Vary and the Vazaha

I knew it was bound to happen. The desire has been building ever since our arrival here. And here it is, the manifestation of said desire. A whole post dedicated to rice and beans. Please humor me while I waste five minutes of your time. I promise this will be a relatively short post because, quite frankly, there isn’t a whole lot of variety going on in the food department. This is not an unfortunate thing, however, as I think most of us here would agree that there is no beating rice and beans! I often times even crave them when I’m not in the field. Our meals are prepared by the best cook in the Southern Hemisphere, Nirina, who is married to Jules, one of our guides. Let me start off with the main staple of the Malagasy diet…vary (rice!). Rice is served at every meal (and I mean every meal–breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Sometimes we hit the jackpot and have pasta for dinner, although this is a rare and momentous occasion. Following rice must come a description of the main event: the beans. At the market there are many different varieties of beans, but we tend to stick with the old favorites: kabaro, tsaramaso, and voanjobory.

Each of us is loyal to one type of bean over the others and sometimes heated arguments break out at the dinner table, debating which bean takes the cake. Kabaro are probably the best known by American standards and are colloquially known as butter beans by some. Tsaramaso (literally translated as “the good eye bean”), are a smallish white bean similar to our navy beans. Lastly, my ultimate favorite and the champion bean (which I’m proudly stating here because I can. It’s my blog after all…), also the hardest to pronounce in Malagasy, are voanjobory which essentially means something akin to “circle peanut”. As the name implies, these beans have a delicious peanutty flavor that pairs well with the pounds of cayenne I pile on top of them.

The bean that wins all: Voanjobory!

The bean that wins all: Voanjobory!



Tsaramaso and carrot salad! Note: this picture is a gross misrepresentation of actual meals, as carrot salad only happened twice.

Tsaramaso and carrot salad! Note: this picture is a gross misrepresentation of actual meals, as carrot salad only happened twice.

Each of these bean varietals are cooked using a pretty standard recipe. It is super secret, passed down from generation to generation, and probably takes a lifetime to perfect. Lucky for you, I am sharing it here. Are you ready?

1. Heat oil of your choice in a sauce pan. (The Malagasy standard is good ole vegetable oil).
2. Add chopped garlic, onion, and ginger to oil and sauté until tender.
3. To garlic, onion, and ginger mix, add tomato paste (roughly 1/2 can for 8 servings).
4. Add water to mixture to form a broth.
5. To broth mixture, add pre-soaked beans (if using dried) of your choice.
6. Cook until heated through.
7. Add curry, black pepper, and salt to taste.
8. Serve over rice and expect your world to be changed forever.

I know, insanely complicated, right? Canned sardines are the only meat source and sometimes make an appearance in the bean broth to appease the carnivores among us, although last July we had some questionable sardines, which left a lasting impression on those of us who partook. Sardines appear about 14% of the time (this number was rigorously calculated and validated through a strict peer-review process before publishing). Next up, the lentils, which are highly popular among the masses. Cooked in a similar fashion as the beans, minus the tomato paste (I think), these lentils explode with mouth-watering gingery flavor, and have an inexplicable almost meat-like texture. Sometimes, we have “greens” served over our rice. These unknown greens, we think might be mustard greens of some sort, evade a proper description because, honestly, they are cooked just like the beans, and tend to pick up those flavors. Occasionally, we have an amazing “latke-like” dish, constructed out of potato and egg, flavored with onion and chopped greens. Of course, these are served alongside the rice.

Piles and piles of lentils!

Piles and piles of lentils!

And now, a description of the delicacies, very seldom appearing on the dinner table. Peanut sauce (oh, delicious peanut sauce!), is a “Nirina specialty” and was, much to our chagrin, an isolated incident. I have no idea how it’s flavored, but it is reminiscent of a warm, thinned-out peanut butter and served over pasta. More rare appearances are the fresh fruits and vegetables, which are consumed at the start of the field season before they go bad. As you can imagine, refrigeration is out of the question at our primitive field site. Carrot salad (shredded carrot with onion, dressed in vinegar) and fresh pineapple are among the favorites. And during those uncommon instances when the pasta is busted out, Laughing Cow cheese also appears. This “cheese” is field worthy due to its uber-processed nature, completely avoiding the refrigeration issue.

Beverages include the best coffee I have ever consumed (Madagascan beans!) sweetened with condensed milk and sirimamy (sugar, or in Malagasy translation “sweet salt”), if you’re so inclined. Milk, ronono in Malagasy, translates to “soup of the breast”. Don’t you just love the Malagasy language? So literal! We also have ranamafana , “hot water” that has an overpowering smokey flavor due to being boiled over a wood fire (no giardia here!). We cover up the smokey flavor with tea of all sorts or sometimes drink it as a warm, diluted “breast soup”.

