Robin Hoskyns Nature Photography – Blog

Images and stories of nature, science and conservation.


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Fianarantsoa Cote Est – Fianarantsoa to Manakara in 18 hours

Fianarantsoa train station

Fianarantsoa station at 6:15am.

Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

The queue for the “second class” carriage.

We had heard a lot of conflicting things about the Fianarantsoa Cote Est (FCE), the train that runs from Fianarantsoa in the central highlands down to the Indian ocean at Manakara. Reports of the journey time ranged from 8 to 35 hours with some people claiming that it was the best experience they had had travelling around Madagascar, some people telling us it would be a form of self inflicted torture.

One thing I have learned about Madagascar in the few months I have been here is that it has a habit of turning expectations on their head and this journey was no different.

Fianarantsoa Manakara train

Waiting to board the train.

Vazaha Tourists on the Fianarantsoa cote est

The other tourists looking out at the outskirts of Fianarantsoa.

Having decided to give it a go we booked the train by phone a few days before and reserved first class seats. We turned up at the train station at 6am, as advised, to a queue of Malagasy waiting for the ticket office to open. At 6:30am the reservation office opened and we got our tickets with no problems.

A little nervous about what we had let ourselves in for, we decided to go and check out the train and see our seats. The initial surprise was that one of the carriages seemed much more modern than the others. We checked our tickets and found out this was where we would be sitting.

Bricks seen from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Piles of bricks by the road.

Rice Paddies seen from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

A wide view of the rice paddies.

Zebu cattle  ploughing rice fields Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Zebu ploughing the rice fields.

At first I was a little disappointed as I kind of wanted to be in the carriages with a little bit more character but we sat down and waited for the train to leave. We had seen a couple of other “vazaha” tourists but most of the crowd still seemed to be mainly Malagasy. As we waited, our first class carriage slowly started filling up with mostly elderly or middle aged and almost exclusively French tourists.

Eventually the train left at 8pm, an hour late but not too bad by Malagasy standards. At frst we chugged along through the outskirts of Fianarantsoa along a familiar bit of road that we had seen many times through the window of a Taxi Brousse, with piles of smoking bricks and extensive views over rice paddies.

Rice paddies seen from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Freshly planted rice.

Rice paddies from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Digging the rice paddies by hand.

Several of the tour group cars kept pulling up alongside the train with the drivers and guides honking and waving at their respective groups on the train but soon we left the road and pulled up at the first village. As we were expecting ladies and lots of children selling street food flocked around the train. Unexpected however was that there were nearly as many “vazaha” tourists with cameras that also swarmed out of the train.

This continued with the next few villages, some with crumbling but large station buildings and others with more rural Malagasy buildings. We bought some of our favourite street foods: mainly deep fried goods such as Mofo Gasy (fried rice cakes), Mofo Akondro (battered, deep fried bananas) and Sambos (Malagasy samosas). We also tried Koba Akondro: a sweet cake of banana, rice flour and peanuts cooked in a banana leaf.

Street food seller from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

A seller with street food.

Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

The second class carriages.

Crayfish street food Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Buying ecrevisse, crayfish caught locally.

At several of the stops some of the other tourists would throw out t-shirts, pens and sweets to the children and at a couple of villages the children were holding woven baskets in anticipation, ready to catch the gifts. There was some squabbling between them but also sharing. In one instance we saw several children passing round a single sweet, having one lick each. This gift throwing provoked mixed feelings in me. At first it felt a little obnoxious, like watching keepers at a zoo throwing food to make the animals move for the spectators with cameras. The stark segregation of Vazaha and Malagasy passengers also went some way to increase this uncomfortable feeling. On the other hand this train line provides an important source of income for these otherwise remote villages as the primary trade link for rice and bananas and the sellers certainly make more from the tourists than they would otherwise.

Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

The “vazaha” carriage in between the older train carriages.

Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Children with baskets to catch sweets and pens.

As the train continued, we left the central plateau with the wide expanses of rice paddies and started to descend towards the coast. The track here got much worse with the train grinding slowly along whenever there was a corner. We passed through some small fragments of forest but the true scale of deforestation in Madagascar was fully evident.

One of the villages we stopped at for a while had a lot of children who seemed keen to chat although they mainly kept asking for money and pens. At this village there was a woman selling vanilla that was so potent you could smell it inside the carriages as she walked past!

Rainforest from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Passing through a small fragment of forest.

Deforestation from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

The slightly more typical view of deforested areas.

After about 8 hours on the train we thought we might be nearly there. We were wrong! We stopped at several more villages along the way, with increasingly longer stops as it got dark. The closer we got to Manakara the longer the train stopped at each station to the point where we stopped for about an hour every couple of kilometres.

