Everything under the sun
Succession of teachers, students help improve Madagascar’s ecology
By Cody Trotter, Virginia Tech English major
Madagascar has earned a reputation as the “conservation jewel of the world.” Many endangered species call the island home, and it is a great place for scientists to do research by observing natural occurrences.
This red-bellied lemur, Eulemur rubriventer, which inhabits the rainforests of Madagascar, is one of the animals studied by Karpanty and Wright. Photo by Sarah Karpanty.
Anthropology Professor Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University is renowned for her studies of lemurs in Madagascar, where she is the executive director of the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments and the international coordinator for the Ranomafana National Park. Wright’s former student, Sarah Karpanty, now an assistant professor in fisheries and wildlife science at Virginia Tech, has returned to the island to work with Wright and on her own. Karpanty studies lemurs from a predation standpoint, whereas Wright studies their basic ecology.
Karpanty was an undergraduate at Miami University of Ohio in 1997 when she spent a semester in Madagascar and met Wright. She returned as a Stony Brook graduate student to do research for her dissertation on predator/prey interactions between lemurs and raptors.
“Together, we are able to understand how natural predation impacts the behavior and ecology of lemurs,” says Karpanty, “and also how natural predation processes may influence the long-term conservation of endangered lemurs in the highly fragmented forests of Madagascar.”
Karpanty’s predation research focuses on the hawk, eagle, and fossa, an animal often likened to a small leopard. She studies the amount of territory the animals use, how much ground they can cover in one day, and the overall size of their hunting range. She also studies the effect of territory size on the animals’ populations, and the predators’ impact on the populations of the animals that they prey upon.
An important impact on territory size is logging. The rain forests of Madagascar have long been a paradise for logging companies. The result is a large profit for those companies and a considerably less-forested habitat for many of the island’s animals.
In 2000, Karpanty began working on an idea for a reforestation project to rebuild the lost habitats. Wright helped raise money to support the initiative. They created a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization to educate people about reforestation. Karpanty saw an unexpected benefit in fall 2007.
She returned to Madagascar as a teacher as well as a researcher. Charles “Chaz” Crawford, an undergraduate student majoring in wildlife, took one of her classes and decided to go on the trip to gain experience working with apex predators — animals that are at the top of their food chain. Karpanty and Crawford established a pilot, multi-predator study of lemurs to determine the animals’ population density in various locales, how high or low in the canopy they reside, and the prevalence of avian and ground predators. This comparative study collects data from pristine forest, logged forest, and a human impact zone.
Karpanty and Crawford were able to ask for assistance from local schoolteachers, thanks to the reforestation program, which had branched out and created another program that builds labs for schools in Madagascar so that the students can study ecology more effectively.