Friday, January 31, 2014

The adventures of an overnight taxi brousse ride

My battle wounds from the Ranomafana leeches
 Our last few days in Ranomafana went very well.  We travelled to the Vohiparara circuit with another frog group doing taxonomy work.  The night was filled with mating frenzies of Guibemantis liber, Blommersia blommersae, Aglyptodactylus madagascariensis and many new species of tree frogs! The leeches were relentless as always.

We were scheduled to leave ValBio on the morning of the 19th with our photographer friends from Antoetra.  Their vehicle arrived at the station, and they jumped out to meet us with some perplexed looks.  Evidently the driver had decided our gear could not go on top of the car and also couldn’t block the back window.  We relentlessly tried to fit all the gear in the vehicle. We stuffed as much gear as possible in the back below the window and figured we would put the rest on our laps, but then the driver said "no," that was not OK either.  The driver claimed it was a police violation and despite our efforts it was a no go. 

Male Aglyptodactylus madagascariensis
Slightly panicked because I was unsure of how we would get back to Tana for our departure the next day to Ambohintantely, we decided our only option was a taxi  brousse. The morning direct from Ranomafana to Tana had already left, and it was Sunday so travelling is always difficult.  We talked with the ValBio guard, and he agree to flag down a local brousse to Fianaransoa - the closest major town.  After two hours one finally past and jammed ourselves into an already over filled bus.  Che and I more or less had to share one seat. As we traveled the curvy road at full speed, there was no way to not squish your neighbor.  I was surrounded by a few children and their mothers and some teenage boys just in front of us and a chicken or two clucked from below the seat. Two of the kids were feeling queasy with the curvy road.  Luckily there were some small plastic bags on board. The mother was siting backwards behind the driver’s seat. Without a glace over her shoulder she tossed the baggy of throw up out the window and there was a load SMACK! She had released the baggy just as a car came wising by in the other direction. The taxi brousse came to a quick halt.  We were stopped for about a half an hour as the woman discussed who knows what with the driver.  They made her clean the vehicle with the only thing she had which was a small sweatshirt.  After a while I guess they came to some kind of consensus and we all piled back into the taxi and continued on our way to Fianar. We finally made it after bumping up and down and side to side for 3 hours. 

Boophis guibei
The only taxi brousse to Tana was the overnight bus that left at 7 PM. We had some waiting to do before our second adventure. The time passed relatively quickly and soon enough we were sitting on the taxi waiting to depart.  The rain had begun and it was already leaking through the sliding door, and the driver’s window was nothing more than a sheet of torn plastic.  The driver duct taped the one door… hopefully just for the leaking rain and we were not depending on that duct tape to keep the door closed.  Fortunately we ended up departing early because the taxi was full.

The music blared loudly and we were on our to be 12 hour ride to Tana.  We tried to sleep but the pot holes and sharp turns made it nearly impossible.  For some reason Taxi brousses are stopped at just about every checkpoint by the police.  We would come to a screeching halt and the police would shine there lights through the rows of bodies and we would be on our way.  We stopped for dinner around 9 in Ambositra and enjoy an extremely large bowl of soup. Within about 5 minutes it seemed like we were on the taxi brousse holding our breath that the car would start. 

Some hours later my seat neighbor was kicked out of the taxi, and we were joined by 2 policemen was AK 47s… not exactly what I had in mind for the rest of our journey.  In about an hour they left and we gained a few more passengers making it a bit crowded in our row. In Antsirabe, our taxi brousse was officially out of commission and we had to switch to a different vehicle.  Luckily there was one waiting for us, making the 4 am switch quite smooth.  This new taxi brousse was outfitted with much more comfortable seats so getting a little shut-eye was somewhat possible.  However, this driver was a very aggressive driver whipping around every turn at at least 80 km/h if not more. Around 5, we started picking up people along the road and soon there were 6 people squeezed in our row meant for 4 people and one person sitting backwards against the front passenger seat.  The last 2 hours I was squished unable to move in any direction. But by 7 we had finally reached Tana and grabbed a taxi to the hotel where we had hoped to spend the night.  We had survived the taxi brousse and made it to Tana before our planned departure at 8 am for Ambohintantely… so I would call our adventure a success. 

Working to save the frogs,


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Vatoharanana - The land of the leeches ( and some awesome frogs :) )

When a boa 2 meters long falls from a tree at your feet, the night resounds with the chirps, trills, and clicks of over 100 frogs species, fist-sized snails glide over the forest floor and insects of any shape, color and size crawl and buzz around, you know you are in the rainforest, one of the most magnificent habitats on earth (in my opinion). In the rainforest of Madagascar you are also greeted by blood thirsty terrestrial leeches, that somehow no matter what you wear find a way in. Serge and I spent 2 nights in Vaoharanana a site in Ranomafana National Park.  The hike in had some unforgiving ups and downs but the dense canopy of the rainforest sheltered us from the afternoon sun which was nice. We all made it to the site in one piece and the cook had already started lunch.  After lunch we started searching for frogs in the leaf litter and along the stream.