We occasionally have snacks, too, when the simple carbs of the rice pass through our intestines too quickly, leaving us feeling hollow a few hours after meal times. When they appear a small cheer erupts from camp, our unalloyed enthusiasm readily apparent. Malagasy delights like mofogasy, mofoballs, and mofo akondro (fried banana) make the cut. In addition, we have intensely satisfying fire-roasted peanuts, with or without Marina’s favorite sugar coating. Exceptional treats include “The best honey in Madagascar” and another type of honey we purchased that has a slight kerosine-like flavor. Strangely, this honey has been largely avoided. And lastly, Robert chocolate, produced right here in Madagascar, exceeds any chocolate experience I have ever had and makes excellent souvenirs for those back home.

And now, the most important part of meal times in the field, probably deserving of its own post, are the condiments. We of course have the regulars like ketchup (which we very quickly ran out of, its extinction noted about a week and a half into the field season) and soy sauce. Next, the almost unbelievably neon-magenta colored “chilly sauce” (no, this is not a spelling error. It’s actually spelled “chilly”, as opposed to “chili” on the bottle), which our Malagasy friends love, but the vazaha (primarily used to describe us white-skinned folks, however, this term can be applied to any race) avoid like the neon plague that it is. Sakai, a staple in terms of condiments, frequents our dishes. Sakai is a chili paste consisting of chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and vinegar and it is so adored that we have two different varieties. Sakai also pairs really well with the ginger paste we bring along as a flavor supplement. And lastly, the all-purpose “miracle in a packet” that Kathrin lugs all the way from Germany to so generously share with us: wurzl. Wurzl is the best invention (probably) ever and graces us like manna from above. It is a powder vegetable bullion that doubles as a seasoning for rice and beans, or mixed with hot water–an intensely satisfying vegetable soup, perfect for warming bellies and cold hands on chilly July nights. In fact, this stuff is so addictive that is comes replete with warning labels, alarming potential consumers of its harmful psychological effects. We fear what may happen when the wurzl runs out…

The miracle drug

The miracle drug

So, there you have it. A description of every food and drink item that has ever graced our dinner table, keeping us fueled and happy throughout the long field season. This post, as entertaining as it was to write, made it very clear to me that I could never make a living as a food critic. As it turns out, vivid food descriptions are not my forte. I guess I won’t quit my day job.

We love rice and beans!

We love rice and beans!

It’s a jungle out there!

Madagascar gives me a warm, fuzzy…lemur?

They were the perfect models!

They were the perfect models!

As I write, I have a lemur resting comfortably on my lap. Well, actually it’s two lemurs: a momma and her baby. These beautiful creatures, diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema) are the focal animals for Mitch and Karen, researchers at Northern Illinois University. Mitch has been doing field work in Tsinjoarivo Forest for 12 years, studying the ecology and natural history of this sifaka population. This year, Mitch and Karen are darting animals from their focal groups and bringing them back to camp for routine animal health checks. Diademed sifakas are notorious for having a difficult time raising body temperature back up to normal after anesthesia. Thus, the NIU researchers have enlisted the help of our team to warm the animals while they recover. We, of course, jumped at the chance. How often do you get the chance to hold a wild sifaka?

Sifakas love burlap sacks as a means to keep warm!

Sifakas love burlap sacks as a means to keep warm!

As I sit here, writing feverishly and warming these rare animals, I am struck with a feeling of being truly blessed. I have seen things here that I never dreamed I would bear witness to; a mother chameleon laying eggs who flashed her brilliant colors at me when I almost accidentally stepped on her, sunsets so majestic that even the best artists would not be able to capture the striking display of color combinations presented before them, a Malagasy family who willingly and graciously allows us to become a temporary part of their family, and, of course, the once in a lifetime chance to study and obsess over, in my humble opinion, some of the most unique animal species that exist today.

She was so furious!

She was so furious at me!

I’m not telling you this to incite jealousy–that would never be my intention. Instead, I only share this to ensure that you know that I don’t take these experiences for granted. I feel lucky. Unbelievably so. I feel lucky that I have parents who support the many hair-brained schemes I have pursued (You want to spend 6 years of your life studying what?). I feel lucky that I am here with the “best of the best” researchers in their respective fields and that we continue to maintain and strengthen incredible collaborations. I feel lucky that the American Philosophical Society chose me as a recipient of the “Lewis and Clark Field Scholar” award and provided the funding for this field season. I feel lucky to be under the guidance of an advisor who gives me ultimate freedom to pursue the questions that keep me awake at night.

Good segue! What questions do keep me up at night? What driving forces influenced our research team to travel approximately 8,000 miles (give or take a few thousand) to get here? Well, the answer, I fear, can be a bit convoluted, but I’ll do my best to give you the guts of our work. Since there are so many complexities to the topic of dwarf lemur hibernation, this leads to a seemingly infinite number of unanswered questions. Answer one and you’ll open up a “can of worms” of more. But this is why I feel compelled to trudge on. The anticipation of one discovery leading to another. To tackle some of the questions surrounding dwarf lemur hibernation, we formed a team of researchers who, working together and sharing data, might be able to fill in the gaps. Needless to say, there are many hands in the pot. In this case, the proverbial pot is, of course, our dwarf lemurs that we are all so enamored with. And in this case, these hands are cooperative and quite necessary. I’m going to break it down by principal investigator and hopefully by the end, I will have painted a complete picture of cutting-edge science awesomeness.

