Azafady Blog

In Malagasy, the word 'Azafady' can be roughly translated to 'excuse me' or 'please'. Gathered here is a smattering of ideas, projects, and otherwise ongoing work...

Contingency planning, 9–18 October 2016

posted Nov 3, 2016, 4:38 PM by Morgan Gostel

Day Five, Cap Sainte Marie–Fort Dauphin— We awoke in good spirits, still glowing from our find on the previous afternoon and after a pleasant camp breakfast, we headed to another part of the Cape in search of more populations of Gladiopappus. We were in luck and after a quick trip to the coast, packed up and headed eastward. We managed to make excellent time all the way to Ambovombe, where we hit another snag. I noticed we slowed down quite a bit and quickly learned the bad new – our transmissions third and fourth gear had kicked the bucket. Not only would the 150 km ahead now take twice as long, but we would be stuck in Fort Dauphin for at least two days while our driver and resident car doctor extraordinaire, Germain took apart, diagnosed, and reassembled the gearbox. We checked into the Hotel Le Tournesol, a place I have fond memories of from my first field trip to Madagascar in 2009. For those of you who don’t speak French, we couldn’t have found a more fitting place – tournesol means sunflower! We decided the following day would be a bust and prepared to evaluate contingency plans. Lesson for today: Always have a backup plan!
Fig. 1. Our Land Cruiser, on it's way for some much needed TLC. A

Day Six, Recoup— We ‘slept in’ for the first day in a week and made plans to meet with local park and conservation organizations and make arrangements for alternative transportation. We visited with local park offices and asked about the nearby road conditions. I had built a few alternative localities into our program and fortunately one of these sites was only 1–2 hours away. We arranged for another driver to meet us the following day and made plans to collect near Vohitsiandriana mountain, west of the small village of Analapatsa and south of Ranopiso on RN13. Here we expected to collect several other species of Asteraceae as well as some Commiphora that I expected to be nearby. As a result of previous work in the herbaria at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis and the MNHN in Paris, two colleagues and I had identified two collections of Commiphora that were completely different than any described species – we knew it was new, but we weren’t sure if the species might still exist. The natural areas in this region, so close to a large city such as Ft. Dauphin, have experienced severe degradation. After speaking with the forest authority, however we learned that the exact forest where this species had been collected was still relatively intact and had been proposed last year as a potential new protected area. Sadly, it did not receive protected status. If we are lucky, this species will still be there waiting for us 53 years after both it’s first and last collection in January 1963.

A)         B)   
Fig. 2. A–B) Beautiful coastline on the way to Vohitsiandriana, west of Analapatsa in southeast Madagascar. 

Day Seven, Collecting at Vohitsiandriana— We departed at 7:00 AM and made excellent time. After meeting with some local villagers in the nearby Analapatsa, we drove along a stretch of jawdroppingly beautiful coast to the base of Vohitsiandriana (Figs. 2–3). Here, the coastline closely resembles that of Cap Sainte Marie with jagged, limestone outcrops and flattened vegetation, although because it is not protected, disturbed agricultural land backs up right against the ocean and is closely encroaching upon the mountain’s summit. We spent our first two hours here on the shoreline, scrambling over dense, thorny shrubs and finding lots of Asteraceae in full flower. By early afternoon, we needed to move inland and begin a steep ascent toward the summit of Vohitsiandriana (Fig. 4B). We were equipped with just the mountain’s name and the local, vernacular name for the species – Daro Mangory. We asked a few villagers if they were familiar with it and to our good fortune, we quickly found someone who said he could take us directly to several trees, up on the mountain.

Fig. 3. Coastal vegetation south of Vohitsiandriana, lots of Asteraceae on jagged limestone outcrops.  

I immediately realized just how at risk the vegetation here is. Several mountainside fires had been burning that very week and as we climbed, we could barely escape cleared land, planted with tobacco and cassava halfway to the summit! When we reached the forest’s edge, it was not long before we found the exact species we were looking for and – sure enough – it is unlike any Commiphora yet described (Fig. 4A, C–D). We were especially lucky because the tree was with leaves (they are deciduous and often bare at this time of year) and staminate (~male) flowers! After our first collection, I took some time to explore around and found several other individuals in the population – one of which was with female flowers. An individual from both ‘sexes’ will enable us to write a much-improved species description. Curious, I kept looking in our area. This forest is breathtaking and despite being so close to destruction, was nearly pristine just inside the forest edge. Five minutes later, I spotted another species of Commiphora – this one clearly different and incredibly with leaves, flowers, and fruit! It had been ‘tapped’ for resin (a method of cutting into the bark to let the resin flow out and dry for harvest – remember that fragrant myrrh comes from Commiphora and is harvested in the same way!). I couldn’t believe it at first, but as I flipped through my mental catalog of Commiphora species, I realized I was looking at yet another new species – this one a complete surprise! We headed back to Le Tournesol and arrived to the good news that Germain had finished repairing the transmission after two long days. We celebrated and made arrangements for an early departure the next day – to Bemangidy and north along the infamous eastern coastal road, RN12!

