Rare Omura’s whales studied in Madagascar

This video says about itself:

23 October 2015

Balaenoptera omurai is known as Omura’s whale and is one of the least known species of whales in the world. Now, researchers have studied around 25 individuals in Madagascar, noticing unique asymmetrical pigmentation on the head:

A – asymmetrical coloration of the lower jaw
B – asymmetrical coloration of the gape
C – leading edge of pectoral fin white from tip to shoulder
D – apparent absence of lateral rostral ridges
E – lightly pigmented blaze originating anterior to the eye
F – lightly pigmented chevron anterior to dorsal fin

The study will continue on whales’ vocalizations, behavior and population characteristics.

From the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the USA:

22 October 2015

New study provides first field observations of rare Omura’s whales

An international team of biologists has made the first-ever field observations of one of the least known species of whales in the world–Omura’s whales–off the coast of Madagascar.

In a paper published October 14, 2015, in the Royal Society Open Science journal, the researchers describe the whales’ foraging and vocal behaviors, and habitat preferences in the shallow waters of coastal Madagascar.

For many years, these marine mammals were misidentified as Bryde’s whales due to their similar appearance–both are small tropical baleen whales with comparable dorsal fins, though Omura’s are slightly smaller in size and have unique markings with a lower jaw that is white on the right side and dark on the left.

In 2003, using genetic data from samples obtained from old whaling expeditions and a few strandings in the western tropical Pacific, scientists determined Omura’s whales were actually a distinct species. But there had been no confirmed records of sightings in the wild and little else has been known about the elusive species until now.

“Over the years, there have been a small handful of possible sightings of Omura’s whales, but nothing that was confirmed,” says lead author Salvatore Cerchio, who led the research while at the Wildlife Conservation Society. He is now at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ) and a guest investigator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). “They appear to occur in remote regions and are difficult to find at sea because they are small–they range in length from approximately 33 to 38 feet–and do not put up a prominent blow.”

So little is known about Omura’s whales that scientists are unsure how many exist or how rare the species is.

“What little we knew about these whales previously came primarily from eight specimens of Omura’s whales taken in Japanese scientific whaling off the Solomon and Keeling Islands and a couple strandings of dead animals in Japan,” Cerchio adds. “This is the first definitive evidence and detailed descriptions of Omura’s whales in the wild and part of what makes this work particularly exciting.”

When Cerchio and his colleagues, who have been conducting field research on marine mammals off the northwest coast of Madagascar since 2007, first spotted an Omura’s whale in the area in 2011, they too believed it was a Bryde’s whale.

“From the little information on their habitat and range, Omura’s whales were not supposed to be in that part of the Indian Ocean,” Cerchio says.

After moving study areas in 2013, the sightings became more frequent and the team noticed the distinct markings– unique asymmetrical pigmentation on the head– that led them to believe the whales might be Omura’s whales.

Over a two-year period, the researchers observed 44 groups and were able to collect skin biopsies from 18 adult whales. The samples were then sent to coauthor Alec Lindsay at Northern Michigan University who performed the DNA analysis that confirmed the whales’ species.

The research team also observed four mothers with young calves. Using hydrophones, they recorded song-like vocalizations that may indicate reproductive behavior.

Cerchio will return to the field in November to do further study on the whales’ vocalizations, behavior and population characteristics. He also hopes to expand the research area in future studies of Omura’s whales, working with colleagues at WHOI to deploy Digital Acoustic Recording Tags (DTAGS) and to study the species in other parts of its range.

Cerchio hopes to produce the first estimate of abundance for any population of Omura’s whales with the work off Madagascar. So far, the team has catalogued approximately 25 individuals through photographic identifications.

What are drift gillnets and how are they hurting whales? Here.

Save Madagascar’s unique wildlife

This video from 2009 says about itself:

Birds & More: Madagascar Safari

80 % of the species are endemic. 6 endemic families of birds. The lemurs were wonderful, so different from monkeys, probably because of a lack of predators. The “spiny” forests are well named and feature the most fascinating baobab trees.

From BirdLife:

Partners come together to save unique wetland

By Martin Fowlie, Thu, 17/09/2015 – 12:21

A new joint project between two BirdLife Partners aims to protect a unique protected area in Western Madagascar.

Over a quarter of a million hectares of different habitats, ranging from the famous Madagascar dry deciduous forests to highly biodiverse wetlands and distinctive marine estuaries, form the Mahavavy-Kinkony wetland Complex. However, the area is threatened with illegal logging, uncontrolled forest fires and pollution, endangering local communities, nature and destroying important natural resources.

