Day in the life of a Hawksbill


I wake up in the pristene clear water surrounding Nosy Be, awoken by a boat passing overhead. The hunger stabs at my stomach so, forgettig the early hour, I decide to forridge for some food. I swim away from where I was sleeping, as effortlessly as the flowing current i find myself in. I find a small patch of sponge to eat, so decide this is the best idea for now until I find something more substantial later on. This is when I find myself eye to eye with a person, the shock of which makes the sponge I was eating fall out of my mouth and float away – damn – this particular person has a strange obsession with cameras, I find them taking so many pictures i feel like an A-List celebrity. The annoyance of losing my sponge makes me lose my patience and I decide not to let this particular person have the usual fill of photos and swim away earlier than I would if I had'nt been disturbed by the arrogant land dweller. While swimming around this particular reef system, I note the unseasonable visibility, which is much better than the conditions I usually find myself in, which alows me, as I imagine the diver does, to appreciate the pure naturalistic beauty of the marine environment surrounding the islands off the north coast of Madagascar that i am currently dwelling during my 'adolescent years'. I mentally note down the undulating movements of Butterflyfish and the strange movements of Triggerfish. The clear water and shining sun has put me in a better mood since the rude person bothered me and had a bit of a swim around the reef systems before finding some more coral to eat, perhaps some more sponge, before my mid-morning sleep.

By George Kelly, Marine Conservation Volunteer

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Volunteer Blog: Alfie Sheridan

Having recently passed my Amphibians test, the 19 Frog species on Nosy Be have become something of a minor obsession for me. Ranging in size from the miniscule Stumpffia pygmaea at just 10-12mm fully grown (possibly the smallest frog in the world) to the mighty (and introduced) Hoplobatrachus tigerinus at a whopping 170mm, the frogs here are found in a wide range of habitats. Whilst some, such as Cophyla occultans, inhabit almost exclusively primary forest, such as the nearby Lokobe National Park, Boophis tephraeomystax, a common tree frog, can be found in the camp washing up on a regular basis!

However, despite the exciting variety of frogs and their habitats, walks devoted exclusively to their finding are fewer than walks for other Herpetofauna. This is because identifying frogs is notoriously difficult, unless the species is particularly abundant, such as Ptychadena mascariensis, or Mantella ebanaui. Whereas most birds tend to readily recognisable, and reptiles mostly have a clear identifying feature, frogs can be indistinguishable from one species to another. The best example of this is the two species of frog of the Cophyla genus found here. C. occultans and C.phyllodactyla are morphologically identical, other than occultans being a few millimetres smaller. To make identification even more difficult, no external morphological features are known to distinguish members of Cophyla to the members of the Platypelis genus. The only exception to this is colouration, which happens to be highly unreliable in frogs. In short, identifying frogs is hard.

However, once this barrier is passed, frog hunts are enormous fun. Whether splashing around in streams, or, as at our recent visit to Lokobe National Park, scrabbling around under large boulders in damp caves,  the search for frogs is almost as fun as finding the frogs themselves. Once found, if a positive ID cannot be made on sight (which, as mentioned above, is tricky) the frog is often picked up- but only if you’re quick enough- and is examined closely for the tell-tale signs that make identification possible. These features include how smooth or granular the skin is, whether ridges or tubercles are present, the distinctiveness of the tympanum (eardrum) as well as more obscure aspects, such as webbing and toe length. However, once caught, frogs have an infuriating habit of springing away, and refusing to be identified, which is normally done by photographing numerous times, for a more secure ID back at camp later. This results in many frustrated grasps at leaping amphibians, followed by much puffing of cheeks, and the need for a good deal of patience.

In conclusion, frogs here can be frustrating at the best of times, both to catch and identify, but this makes for a much more satisfying time, in my opinion. The challenge presented by these frogs makes the reward of a catch and ID that much better. The upcoming Satellite Camp to Ampasipohy and Ambatozavavy will, it is hoped,  hold the opportunity to glimpse species rarely seen this side of the Atanfondru peninsula- exciting, to say the least. Watch this space.

By Alfie Sheridan, Assistant Research Volunteer 

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The Day in the Life of a Frontier Crab

Image courtesy of Yogendra Joshi

(Que: creepy French accent) ….It was a sunny Saturday morning, the stagnant stench of the long drop loomed forever in the air, as I watched the puffy eyed campers making their way to the temple of doom. The day ahead had the same promise of averageness as everyday did in my burrow beneath the sand. However, this perspective was later changed.

It was after my mid morning snack my attention was drawn to a newbie camper innocently helping herself to a laundry bidan. The opportunities that arose in my mind were endless. When the washing had been hung on the line overhanging my hideout, I waited for the opportune moment to strike.

I'd been watching the washing for what seemed like hours...with my eye on one particular item. My luck finally came when the wind untangled said item from the line and sent them floating lazily towards my direction. They landed but a few steps in front of my burrow. The coast was clear, I scurried to them and brought them back to my burrow... the lacy underwear was all mine, mwahaha. I caressed my new found treasure into the long hours of the afternoon.

While thoughts and fantasies of what I could do with my new possession played repeatedly in my head, my luck seemed to take a turn for the worst... I spotted an eye looming towards my borrow with a hand swiftly following. The delicate hand reached deep into my lair, snatching my dreams away. My life seemed to have been turned upside-down, now all there was left to do was to sit and bide my time until my next opportunity...

(NB. This story was based on real life events)  

By Louise Dixon, Research Assistant Volunteer

Find out more about Frontier's volunteering projects in Madagascar.


