Monday
Nov032014

Environmental awareness day

In order to help conserve the environment and its endemic inhabitants we need to maintain a good relationship with a very important factor of the conservation equation, the local people on the island. They are yet to fully understand the impact they have on the ecosystem hence the reason we, as a team, come together to create a fun and interesting way to educate them. We do this by holding an environmental awareness day once a month in the village of Ambalahonko demonstrating how important it is to care for the ecosystems they are so dependent on. This is mainly aimed at children as they are the growing generation and we hope to educate them so they can create a sustainable future for following generations by sharing their knowledge and experience.

Ambalahonko is a small village based on the island of Nosy be, home to around 100 people. Being an hour boat ride away from any shops and potential career opportunities results in them becoming reliant on natural resources in order to provide for their families. This is usually very unsustainable. In other rural areas under similar circumstances studies have shown that the fish abundance, diversity and size in the area has decreased due to unsustainable fishing and pollution. This affects the villagers as their main source of survival and income will continue to drop eventually destroying an ecosystem therefore not only are we trying to conserve the marine life we aim to help the village become more sustainable.

When planning for the environmental awareness day we wanted to show the village “what we do” as we were aware that not all of the village were really sure. We carried this out by preparing a play and a numerous activities of which demonstrated our aims and goals in the marine, forest and beach conservation projects. Although we had a villager translating our script our main source of communication was through actions rather than words and required the team to get creative. We created animal masks, costumes and backdrops so the children could clearly understand our message. The marine play message was to try and explain why we take surveys and data and what results we notice when carrying them out. The play consisted of an array of well-acted marine animals including an octopus, moray, lobster, manta ray and many more fish living their day to day lives in their natural environment and some frontier marine conservationists carrying out surveys among them and protecting them. We did a similar play for the forest and beach conservation projects and explained that the work we do is heard throughout the world and helps protect their unique environment.

We had the local children identify local and endemic species and including them in active searches. We hope this helped them understand how special their home is. It was a fun day and there was much learning and laughing.

By Grace, Research Assistant Volunteer 

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Monday
Nov032014

Less of the furry things in the trees, more of the slimy things in the ground, please!

The Madagascar Forest programme is always looking to find new avenues for research. One area that I have wanted to look at in more detail is invertebrates. While back-boned animals enjoy the majority of our money and attention in conservation, our spineless friends are nevertheless fascinating, diverse, and far more important in ecological terms. They remain woefully neglected and under-studied, however. The fact that relatively little is known about the species diversity of this rather vast group of animals, especially so in Madagascar, presents a bit of a challenge, as identifying them is not always an easy process! Nevertheless, we will press on, starting with looking at the diversity of soil- and leaf litter-dwelling creepy crawlies at a higher taxonomic grouping than the species level, to make life a bit easier.

One of the most widely used methods for sampling soil invertebrates is a ‘Tullgren funnel’, which essentially involves placing your soil sample, complete with whatever is living inside, into a funnel, with a grating at the bottom. A strong lamp is placed above this, and a collecting jar placed beneath the contraption. Soil invertebrates tend to be negatively phototactic, which is an obscure scientific way of saying they move away from light. They also tend not to enjoy the drying out caused by the heat of the lamp, so they move down through the soil to darker, moister places below. This inevitably leads to them falling through the grating, and into the awaiting pot below the funnel.

Generally in the field, and Frontier Madagascar is no exception, there is no electricity available, and the equipment is quite bulky to transport. However, we can use a ‘Winkler extractor’ which operates under similar principles, but requires no power source, as it uses the surrounding latent heat to slowly dry a soil sample. It consists of a mesh bag placed inside a cotton or canvas casing, which then tapers to a point at the bottom, where a collecting jar is fixed. Animals trapped in the soil sample will burrow downwards, hoping to find the joys of desiccation-free living space. Instead, they emerge from the mesh bag, and fall down the steep sides of the extractor, leading to the pit of death at the bottom (a small jar filled with 70% ethanol).