NABU (BirdLife in Germany) and Asity Madagascar have now joined forces to protect this unique region. The project is being supported by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) which is supporting NABU also in other countries such as Ethiopia.

“NABU and Asity will support the local communities in conserving their environment through practical conservation while improving living standards by introducing sustainable alternative income generating activities”, said NABU’s Thomas Tennhardt. “I look forward to the cooperation with our BirdLife Partner in Madagascar.”

In 2001, the region was designated as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, because of some of threatened bird species found there, such as Madagascar Sacred Ibis and Madagascar Fish-eagle. Asity has successfully been working with the local communities in the area since 2008.

“In April 2015, the area was awarded permanent protection status by the Madagascan Government, due to ASITYs longstanding work in the region”, said Vony Raminoarisoa, Director of Asity Madagascar.

Asity will now be able to work with local communities to formalise user rights in the area and to create more awareness to safeguard the area. As the local communities rely on the services that this area provides for their daily needs, the protection of these natural resources is absolutely necessary for these communities to survive.

Wild sifakas’ food in Madagascar, new study

This video says about itself:

Infant Development of Diademed Sifaka and Indri, Maromizahaha forest, Madagascar

28 July 2013

The Diademed Sifaka and Indri are the largest species of lemur and are only found in Madagascar. They are both classified as endangered with decreasing populations. This video was made by Jody Weir and Alastair Judkins as part of Jody’s PhD study into comparing the infant development of these two species.


The Nutritional Geometry of Resource Scarcity: Effects of Lean Seasons and Habitat Disturbance on Nutrient Intakes and Balancing in Wild Sifakas

June 10, 2015


Animals experience spatial and temporal variation in food and nutrient supply, which may cause deviations from optimal nutrient intakes in both absolute amounts (meeting nutrient requirements) and proportions (nutrient balancing). Recent research has used the geometric framework for nutrition to obtain an improved understanding of how animals respond to these nutritional constraints, among them free-ranging primates including spider monkeys and gorillas.

We used this framework to examine macronutrient intakes and nutrient balancing in sifakas (Propithecus diadema) at Tsinjoarivo, Madagascar, in order to quantify how these vary across seasons and across habitats with varying degrees of anthropogenic disturbance. Groups in intact habitat experience lean season decreases in frugivory, amounts of food ingested, and nutrient intakes, yet preserve remarkably constant proportions of dietary macronutrients, with the proportional contribution of protein to the diet being highly consistent.

Sifakas in disturbed habitat resemble intact forest groups in the relative contribution of dietary macronutrients, but experience less seasonality: all groups’ diets converge in the lean season, but disturbed forest groups largely fail to experience abundant season improvements in food intake or nutritional outcomes. These results suggest that: (1) lemurs experience seasonality by maintaining nutrient balance at the expense of calories ingested, which contrasts with earlier studies of spider monkeys and gorillas, (2) abundant season foods should be the target of habitat management, even though mortality might be concentrated in the lean season, and (3) primates’ within-group competitive landscapes, which contribute to variation in social organization, may vary in complex ways across habitats and seasons.

Madagascar’s new nature reserves

This video says about itself:

Birds & More: Madagascar Safari

8 August 2012

Extraordinary place. 80 % of the species are endemic. 6 endemic families of birds. The lemurs were wonderful, so different from monkeys, probably because of a lack of predators. The “spiny” forests are well named and feature the most fascinating baobab trees.

From BirdLife:

New protected areas in Madagascar

By Martin Fowlie, Tue, 02/06/2015 – 09:47

Three of the most important sites in Madagascar for nature have been given permanent protection by the Government of Madagascar, thanks largely to the efforts of Asity Madagascar (BirdLife in Madagascar).

The sites – the Mahavavy-Kinkony Wetland Complex, Mangoky-Ihotry Wetland Complex and Tsitongambarika Forest – protect almost 800,000 ha of Madagascar’s ecosystems and are host to an array of endemic and threatened species and habitats.

From Sakalava Rail and Madagascar Fish Eagle of the wetlands, to the rainforest flora and fauna of Tsitongambarika, the diversity of wildlife is breathtaking. The list of species also includes still unnamed, newly discovered frogs and reptiles.

Combined, the sites protect 18 Threatened and 8 Near Threatened bird species, the two wetlands each holding a remarkable four to five Endangered and one Critically Endangered species.

Asity Madagascar is co-manager of each of the sites together with local communities, and has already been fulfilling this role to ensure the sites’ conservation for several years. Previously unprotected, they were made temporary Protected Areas in 2008 and protection has now been made permanent. This, alongside the development of Asity Madagascar as a strong, national conservation NGO, is an amazing achievement from the 18 years since BirdLife began working in Madagascar.

