Madagascar - the Tortoise Tour, Part 1
Or click HERE to jump to Part 2 - Northern Madagascar & Mauritius, including Round Island
I (Bill Love) left for Madagascar on Dec. 27, 2005 to lead my latest ecotour, the "Mad. Tortoise Tour", with 9 tour members and a co-leader / tortoise expert. Our goal was to see the 4 native Malagasy tortoises in their natural habitats. We were also recording data about terrain and the plants (food sources???) occurring within 10 meters of specimens found as part of a survey for Ray Ashton's Ashton Biological Research and Preservation Institute. And, of course, we hoped to encounter as many other herps as possible along the way too. Scroll down to peruse the highlights.
This 2-Part travelogue has many pics - please give it time to download if you've got a slow connection.
Our first destination was the fishing village of Itampolo on the south-southwest coast. It was so friggin' hot by 9:00 am on New Year's Eve that all of the 20+ radiated tortoises (Geochelone [=Astrochelys] radiata) we found were tucked up against the shady sides of a baobab trees waiting out the heat of the day. This one is resting just as found next to a baobab trunk.
That's tour co-leader Chris Lechowicz (left) and me measuring an adult while keeping to the shade. One of our Malagasy guides looks on, unlike us seemingly impervious to the heat.
We 'cheated' by only finding several spider tortoises (Pyxis arachnoides) walking around the sugar sands of Route National #10 northwest of Itampolo (below left). Still, it was better than being skunked, and it technically was their natural habitat we were driving through. The pic at right is the view of coastal euphorbia scrub looking south off the road.
These tracks crisscross the sand just behind the beach where we camped at Itampolo. Just as I was pondering how to find the perpetrator, I saw one of the tracks actually forming in front of my eyes. Tour member Mark Scherz grabbed at the moving end and came up with the curious little skink-like critter below.
This is what made the tracks - a new, virtually unpigmented species similar to Voeltzkowia fierinensis, a sand-swimming skink that inhabits sugar sand areas near the south coast. It so strongly resembles an endemic herp in Florida, Neoseps reynoldsi, down to it its pointed snout and 'barely there' rear legs, that it's surely a case of parallel evolution in similar loose sand habitats.
Our second stop was on the central west coast of Madagascar to seek the flat-tailed tortoise (Pyxis planicauda) in its moister haunts in the Kirindy Forest. On the way into the forestry station that was to be our base, a young ground boa (Acrantophis madagascariensis) about 4.5 feet long was spotted coming out into a puddle on the dirt road. It never moved as we hovered close for many minutes admiring it.
The Kirindy Forest is a very distracting place for a herper. In January, early summer south of the equator, love is in the air for herps. Furcifer labordi is the endemic paddle-nosed chameleon at Kirindy. Typical of the behavior of normally nervous, wild chameleons, once this male saw a female (which I placed near him), he forgot my presence and got down to business oblivious of my photographic intrusions. The whole mating act took only a few minutes.
Collared spinytail iguanids (Oplurus cuvieri) were everywhere laying their eggs in open, sunny places like along road edges, and even around camp (below left). I watched several lay clutches (four eggs each), only to move away slightly when a giant hognose snake (Leioheterodon madagascariensis) cruised up to devour the freshly-laid snacks as the lizards watched (in frustration???). The snakes didn't show any interest in the adult lizards, only in the nests of eggs. The lizards seemed to know this, only moving away a couple feet from the nest-raiding action. The adult lizards not being on the snake's menu that day was especially evident when I carried one large snake over to an area I'd just watched a lizard use to deposit her clutch. The snake was thrashing to escape my grip, but when I laid its head down on the ground near the nest, it flicked its tongue and instantly stopped struggling. Its sudden sole interest became the nest it obviously smelled. Its snout passed within a foot of the female iguanid, but the snake never exhibited any interest in her direction. It did zero in on the clutch almost immediately, though, and snarfed them all down like jellybeans.
OK, I'd photographed Leioheterodon predating Oplurus eggs a decade ago, and everyone working in the Kirindy Forest in the summer had probably observed the same phenomenon. But this time it got even more interesting (see pic to the right, above) when a snake disturbed a female lizard that had dug her nest hole, but had not yet laid her eggs. The female iguanid moved a couple feet away to literally get out of the snake's way, and then just stood watching. After several minutes of furious digging with its pointed snout, the snake crawled off into the shadier adjacent woods. The lizard quickly returned to her hole, cleaned it out, promptly laid four eggs in it, and covered them. Minutes later the same snake crawled back to the exact spot, unearthed the minutes-old clutch, and ate them all. Again, the lizard stood only two feet away. It was hard not to anthropomorphize about it all as she 'watched helplessly' at the futility of her effort moments before. The question that hit me was: Could the snake sense that it arrived too soon, and purposely waited until the hole could be 'expected' to be filled with food? Maybe I'm giving the snake too much credit, but it sure seemed like a calculated move on its part to return to the scene after so short a time - 10 minutes or less.