  A)
 B)  
 C)
 
D)
Fig. 4. A) Commiphora 'vohitsiandrianensis', a new species collected on Vohitsiandriana massif during this expedition. B) Vohitsiandriana massif at sunset, from the road. C–D) Close up of tapped bark and resin from C. 'vohitsiandrianensis'.

Day Eight, Collecting at Bemangidy— This marks my second collecting trip to Bemangidy – a beautiful forest in the Vohimena mountain range in southeast Madagascar that is home to a largely intact native vegetation and backs up right to the coast. It’s a special place – a mid-size, but steep mountain from which abundantly unique and undiscovered life springs forth. Here, we expect to find a real oddity – Lowryanthus rubens Pruski (Fig. 5A), another monotypic species; the genus is named in honor of Pete Lowry II, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Africa and Madagascar Program and an icon of botanical research in Madagascar – he was also the collector of the type material for this taxon! We were on a tight schedule after a very poor road with three ferry-crossings (Fig. 5B). The climb ahead of us is long and strenuous, ca. 600 m to the summit from sea level. We meet with the nearby village elders and arrange for three guides to join us before getting off to a quick start (Fig. 5C). As we climb, about halfway, as the steep mountainside flattens to a short clearing, I noticed a bright, blood red inflorescence emerging from the low forest canopy and glinting in the sunlight – I realize immediately that this is what we’re after! Sweat soaked and shaking from exhaustion, we climb another 300 m to the summit, stopping to collect along the way before heading back down. We still have a long road ahead of us and if we want to arrive to our next destination before dark, we have no choice. After a couple more ferry crossings, we arrive in the small, but cozy town of Mainatenina shortly after sunset. A number of surprises await us on the road ahead.

A)   B)  C) 

Fig. 5. A) Lowryanthus rubens Pruski, collected at Bemangidy forest in southeast Madagascar. B) Our trusty land cruiser, repaired and loaded onto a ferry on RN12. C) Bemangidy massif, in the distance from the start of our afternoon hike. 

Day Nine, Mainatenina–Vangaindrano— We had expected to reach the town of Manakara today by evening, passing through Farafangana along the way around noon. However, after several warnings about the road I had my doubts. Word travels slowly, though, so I tell myself ‘perhaps the road really has improved.’ Nope! By noon we had only driven about 60 km, after three more ferries, numerous switchback-style roads, and a generally poor road. We were even lucky – it hadn’t been raining! Despite the lack of rain, the road appears to have been carved by an enormous rake. It’s obvious that large taxi brousse have become stuck many times and dug their way out, leaving gulleys that could swallow our land cruiser whole. Finally, by 3:00 PM we had reached the last of the ten ferries. As we approached and to our dismay, we realized something was wrong – there was a long line of cars and a huge crowd on the riverbank. We soon learned the ferry’s engine was broken and it had to be manually pulled across via a rope. The two cars in front of us told us they had been waiting for three hours already – surprise! With no choice but to wait, we entertained ourselves by watching the economy of river crossings unfold (Fig. 6A). Independent canoe owners carried passengers and their goods across if they were willing to pay – sometimes loading dirt bikes into the small, hand carved canoes and other times loading large sacks filled with food, furniture, and anything else you might imagine. Meanwhile, a comedy unfolded on the ferry as passengers piled on, hoping for a free ride while three men unloaded 100 60 kg sacks of rice. Three hours passed slowly, but surely and as the drivers in front of us mentioned, we were ready to board at 6:30 PM as the sun tucked itself below the horizon. Another three hour drive awaited us on the other side and we slept late after finding dinner and a hotel.

A)  B) 
Fig. 6. A) RN 12's last ferry – broken and crowded. B) Bridge to Manakara, in need of some serious (and ongoing) repair.