The last 10 hours of traveling in the dark turned out to be a bit of an endurance test with the carriage getting hot and sweaty and filling with mosquitoes at each stop. The only highlight of this second part of the journey was one village where women selling pepper came up to the windows with their trays lit with candles and we ate a couple more mofo akondro.

Children from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Malagasy children waving at the train.

Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

A child selling some bead necklaces

Finally at 2am we crawled into Manakara, a full 18 hours after setting off. We fought our way through the crowd of other tourists and got a pousse-pousse to the only hotel we thought might actually be open.

The next couple of days staying in Manakara were a nice relaxing reward and we treated ourselves to beers, seafood and sugary, deep fried coconut on the beach!

Ladies selling pepper by candlelight Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Ladies selling pepper by candlelight.

Peeper sellers by candlelight Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Reflections of the pepper sellers.

Pousse-pousse in Manakara Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Morning in Manakara!


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Ambodivoangy village: People and Conservation

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Our porters carrying bags of food on the 3 hour hike.

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View across rice paddies to a village en route.

A week ago I tagged along on an expedition with the health team and two medical students from stony brook medical school to see the other side of the work done at Centre Valbio. We visited a small remote village about three hours walk from the road, situated right on the edge of the national park itself.

Ranomafana National Park has more than 100 villages in its peripheral zone with over 25,000 residents in total. Most of these are subsistence farmers, mainly growing rice, cassava, coffee and sugarcane. The health team visit many of the villages and hold regular clinics where they diagnose and give basic treatment where possible.

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The view from the school when we first arrived with the park boundary in the distance.

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The closest of the 3 mini-villages to the school with rainforest behind.

As well as a health team Centre Valbio also has an education team which visit schools in these villages to explain about the importance of biodiversity and conservation and a team of dental students runs a yearly clinic in Ranomafana Village. Centre Valbio also works closely with Pivot, a healh NGO based in Ranomafana.

The purpose of this particular expedition was to collect information about a relatively unknown disease called Mycetoma. This disease manifests itself in a similar way to elephantiasis with excessive swelling of the limbs however it generally only occurs in the feet and usually only one. The village we visited, Ambodivoangy, apparently had three cases of this disease.

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The school building we set up camp in.

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Our food and camping gear.

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View from inside the school looking towards the village.

After the three hour hike across rice paddies and through a couple of other villages we arrived at Ambodivoangy which turned out to be a group of three smaller villages with a school in the middle. We set up camp at the school and went for a visit to the president of the village. There was barely enough room in this house for all of us but with the help of the Malagasy health team the purpose of the visit was explained.

The next morning four people with apparent Mycetoma turned up along with the rest of the village and lots of children. One of the cases was almost certainly elephantiasis as the patient also had massively swollen testicles but all four were given a questionnaire and samples were taken.

Mycetoma can be caused either by fungal or bacterial infection and is treatable if caught early however the swelling cannot be reversed and surgery or amputation to remove the infection may be the only option in the worst cases. Mycetoma is found throughout the tropics and is normally associated with communities who walk around barefoot, particularly agricultural workers. For this reason the majority people at risk are extremely poor hence why this disease has been so little studied.

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The first Mycetoma patient to the clinic.

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The second patient starting to draw a crowd.

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The result of having Mycetoma for years.

After the morning clinic we went for a short walk around two of the three villages. I really wanted to get some more images of people and village life but I found it very difficult to get natural images as the appearance of a group of “vazaha” was obviously a huge spectacle and people would just stare. I would have liked to stay longer a let people to relax and get used to having a camera waved around but it was not to be. The skills needed to photograph wildlife do not so easily transfer to photographing people and it certainly puts me out of my photographic comfort zone!

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Children playing outside the school, the game was to throw elastic bands onto a small stick.

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Another game, this one involved hopping and kicking a stone around a grid.

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The Malagasy way to carry a child.

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Pounding rice to remove the chaff

After visiting the villages we were lead off the path, through a patch of sugarcane until we stumbled upon people in the process of distilling “toaka gasy”, the traditional Malagasy moonshine.  A barrel of fermented sugarcane was set on a smoky fire attached to a condenser made from a hollowed out log and fed with cold water from a stream via a bamboo chute. Of course we sampled some toaka gasy which was still warm from the distillation process!

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Toaka gasy production!

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The barrel of fermented sugarcane and the carved condenser.

For me this trip really opened my eyes to how conservation projects need to include people to be successful. Most of the time conservation appears to be focused on a particular threatened species or area of habitat however real conservation in a developing country such as Madagascar is as much about people as it is about rainforest and lemurs.

Without people there obviously wouldn’t be any need to conserve nature however simply setting aside reserves and not allowing people in rarely works. This is especially the case in developing countries, such as Madagascar, where there are little or no resources to enforce such rules and a rapidly growing population hugely dependent on wood for fuel and building materials and requiring more and more land for slash and burn agriculture.

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My parting view of Ambodivoangy just after sunrise.


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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.