Madagascar tree boa (Sanzinia madagascariensis) at left was found
in a hut at the forestry station. After photographing the four-foot
long specimen, I laid it on the ground at the edge of the woods and walked
away. At dusk an hour later, I passed by that vicinity again
while seeking whatever crepuscular critters were about. The same snake had moved only a
few meters away and perched itself on foliage in ambush mode above a
horizontal limb. It appeared to be lying motionless in expectation
of a rat or mouse lemur wandering along within easy striking range at any
Not far from the snake, I found the chameleon below sleeping in a low bush. My first thought was a young F. oustaleti, but it just didn't look right. I'm still unsure of exactly what it is, but I'm leaning toward Furcifer nicosiai. Influencing that guess heavily is seeing that new species on a poster of lizards of the Kirindy Forest displayed in the forestry station's mess hall.
It was easy to forget our main quarry with all the pleasant herp distractions noted above. The heavy summer rains had come to the Kirindy Forest early in December, but had slowed considerably before we arrived in January. The flat-tailed tortoise (Pyxis planicauda), which all the local guides claimed was common (after lots of rain), proved very elusive except for the one specimen (below) that we found after three days of wandering the woods. Still, one was better than none! We did two quadrat surveys at that spot, and photographed the low plants, mushrooms and fungi that might make up the chelonian's diet for the few months of the year it's active above ground
The tour was a success so far, with three tortoise species down, and one to go! The last target species was the largest and rarest - the 'angonoka' (in Malagasy), or ploughshare tortoise (Geochelone [= Astrochelys] yniphora). First we went to the famous tortoise breeding farm at Ampijoroa. We took a night hike through the forest behind nearby Lake Ravelobe and found two cool lizards. LEFT: Brookesia decaryi. RIGHT: Uroplatus guentheri.
Then we had a tour of the actual farm, which has hatched 200+ ploughshare tortoises through their captive breeding efforts over the years. The staff is showing the differences in sexes of adults, female on the left and male on the right. The length of the gulars would suggest the opposite, but that male's gular curves upwards and isn't fully visible in the pic.
The farm also breeds the only native aquatic turtle in Madagascar, the sideneck (Erymnochelys madagascariensis); the one held at left is a huge male. The baby tortoise at right is a flat-tail tortoise (P. planicauda) less than a year old.
Then came the time to go out to see wild Geochelone yniphora on the Cape Sada Peninsula. The road was impassable by mid-January, so we took a shrimp freighter on a 14-hour sea voyage from Mahajanga to Soalala; the left pic below is "the hardy five" (Chris Lechowicz, Christine and Cassandra Roscher, Mike and Mark Scherz) who accompanied me, sleeping on the ship's deck. The next day we hired an old motorboat for the "45-minute" journey (in actuality, it took 2.5 hours) out to remote Cape Sada. Arriving at low tide (below right), it was an additional 1km trudge over the mud, then a .8 km hike to 'camp', all the way dragging our luggage and a basket of live chickens for food. It was an adventure just getting there, which is, I suppose, why few will ever do it. Hell, I may never do that trip again!
Some say the angonoka is the rarest tortoise in the world, with possibly fewer than 1000 surviving individuals in the wild. I'd never been to their natural home in eleven previous visits to Madagascar, partly because it's such a logistical challenge to get out to their remote habitat, especially during the rainy season when the chance to find them active was best. It turned out to be the roughest excursion I've ever done with tourists, and among the roughest I've ever been on period! No wonder only four of our group chose to make the trek with Chris and I. Those who went, though, had the pleasure of finding three tortoises roaming in their isolated domain. This young adult male was an exquisite example; its extended gular scute is visible, though not nearly as long as an older specimen would sport.
Two days before our trip to Cape Sada, we received word that smugglers had been apprehended in the port city of Mahajanga with nine small angonoka tortoises. They were stolen from one or more of the five populations, proven by the PIT tags detected in some of them. Department Eaux et Forets (Malagasy 'Fish & Game'), with the aid of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, works to PIT tag all wild individuals to monitor their growth, and to provide evidence against thefts like the one busted prior to our arrival. It was a joy to see 'our' tortoise (below) wander off into its home turf after we examined and photographed it and recorded its plant community and ground cover.
At this point, my tour group and co-leader Chris Lechowicz departed for home. If you enjoyed Part 1 with its emphasis on chelonians, check out Chris's website dedicated to the Map Turtles -- www.graptemys.com
Please continue to Part 2 - Northern Madagascar & Mauritius, including Round Island - by clicking HERE
All images copyrighted by Bill Love / Blue Chameleon Ventures, P.O. Box 516, Alva, Florida 33920 U.S.A.
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