Mantidactylus cowani "small"
The stream was teaming with Mantidactylus cowani “small,” which was really cool!  We found 8 different species the first day sampling. Around 4 PM the clouds rolled in and the sky began to rumble with thunder.  Serge whispered to me as we waited for dinner “I bet we will have over 50 frogs tonight.”  The rain began to pour down and didn’t let up until 8 PM but we sampled anyway.  Within seconds I was drenched from head to toe.  It was almost pointless to wear a raincoat. The leeches were ever so relentless with the rainy night. Every minute or so I would feel there suckers inching their way up my leg or neck.  I had even duct taped my pant leg down to my skin to prevent them from crawling in but somehow they found a way in.  We ended the night with 9 new species and many new ones from our last trip in August, including a Platypeli grandis – a truly amazing frog.  Its toe pads are so big, almost too big for its body, sort of like when a dog’s paws seem too big for it when it’s a puppy.  We processed the frogs with the help of the guide.  Serge has mastered a one-handed frog hold, which is great for saving the gloves we use for sampling.  We went to sleep in our tents, which were luckily safely set up under tin roof structures to keep us happy and dry.
Platypelis grandis

By the next morning the rain had past and the sun danced through the trees and across the stream, giving it a magical sparkle.  The cook prepared us some coffee and breakfast- i.e. a huge portion of rice and some fried zebu.  In the morning we collected along the small tributary streams and the forest floor upstream from the camp.  We found 6 new species in addition to some of the ones found the previous day.   We had lunch and the processed the frogs in the early afternoon. Serge and I have become rather efficient at sampling the frogs so it goes pretty quickly. The rest of the afternoon we rested and organized for our second and final sampling night at Vato. Packs of lemurs noisily rumbled through the forest making quite a ruckus, but we were unable to seen them.  The thunder and rain rolled in earlier around 2 PM, but by 6:30 PM it was more of a light mist which was preferable to the torrential rain the previous night.  This was the night were a huge boa fell from a tree just beside me as I searched for a calling Guibemantis liber. When it fell I jumped and charged full force away from it stumbling over logs and getting tangled in lianas and bamboo grass, not knowing was it was.  I creep back over to find a 2 meter boa now resting on the forest floor.  With my heart still racing a bit, I decided to venture to another section of the forest near a small stream away from the big snake.
Gephyromantis tschenki

Along the small stream, the Boophis quasibohemi were calling from every direction.  I saw one male proudly grasping the back of his new mate, and probably soon they would deposit and fertilize some eggs dangled above the stream. The night ended with 4 new species. 

We had sampled 108 individuals of 30 different species by the end of our 2 days at Vato, and the terrestrial leeches had sampled us many times (33 for me!).  We also saw many metamorphs hopping around the forest floor and tadpoles darting around the small tributaries and heard many more species calling from high up in the canopy.  The frogs here seemed happy and healthy!

Working to save the frogs,


Friday, January 10, 2014

January 10th, 2014 --In search of Mantella cowani

 It was great to finally make it into the countryside of Madagascar. We, including Karina, Richard, Serge, our student from University of Tana, Devin from Association Mitsinjo, Brian a photographer from Cal Academy and me, were greeted with the rolling hills of green, interspersed with grey rock outcrops and dotted with small villages here and there. The drive from Ambositra to Antoetra was short compared our 6 hour drive the Tana the previous day. In Antoetra we were met with the voices of smiling children shouting Vazaha, which means foreigner in Malagasy.  With relative ease (Thanks to Serge and Devin) we arranged for a guide and a cook for our trek to find Mantella cowani in the hills surrounding Antoetra.  Our gear required 11 porters for the six of us and soon enough our small army took off on the trail toward Farimazava. After about 1.5 hours of hiking we arrived at our camp location. The owner of a house in the village there graciously opened their home to us, and we all got to escape the rain and cool nights in a room in the attic. The owner of the house had a welcoming speech for us and we all had a sip of some home brewed rum.   I was anxious to sample the first frogs of the trip so we went out to a small stream to find frogs and came back with over 20 frogs for the night including Boophis microtympanum which was a unique find. 

