Sunday, October 10, 2010

A day in the life

I am in Toliara for a few days and am filling my face with all things chocolate. I am really jacked up on caffeine (but have taken my beta-blocker ;)) and will be online for approximately 100hrs. The following outlines what my days have consisted of lately...

Friday Sept 17, 2010. 7:56pm. Tent.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a wildlife biologist for a day? Although I am sure there is great variation in what wildlife biologists do, the following excerpt is what I did today. Please note that I am not complaining. Well, maybe I am complaining a wee bit about the flies, but other than that I am just stating what it is like. I love what I do and am fortunate enough to be able to do field work all the way in freakin Madagascar. Not many peeps can say that.

Sleep in until 5:45am. The lemur group (called “Akao” )Meghan and I will attempt to follow today sleep and sunbathe until much later than the other lemur groups here and so we take advantage and get a late start. At 6am I reluctantly roll out of bed. I am freezing. It is 10.6 degrees Celsius and I am wearing my toque and am inside my sleeping bag which is inside my tent. I very reluctantly crawl out of bed (a foam mattress on the ground), bundle up a bit more and dash to the lou. We are EXTRAORDINARILY luck that bathroom facilities were built here a mere 4 months ago*. However there does seem to be a mosquito problem in the squat toilet. As soon as I start to wee a grey army of evil mosquitoes emerges. Its actually a bit frightening. There are so many mosquitoes that they sound like the buzz that comes from a beehive. Ick. I brush my teeth outside and head over to the kitchen area for breaky. The flies have started stalking me and swarming my head. Lanto, our camp cook has hot water and coffee waiting. Wonderful! I down one small coffee and two small packages of instant oatmeal (from back home) and head back to the tent to get changed into forest clothes. Forest clothes consist of hiking boots, weirdo field pants with a lot of pockets, a tank top covered by a weirdo long-sleeved field shirt with lots of pockets, and a baseball style hat. Additionally I bring my backpack with radio telemetry receiver and antenna, camera, binoculars, data books, poop/bone/plant collecting pack (baggies, shovel, snippers, knife, sharpy marker), a small bag of peanuts (for snacking and totally unrelated to the poop/bone/plant supplies), sunscreen, keys and extra memory cards for camera traps, 3L of water, a GPS, and a compass. I take the long route (8km) to the lemur group in order to get some way points and check cameras traps enroute. I am curious to see if the lemurs are active at night and want all the camera traps to be functional for the upcoming full moon. I arrive at the lemur group’s home range at about 9 am when it is already over 30 degrees Celsius. On the way, I stopped several times to inspect poop on or around the trail, and also to note the location of a radiated tortoise skeleton, which I plan to go back for with a bigger bag than I have with me. The stalking (“stalking” because they follow you and are immune to near constant swatting or insect repellent) flies are driving me mad.

When I arrive the lemurs immediately start alarm calling. This group is the least habituated, and was a I bit more traumatized from the darting than the others because it took a great deal longer to capture the two animals, and thus they were being stalked by big scary humans for a lot longer. I sit down at what I think is a reasonable distance to watch the group and hopefully slowly get them used to my presence. We know from the camera trap photos that they generally leave their sleeping trees at between 9 and 10am. When they still haven’t moved at 11am, I decide to move around the other side of the trees such that I am farther away from their destination. This does the trick and they almost immediately move into the forest. I then go into the area of the sleeping trees which is partially a swamp and contains densely packed swamp plants that are about 7 feet tall. I somewhat carefully meander about looking for evidence of feeding or lemur poop samples. Its very difficult to maneuver in this habitat and every step is a bit tricky. Sometimes the ground is solid and will hold me, sometimes it is not at all solid and will not hold me, while sometimes it feels solid but then gives way before I can take my next step. I have no luck finding poop but do find a number of small pine cones that look like they have been munched. Pine cones are usually quite toxic, so I am not sure if it is the lemurs or maybe birds eating them. What an exciting little mystery! The stalking flies are driving me mad.

At 11:30 am I head back to camp for lunch. It is 5km away and the heat is nearly unbearable. It is 44 degrees Celsius and there is no shade to be found. I try to walk with my hands behind me, as they are perpetually burned and sore. My hands are the only part of my skin that is routinely exposed to the sun and even though I slather on SPF70 sunscreen, they are still always burned. The stalking flies are driving me mad. Seriously.