Day Ten, Vangaindrano–Ranomafana— The original plan was for Angringitra to be our final stop of this second expedition, however the multiple delays and set backs on the road had taken their toll and after discussing our schedule, we realized we needed to consider our second back up plan – Ranomafana National Park. We would pass Ranomafana on the way toward Andrigritra anyway and they share a great number of Asteraceae genera, so it was an excellent alternative. After departing Vangaindrano early, we soon encountered another surprise – a broken bridge undergoing repair and over which locals allowed only single cars to pass at a time once every few hours. We were held up for another 2.5 hours. The bridge (Fig. 6B) was literally crumbling into the river and I hope repairs are successful before its structural integrity is completely compromised. Around the same time, third and forth gear went out again in our transmission and this time, we didn’t have time to make the repairs. The rest of the road was slow going as we made the steep ascent from sea level more than 1400 m to the high plateau. We arrived in Ranomafana just in time on a Friday evening and caught the park director just as they were leaving for the weekend – lucky! We needed to speak with them to introduce ourselves and our research, arrange for a guide, and do our due diligence as foreign researchers. After so many hiccups and a long, stressful road, we checked into a nice hotel and took the best shower of the trip.

Fig. 7. View from edge of forest at Ranomafana National Park.

Day Eleven, Collecting at Ranomafana I— Ranomafana (Fig. 7) is one of the best known and most famous of the Madagascar National Park system and for good reason. We were fortunate to work with a very knowledgable guide, Fidel, who was a tremendous help and fit right in with our merry band of botanists. We found a great camp site, hired a local cook, and got to work! We were concerned that Ranomafana would not contain abundant species of Asteraceae, because it is characterized largely by dense, humid rainforest – habitat that is not so ideal for our plants of interest. Fortunately, however we found easy access to large, sunny openings along the park’s perimeter and were soon getting some of the best collections of the week! After a short break for lunch, we managed to find several more collecting sites – all in all a surprisingly productive and successful day!

Fig. 8. Overall terrible photo of our resident mouse lemur, Microcebus rufus, from our campsite, Ranomafana National Park

Day Twelve, Collecting at Ranomafana II— We repeated our plan from day one, with a brief detour to some dense, humid forest in search of some plants of our tangential project interest (our co-PIs are working with Euphoriaceae, Fabaceae, and Malvaceae and our permits include permission for genera from these families). We again made abundant collections of Asteraceae, including a couple of priorities (e.g., Gerbera) and ended the day with a pleasant dinner, topped off with a mouse lemur (Microcebus rufus) sighting (Fig. 8) at camp!

Day Thirteen, Ranomafana–Antsirabe— As our second trip comes to a close, we make plans to drive to Ambositra or Antsirabe, depending on how much roadside collecting we manage. We made excellent time on the much improved roads of RN7 toward Antananarivo and approached Antsirabe with time to visit one more protected area – Ibity massif. With only two hours, we needed to hustle, but we knew this site included several endemic priority genera. We were sensing our time in Madagascar quickly coming to a close and were eager to fit in one more hike. We flew up to the rocky, granitic summit, huffing and puffing and found a trove of Asteraceae awaiting us. A fire had recently gotten out of control and reached the summit on its eastern slope, burning everything in it’s path, but fortunately it burned itself out before it could cover this important new protected area.

Day Fourteen, Antsirabe–Antananarivo— We headed back to home base at the Missouri Botanical Garden program headquarters in Antananarivo, happy, laughing, and talkative. We knew this was one of our last days together as a team and we reflected on the last month of collecting – still amazed by our good fortune. Back in Tana, we prepared our specimens, Vicki gave a presentation to staff from MBG and PBZT, and students from the University of Antananarivo on Asteraceae in Madagascar, and we began to pack up for our trip home. We’ll be thinking about this trip for a long time after coming home. You might leave Madagascar, but Madagascar never really leaves you. In the week since returning, we’ve already plotted our next research steps, priorities for sampling, and upcoming papers. Now that the fieldwork has finished, the real work can begin – putting the evolutionary puzzle together, piece by piece. 

On the road again... 5–8 October 2016

posted Nov 3, 2016, 3:43 PM by Morgan Gostel

We departed for our second collecting trip on October 5, with an ambitious itinerary and miles of road ahead of us. Our general direction was southward, to the southern latitudinal extreme of Madagascar – Cap Sainte Marie – and as with our first expedition, the shortest path most certainly was not a straight line.

