Building the Next Generation of Malagasy Biologists

In Focus, October 2003

A new generation of conservation biologists is emerging in Madagascar as part of a partnership project between Malagasy universities and WWF-Madagascar that has seen 30 carefully selected students move into the conservation arena. As part of the program, Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) support is enabling three students to finish their doctorate degrees and at least 25 others to participate in special field schools.

There are currently too few qualified Malagasy biologists to address the huge conservation issues facing Madagascar. Support for the WWF-Madagascar Ecology Training Program (ETP) and similar projects is a vital piece of CEPF's strategy to strengthen the scientific and nongovernmental communities in Madagascar. ETP helps tackle this challenge by providing long-term targeted support for a small and carefully chosen group of students.

"Financial and political limitations over the past few decades have slowed advancement of the Malagasy scientific community," says Steve Goodman of WWF-Madagascar. "The current emergence of a new generation of committed biologists is very exciting for conservation in Madagascar."

The program works by providing training and support to a maximum of 15 Master's-level or Ph.D.-level students of biology at a time. There are opportunities for exchange between students and researchers within Madagascar and internationally through conferences and published papers. There is also logistical, financial and supervisory support in collaboration with local universities. And, at a very practical level, ETP includes developing a picture of immediate conservation needs through biological inventories.

One of the three Ph.D. students supported by CEPF, Julie Ranivo, has been carrying out work on the ecomorphology of bats in Madagascar. As Madagascar has a comparatively small number of bird and mammal pollinators or seed dispersers, it is likely that certain bats play an important role in the ecosystem.

Moving through Western Madagascar from north to south, there is a notable decrease in bat species richness. Ranivo, accompanied by Goodman as the project leader, went up to the Ankarana region to study population dynamics.

The Ankarana Plateau has a 150-meter thickness of amazingly eroded limestone with caves and canyons spread across 100 square kilometers. The plateau is cut by a number of canyons and gives way to savanna on the west side.

Both insectivorous bats and fruit bats roost in the caves at Ankarana. The Madagascar Straw-colored Fruit Bat (Eidilon dupreanum) is a unique Malagasy species with a wingspan of more than 2 feet. A surprising variety of invertebrate life depends on the energy supply brought into the caves by bats and deposited as guano.

Following the field trip, Ranivo visited the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago to measure bat specimens that have been obtained in Western Madagascar over the past few years.

More than 20 measurements have been taken from each individual bat specimen. This information will be used alongside the recent field samples for her Ph.D. thesis to determine the use of the resources by the different types of bats according to their morphology and how the structures of vegetation and diversity of the habitats can influence the structure of the bat communities.

The results of this particular project include a complete list of bat species encountered in protected and non-protected areas from the northwest to the southwest of Madagascar.

Through analysis of relationships between the structure of teeth, skull and wings and the bats' ecological habitat, it should be possible to determine what happens in the morphology of bats when similar species drop out of the local community, according to Ranivo.

The details of the taxonomy and distribution of Malagasy bats have not been well studied before, but it is known that at least half of the approximately 29 species are found nowhere else. The Ph.D. research being conducted by Ranivo will make an important contribution to bat conservation in the region.

The program is not limited to the graduate students however. There are field schools where exposure to training at international standards is made available to scores of other students.

Earlier this year, students from the University of Antananarivo, with the ETP team, conducted a highly successful biological inventory as part of a field school in Parc National d'Ankarafantsika. Even though this is a reasonably well-studied block of forest, several interesting animals were found in the area for the first time. Perhaps most notable is the endemic and monotypic bat family Myzopodidae, represented by Myzopoda aurita, known from eastern humid forest and which had never been properly documented from western deciduous forest.

Each year a broad selection of researchers for field schools is made, taking into account their own personal preferences for inventory work. The studies are made during trips ranging from 10 days to three months at a time. Applying new scientific techniques, they are providing a wealth of new information and experience for the researchers involved.

The ETP program has facilitated the training of several hundred students in the context of field and university courses and more than 30 students have received extensive individual training during the course of their graduate degrees in the fields of ornithology, mammalogy, herpetology and paleontology.

One of the critical problems facing the current generation of advanced students in Madagascar is the lack of infrastructure and resources at university level to advance their work. There is limited equipment to carry out laboratory and field projects, limited access to modern reference materials and incorporation of new ideas, theories and methods in the development of their studies. This has presented a situation with insufficient numbers of qualified personnel in government and non-government positions associated with conservation roles and a looming void in well-trained instructors once the current generation of senior professors retires.

ETP, with the support of CEPF funding, is giving young Malagasy students such as Julie Ranivo a strong foundation in international standards and the ability to fill key posts in Madagascar associated with conservation.