The late night sampling made the 4:30 AM wake up for searching for Mantella a bit challenging, but the scenic views of waterfalls and the pinkish orange sunrise soon broke my tiredness.  After about a 45 minute walk we arrived at the Farimazava site. The site looked somewhat deforested and I was a bit skeptical at first about whether there would be any frogs.  But the locals know there stuff. Soon we found a rocky, fast flowing stream and just up the stream a 100 m or so we began to heard the chirps of the Mantella! The site was filled with M. baroni and a few putative baroni-cowani hybrids which was great for Karina’s work. We left empty handed for cowani but we would look again tomorrow at another site. The day felt so long after the early wake up but rewarding because we got to sample the first wild mantella of the trip. During the afternoon I showed the children around the house the frog ID book and they were mesmerized by the photos and would tell me the local names for the different herps in the book. We took the night off to rest and gear up for the early morning trek in search of the Sahona mana as the locals call M. cowani. We wandered the hillsides of a historic locality of cowani and ears and eyes open, but unfortunately no cowani.  We did however, find some a few frogs that were either Mantidactylus lugubris or Mantidactylus cowan which was a new species for our project.

 Set on finding Mantella cowani we decided to hike out of the village, Holoma Ambany Lalana, and search a site south of Antoetra called Soamazaka. We spend the night in Antoetra and headed to the site just after sunrise.  Ranary, our driver was able to get us very close to the site which was much appreciated after our uphill hike the day before.  We had two local guides with us and within seconds of arrival one was pointing at the side of the rocky stream and we all scrambled over.  It was our first Mantella cowani!  All of our faces lit up in excitement at the sight of our target species. Within 2 hours we had found 9 cowani and a few other species like Boophis goudoti and Mantidactylus curtus.  Processing went quickly and smoothly.  Our time in Antoetra was indeed a success!

We all stayed in Ambositra for the night, before our planned departure to Isalo the next day.  Devin and Brian were headed back to Andasibe, and Karina, Richard, Serge and I left early expecting the long travel to Ranohira (near Isalo).  Along the way I glanced over our permit localities and to my surprise Isalo was not listed as a sampling locality!  In a slight panic, I showed the permit to Serge and asked him what we should do.  Then we contacted our collaborator Faly Rabemananjara in Tana to see what he thought we should do.  He said we had two options: drive to Isalo and talked with the forestry office there to see if they would let us sample in the Isalo area or go to our next site Ranomafana.  We had a decision to make: continue on the long 10 hours car ride to Ranohira and hope the forestry office would grant us permission to sample or go to Ranomafana and do more extensive sampling of the forests there. 

We decided to go to Ranomafana and then see if we could contact the office in Isalo by phone.  A day past and we still could not find a number to call.  We decided that it would be more productive and logistically easier for us to stay in Ranomafana.  This park has one of the most diverse amphibian assemblages of Madagascar, with over 125 species.  Mantella expectata, one our target species at Isalo will have to wait to be sampled on the next trip.  We head into the forest in Ranomafana tomorrow to begin sampling in the park to determine the prevalence of Bd and collect probiotic samples.  The rain is pouring down today and will hopefully bring out the frogs!

Working to save the frogs,

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Travels to Isalo

Mantella expectata
(Photo credit: Franco Andreone)
Molly is proceeding to the Isalo area today to sample potential probiotics from Mantella expectata, as well as other species.  This species is very rare and will definitely need protection if Bd arrives in this area.  Isalo is in the southern part of Madagascar and differs from the rainforest habitats of Andasibe and Ranomafana that we have sampled so far.  It is generally drier and characterized by oases where frogs congregate during the wet season.

Meanwhile, the JMU crew is continuing to isolate and test bacterial isolates collected from Malagasy frogs during the August and September trip for effective anti-Bd probiotics.

Working to save the frogs!

Thursday, January 2, 2014


I arrived safe and sound in Madagascar after the long 30 plus hours of travel.  Some fellow researchers, Karina and Richard Kloniski, arrived in Mada on the same flight so we tackled the baggage claim and customs together, and piled ourselves and our 10 bags into the taxi.  I was quite amazed that we fit in, gear and all ( I think the taxi driver was too). The taxi brought us safely to our hotel in Tana, and we settled into our rooms exhausted from our travels.

Mantella cowani ( courtesy of

Our next day was spent hopping from place to place around Tana in taxis gathering needed materials for field work, like bleach, bags, buckets, picking up permits and working out logistics for our trip. It was a long but successful day.

Tomorrow morning we head to our first site -- Antoetra -- to look for Mantella cowani as well as other species.  This species is very rare and critically endangered and thus will need protection if and when Bd arrives in Madagascar. I can’t wait to be with the frogs and work to collect potential probiotics necessary for their survival!

Working to save the frogs,