Fig 1: Cap Sainte Marie coastline, overlooking the Indian Ocean.

Day One, Tana–Fianarantsoa— The intention for day one was to follow my southbound path in 2013 – depart Tana early (4:00 AM) and arrive in Ihosy by the end of the day. After several roadside collection stops, we realized we may not arrive to Ihosy on time and this was cemented when we hit road construction delays north of Fianarantsoa. After our early departure, we stopped in Antsirabe (La Rêve restaurant, for those seeking a recommendation) for my favorite Malagasy cuisine – vary amin’anana, a porridge-like rice dish served for breakfast and often cooked with mixed greens, ginger, and served with sausages (here’s an excellent recipe: http://sakafo-malagasy.net/vary-aminanana-tsiro-gasy-mafilotra/).

We arrived in Fianarantsoa behind schedule, near sunset and checked into Hotel Mini-Croq for the evening.

Day Two, Fianarantsoa–Ihosy— We awoke early today, knowing that we would have nearly a full day to collect along the roadside, because Ihosy is only a 2–3 hour drive from Fianarantsoa, but the next leg of our journey required us to drive along the dangerous RN13 between Ihosy and Ambovombe. This is a good time to direct readers who plan to travel in Madagascar to the US Embassy’s Madagascar Mission, Important Messages Website (https://www.antananarivo.usembassy.gov/important-messages.html). Note the September 27, 2016 “Security Message for US Citizens: Violent Highway Robberies” and also note that we unknowingly planned our travel for this expedition along two of the listed roads (RN1B, which we drove at the end of Trip One and RN13, tomorrow). Once your collection permits are completed, sometimes your travel plans simply can’t be helped – there was really no way to have prepared for this.

We did manage to spend most of the day making many important collections on the way to and in the vicinity of Ihosy. At the end of the day we bought some necessary supplies (Fig. 2) and checked into a pleasant Ihosy hotel – Tamana – and had another of my favorite Malagasy dishes, Ravitoto (stewed pork with young cassava leaves), for dinner.

                                 A                  B

Fig. 2. A) MBG Botanist, Richard Razakamalala, posing with an eel, brought into a general store to weigh while buying supplies. B) Team Asteraceae making species determinations before dinner in Ihosy.

Day Three, Ihosy–Antainimora— Another early start today – 4:00 AM – in hopes of arriving to Ambovombe and to recoup some of our lost time. RN13 southbound from Ihosy is not only dangerous, with banditry, but a complete mess. We ‘lost’ the road on several occasions when it was unclear how to distinguish a detour from the actual road. Luckily the road was dry, but at many times the road was so badly disturbed the car ride felt more like a boat on a choppy sea. One day, Vicki’s fitbit registered a couple of hours driving as 20,000 footsteps and 500 flights of stairs – ha!

As we approached Betroka, the largest town between Ihosy and Ambovombe, we needed to hire another Gendarmes along a dangerous stretch of road that had a blockade and was bordered with villages that had been burned down for unknown reasons (we didn’t inquire why, Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Small village near Betroka on RN13 from Ihosy, abandoned and burned.

Despite a steady pace, the mostly destroyed RN13 kept us to 10–20 kmh and from reaching Ambovombe before nightfall – in fact, we had only arrived in Antainimora Sud (a ca. 3 hour daylight drive north of our destination) as the sun was setting. We were yet again faced with another difficult decision – hire more Gendarmes to accompany us for another 3–4 hours along this difficult and dangerous road or stay the night here where there was no hotel or electricity. We decided to double down on safety and hope to recoup our time later in the trip; I had built a ‘flex’ day into our schedule, afterall… 

Day Four, Antainimora–Cap Sainte Marie— Pre-dawn departures are beginning to become a habit. We again awoke early, hoping to push along, avoid further delays, and arrive to Cap Sainte Marie in time to do some collecting. If luck is on our side, we could depart after a single evening at the Cape. Along the road, we stopped and made several interesting collections, including a beautiful, brilliant pink-magenta Dicoma and an unexpected endemic genus, Iphiona. Encouraged and with spirits lifted from these exciting collections, we made excellent time, managed to meet with the Madagascar National Parks authority in Tsiombe (despite it being a Saturday) and arrived to the Cap Sainte Marie office by 3:00 PM. With only a few hours before sunset, we hired a guide, Tonga Soa, and set off for the coast and the last piece of land between Madagascar and Antarctica.