Staff blog: The elusive Langaha

I have always had a fascination with reptiles, and snakes in particular. The unique reptile fauna was one of the many reasons I initially chose to come and work for Frontier in Madagascar. And indeed, when I first arrived here, I was not disappointed. I joined at the very end of the wet season, and snakes abounded everywhere!

One of the most captivating species that are present here on Nosy Be is the Madagascan leaf-nosed snake; Langaha madagascariensis. This species is predominantly arboreal, spending most of its time up in the trees. Many snake species around the world that have adapted to this lifestyle are extremely long and thin (which serves as good camouflage as well as making it easier to traverse through branches) and are often referred to as vine snakes. Langahas exhibit this morphology, but go one better with their exquisite rostral appendage (an extra bit of flesh stuck on the end of their nose). They are also one of the few snakes that with a clear sexual dimorphism. The females are a predominantly brown colour, but with a flat, leaf shaped rostral appendage, while males have a beautiful yellow colouration on their belly, and a pointed rostral appendage. These snakes are incredibly cryptic both in their appearance and behaviour, on the whole doing an extremely good job of mimicking a vine. They even sleep vertically to make this mimicry complete at night. These animals are one of the more venomous species of snakes you will find in Madagascar; that is to say, not very. They are very reluctant to bite humans even when handled, and if they do, it results in only short term pain and localised swelling.

Soon after my arrival the value of this species, in my eyes, soon rocketed due to its perceived rarity, like some precious jewel. On every survey, I looked to find one of these individuals. Every vine in every tree became a Langaha. The potential of finding one became a driving force that kept me going. I even had recurring dreams of finding one dangling from the trees. As we came more into the dry season, and the numbers of snakes that we sighted in the area slowly dropped, I had nearly given up hope. More worrying was the information from the chief of the nearby village of Ampasipohy when we showed him a picture of a Langaha; that many local people were afraid of these snakes and killed them on sight. I sadly wondered whether this might be one of the reasons for their rarity. Apparently, however, the forest was abundant with Langahas last year in the wet season, even turning up in the long drops on camp. I consoled myself with the fact that at least I might be able to find one of these beauties in a few months time. Perhaps they hibernate during the dry season? Many of the snakes here do, although I could find nothing in the literature that expressly gave this fact.

Suddenly, last week as I was sat on camp in the evening, one of the forest staff members, Tim, rushed into camp, shouting my name. He had been out on a reptile nightwalk in site 5; a fairly disturbed fragment of secondary forest. I immediately feared something terrible had happened to one of the volunteers on the walk, and I was filled with a sense of dread. I ran over and asked what was the matter. He looked at me and smiled, saying “You’re gonna want to get your camera, mate. Langaha.” I was slightly dumbstruck at first, thinking that maybe this was a joke.

In fact, by sheer coincidence, Lou, forest ARO, had also been on the night walk, meaning that Tim was able to come back to camp and inform everyone of this marvellous stroke of luck, while she remained to keep an eye on the animal and prevent it from slithering back into the ethereal darkness.  Absolute heroes. Upon hearing this news, the mariners gave a quizzical look, a shrug of the shoulders, and continued playing cards. All of the foresters, however, went into a mad frenzy; grabbing bags, boots and cameras as quickly as possible before setting out to experience this marvel of nature that we had all heard about and yearned for, and which had achieved an almost mythical status. When we got there, we found Lou and Dale, waiting patiently. “Sorry. It’s gone,” was all she said. Our hearts sank. “Only joking. It’s right here!” She then quipped. Well played, young lady, well played.

We all marvelled at this elusive beauty; a male, a little over half a metre long, entwined around a small branch overlooking the path just above head height; seemingly completely oblivious to all the excitement going on underneath him. Every one of us was elated. A photographic frenzy ensued. I couldn’t quite believe it. This was what I had spent the last 5 months hoping to see, yet it didn’t quite seem real. It felt almost bittersweet; this is what had been driving me through the forest for such a long time. What now? Well, on reflection, I hardly imagine it won’t be equally as exciting to see another in the coming weeks or months! And besides, I still haven’t seen a female yet.

The potential of catching sight of rare or elusive creatures like these in the wild is what I love about working in this field. Having to work hard and be patient in order to receive your reward makes it all the sweeter. That’s certainly a good proxy for life in Madagascar as a whole, and right now I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.

By Richard Burger, Principal Investigator 

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Volunteer blog: In Search of Bee-eaters

For those of you unlucky enough not to know a bee-eater when you see one, it is a small, gregarious bird, which across all the different species is fantastically coloured. They have always captivated me with their distinctive swooping flight and cheery colours. As a result of this, when I got into photography it was only natural for this highly attractive bird to be target number 1. To this end I set my sights on a set of photos that would get across what attracted me to these birds in the first place. It all seemed so simple; all I needed to do was find one.

Image courtesy of Lip Kee

This is where I’m afraid that things start to go downhill. My first attempt was in Germany trying to see European Bee-eaters. Not a feather. Not even the sound of one in the distance. No matter, I knew I was soon due to head to Africa. First Tanzania, and lo, little Bee-eaters abounded everywhere; it was Bee-eater heaven. Surely the next two months could not be as good as this? How right I was would soon become clear. After the initial flurry I saw none. Zilch. Squat. Damn.

Finally to Madagascar with Frontier, where surely my luck would change. The early signs were good, with calls and flashes of brightest green atop the trees. But, alas, I sit here 2½ weeks after arrival with completely and utterly nothing noteworthy to show for my hours of work. Such is nature: beautiful, frustrating, elusive, but never boring!  

By Barnie Martin, Research Assitant 

Find out more about Frontier's volunteering projects in Madagascar.