Our MGF volunteers have ingeniously made one of these Winkler extractors from spare materials we had floating around camp; some wire, string, old mosquito nets and a bed sheet, as well as utilising some impressive sewing skills. If it proves successful, we can no doubt upscale the production line, and start to make some comparisons between the different forest habitats we have in our study area, as well as developing the fundamental biological skills of counting and identifying very, very tiny things under a microscope. Here’s hoping that our new deployment of volunteers know how to sew!

By Rich

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Monday
Nov032014

Beach Conservaton, Habitat Mapping

Habitat mapping continued this week to specify and locate the different species of mangrove trees within different forests along the coast. Based on maps created in June, there appeared to be a loss of sparse mangroves east of camp. However, without efficient mapping techniques it is difficult to clarify this loss. Therefore, GIS software will be used to map the coastal ecosystems within the area, such as mangroves, accurately. Thus, changes can be measured and confirmed. The causes of future changes in the ecosystems, natural or anthropogenic, will then be hypothesized to aid the conservation of such important habitats.

 
Q GIS software has been downloaded to map the species of mangrove and this will be done on top of a Google earth image of the coastline. Hence, the exact locations of the ecosystems in the south west of Nosy Be can be displayed accurately. Ideally, each species of mangrove will have an individual layer over the satellite image. This feature will allow the locations of single species to be observed throughout the coast irrelevant of the locations of the ecosystems as a whole. Thus, the most widespread and rare species can be highlighted and the reasons for their abundance predicted. For example, some species may be more sensitive to change and less competitive so are only found in a few of the sparse mangrove forests. When all the mangrove species layers of the GIS map are turned on (i.e. all species will be displayed over the Google Earth image), the most diverse forests can be identified and zonation patterns made clear.

Hopefully, this method will also be used to map the seagrass meadows and species within them. Zonation along seagrass beds is less dramatic than those in mangrove forests. However, it was clearly visible on during the excursion day to Ambataloaka last week. Three 50 m transects at increasing depth were carried out on the vast seagrass meadow by the Beach Conservation Team. The 12 random quadrats were placed along each transect following the methods described by the Net Seagrass Monitoring Program. Within each quadrat, the species were identified and their percentage coverage measured. Halophila sp. were found closest to shore, with Thalassodendron sp. existing in the deeper waters. Therefore, by creating individual layers for each seagrass species on the GIS map, zonation can be observed when all the layers are initiated, and individual species diversity around the SW of Nosy BE can be examined using the single species layers.

 
As the seagrass meadow at Ambataloaka is exposed to a large amount of boat moorings and therefore, fuel pollution into the water and anchor damage, it is predicted there will be significant differences in epiphyte coverage and species cover compared to sites that are exposed to fewer anthropogenic impacts. The density of the seagrass meadows will be able to be displayed by different shades/transparency of the individual colour used for each species on the GIS map. Hence, GIS will enable visible comparisons to be made between the seagrass ecosystems in the south of Nosy Be. These will be easily understood so future changes in all coastal ecosystems exhibited by the software are detectable.

By Conservation Apprentice, Kate

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Wednesday
Oct292014

The fascinating whale sharks

Madagascar is fortunate enough that for several months of the year, whale sharks migrate through their waters. Whale sharks can be as big as 20m making them the largest fish in the ocean. Despite their size they have extremely poor vision, only being able to detect movement 4m away. However, they compensate for this with their acute hearing and their ability to detect magnetic field changes as they navigate through the oceans. Their movements are slow and the maximum speed a whale shark can travel is 0.7 ms-1. They regularly dive up to 90m.

Whale sharks eat krill, shrimps and other small fish using two methods depending on the availability and abundance of their prey. More commonly they ram filter feed, this involves swimming into their prey with their mouths open. Or, the whale sharks active feed. This involves staying in one place and searching for food. Like humans, whale sharks are k-selected species. Therefore they breed small amounts of young who are born alive and take a long time to reach sexual maturity. Sightings of mature whale sharks are very rare due to their swimming patterns. 