A)     B) 
Fig. 4. A) Humbert's original collection of G. vernonioides from February 1947, image courtesy MNHN, Paris, France. B) Me, posing at porous, limestone outcrop next to the coast at Cap Sainte Marie. 

Our interest in this collecting locality was of key importance, but admittedly a longshot. The species Gladiopappus vernonioides Humbert has been collected only a handful of times – in February 1947 and March 1955. It is represented by just ten sheets at the herbarium of the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris (see Fig 4). The bizarre combination of features in this species and – most especially – location in Madagascar are quite puzzling. After collecting it, Humbert immediately recognized it not only as a new species, but belonging to an entirely new genus. Vicki has been on a 15 year search for this single species, despite it being cited as “possibly extinct” due to its rarity and 60 year absence from any collection.

Well… at the risk of spoiling the punch line, we did find Gladiopappus vernonioides, but the build up to the punch line is better – we nearly tripped over it!

As a botanist and natural historian, one of the most exciting things in life is not necessarily the discovery of a new species (exciting in its own right, to be sure), but rather the rediscovery of a species that has only been collected once or twice and is thought to be extinct. There is unique satisfaction that comes with the hope in such a rediscovery. This is a common sentiment for most field biologists – imagine, bringing a species back from the brink!

Fig. 5. Gladiopappus vernonioides Humbert collected at Cap Sainte Marie.

From the park office, the road to the Cape is only ca. 3 km, but the drive takes about 20 minutes – 10 of driving and another 10 to stop for local pedestrians – the endemic and critically endangered radiated tortoise, Astrochelys radiata. About halfway I decided to get out and hike my way to the coastline, slowly and cautiously observing the vegetation – much of which I was surprised to recognize as Commiphora (myrrh), the genus I focused on for my dissertation research. Like the rest of the vegetation here, Commiphora humbertii H. Perr. (fitting that this species is named in honor of the botanist who collected and described the Gladiopappus we were after…) is barely recognizable. What are otherwise waist-high shrubs and small trees have been flattened and twisted by the harsh landscape here at Cap Sainte Marie, where strong wind gusts and salt spray have eroded the limestone along this jagged coast. Instead of shrubs, much of the vegetation more closely resembles a tortured Rodin sculpture than a living, photosynthesizing plant (Fig. 6).

                                     A)        B)      















Fig 6 A) Me, collecting a specimen of Gladiopappus vernonioides in on limestone rock, appressed to rock surface, emerging from small erosion hole. B) Specimen of Commiphora humbertii, flattened and stressed, characteristic of the vegetation at Cap Sainte Marie.

Together, we spread out and slowly wound our way along the rocks and brambles for two hours. We collected several interesting species, but sadly no Gladiopappus. As the sun began to set we decided to hedge our bets and return to camp while we had sunlight to put up our tents. We would awake early and try again the following day. As we packed into our Land Cruiser, Vicki suggested I walk out to the Cape, since I hadn’t yet been. It’s doubtful I’ll be able to return, afterall and the next day we would hike to another site, nearby. Not wishing to delay us further, I ran ahead to the coast to snap a few quick photographs. I don’t give up easily and halfway to the cliff that overlooks the Indian Ocean I decided to resume my scan of the surface vegetation, zig-zagging my way across the rocky terrain, not trying to hold up our team, but holding on to one last hope of spotting Gladiopappus.

Fig. 7. 
Vicki, myself, and PBZT Botanist, Jacqueline Razanatsoa, practicing a traditional dance of southern Madagascar, with traditional headwear!

Some 10–15 steps from the Cape’s marker, I was stumbling along, a smoothly eroded chunk of rock and as I looked down to make sure of my footing, I noticed it – unmistakably what we had come so far for – with small, pale, silver-blue leaves, and large, stout fruiting heads (Fig. 5). Throwing my arms up, I let out a guttural shout of glee and dropped to my knees with camera at the ready. Richard and Tonga Soa had followed me for a photograph at the Cape and rushed over when they heard me. After 10–15 high fives and hugs, we scattered in search of more – ideally a specimen in flower! Luck was with us and soon we were finding other individuals twisting their way out of tiny erosion holes in the limestone surface. It never ceases to amaze me the places where life finds a way – not only to survive, but thrive. We regathered ourselves and rushed back to bring the happy news to Jacqueline and Vicki, who greeted us with cheers and laughter (Fig. 7). We relished our find, no longer aware of the rapidly setting sun and talking about our next steps – we’ve already begun preparing material for analyses now that we are home. We can’t wait to share the results – this is the life of a field botanist!

