Robin Hoskyns Nature Photography – Blog

Images and stories of nature, science and conservation.


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Return to Anja

I recently returned from my second trip to Madagascar. It felt good to be back after spending six months there in 2015. Memories came flooding back and it didn’t take long to get back into the swing of Malagasy life.

Unfortunately this was a much shorter visit with the primary objective of shooting footage for my final film project as part of the MA in Wildlife Filmmaking at UWE.

I had planned the film based on the visit to Anja I wrote about in this blog post. Having got amazing images in just a couple of hours I knew that this would be an incredible location for a film, offering a relatively easy opportunity to get some great wildlife footage in a stunning location. Despite how cool the location and wildlife is the thing that convinced me that this was the place was the story of the reserve itself.

Even though it’s a great story, much of my planning before leaving was thinking about how to make the story into an interesting film. Conservation films are notoriously difficult to make as they can often leave the viewer feeling despondent or be too informational and not particularly interesting to watch for the average person.

The story of Anja is a positive one which means I have the chance to make an uplifting and inspiring film. The edit is still a work in progress so you will have to wait and see if I have achieved these high aims!

The shoot went well and it was amazing to be camping right on the edge of the forest, waking up to the sounds of the lemurs calling with the light starting to hit the cliffs that provide Anja’s epic backdrop.

Our guides were great and it was good to spend a good length of time in the location getting to know them and improving my Malagasy. Our cook kept us well fed with a selection of Malagasy dishes served with Malagasy sized portions of rice!

I didn’t have too much time for photos, it’s really difficult to manage shooting both stills and video simultaneously as it is a different mindset required for each, and for this trip filming was my priority! I did manage to get some images though and some were taken by my course mate, Ross who accompanied me on the shoot. Hopefully these give you a sense of what the shoot was like, enjoy!

And here’s a couple of quick clips:

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Milne-Edward’s Sifaka

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Recently I have been spending a lot of time going out with the Sifaka team recording the behaviour of the Milne-Edwards Sifaka (Propithecus edwarsi). These Sifakas are the largest lemurs found in Ranomafana National Park (RNP) and have been continuously studied here since 1987.

Formerly considered a subspecies of the Diademed Sifaka (Propithecus diadema) P. edwarsi is now considered a full species and is listed as Endangered by the IUCN. Ranomafana National Park is the stronghold for this Lemur species with half of the total population thought to be found within the park.

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Sifakas are social animals and live in groups of 3 to 9 individuals and like many Lemur species females are the dominant sex. They occupy large home ranges covering 45 to 55 hectares. Both male and female sifakas regularly mark their territory with scent.

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Unlike other lemurs that move in a more quadrapedal fasion, Sifakas are vertical clingers meaning that they leap from trunk to trunk using their huge back legs performing a 180 degree twist in midair to land back feet first. It is incredible to see them moving through the forest hopping from one trunk to the next.

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Including Sifakas, 8 species of lemur have been studied long term in RNP and environmental variables such as rainfall and temperature have been recorded for this period as well as tree phenology. This data is especially important for studying the effects of climate change on endangered species restricted to isolated areas of habitat.

P. edwarsi are long-lived, they have been recorded as living up to 30 years old in Ranomafana. They reproduce slowly and older females continue to give birth until death with most infants born in June and July. Their diet consists mainly of leaves, fruits, and seeds and varies seasonally, with a preference for fruits and seeds when available and leaves when fruits and seeds are not available.

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Much of Ranomafana was subject to logging in the late 1980s and the effect of the differing levels of anthropogenic disturbance on the Sifakas has been well studied. Groups in unlogged forest have been found to consume more calorie and nutrient-rich fruits and seeds than groups in previously logged forest, which consume more leaves.

Groups living in logged forest travel less per day to minimize energy use, but cover a larger area overall to acquire resources. Sifaka groups in the unlogged forest appear to need less area to acquire necessary resources due to increased availability, but move more per day throughout the year to obtain higher-quality but patchily distributed resources, such as fruit.