Firstly, Andrew and Peter: Does a dwarf lemur in hibernation sleep? And the follow-up question, do those same animals have a decreased need for sleep due to the use of hibernation for up to half the year? These bold questions can only be answered via sophisticated technology that far exceeds my understanding. That is, EEG records from hibernating animals (in other words, what is the brain doing during hibernation?). This requires us to lug laptops, hundreds of batteries, and fancy USB drives called “dongles” (which, by the way, are worth more than my life) into the forest, our remote lab. These records allow us to get a measure of brain activity, heart rate (EKG), breathing rate, and muscle tone. This project is greatly assisted by our awesome undergrads Sam, Eric, and Susan (you guys rock!) and of course, Bobby, whose priority is making sure our animals stay safe and healthy.

Our remote lab

Our remote lab

Next up, Kathrin. Kathrin’s question? How does a hibernator, under tropical conditions, budget its energy stores? Her methodology utilizes a magic box, fondly known as the OxBox. This lovely gadget, a “portable” oxygen analyzer, magically measures the metabolic rate of our hibernating lemurs. We can then compare this data to the metabolic rate of an active animal to begin to dissect the amount of energy saved during hibernation. Basically, we put our animals into fancy-schmancy “metabolic chambers” (souped up Tupperware) and hook them up to the OxBox through a series of tubes. Dave, our handyman extraordinaire, helps Kathrin lug her magic box all around the forest. I mentioned that it’s portable, but it actually isn’t all that portable. Just ask Dave, who just today busted his face on it (Sorry, Dave!).

The magical "OxBox"!

The magical “OxBox”!

And now, Marina. What are the environmental triggers of hibernation in dwarf lemurs? Her scientific method of choice is a continuous monitoring and documentation of the natural history of our study animals throughout the year. She is the mastermind behind trapping and collaring our animals, recording morphometric measurements (forearm length, head width, etc), taking dental molds, and is also interested in the hormonal changes that occur throughout the year with a particular interest in…you guessed it, hibernation. She is the reason that we are all here and the glue that holds this whole project together.

And lastly, my research. What are the genetic controls of hibernation? Dwarf lemurs essentially yo-yo diet. Right before hibernation they get excessively fat. I’m talking grossly fat, sometimes more than doubling their body size. Guess where they store this fat? In their tails! When they enter hibernation they cease eating and instead switch to these tail fat reserves as their only source of fuel. Dwarf lemurs are not unique in yo-yo dieting behavior, however. Loads of hibernating species do it, from ground squirrels to American black bears. So, despite inhabiting (relatively) warm climates and hibernating under such, the question is then, are the genetic mechanisms that control metabolic economy (i.e. switching from carbohydrate to lipid metabolism) the same in dwarf lemurs as in other cold-adapted hibernators? Hopefully, I’ll have the answer to this someday! In order to begin answering this, and surrounding questions, I need to start from square one since NOTHING is known about the functional genomics of dwarf lemurs. My approach to do this is conceptually quite simple. Logistically, not so much. I collect white adipose tissue (i.e. fat) from the tails of dwarf lemurs at multiple time points throughout the year.

Fat is where it's at!

Fat is where it’s at!

Enter, molecular biology! Back at the lab, I isolate RNA (transcribed sections of the genome that code for genes) and use über-expensive technology to sequence these gene-coding regions (or in other words, figure out the unique order of “A”s, “T”s, “G”s, and “C”s that make up all genetic material). This is the “transcriptome” (and your buzz word for the day). Now, the transcriptome is not static–quite the opposite, actually. It is constantly changing and turning off and on different combinations of genes in response to an organisms’ also constantly changing environment. In the case of hibernation, here is a scenario. It’s the rainy season and dwarf lemurs are merrily running about. There is plenty of food around and the hypothetical animal we are following, let’s call him “Red Bean” for fun-sies, is munching hungrily on delicious, ripe fruit, normal carbohydrate metabolism chugging away. Those genes that drive carbohydrate metabolism are turned on. Now, the dry season hits and resources disappear. Red Bean goes into hibernation (like a good dwarf lemur should) and since he is only relying on his stored fat to keep the critical physiological processes running, the combination of genes that govern fat breakdown turn on. Ideally, these two physiological states (active vs. hibernation) will have distinct patterns of genes that are expressed. Ideally. Stay tuned!

So there you have it. Our research in a very long-winded nutshell.

Oh and one more thing. I feel lucky that a small Malagasy boy gave Susan and I gifts of clay zebu that he made. And also, that I have lemur saliva on my hiking boot.

Zebu are Madagascar's version of the domestic cow and have a distinct fat lump between the shoulder blades

Zebu are Madagascar’s version of the domestic cow and have a distinct fat lump between the shoulder blades. These are not real. They are clay.

It’s a jungle out there.