*Ortiz, S. 2000. A phylogenetic analysis of Dicoma Cass. and related genera (Asteraceae: Chichorioideae: Mutisieae) based on morphological and anatomic characters. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 87: 459–481.

Malagasy Rock-n-Roll, 25 September–2 October 2016

posted Oct 4, 2016, 7:31 AM by Morgan Gostel   [ updated Oct 4, 2016, 7:39 AM ]

Our trip westward began with a bang (literally) as we departed Antananarivo at 5 AM. After loading our vehicle and hitting the road, we made it about 20 minutes before the sidewall of our rear left tire blew out. While still in Tana, we all agreed this was about the best time to have a flat, but it set us back about an hour on an already ambitious schedule. This was no matter, as our expert driver and ‘car doctor’ Germaine soon proved.

While here for the month, our five person team includes two local staff from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s, Madagascar Research and Conservation Program – driver, Germaine and botanist Richard Razakamalala – and one from the Parc Botanique et Zoologique de Tsimbazaza (PBZT), Jacqueline Razanatsoa. This isn’t my first time working with these great people and we could hardly ask for better company. A brief day-by-day account of first trip is laid out, below. 

Day One, Tana-Miandrivazo–Traveling to Bemaraha is no simple task – for starters, the park is only open annually between May and November due to impassible road conditions during the rainy season. We opted for the southern trek for safety and hoped to loop back to Tana along the northern route, via Maintirano. After many collecting stops along the road, we found ourselves in Miandrivazo, about four hours from Morondava. We checked into a hotel and after ordering dinner were treated to some live music – four hours, actually with several Malagasy bands – as I closed my eyes, I fell asleep to a Malagasy rendition of “Eye of the Tiger”. I woke up and joked with the team that our expedition started off with a Malagasy Lollapalooza. Jacqueline and Richard laughed – and asked for clarification because ‘lollapalooza’ sounds like the Malagasy words “crab path”, lalana foza.

Fig. 1: Team Asteraceae at Baobab Alley, L–R, Jacqueline, Morgan, Vicki, Germaine, and Richard.

Day Two, Miandrivazo-Bekopaka–We set off early to recover lost ground, in the hope of reaching Bemaraha in our anticipated two days. This was difficult, because, in addition to roadside collecting, we needed to cross two rivers by ferry and had many poor roads ahead. I’ve never been claustrophobic, but you can’t help it when you’re wedged onto a river ferry at the dead of night with two other 4x4’s six inches to your left and right. We checked into our hotel after 14 hours on the road and called it a night!

Fig. 2: Busy day for ferry crossings on the Tsiribihina river.

Day Three, Parc National des Tsingy de Bemaraha–Awoke early for a quick breakfast before meeting with Park officials at the local ANGAP office. We explained our mission, showed our permits, and asked if we could hire a couple of guides to help us look for Astereaceae and Burseraceae – our main targets here. Bemaraha is notable for being poorly collected (botanized) – again due to the difficulty to access the forest during the key rainy season, when most flowers are in bloom and leaves flush following the dry season. By backing up as close to the rainy season as possible, our hope was to catch our focal groups at an ideal time. In preparation for our trip, both Vicki and I visited the herbarium at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris (P) to review specimens and confirm localities and flowering times – fortunately the species we’re most interested in from the Asteraceae were shown to begin flowering in September. After hiking two circuits at a gruelingly fast pace, we came out with less than a handful of collections – the region simply has not seen rain since May and the Tsingy (sharp, jagged limestone karst that rises from the earth like an vast maw) remained largely barren of vegetation. We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, and looked optimistically to the road ahead! Over a delicious meal of fresh veggies we purchased on the road, we plotted our course north from our hotel, Tanankoay.

Fig. 3: Last days of the dry season for vegetation at Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park.

Day Four, Bekopaka-Antsalova–The worst road so far, we zig-zagged our way across dusty, washed out roads for eight hours until we arrived in Antsalova. Surprisingly, we were earlier than we had anticipated and were able to collect along a nearby stream. The temptation to hike was too great after so many hours in the car – although the town is 7 km from the heart of the forest and tsingy. Hiking in and camping was not possible because security in the region has made camping dangerous, so we settled for the fragmented vegetation near town and were pleased to find several Asteraceae genera. A quiet night before another long drive to Maintirano tomorrow…

Day Five, Antsalova-Maintirano–A relatively quiet day with similar road conditions and few collections. We arrived to Maintirano in the early afternoon, met with park officials at the local ANGAP office, and resupplied. At sundown, we decided to visit the Mozambique Channel where fishing boats were preparing to launch for the night.

