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Written by Joseph Bailey

Cover photo courtesy of Alex Toser

For the third year in a row, I have had the privilege of supervising and advising on a whole range of dissertation students’ projects in the dry forests of north-west Madagascar, with Operation Wallacea. The research that the dissertation students conduct is of great importance to the scientific efforts at the site, tackling a diverse range of novel topics. Here is a brief overview of what our students have been investigating this year in Madagascar!

Landscape ecology allows us to understand spatial patterns of biodiversity and of the distributions of various taxa across the landscape. This year in Mahamavo (the area in which we operate), I was supervising five students (undergraduate and Masters) who were investigating these landscape scale patterns for birds and herptiles (students in previous years have also studied similar topics for lemurs). Multiple students were interested in how forest edges relate to species’ occurrences and the traits of those species (e.g. what they feed on) and, additionally, how patterns of biodiversity differ between the two main forest patches (those are Mariarano and Matsedroy).

Specifically, we have one student investigating the distribution of herptiles across the landscape; another student looking into how different species of herptile relate to microhabitat characteristics and how these characteristics change with distance from the forest edge; someone investigating herptiles using an occupancy modelling approach to account for sampling effort; and two students considering the diversity and distribution of birds in relation to various forest characteristics (e.g. canopy cover). Preliminary results are very interesting suggesting, for example, that avian species richness may decline with increasing distance from the forest edge for certain groups, contrary to certain studies elsewhere in Madagascar.

Of the projects that I did not supervise, I thoroughly enjoyed engaging with them and helping out with data provision and analysis where possible. Four students were studying mouse lemurs, whilst others were interested in behaviour, morphology, and colouration in geckos and chameleons. Remote sensing data were required by some of these studies. For example, each mouse lemur observation was subsequently associated with vegetation density obtained from satellite imagery.

Elsewhere on the site this year, it has been a very productive. The long-term ecological monitoring programme, naturally, continued, and this was supplemented by a host of remote sensing, lemur research (including parasitology), small mammal research, and extensive botany and entomology surveys. Alongside this, other scientific discussions were had between myself and another member of the science team, Jonas, regarding the presence of fire-breathing dragons in the area. We could not agree: perhaps the dragons themselves created the dry forest with their fiery ways (?), or their existence in this area would simply not be possible, given that they would immediately burn down the habitat upon which they depend for food (?). Perhaps they’re not even here, though that seems unlikely…

Anyway, in closing, I would offer a personal thanks to each of our dissertation students, who were consistently engaged with their own research, as well as that of others. It was a great atmosphere throughout the field season, which allowed the science to flow smoothly. I very much look forward to reading everyone’s dissertations!

(With thanks to Jonas Merckx for some stimulating fire-breathing dragon chat!)

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