I have beans and rice for lunch along with lots of water. After lunch I pull out and get my generator running so that I can charge my computer, walkie talkies, satellite phone, etc. While that is running I work on trying to identify some plant samples and them wash a bit of laundry. All washing is done by hand and I must first pull water up from the well. I also pull up some water to wash myself and brave the mosquito den (aka bathroom) to have a bucket shower. I am only clean for about 7 seconds but the “shower” really cools me off and feels great.

The generator takes two hours to charge everything, so I ask Meghan to shut it off in an hour, and I head back to the forest to check on some other camera traps. I walk about 2k and have to shimmy down rock faces, up trees, under shrubs and through much lemur poop to check each camera. Once I get the cameras all adjusted as needed, I head back to camp and then back to the lemur group from this morning. The stalking flies are driving me mad.

Again, from the camera traps I know that the lemurs will head to their sleeping site between 4 and 5pm. I am there at 4 and get set up much farther away from where the group will be, than I had been this morning. I sit in the marsh, which immediately soaks my backside, and quietly wait. The stalking flies are worse than ever and driving me mad. About once a day I feel like I may cry if the flies don’t leave me alone for 5 seconds. These flies are driving me mad.

At 4:45 the lemurs show up and are not happy to see me! Oh, but I am glad to see them! The are so cute even though they are terrified and on high alert. Imagine if suddenly every time you went to leave or get into your bed there was a huge scary lion sitting there, quietly, with a camera and a big stupid grin… They stand bipedally to get a better look at me and take a long time to actually cross. But they eventually do and I get a number of photographs that should aid in identifying individuals. The flies are now accompanied by mosquitoes, both of which are driving me mad.

I head back to camp and arrive at about 6:30. It is just past dark and I have made it in time to see the resident camp mouse lemur emerge from its tree hole. So cute! The little bastards are also here, which is annoying, albeit cute. I have rice and beans and lots of water for dinner and exchange a few English words for Malagasy with Lanto and Felicien. I shoo away the little bastards a number of times and watch an oversized cockroach mozy on my. By oversized, I mean 5cm long body and equally long antennae. I swat away the mosquitoes and flies, whom you may have guessed, are driving me mad.

7pm is bead time. I head to the bathroom, which is literally crawling with insects, and then to my my tent which is FLY and MOSQUITO free. I take some Benadryl. I am covered in bug bites and a bizarre rash, and if I don’t take any anti-histamines I will scratch myself while I am sleeping and bleed all over my sheet/pillow (gross, I know). I check the satellite phone for messages. The battery in the phone needs to be replaced but I am able to get it powered up and read a message from Ron. Apparently the new episode of Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia is called “Mac fights Gay Marriage”, which makes me smirk. I read a bit and then listen to my Harry Potter audio book until I fall asleep.

I wake once to go to the bathroom, but the journey is uneventful. Out of my tent, flip flops on, avoid large spiders and scorpions (both of which I see everywhere), walk to the bathroom, fight my way through the army of evil mosquitoes, shoo the cockroaches, go, and then walk back to my tent and get cozy once more. It is chilly out at 15 degrees, but I am snug as a bug with Gary and my sleeping bag.

There you have it. A day in the life.

* Bathroom update. Bathroom is no longer functional. A shovel does the trip and the forest is much more pleasant anyhow.


  1. when you get older you won't have to work in such a remote place...I now (past 2 field seasons) stay in a hotel and have pizza for dinner and the driver drives us to the reserve. So, did the toilet hole fill up? What happened? I remember those flies, you DO want to just sit down and cry. 44 degrees in October! WTF will you do in January when it gets even HOTTER!!

    former advisor LG

  2. The bathroom in Panama ended up being the creek that ran directly into the ocean. I'm so ashamed- I couldn't wait any longer. Then I found out the local high school had flush toliets! Worth it even if it was a 30 minute hike.


  3. your definitely representing for the scientists of the world, marni, nice work sister...fascinating - keep it up!
    luv jahlie

  4. The bathrooms have no water (the new well broke because the new well materials are not rust-proof) and the evil army of mosquitos have taken over. If I were to try to go in there, I would have 50+ mosquito bites in seconds. Literally.

    The flies are really brutal. Sometimes I feel like one of those "dollar-a-day" kids on a Sally Struthers commercial.

    One of my camera traps registered 55 degrees C. Its too hot to breathe at that point. Apparently this is the hottest time of year at TNP. Fingers (and toes) crossed!