my mind.

When we broke off the beaten path toward the wild stream where we had released about 500 critically endangered mountain yellow-legged frog tadpoles earlier this year, it was clear that we were in for an adventure. Soon we were climbing over fallen logs, thrashing through dense foliage, and wading in knee-deep water. Our goal was to hike upstream in search of tadpoles that may have dispersed from their original release pools. Jeff didn’t get off easy. We put him to work searching for tadpoles and measuring the length, width, and depth of certain pools, and he gladly indulged us. He was an important part of the team for a day. He even brought some useful equipment with him, like a super-small, super-bright LED flashlight that really came in handy for searching dark pockets of water. In fact, many of the pictures we captured of tadpoles wouldn’t have come out without Jeff shining his flashlight in the water.

After a few hours of searching the stream we had yet to find tadpoles, even with the help of UC James Reserve Director Rebecca Fenwick. It wasn’t until we got to the most upstream release pool that we saw about five tadpoles, which believe it or not is a good sign, since tadpoles face threats from many predators in the wild. It was an incredible feeling to finally spot the little guys. “After all that work it’s good to see that they’re still there and hopefully they’ll start to see some success,” Jeff said. I think we can all agree.

It was an absolute pleasure having Jeff along with us. We appreciated his help and had an awesome time “doing science” with him. Like our facebook page for a chance to fill Jeff’s shoes and ride along with us into the field for our cactus wren project.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Summer SCVNGR Safari.