Fig. 4: Sunset on the beach in Maintirano as fishermen prepare for a long evening.

Day Six, Nouvelle Aire Protègée de Beanka–The road from Maintirano to Beanka, the northern most limit of the Tsingy that runs from Bekopaka in the south, is yet again, the worst we have encountered. As an important trade hub, especially for cattle, it is heavily trafficked in the dry season. Large, 4x4 taxi-brousse leave the road badly scarred as they dig themselves out of holes and chart new, ad hoc paths. It takes four hours to drive the 65 km, and longer for us as we frequently stop to make collections. When we arrive, we meet with the manager, Rado Andrianaivorivelo of Biodiversity Conservation Madagascar, and quickly organize our plan for collections. We learn the region is suffering a severe security crisis and are told to take great caution along the road. As we make our first collection, emerging from the east side of the forest along the roadside, our guide spots a group of young men approaching us quickly and tells us “I don’t know them, we must go”. We pack up in a hurry and bolt out before having a chance to acquire GPS coordinates. Here, the reality of the security situation sinks in further. Our guide tells us his village was attacked and robbed by 10–15 armed men earlier in May and our day takes a somber turn. We trace our way back to the western edge of Beanka and recoup our leavings, fortunately collecting several Asteraceae that are in full flower and fruit. We make the long drive back to Maintirano and meet with the local Gendarmes to arrange for two armed guards to help us find safe passage east, back to Tana.


        A)  B)  C)

Fig. 5: October showers bring spring flowers? In the Malagasy western dry deciduous forest, yes! A) Distephanus sp. (Asteraceae); B) Commiphora arafy (Burseraceae); and C) Vernonia sp. (Asteraceae).

Day Seven, Maintirano-Tsiroanomandidy–The monotony of the bleak, burned landscape along the roadside in Madagascar can inspire interesting conversation or leave you in a daze of reflection and emotion. Early this morning, our car’s occupants were in one such daze as the sun began to crest the horizon. An hour and a half from our departure we were startled back into reality with the loud ratchet of one of our Gendarmes’ rifles. About 50 m to our right were two men with two cattle and as the rifle was aimed out of the window they began to run – their own kalashnikovs trailing behind them. Jacqueline shouted ‘don’t shoot them’ and no shots were fired, but the 10 seconds were confusing and tense. We continued along the road to Tsiroanomandidy for 17 hours, making only a few hurried collections on the way and hearing more about the decline of this region into crime. The first rains of the season had arrived just ahead of us, the morning of our departure and a difficult road became more challenging, with mud-slicked surfaces and large, washed out holes. When we finally arrived to Tsiroanomandidy we breathed a collective sigh of relief and exhaustion after 4 hours of night driving. We found a nice Hotel (Le Présidente) and called it quits for the night.

        Fig. 6: Road from Maintirano–Tsiroanomandidy. A) One of the Gendarmes we hired, during a stop to collect; B) example of roadside fires; and C) the aftermath of another fire.

Day Eight, Tsiroanomandidy-Tana–The last day of a long trip is always easy. We woke up to a beautiful Sunday morning, had coffee and mokary (sweet, fried rice cakes, one of my favorites here!), and hit the road. Despite spending much of our time in the car laughing and making jokes, I haven’t shared any of the abundant funny anecdotes from our trip, so I’ve saved one here. This story actually begins during my last trip here in 2013. As a foreigner in Madagascar, you’ll immediately find yourself greeted both on the bustling sidewalks of Tana and the remotest of villages with “bon jour, vazaha” or a row of children jumping and shouting “Vazaha!”, which translates to foreigner or stranger (it’s not rude, by the way…).

