Biology professor inventories lizards in Madagascar

August 15, 2011

Biology professor Randy Morrison spent three days getting to the Operation Wallacea camp site in Madagascar – by plane, bush taxi and truck on what he dubs a “so called road” – and then for two weeks slept in a tent, took bucket showers, used a primitive latrine and ate mostly beans and rice.

Still, he can’t wait to go back next summer – for three times as long and hopefully with one of his students.

“It was fantastic,” Morrison says, dismissing the digestive problem he seems to have acquired while surveying the endemic wildlife in the island nation off the east coast of Africa. “I spend most of my time in the Bahamas figuring out how to catch lizards – in Madagascar you just walk over and pick them up.”

Of course, if it’s a leaf-tailed gecko prepare to hear it scream – a shriek so eerie the native Malagasy people believe it is a forest spirit. But Morrison, who has been fascinated by and researching pigment changes in lizards since his grad school days in Nebraska, doesn’t mind the squeal as long as he can study this “fabulously cryptic herp” that takes on the mottled colors of tree bark to camouflage itself.

Find the lizard camouflaged on the bark of this tree. Hint: Look for two big eyes.

“They were very interested in someone with my skill set,” Morrison says, explaining that he conducted workshops and lectures in pigment changes while there.

Plentiful in Madagascar, chameleons and geckos change color, but for different purposes, Morrison says. Chameleons change color to communicate for social interaction. Geckos, however, change color to match their background even if it is a pattern. Morrison uses a spectrometer to look at the wavelengths of the pigments to determine the differences in the colors of the gecko and colors of the bark.

Operation Wallacea, a non-profit in the UK that promotes conservation research through academic partnerships, has nine locations around the world. The Madagascar expedition, which funded Morrison’s stay on site, is in its second year. A faculty development grant from McDaniel covered Morrison’s travel costs.

The location on the northwest and dry part of the island has deciduous forest that looks, to the non-botanist eye, much like the forest in Maryland. But the difference in biodiversity is striking, he says.

“Here, you might see several frogs, a salamander and, on a good day, a snake,” Morrison says. Then, his face lights up at the memory of the two- and three-a-day excursions in Madagascar and he adds, “There, especially at night with your headlamp on, you’d see 20 chameleons, four or five snakes, countless geckos, several lemurs and a lot of birds.”

Preserving this rich biodiversity is a goal of Operation Wallacea. And the long-term goal is to help the Malagasy people to understand sustainable development and to motivate them to protect the environment through the eco-tourism that has worked so well in Costa Rica and other places. In poor nations, eco-tourism provides jobs, and earning a livelihood becomes a tangible reason to preserve wildlife and entire ecosystems.

Although the Mariarano villagers near the camp work as guides and cooks and other support staff to the 30-some mostly British – Morrison was the only American – professors and students on site, jobs and income are scarce to most of the 700-800 villagers who live there. While there, Morrison saw the native people burning forest to make charcoal to sell. It is a fairly common practice and somewhat of a necessity in the current economic conditions.

Through Operation Wallacea, academics like Morrison and students will take an inventory of sorts – an assessment of what lives in the bio-diverse region to help support the case for preserving the ecosystem. The experience has Morrison considering himself more of a field biologist than he has in years. In fact while on sabbatical during spring 2012, he’s planning to spend four weeks on site in the Bahamas and six weeks in Madagascar.

This time Morrison will pack a better camera and a more powerful headlamp. And, he won’t forget the obligatory container of Old Bay seasoning.

“We ate beans and rice – for lunch and dinner every day – and so I took along the Old Bay to spice it up a little,” Morrison says. “When I was packing to leave, they asked if I could leave the Old Bay behind.”

A Coquerel's Sifaka lemur looks down from its treetop perch in the forest in Madagascar.