Bringing up Baby

I’m weird. I like weird things. For example, I study a very weird aspect of animal behavior that lured me in with its unending intrigue and infinite mysteries. Physiological extremes. Hibernation is one of the most extreme examples physiology gone haywire. And I love it. My interest in weird physiology has been growing ever since my sophomore year in college when, in my animal physiology class, we had to pick any topic concerning physiology for a term paper. At the time, I thought I was destined to study marine mammals. The topic I chose? Diving physiology of Weddell seals. Diving physiology is insanely cool. These air-breathing animals are able to spend hours underwater searching for food at depths that would, no doubt, burst lungs and explode brains in unadapted species. They achieve these feats through oxygen compartmentalization, manipulating the body into prioritizing oxygen flow to only the most critical tissues. This is accomplished via vasoconstriction, where blood that normally flows to the peripheral tissues, limbs and such, is instead shunted to the core to keep the essential organs, like the heart, lungs, and brain, working at peak performance. This allows seals to out-swim their prey when the eatin’ is good. Now do you understand my love of extreme physiology? Maybe it’s not so weird after all.

Searching for the perfect graduate program, I stumbled upon my advisor’s web page and links to the Duke Lemur Center’s site. It was there that I discovered that there exists a genus of lemur that hibernates. Hibernates! A primate! The genera in question? The dwarf lemurs that reside on the beautiful island of Madagascar, and are ONLY found there.

How can you not love this face? This is my favorite animal, "Bema Luis", an adult male Crossley's dwarf lemur

How can you not love this face? This is my favorite animal, “Bema Luis”, an adult male Crossley’s dwarf lemur who spends up to 6 months of the year in hibernation

Okay, this behavior is weird for two reasons. One, I’ve mentioned previously, that when you dissect, is not all that strange: hibernation occurring on Madagascar. Madagascar is often times synonymous with tropical. In reality, due to its latitude some parts of the country are classified as sub-tropical. A minute, but important difference. And, as you already know, some parts of the country can be downright freezing! The latitude of our field site is 19 degrees S. For comparison, North Carolina sits at roughly 36 degrees N. In addition, the altitude where we call our temporary home, and is home to the population of dwarf lemurs we study is about 1600-1700 m. Higher altitude, colder temps. So let me back up. Madagascar does not necessarily always experience warm climate regimes. Trust me on this one. This is coupled with the fact that many tropical and sub-tropical mammals utilize a hypometabolic state (i.e. a pronounced depression in metabolism, characteristic of hibernating animals) to evade energetic demands posed by their environments. These demands could be resources related (extreme drought, for example) or temperature related. Bats, tenrecs, and African shrews are some of the many examples of warm-adapted animals that are capable of reversibly depressing their metabolism when needed.

The second, and I think most, perplexing phenomenon regarding dwarf lemur hibernation is that they are primates. Other primates? Chimpanzees, gorillas, and humans to name a few, ummmm, well-known examples. Do any of these species hibernate? Nope. It is believed that hibernation and the corresponding physiological changes are manifested due to changes in gene expression. Humans and lemurs are, at the genetic level, roughly 95% identical (give or take a few percentage points. Bear with me. It’s hard to fact check at a remote field site with limited Internet access). So, a little lesson in logic using “if/then” statements. If humans and lemurs are genetically similar, and hibernation is primarily governed by genes and how/when they are turned off and on, then why can’t humans and other primates hibernate? What makes a dwarf lemur so unique, genetically and physiologically speaking, that allows them to hibernate? As far as we know, they are the only primates that can exhibit such a state where heart rate drops from 180 beats per minute to 4 beats per minute, breathing rate is so depressed that an animal can go 21 minutes between breaths (Seriously. We just documented this for the first time last night), and animals appear to be brain dead. Whoa. Mind blown. I’m on the quest to uncover answers to these mysteries.


Is this real or crocheted? I can’t tell…

Rigorous scientific research on animal behavior isn’t always the most kind endeavor. We dig up lemurs hibernating snugly in their underground burrows. But, in our defense, our intentions are good. I swear! The more we know about a particular animal’s physiology and natural behaviors, the better position we are in to preserve them. This is especially relevant as lemurs, as a group, were just given the unfortunate distinction as being the most endangered mammal in the world. Before I move on, I need to make a few more introductions to the team. We had a few late arrivals and an early one, whom I’ve failed to introduce due to weird circumstantial timing. The early arrival was Bobby and Elley’s second son, Sam, our premier motorcycle battery obtainer. Next up, Andrew, an extraordinary sleep researcher, who is a savant at reading thoroughly confusing EEG records, and Kathrin, one of the most creative people I know who is currently crocheting a dwarf lemur stuffed animal and teaches our daily watercolor class. Also, she is my science idol, first documenting the unique metabolic profiles of hibernating dwarf lemurs. Now that the whole team was present and accounted for, we got to complete the exciting task of revealing our lemurs from their underground burials. Remember as a child playing feverishly in your sandbox? Well, uncovering lemurs is a lot like digging in a giant sandbox, except it’s not sand. It’s spongy, root-laden peat soil. And it’s not exactly a sandbox. It’s the Malagasy rainforest. To do this, we use the expertise of our awesome Malagasy guides, Renee, Jules, and Parfait. Standard operating procedure: Locate lemur via radio tracking. Start digging (with hands, please. Not shovels. We wouldn’t want to dig up any half lemurs). End protocol.