Whale sharks are only protected in 10% of countries and thus they are increasingly vulnerable to extinction. With their numbers in decline their conservation has become more important than ever. Their main threat is human activity such as hunting the sharks. As they swim so close to the surface and so slowly, not only are they easy targets for boats but they also can ingest floating plastic, clogging their throats. Hunting the sharks can be for illegal trade in oil and fins. 647 whale sharks were caught between 1988-1991 and their meat discarded. In the early 1980s in Taiwan, 30-100 individuals were caught annually. Within the same decade the number fished reduced dramatically to only about 10 a year due to the dwindling population. Another threat to the sharks is heavy wave action or changing and heavy currents as this can lead to stranding. For example between 1984 and 1995 36 were found stranded on the South African coastline.

Contrary to damaging misconceptions whale sharks are not monsters and do not eat people. They are a delicate and gentle species and with this new education whale shark tourism is currently booming. Groups such as ECOCEAN have a code of conduct which they endeavor to get all whale shark centers to sign, setting strict guidelines of how to handle the whale sharks without threatening them. It includes limitations on the number of people allowed in the water with the sharks, a maximum of 10 at any time, the distance at which the tourists must remain, based in the whale sharks ability to detect movement, the distance and speed of the boats around the sharks and how to approach the sharks causing minimum disruption. However these regulations are rarely put into practice by the companies agreeing to them. 

Whale sharks are badly affected by this as they develop an increased tolerance to human contact which dulls their senses and their natural instincts. The damage caused to an animal in this way will stay with it for the rest of its life. In the worst cases of whale shark toutism they are fed which is known as 'chumming'. It alters their natural behavior and in some areas has led to whale sharks staying in the same area all year round. As a result their gene pool is narrowed, they receive a less varied diet and gain a strong dependency on the humans that feed them. Overall this decreases the population size and health, further increasing the threat to whale sharks.

Ecotourism is concentrated in poorer countries, such as here in Madagascar. We all experienced the lack of enforced guidelines first hand when we went on a whale shark excursion in Nosy-Be. More than 10 people were in the water with the sharks and an insufficient briefing lead to tourists and us remaining ignorant about the threats to whale sharks and how to treat them. The experience was incredible but we hope that regulations are tightened in coming years and with increased education about the species and the threats to them these breathtaking animals can be ensured a future in our seas. 

By Lulu, Research Assistant 

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Wednesday
Oct292014

Volunteer blog: Marine Pollution

The rising levels of litter and other pollutants collecting itself on beaches and oceans worldwide have posed massive threats to the marine world, as plastic has affected 44% of sea birds, 86% of all turtle species and 43% of all marine mammal species. Other hazards, such as oil spills and dumping, are other major causes of concern to the marine environment, which must be prevented. Such methods include recycling, enforcing laws and changing habits on an individual level. 

Part of the problem begins with litter on beaches. In 2003, 244 beaches were surveyed, producing results of 2074.5 items of litter per kilometer. One of the major reasons for this is beach visitors. Many people simply leave their trash on the beach not thinking about the repercussions. One of the biggest pollutants is plastic. Of the turtles surveyed, 75.9% of them had ingested plastic. Additionally, sea birds mistake it for small pieces of food, which they ingest and feed to their young. In surface waters, for every 0.5kg of plankton, there are 5kg of plastic. The effects of this can cause death and reproductive problems due to toxicity of the plastic, which could eventually bioaccumulate, reaching the human food chain. 

However, there are a number of other issues we have to take into consideration. Dumping, whether legal or illegal, has created lots of problems to marine life.  Dumping of solid wastes, sewage sludge and other bulky items, such as concrete, steel and iron, can damage coral reefs, be ingested by animals and disrupt the food chain. Oil spills have also affected the marine world by smothering birds, killing them and reducing hatching success, as well as killing other animals by them over-consuming it. An estimated 1.7 to 8.8 million tonnes of oil are released into the marine environment each year.

This can all be reduced and potentially prevented through recycling or even biologically grown plastics, which are biodegradable. Additionally, better legislation could be implemented enforcing bans on dumping. Finally, improvements on an individual level could be made, which could largely reduce the level of litter collecting itself on beaches.

Worldwide many animals are dying due to marine pollution, however, this could all be prevented or reduced by a number of methods including improvements on an individual level, as well as research and development. From time to time, a simple beach clean can make a difference and we can all make small contributions in achieving our goal.

By Nick, Research Assistant Volunteer

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