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Anja Reserve: finding an icon of Madagascar

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Last weekend we visited Anja Community Reserve. This is a tiny reserve of only 30 hectares but it is the closest place to Ranomafana to see the icon of Madagascar, the Ring-Tailed Lemur. Despite its tiny size Anja is home to over 300 Ring-Tails which are well habituated to tourists. As a private community reserve all entrance fees are put towards local development projects.

After arriving and paying our entrance fees we quickly found some ring-tails in the small fragment of dry forest located in a gap between the cliffs. The light wasn’t too good and there were quite a few other tourists so after watching the lemurs for a while we left them to it and headed up to the cliffs to see the view.

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After a short walk and some rock hopping we got up to the view point looking out across the valley over houses and rice paddies. The landscape is totally different to the eastern rainforest slopes and is much more representative of the central Madagascan plateau. Although this was probably once all forest it is much drier than Ranomafana or Kianjavato. We spent a little while soaking up the epic scenery and just as the light was starting to get nice someone spotted a group of Ring-Tails making their way up the rocks towards the caves where they spend the night.

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I managed to clamber down and get some shots of them sitting on the rocks, soaking up the last of the suns warmth with the epic back drop across the valley. I was having a great time and could have stayed following the Lemurs until they finally went to sleep however the guide was getting impatient for us to get back as we were only half way round the two hour circuit. Very reluctantly I left the Ring-Tails to go about their business and followed the guide back down through the forest.

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Walking back out of the reserve I thought I had missed the best of the light on the cliffs however as we got to the car park the sun just broke through casting a strip of golden light across the cliff face. On the taxi-brousse back to Fianarantsoa I was buzzing from a somewhat rushed but extremely productive two and a half hours of photography.

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Mad dog Initiative– Part 2: Clinic and Camera Traps

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Every year a team of biologists, vets and volunteers from the Mad Dog Initiative visit Madagascar in order to set up a clinic to carry out spay/neuter surgeries and vaccinations whilst also setting up camera traps to monitor dogs entering the forest as well as surveying native wildlife. I spent some time with the team observing them as they carried out their work. It was incredible to see the dedication of this team whilst coping with the chaos of trying to organise a project such as this in Madagascar.

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Rolling out the mobile clinic!

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Informing the community.

Originally they had set up their clinic just outside Ranomafana under a tarpaulin next to the house they were renting. They “fixed” a couple of “patients” at this location however many of the people we spoke to were saying that they couldn’t bring their dogs as either they didn’t have leashes or the dogs were too aggressive or too scared to be coaxed through the territories of other dogs en route to the clinic. The result of this was the clinic being relocated to a shack behind a hotely right in the centre of town via a Malagasy style wooden cart. This central location proved much more popular and soon there was a crowd of people seeing what was going on and various animals in the yard. A local guy was provided with a megaphone and sent to walk around the village asking people to bring their dogs and explaining about the clinic.

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In many countries feral dog populations are controlled by trapping or poisoning. Culling animals has been shown to be ineffective as populations can recover within a single year. Research has shown that long term programs that have feral dogs spayed and neutered are much more effective at reducing populations. In fact it may be the only sustainable way of controlling populations especially when combined with education and encouragement towards more responsible dog ownership. As well as being more effective a spay/neuter strategy is far more humane than culling and it is much easier to implement in a place where dogs are still partially owned even though they are free roaming.

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One of the other objectives of the project is to involve local vets and vet students from Antananarivo which serves as a vital link between the project and the local community and also gives experience and training to the local vets that is generally not available in Madgascar.

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I also tagged along to help with setting up the camera traps. These are spaced at regular intervals in the forest surround in the villages being place along tracks that dog would likely use to travel into the forest. These camera traps are fitted into the existing matrix of camera traps already set up for long term monitoring of the parks wildlife.

Check out the project at: www.maddoginitiative.com

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Pulling off the Leeches!

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Mad dog Initiative– Part 1: Dogs

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Attitudes towards dogs in Madagascar are not the same as in most developed countries. Although a lot dogs are owned to some degree they are generally not kept as pets in the western sense. Many are kept for protection against thieves or to protect livestock however these are generally free-ranging or feral although the distinction between owned and feral dogs is often blurred.