See? Just like sandbox play!

See? Just like sandbox play!

Usually this process doesn’t take very long, as the animals situate themselves no deeper than the length of sub sandwiches Sam can consume in one bus ride: Approximately a foot and a half. Every time I see this happen, (digging up a lemur, not watching Sam stuff his face with subs) the movie title “Bringing up Baby” comes crashing into my mind. This is weird because a.) I have never even seen this movie, nor do I even know what the plot is, and b.) I’m not even sure of the actors portraying the main characters. Also, c.) is this even a movie title?

A lemur burrow!

A lemur burrow!

And now for a little story: We had gone out to the forest after a delicious lunch of rice and beans (Mmmmm…) to uncover two of our lemurs. First one dug up? Check. The second one? A bit more problematic. The little problem “child” was Ramily, an adult male, who is now called “Ravioli” by those in our camp who have a hard time remembering names. Ramily’s uncovering started out just like any other standard lemur revealing. He was located. Renee and Jules started digging…and digging…and digging. 120 cubic feet of displaced soil and 50 minutes later, we finally “brought up baby”. Just kidding. We didn’t. We actually never found him. It was reminiscent the “Great Jules Incident of 2012”. A similar situation occurred with Jules, our star hibernator of last July’s field season. He was found a little while later.

We did eventually locate the elusive Ramily 2 days later, about 4 feet from where we were actually digging. He never aroused all the while we were tossing dirt around him and stepping on the actual spot where he was hiding. I wonder what he would do if a predator found his hibernacula?

It’s a jungle out there.

Go home, July. You’re drunk.

July in Madagascar is cold. Cold and dry. It goes like this: The days of austral winter are usually gorgeous, hovering around high 60s/low 70s F, with few clouds which the team takes full advantage of by basking in the warm sun when we are not traipsing around the forest digging up lemurs (stay tuned for the next installment for the deets!). Around 5 pm those same clouds blaze brilliant orange, reflecting the last remaining sunlight in an overly dramatic fashion. Sunset, you’re such a show-off.



And then? Sun down = temperatures plummeting. It feels as though it drops 20 degrees in a matter of minutes. July of 2013? 50 F and raining. At our field site in the central-eastern high-altitude rainforest, April – September is distinguished as the “dry” season. It still rains on occasion, although far less than during the “rainy” season. So, why is this important for our research, and hibernation in lemurs, in general? Often times, hibernation in the tropics (and it happens more often than most people realize) occurs because resources (food and water) become scarce during the dry season. However, photoperiod changes (switching from summer to winter) and temperature also play a major role. This is one of the great mysteries of hibernation. What is the primary trigger? Are there multiple triggers? What tells an animal that it is in their best interest to “hole up” for the winter? Regarding rainfall and tropical hibernation, it seems as though resource limitation may be one of the key components. In fact, some parts of Madagascar experience virtually zero precipitation for 8 months out of the year! Zero! So, rainfall during the “dry” season? July, I say to you, “Go home. You’re drunk”. Also, much to our frustration and joy (can anyone say bittersweet?), this year’s temperatures have been record-breakingly low, as I mentioned in a previous post, even experiencing below freezing temperatures. Good for hibernating lemurs. Bad for humans studying those hibernating lemurs who curl up at night in tents.

Home sweet home!

Home sweet home!

The day after we took our laborious journey to the field site and settled in, our first order of business was to find our hibernating animals. Back in March of this year, Marina and I spent countless, sweaty, lung-busting hours trapping and collaring all the dwarf lemurs we could get our hands on. March is considered the “active” (i.e. non-hibernation) season, as the animals are feeding excessively and getting nice and chubby in preparation for hibernation. The collars we place on them, when we get them in hand, are temperature-sensitive as a means to log a continuous record of skin temperature throughout the year, as well as being fitted with radio trackers. This makes it uber-convenient to find them when they hole up underground for up to 6 months of the year during hibernation.

Marina collaring a fuzzy!

Marina collaring a fuzzy!

On the fateful morning in question, we spent 6.5 hours scouring the forest looking for our animals cozy in their underground hibernacula. In theory, this is an easy task. In reality, it is not. Dense brush, slick mudslides, broken and uprooted tree trunks, creeping lianas, and young bamboo with their evil defense mechanisms all have the capability to present some very interesting obstacles to scramble over and under. And did I mention that since our campsite is situated in a valley, most of the trails go uphill? In addition, in some places the soil can feel quite spongy, easily tripping me up, but also makes me wonder if there is possibly a hibernating lemur underfoot. I’ve already gotten well-underway on my collection of bruises that will, no doubt, form the basis for a game of connect the dots on my arms and legs. The next order of business for the day? Giving myself a concussion.

