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CHANGE for lemurs

Students document critically endangered species in Madagascar

June 27, 2012

Madagascar's greater bamboo lemur is struggling to exist. With fewer than 200 known individuals in the wild, the critically endangered species is a conservation priority.

To ensure the animal's protection, researchers, non-governmental organizations, local forest management groups and community members are working together to learn more about the elusive species. In order to develop conservation goals, the habits and habitat of this arboreal primate need to be better understood.

Students studying greater bamboo lemur as part of Nelson Institute CHANGE program
Ryan Marsh, Brittany Bovard and Erik Olson, left
to right, prepare to head into the Madagascar forest.

Concepts as rudimentary as group size for the greater bamboo lemur are still largely unknown, encouraging researchers like Nelson Institute graduate students Brittany Bovard, Ryan Marsh and Erik Olson to uncover the inner workings of the endemic primate, scientifically known as Prolemur simus.

"This is a really compelling species from the conservation side of things," Marsh explains. "There's a lot of global interest in Madagascar because it's a biodiversity hotspot. So much of what exists on the island exists only there."

A class of their own

Bovard and Marsh, both master's students in Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development, and Olson, a Ph.D. candidate in Environment and Resources, came together during their participation in the Certificate on Humans and the Global Environment (CHANGE) program, a 12-credit graduate certificate administered by the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. The cohort-based program trains students to work effectively in interdisciplinary environmental research settings and to integrate humanistic, natural science and social science perspectives on sustainability.

Throughout three semesters of coursework and with continued support and encouragement from professors and program coordinators, what started as a class project eventually fueled a full-scale research initiative for the students' capstone course.

Marsh had previous experience in Madagascar, serving there with the Peace Corps and collaborating with The Aspinall Foundation, an international conservation organization working to preserve endangered species. Marsh contacted the foundation about the students' ideas and a collaboration was born, combining with a larger research initiative that includes local groups, forest patrollers and students from the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar.

"We designed our project to meet Aspinall's needs," says Marsh. "It became clear that trying to identify locations where lemurs were present, and studying their behaviors would be most useful."

After developing a proposal, the students worked to secure funds to travel to Madagascar. The CHANGE program was originally created as the training component of a National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant. As a recipient of a CHANGE-IGERT fellowship, team member Erik Olson was eligible for research travel funding. The students co-wrote a CHANGE mini-grant proposal that, after faculty review and approval, funded the majority of their research.

To make the most out of the short time they had in Madagascar, Bovard, Marsh and Olson structured their research in three parts: camera trapping to determine lemur distribution, density and group size; vegetation surveys to examine the lemur's habitat and its main food source - bamboo; and community interviews to combine social and ecological elements and fi nd out how hunting affects conservation efforts.

On the ground

Camera traps are an essential component of the team's research.

Activated by motion, these setups take photos when triggered by an animal, and they're an increasingly important tool for conservationists and ecologists. "The amount of research that has come out of the use of camera traps has blossomed in the past 10 years," says Olson.

Madagascar research group
Olson, Marsh and Bovard with Aspinall Foundation
personnel, University of Antananarivo student
assistants, local forest management members
and a host family in Sakalava, Madagascar.

Both Olson and Bovard had experience camera trapping wolves and deer in Wisconsin, and together the group decided that camera trapping would be the best method for this project.

Species like the greater bamboo lemur are most active in low-light levels, making camera trapping a good alternative to direct human observation and the use of spotlights, which can increase the chance of disrupting animal behavior.

"When you have so few individuals, you don't want to disturb them," says Marsh. "Having a non-invasive technique that can capture the animals at times when it's hard for people to see them has a lot of potential."

Through extensive literature review, the research team found that camera trapping of tree inhabitants such as the greater bamboo lemur is quite novel. "Finding places for cameras in an arboreal environment is much harder. It's difficult to see paths of travel for species, since they're jumping from branch to branch," says Marsh.