As a vazaha, wherever you are in Madagascar, especially outside of Tana, you often find yourself the focus of attention and Richard especially enjoys the opportunity to have fun with the attention I draw. Toward the end of my fieldwork in 2013, I had let my facial hair grow out in little reddish patches and he started to call me “Chuck Norris’ Son”. One day as we unloaded our things at a hotel for the night, the proprietor’s children gathered around to say hello. Richard promptly asked them if they recognized me and when they shook their head he said “You know the famous American movie star, Chuck Norris? This is his son!” Although the conversation was in Malagasy, I understood exactly what he had said, both by the children’s reactions and the name “Chuck Norris” – we both let out a huge guffaw and we haven’t stopped laughing about it since. He pulls it on curious onlookers every chance he gets and got another great reaction on this last day of our first trip. As we munched on hot mokary, steaming and tossed fresh from the griddle and sipped sweet coffee, Richard explained my ‘background’. The owner of the mokary shop replied “I love his movies! I watched one last night!” There’s really never a dull moment here and Richard and the rest of the team keep us smiling all the way!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Fig. 7: Morgan and Richard in market, purchasing rice.

Tomorrow we are off again for two weeks – updates to come!

Andao ande – let's go!

posted Oct 3, 2016, 12:11 PM by Morgan Gostel

Driving into Antananarivo, city skyline with the royal palace (Rova) visible in the center, top.

Vicki and I quickly learned the Malagasy phrase for ‘let’s go’ – andao ande. After landing close to midnight in Tana, we settled into the field office by 3 AM and were awake about five hours later for business meetings, schedules, and to finalize arrangements for collecting permits and supplies. We also managed a brief visit to the Parc Botanique et Zoologique de Tsimbazaza (PBZT) to review specimens in the herbarium and meet with one of the local botanist’s we’ll be working with to confirm our schedule – a 5 AM departure merely 48 hours after arriving!

We’ve divided our expedition into two legs. The first consists of a seven-day trek to the western dry deciduous forests from Morondava in the south to Maintirano in the north. Our second expedition is longer (two weeks) and will bring us to the southern most point in Madagascar – Cap Sainte-Marie and work our way back east and north.

While here, we’re mainly focused on collecting species in the sunflower family, Asteraceae/Compositae, which happens to represent the 4th largest family (by number of species) in Madagascar and 6th largest by number of endemic species1. Along the way, we’re also here for five other families that are a part of our grant – Araliaceae, Burseraceae, Euphorbiaceae, Fabaceae, and Malvaceae. The latter three contain the 4th, 5th, and 7th largest number of endemic species by family1 and will also be the focus of two subsequent field trips by co-PIs in 2017.

We’re just ahead of the rainy season, which should be a good time for the Asteraceae we are most interested in – but we’ll only know once we’ve got boots on the ground!

I'm a bit late getting this update in, so another is soon to follow with highlights from our trip west... for now here's a preview:

Day two, ferry crossing to Belo Tsiribihina, on the Tsiribihina river.
1Callmander et al. 2011. Endemic and non-endemic vascular flora of Madagascar updated. Plant Ecology and Evolution. 144: 121–125. doi: 10.5091/plecevo.2011.513

Notes from the Field (or airport...) 21 September 2016

posted Sep 21, 2016, 1:41 PM by Morgan Gostel   [ updated Oct 3, 2016, 12:16 PM ]

Soava dia and Bon voyage,

This evening I depart for my third expedition to Madagascar and I’m no less excited now than I was for my previous two trips in 2009 and 2013. I’ll be traveling with my postdoctoral advisor, Vicki Funk, as we search for endemic genera in the sunflower/daisy family, Compositae. While we are there, we’ll be on the lookout for other plants, including the families I studied as a part of my masters (Araliaceae) and doctoral dissertation research (Burseraceae) in addition to Euphorbiaceae, Fabaceae, and Malvaceae. We’ll be working with friends and colleagues, old and new, from the Missouri BotanicalGarden Research Program and Parc Botanique et Zoologique de Tsimbazaza (PBZT)!

This trip has been made possible thanks to an award from the Smithsonian Institute for Biodiversity Genomics and Global Genome Initiative and the incredible support from the Missouri Botanical Garden Madagascar Research Program. We are deeply grateful for this support.

We'll be visiting some of the incredible National Parks and Reserves in the country – I've included some links below if you'd like a preview:

Parc National des Tsingy de Bemaraha

Parc National d’Andohahela

Parc National Ranomafana

Réserve Spéciale de Cap Sainte Marie

Parc National d’Andrigitra

For pictures from my previous trips, check my Photos page and otherwise – stay tuned, folks – more to come!

Archived blogs, 2016

posted Sep 16, 2016, 9:02 AM by Morgan Gostel

GGI–Gardens blog post, archive 2015–2016:



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