Walking along merrily, focusing intently on my foot placement like clumsy people ought to do, unbeknown to me a giant tree trunk “magically” appeared. I was, of course, supposed to duck under it. Did I see it? Nope. But my head sure felt it! I smacked into that thing so hard that I fell to my knees and saw stars lighting up the tunnel that was forming in my vision. And I always thought “seeing stars” only happened in cartoons. Guess not. Now, I’m no Newtonian physicist, but if I recall correctly from 7th grade science class, in order to calculate the force of impact my head experienced, I need to take Mass x Acceleration. Right? Force = M x A? In addition to stumbling over my feet, the trail was also sloping downward, so I also happened to be falling the moment my head hit. So, roughly 130 pounds times 9.8 meters/second squared should give me the force? Something tells me this is wrong. Is this calculation only valid in a vacuum? Or if my head is detached from my body to really take into account the acceleration of something truly pulled only by gravitational forces? Regardless of my futile attempts at physics, all I can say is, “OUCH“! I spent the rest of the hike back to our camp in a nauseating stupor attempting to do the simple task of placing one foot in front of the other. Clumsy girl strikes again!

Why am I smiling in this picture? I should be wielding an ax! (Just kidding...I would never do that!) Sign interpretation: "This marks the tree that may have concussed me!"

Why am I smiling in this picture? I should be wielding an ax! (Just kidding…I would never do that!) Sign interpretation: “This marks the tree that may have concussed me!”

It is, quite literally, a jungle out there!

The “Road” Less Traveled

The story of the day a car ride ruined my hair. The alarm clock jars me awake at 5:30 a.m., as I am snuggled warm and cozy in my hotel bed in Antananarivo. Marina stirs next to me, and is clearly better at yanking her butt out of bed than I am. I just need 5 more minutes of snooze time, please. Jet lag is killing me! Slowly, I listen to the rational voice in my brain and get up, mentally preparing for the arduous journey to our field site. Teeth brushed, contacts in, and ever-present baseball cap on, I pack up my gear and lug it downstairs to the hotel lobby. The rest of the gang congregates, and we shake the sleep out of our brains. Our reliable mode of transportation, the trusty Land Rovers, pick us up and we head down the road to MICET (roughly translated as the Madagascar Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, in French) to load the rest of the gear and our spoils from the market. Now, I’m going to do my best to convey how awful the path from Antananarivo to our field site in Tsinjoarivo Forest is, but I fear as though I may fall short. Blissfully, the road (yes, road!) out of Antananarivo is paved, albeit ridiculously curvy and apparently the word “lane” doesn’t exist in the Malagasy language. After hitting the nearest “metropolis” 2 hours later, a town called Ambatolampy, for breakfast and some of the best carbohydrates ever, mofogasy (literally translated as Malagasy bread) and mofoball (bread ball, essentially a donut), we took a collective deep breath and trucked on.

Mofogasy and mofoball! Deliciously greasy!

Mofogasy and mofoball! Deliciously greasy!

Almost immediately the road turns into something other worldly. That is, a curving red clay path that annually gets washed out during the rainy season, causing one- or two-foot deep ruts that get perma-baked under the hot sun the rest of the year. Even the Malagasy drivers that are familiar with these roads utilize the white-knuckle approach to navigate them. A little hint to how bad the roads are: Our field site is ~130 km away. It takes us 8 hours to get there. You do the math. As a group, we’ve decided that navigating these roads is akin to challenging white-water rapids. Eek!

This picture does nothing to capture the nausea-inducing ride!

This picture does nothing to capture the vomit-inducing ride!

After 8 nauseating hours in car (including a river crossing with us still in the vehicle!) we tumble out of the cars, legs stiff, and suffering from slight whiplash, and are greeted by, seemingly, the whole surrounding countryside’s residents to help us schlep our gear to the campsite.

I'm sorry...what?!? We're crossing this river in the car!?!

I’m sorry…what?!? We’re crossing this river? In the car?

Over the mountain, in the valley below, we set up our temporary home sweet home. I look southwest just as the sun is beginning to dip below the crest of the nearest hill and notice that the forest is dotted with a lot more brown than I remember from last July’s field season. We learn that the vegetation has been devastated by a word we dare not utter around camp. The F-word. Frost. Our guava patch, home to the mouse lemurs I search for at night? Dead. My favorite peach trees, the only ones to bloom in the winter? Dying. The toes that try to stay warm during the night in the sleeping bag? Hypothermic. Bundle up, folks. It’s gonna be a chilly one!

Oh! I almost forgot about the initial point of this post. The day a car ride ruined my hair. An important life lesson learned: If you ever find yourself on a journey that forces your head to bounce at random intervals against the back of the head rest, don’t pull your hair out of its pony-tail! The regret will quickly set in as you spend an hour working out the rat’s nest that managed to work its way into the back of your head. That is all.

I later learned that to beat boredom on the car ride here, Martha made up a little poem. Here it goes:

Ruts and ridges,
Ridges and ruts,
Fall in a hole
And you’ll hurt your nuts.

She was, of course, referring to “nuts”, as in, “nuts and bolts”. Not…(ahem) something else.

It’s a jungle out there!