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Dogs are a big problem in some parts of the world as far as wildlife is concerned as they can spread diseases such as rabies, parvovirus, and canine distemper virus (CDV) to native wildlife as well as preying on and competing with endangered wildlife. Even where direct predation doesn’t occur dogs may cause stress to wild animals by chasing or harassing which may lead to avoidance of certain areas by some species, further increasing anthropogenic disturbance of protected areas close to human settlements.

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The population of feral dogs in Madagascar is difficult to estimate as very little research has been conducted on feral dog populations both in Madagascar and on a global scale. The effect dogs have on endemic wildlife in Madagascar is unknown however there are anecdotal reports of dogs predating native small mammals such as tenrecs and even killing larger animals such as aye-ayes and fossas.

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Extensive camera trapping in Ranomafana National park has captured dogs travelling over a kilometre into protected forest near villages. Ranomafana has over 100 villages in its peripheral area each with many dogs. Dogs in this area generally seem reasonably healthy and the majority are owned to some extent however the problems to wildlife caused by dogs may greater in other areas of Madagascar where the proportion living feral is higher. The benefit of working in and around Ranomafana National Park is that the populations of lemurs, other native wildlife and habitat have been well studied on a long-term basis and therefore provides baseline data with which to monitor the effect of the project on both dog and wildlife populations.

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The Mad Dog Initiative now in its second field season aims to study the effects of free-roaming and feral dogs on the native wildlife as well as running free spay/neuter/vaccination clinics, extensive surveys and educational programmes at villages in the area surrounding Ranomafana National Park whilst assessing the effect of these efforts. Once there is more understanding about the ecological effect of feral dogs then the project hopes to be able to expand to other areas across Madagascar.

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Poison Frogs and Convergent Evolution

Mantella baroni, common names include: Baron's Mantella, Painted Mantella, Harlequin Mantella, Variegated Mantella

Mantella baroni, common names include: Baron’s Mantella, Painted Mantella, Harlequin Mantella, Variegated Mantella

Although it is late in the season for finding Mantella frogs in Ranomafana, after a couple of hours of searching we found one. I say we but the hard work was all down to my guide Lova who knew exactly where to look. Mantella, even though brightly coloured, are hard to find as they tend to sit in refuges by streams and under leaf litter. The most reliable way to find them is by their call, a  short click noise, however they only tend to do this in the wet season when temperatures are higher so we just had to rely on Lova’s knowledge, a bit of luck and a couple of hours spent poking around in holes with a stick.

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At only 2.5cm these are small frogs!

The most interesting thing about these small brightly coloured frogs is that they share such striking similarities with neotropical Dendrobatids or Poison Dart Frogs.  Although genetically unrelated, Mantella and some Dendrobatid frogs share many of the same features: toxic skin chemicals, terrestrial eggs, small body size, toothless jaws, a specialist diet composed largely of ants, active diurnal foraging, and aposematic (warning) coloration. All of which are considered to have evolved completely separately, a process called convergent evolution.

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They also do not sit still making them very difficult to photograph!

Convergent evolution is defined as the process by which similar features evolve separately in species with separate lineages. In other words evolution creates animals with attributes that have a similar form or function that were not present in the last common ancestor of each species. These traits usually enable animals to fill very similar ecological niches.

In both Mantella and Dendrobatids, defensive chemicals appear to be closely associated with the evolution of aposematism (warning colouration) as a visual warning of their toxicity to potential predators, and active diurnal foraging, a behaviour that is generally rare in frogs.

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M. baroni is very similar to M. madagascarensis however it lacks the red flash marks on the legs and horseshoe shape under the chin.

Although wild poison frogs retain toxic skin alkaloids for several years in captivity, they do not seem to be able to produce their own toxic alkaloids in fact they accumulate these toxins from their diet. Toxic alkaloids have been shown to be absent in Dendrobatid and Mantella frogs when raised in captivity on a diet of fruit flies however these individuals will readily accumulate alkaloids when added to their diet.

The foraging behaviour and diet of Mantella is not yet well documented relative to Dendrobatids however ants are known to dominate the diet of Mantella. A study conducted in Ranomafana National Park collected Mantellid frogs and arthropods with the potential to be sources of alkaloid chemicals. The study found that 13 of the 16 alkaloid compounds found in the arthropods of Ranomafana are also known in other ants, beetles, and frogs endemic to the neotropics and that 9 of the 12 alkaloids found in Mantella are also found in Dendrobatids.