To overcome this, the students worked with local research assistants and a primate specialist to place seven cameras and test three different setups, all in areas with a high density of the greater bamboo lemur's favorite food: Madagascar giant bamboo.

"We wanted to have cameras set up in areas where this lemur species was found or thought to be present, so we could confirm their presence or gain more information," explains Olson.

Vantage point

Following local knowledge of the forest, the research team based their first camera trap placement on hunters' understanding of lemur travel patterns. Although the hunting and trapping of lemurs is banned in Madagascar, illegal trapping still occurs - something the team used to their advantage.

The greater bamboo lemur travels by jumping from tree trunk to trunk. Hunters set traps using existing canopy gaps, where the animal's movement tends to be restricted and funneled. By mimicking this scenario, the team hoped to direct the lemurs past the camera. Marsh explains, "We mimicked trap placement, but deconstructed the traps to make sure they wouldn't injure or kill the lemurs."

The team also placed cameras high in trees, angled to capture activity beneath the forest canopy.

Camera trap image of Prolemur simus
A camera trap image of Prolemur
simus. Photo credit Oryx, The
International Journal of Conservation.

The final and most successful approach -- a hillside camera setup -- took advantage of a steep slope in the forest, placing a camera to cover several layers of canopy. This produced two series of photos of the greater bamboo lemur, the first published camera trap images of the species to date.

"Our research found that you can capture Prolemur simus on camera," says Olson. "To calculate density, we need more cameras for a longer period of time."

By surveying vegetation, the team also gathered important information about where Madagascar giant bamboo grows, why, and how habitat disturbance factors in.

"We know that the lemurs rely on this bamboo, but so little is known about it." Marsh says. "We wanted to learn more about the distribution of the bamboo species so we could come up with ways of identifying key Prolemur simus habitat."

According to Olson, plant species like bamboo benefit from certain levels of disturbance. For example, natural disturbances create gaps in the forest canopy that can facilitate new bamboo growth.

Cyclone Giovanna, which hit central and southeastern Madagascar in February 2012, provides a natural experiment for examining the effects of a large-scale natural disturbance, something the team hopes to study further. A category four cyclone with winds of up to 120 mph, Giovanna destroyed nearly 70 percent of the buildings in Brickaville and Vatomandry, two major towns near the students' study area.

"Seeing how natural disturbance patterns differ from human forest disturbance could have strong management implications for the lemurs," says Marsh.

It takes a village

In order to better understand disturbance, local forest use and how both factors affect the greater bamboo lemur, the research team interviewed community members with the assistance of local collaborators and translators.

"We wanted to hear stories about hunting," says Bovard. "We wanted to learn about their values and their understanding of hunting and conservation within their community, and also understand their perceptions of the changing forest."

"When you have
so few individuals,
you don't want to
disturb them. Having
a non-invasive technique
that can capture the
animals has a lot
of potential."

According to Bovard, Madagascar is undergoing immense social changes - changes that may have varying consequences for lemur conservation.

In the traditional Malagasy culture of Madagascar, people adhere to a set of taboos, known as fady. These taboos affect several aspects of daily life, including when people can work, what they can eat and what species can and cannot be hunted. As a result of the adoption of Christianity, however, some residents of rural Madagascar have stopped following fady.

"The trend that fady is no longer being followed because of conflicts with Christian values can have both positive and negative impacts on conservation," Bovard explains. "Studies have attributed the persistence of certain lemur species in large part to the observance of fady."

Incorporating what they've learned about local values and conservation goals, the students are now finalizing their forest management recommendations to share with The Aspinall Foundation. The team also has a forthcoming paper in the international conservation journal Oryx, another paper awaiting submission, and the possibility of more projects to come.

"CHANGE was the perfect opportunity to link the social and ecological," says Marsh. "The program brings people together from across disciplines and was able to fund this team to go to Madagascar and do interdisciplinary work on an internationally important issue. It's been an exciting project that we hope to continue."