A simple math lesson

Today, Target ate my paycheck. Okay, okay, to be completely honest, it wasn’t exactly Target. It was the most insane outdoor street market I have ever experienced. And it wasn’t exactly my paycheck. It was more like our research team’s dwindling funding. My first impression of said outdoor market? The smell. The odor that seemed to permeate every orifice of the market was a mix of sewage, rotten meat, and decomposing matter of every organic nature imaginable. However, looking beyond the smell, the experience was actually quite pleasant! We went there to make a few minuscule purchases, such as 20 kilos of sugar, 25 cans of condensed milk, and 300 kilos of rice! Now, for those of you who don’t speak metric, that’s 660 pounds of delicious, mouth-watering, filling rice to sustain us for 3+ weeks in the field. It’s simple math, really. 22 days in the field, 17 hungry mouths, 660 pounds of rice. And now, allow me to present a fun fact regarding rice: Most of the rice used to sustain the population of Antananarivo, hosting the most concentrated area per square footage of Malagasy people in the entire country, is imported from countries like Pakistan and India. This is perplexing as the majority of the country’s beautiful and bio-diverse forests are clear-cut in a slash and burn fashion, called “tavy”, to make room for rice paddies to feed the ever-increasing population of Malagasy people. Again, it’s simple arithmetic: Increasing population + more rice paddies – forest cover = every lemur species’ impending destruction. So, what are lemur biologists to do, besides lose sleep at night? We throw up our hands in frustration. But, I digress….

The sprawling capital city of Madagascar, Antananarivo

Antananarivo, the sprawling capital city of Madagascar

Back to the street market. Wondering amongst the enormous maze of stalls, covered with tattered and sun-faded colorful cloths, to block out the brutal ball of gas that warms our Earth, one begins to realize that despite its haphazard appearance, the stalls have a certain organization that brings an unexpected calming sense to my overly anal, borderline OCD personality. Each stall is carefully placed in the appropriate section depending on its wares. For example, the automotive section, where one can buy spark plugs, oil cans, or random broken car parts, all seem to be clustered together. Walking a little further and dodging the men carrying giant sacks of rice on their backs, you come across the “Aisle of Death”, as this vegetarian fondly calls it, boasting a wide assortment of animal parts collecting flies under the hot Malagasy sun. (Note to self: If you’re going to eat meat in Madagascar, you better be darn sure that it’s properly cooked!) Next comes my favorite section: Produce. One can easily get lost wandering in an entranced state, enchanted by the wonderful variety of exotic fruits. I was immediately drawn to one of my new favorite fruits–the lychee. It makes me wonder, who would’ve ever seen this fruit hanging on the tree and thought to themselves, “I wonder if this is edible?” Somebody far more intrepid than myself, that’s for sure!

Pretend you've never seen one of these before. Would you automatically think, "I should eat this!"

Pretend you’ve never seen one of these before. Would you automatically think, “I should eat this!”

The produce section also harbors the most impressive tower o’ garlic I have ever laid eyes on, rising 10 feet into the air. Somewhere between the rice and bean stalls, and the flip-flop section, the children’s department is tucked. Here you can find brightly colored soccer balls, Happy Nappy baby wipes, and horrifying pink plastic dolls eerily smiling at you from beneath their cellophane wrapping. Creepy.

We made our final purchases, loaded up the car, and said goodbye to the Malagasy Target, our wallets significantly lighter. Next, a quick lunch stop at a street sandwich shop. (My thoughts: Is there mayo on this sandwich? Should I risk eating the mayo that’s been sitting at ambient temperature for who knows how long? I did. Surprisingly, I’m still here to tell the tale). We hit up the Shoprite, Madagascar’s premier grocery establishment, for a few more items to beat the monotony of rice and beans for the next 3 weeks straight. Apparently adding ketchup and hot sauce creates a whole new flavor experience! I found myself salivating in the peanut butter and cereal aisles and I haven’t even made it to the field yet! Clearly, I’m in trouble. Next up. A story about the road less traveled.

It’s a jungle out there!

Blogging 30,000 feet up!

It’s 6:05 pm Eastern time. I’m somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean on a 16-hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. Blogging. Yup. That’s how I roll. Let me guess…you’re probably thinking, “Jungle Queen, how are you blogging in real time?” Don’t be ridiculous. That would be quite difficult 30,000 feet in the air, not to mention the fact that it would make me a blogging genius, which I surely am not. But here’s the deal. I’m en route to one of my favorite places in the world, and if you’re keeping up with my posts, you’ll know that that place would be the one and only non-paradise “paradise”: Madagascar. I intend to fill your computer screens with all sorts of fantastic adventures from the field including, but not limited to, digging up hibernating lemurs, falling into rice paddies, and maybe a near-death experience or two involving broken bamboo “bridges” and the rushing river that lurks below…or maybe that particular experience will not be repeated this field season. Let’s hope. And did I mention rice and beans?