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Because ants are a common or even dominant part of poison frog diets the presence of suitable toxic alkaloids in ants may have been the essential requirement for the evolution of chemical defence in both Malagasy and Neotropical poison frogs. The finding that endemic Malagasy ants contain these toxic alkaloids is evidence to support convergent evolution. Furthermore the convergence seen between the two groups of frogs might itself have been driven by convergent evolution in the unrelated ant groups found in Madagascar and the Neotropics.

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Reference:

Clark, V. C., Raxworthy, C. J., Rakotomalala, V., Sierwald, P., & Fisher, B. L. (2005). Convergent evolution of chemical defense in poison frogs and arthropod prey between Madagascar and the Neotropics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102(33), 11617-11622.


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Frog Diversity in Ranomafana

Boophis madagascariensis

Boophis madagascariensis

In the past couple of weeks I have been going out photographing one of my favorite subjects, frogs! Ranomafana has one of the highest amphibian diversities of any national park in the country with only Andasibe offering any competition. Of the 300+ described species of frog in Madagascar all except two are endemic and at least 120 of those have been found in Ranomafana including 8 potential species endemic to the park.

Spinomantis aglavei

Spinomantis aglavei

Spinomantis aglavei

Spinomantis aglavei

According to the Global Amphibian Assessment (GAA) in 2004, Madagascar ranks as the country with the 12th highest amphibian species richness however it probably should be higher than this as over 200 candidate species have been identified since. This would make the estimated total number of frog species over 500 and would mean Madagascar is home to roughly 4.3% of the world’s amphibians whilst occupying less than 0.5% of the worlds land area.

Gephyromantis tschenki

Gephyromantis tschenki

Boophis reticulatus

Boophis reticulatus

The largest family of frogs in Madagascar is the Mantellidae which is very diverse and is estimated to have colonised Madagascar around 58 million years ago. Some species of the Mantella genus share convergent features with neotropical dendrobatids (poison dart frogs) with their sharply contrasting aposematic (warning) colouration being associated with toxic skin.

Mantella baroni, common names include: Baron's Mantella, Painted Mantella, Harlequin Mantella, Variegated Mantella

Mantella baroni, often called Painted Mantella or Harlequin Mantella

Boophis is another endemic genus of frogs belonging to the family Mantellidae. This genus is known for its brightly coloured eyes which it has been hypothesised act as an anti-predator startle response. The brightly coloured sections usually remain hidden during the day when the frog is resting but suddenly become visible when the frog opens its eyes.

Boophis tasymena

Boophis tasymena – Polka-Dot Bright-Eyed Frog

Boophis tasymena

Boophis tasymena – Polka-Dot Bright-Eyed Frog

Almost all Malagasy rainforest frogs are either terrestrial and diurnal or arboreal and nocturnal. This is probably because of alternating predation pressure from birds in trees during the day and snakes, tenrecs and other predators on the ground at night.

Mantidactylus femoralis

Mantidactylus femoralis?

Plethodontohyla notosticta

Plethodontohyla notosticta

As with amphibians elsewhere in the world Malagasy frogs face numerous threats. Ongoing habitat destruction has already led to destruction of 90% of the original vegetation and threatens most species to some extent.

There are recent reports of the arrival of Asian common toads (Duttaphrynus melanostictus) in Madagascar, most likely arriving inside shipping containers from Asia. This species’ relative, the cane toad (Rhinella marina), has caused widespread ecological destruction in Australia, and there is now concern that an invasion in Madagascar will have disastrous impacts. One positive aspect is that so far this species has never been recorded as a carrier of the Chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd).

Unlike the majority of the world’s amphibian populations Madagascar has so far escaped the catastrophic declines associated with Bd. However Between 2010 and 2014, Bd was recorded in five different areas of the country, including Ranomafana, although the virulence of the strain is as yet unknown and no die-offs have been reported.

Boophis elenae

Boophis elenae

Boophis elenae

Boophis elenae

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