So my plan: I will record my experiences as they make themselves known, convert it into blog format, and post for your reading pleasure at the opportune moment. Mostly, as like now, these will not be in real time. Most places in Madagascar are quite Internet-limited, as you can imagine. For example, at our field site, we need to climb up to “phone hill”, as it is colloquially known, in order to gain a smidgen of inter-webs access. From here, I will post my collections and thoughts, all the while thinking of your smiling faces back home in the States. But more on that later.

For now, the adventure begins. Well, to be fair, the adventure began yesterday. But yesterday was boring. It included flying from Raleigh-Durham International Airport to JFK Airport and spending the night in a Days Inn in Jamaica, New York. Boring, right? Well, there was pizza and half of a luke-warm Corona shaking up the monotony, but mostly I’ll spare you the details.

My travel buddies include Peter, the most wonderful Duke emeritus faculty and his equally wonderful wife, Martha;  Marina, field researcher extraordinaire and Duke Lemur Center post-doc, who has literally saved my research from falling into the pit of doom on countless occasions; Bobby, one of the fantastic vets employed by the Lemur Center and the mastermind behind teaching me all the nitty gritty details of stealing fat from lemur tails, his sweet wife Elley and youngest son, Eric; Susan, an outgoing Duke undergrad whom I met just yesterday and has already impressed my with her optimism and infectious laugh; and David, our back-up vet hailing all the way from Washington state who comes replete with stories of eagle death matches and whose Facebook profile picture is a marmot wearing a party hat. Need I say more? We are an interesting bunch, for sure, but you should’ve seen our luggage collection! I’ve never seen so much luggage from one group of people in my life! Our collection is complete with a few Tupperware containers fitted with modified webcams that serve as “metabolic chambers”, more laptops than we know what to do with, copious amounts of warm clothing, and about 800 AA batteries. Do you think I’m kidding? Who would lie about such a thing?!? Also, there are more of us interesting characters joining in Madagascar, but introductions will follow later. Got it all straight? Good. There will be a test.

So why am I blogging right at this very moment? Remember that 16-hour flight I’m on? Well, let’s just say that due to certain technical difficulties that appear only to affect me, I am enjoying this flight without any in-flight entertainment that I assumed was included in my $2,800 plane ticket. Guess not. Not only that, but I’m only about 6 hours in and I’ve already finished the only book I brought with me in my carry-on. Sigh. Nice move, Sheena. Am I complaining? On the contrary! This gives me the perfect opportunity to record my experiences thus far, before they get swept out of my brain due to jet-lag and dehydration.

Boo! No in-flight entertainment.

Boo! No in-flight entertainment

This flight has been relatively mundane thus far. I boarded and sought out my “cozy” window seat in row 41. Yes, “cozy” is a code word for “I don’t know how anyone who is over 5’6″ fits in these seats”. I’m seated next to a, now passed out, 50-ish year old man with kind eyes who is headed to South Africa to visit friends. He was seated in his seat before I got there. I placed my bag on the floor, pulling out all the necessary items for a long flight, all the while apologizing profusely for my tortoise-like speed. His response? “It’s okay. I have daughters.” Now, I’m not sure how I should take said response.  Does that mean he automatically assumes all women are high maintenance and/or slow, or maybe that I’m 16 years old, and maybe he truly believes that all 16 years-olds are this way? Insights are appreciated. Regardless of that strange response, he’s very nice, even though I thought it was remarkably evil to chow down on that delicious smelling Snickers bar before we took off. I don’t hold that against him. I would’ve done the same thing if I had a Snickers bar. I did offer him a piece of my gum, though, but I suppose gum is a whole different ball-game than peanut-ty, nougat-ty, chocolate-ty goodness.

Now, if you don’t mind one more hilarious anecdote before I resign myself to letting my mind wander into exhausted oblivion in the pitch black cabin, willing myself not to go insane from boredom or the wailing baby a few rows over…or the man in the seat behind me who keeps pushing my seat forward. This story involves two men sitting in the two seats in front of me, whom I only know from their distinct balding patterns and some seemingly uncontrollable voice volumes. I think they know each other, but this fact is unclear. Both gentlemen have headphones on and are enjoying their in-flight entertainment. Gentleman A all of the sudden blurts out in a voice that is clearly too loud to be allowed on an airplane, “It’s rugby? He’s the only black guy on the team?” Now from what I gather, Gentleman B, who is quite soft-spoken, by the way, is watching the movie “Invictus”. Both my kind-eyed seat buddy and myself are startled and do our best to stifle our laughter, while meanwhile the girl in the next row over and I make eye contact and chuckle over this. It doesn’t end here, though. Nope. About 20 minutes later, Gentleman A loudly proclaims, “He should listen to Lady Gaga!” How their conversation jumped there I will never know, but surely the 20 or so people seated around us, enjoyed the outburst. Thank you, Gentleman A. Hilarity ensues!

I’ve just now realized I’ve gotten quite long-winded, but can you blame a girl? I have 9 hours of flight left! So, I will proofread this for your benefit and post when I arrive in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. I hope you enjoy reading my stories and I’ll do my best to entertain with humor, a tiny slice of science sure to impress, and insights into life in the field.

It’s a jungle out there!