Even though the protection does not come with funding and other resources for management, these are no mere ‘paper parks’. The work to protect these areas began over 10 years ago, and management activities have shown some excellent successes in all three sites. The designations will provide many benefits to help to expand this, including a legal framework, incentives and political backing for conservation and sustainable development of the sites, preventing large-scale developments that could damage them.

“Legal permanent protection of these sites gives long term security to all Asity’s efforts as well as biodiversity conservation”, said Vony Raminoarisoa, Director of Asity Madagascar.

Find out more about the project here.

Giant lemur fossils discovery in Madagascar

This video says about itself:

Enormous Underwater Fossil Graveyard Found

8 January 2015

National Science Foundation-funded anthropologists and paleontologists uncovered what could be the largest single collection of lemur remains ever found. What’s more, they found it in a most unusual place–hidden in a series of underwater caves in a remote desert region of Madagascar.

Described as a lemur graveyard, the discovery of hundreds of potentially thousand-year old skeletons make it one of the most unique sites in the world. The finding, reported in this video, could be important for understanding human relatives and other animals and result in a totally new era for underwater paleontology.

From the Washington Post in the USA:

In an underwater graveyard, scientists discover bones of giants from Madagascar’s past

By Sarah Kaplan

February 19 2015

Not too long ago, huge animals dominated the island of Madagascar: elephant birds the height of professional basketball players, giant, lumbering tortoises, massive lemurs that weighed up to 15 times as much as their smaller, living relatives.

Those creatures have all but died out within the past thousand years in one of the swiftest extinction events known to scientists. Researchers still puzzle over what exactly led to their demise. But a newly-discovered “underwater graveyard” filled with thousands of fossils may offer a key to understanding what happened to Madagascar’s megafauna.

A team led by National Geographic fellow and Brooklyn College professor Alfred Rosenberger found three flooded caves in Tsimanampesotse National Park, each containing an unprecedented number of large, perfectly preserved specimens. One in particular, Aven Cave, is so packed with bones that divers felt them every time they put their hands down.

“It’s just phenomenal,” researcher Laurie Godfrey, a paleontologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “A huge cache of fossils like this has never been explored before. Now that we know that it’s there, it’s opening up a new era in paleontological exploration.”

The researchers’ most prized findings are the bones of several extinct species of giant lemurs, ranging from several hundred to several thousands of years old. Among them are specimens of Megaladapis, a big-nosed, beady-eyed creature whose heavy, squat body more closely resembled a koala’s than those of the diminutive lemurs we know today, and Archaeoindris, the largest known lemur species that was the same size and weight as a gorilla.

The discovery, which National Geographic announced Tuesday, is just the first step in what Godfrey hopes will be a more thorough investigation of the caves. The initial sweep brought up so many fossils that researchers haven’t even begun to dig into the sediments on the cave floors. Once they do, Godfrey estimates they’ll find thousands of specimens from dozens of extinct species.

The caves remained unexplored for so long because of the difficulty of probing their flooded interiors. In Aven Cave, where the fossils were most abundant, the water is 130 feet deep and often murky.

But that same water is also what makes the caves such perfect places to find fossils.

“In a flooded cave the preservation can be just marvelous,” Godfrey said. “Nothing’s bothering them, nothing’s disturbing them.”

The quality of the fossils will be key for scientists’ research into the causes of the animals’ disappearance. Godfrey said that researchers will likely be able to obtain DNA samples from the specimens, carbon date them to see when they died, and examine them for cut marks or other signs of human butchering.

“All of this information can help us flesh out the story that we’re telling about what happened to the giant lemurs and the associated fauna,” she said.

It’s long been understood that human arrival on Madagascar about 2,000 years ago coincided with the sudden die-off of much of the island’s wildlife. Two-thirds of the species that lived on the island a millennium ago are now extinct, in part because of changes caused by humans, Godfrey said. What’s not clear is exactly how those changes led to the animals’ demise.

“You’re dealing with a situation where not only are humans coming but they’re bringing a lot of other animals and plants that transform the habitat. They’re hunting,” for example, she said, and “it could be that certain species didn’t want to come near water or food sources because humans were around. There’s competition with new introduced species. There’s a number of long, complicated stories people have put forth as to why these animals are extinct.”

Untangling those stories isn’t just a matter of understanding history — it can help with conservation efforts today. Lemurs are the most threatened mammal species on Earth, according to a policy paper published last year in the journal Science, and Madagascar is the only place where they are found in the wild.

“It’s a very sad situation in Madagascar. The threat to species is tremendous, there’s a high rate of extinction,” Rosenberger said in a video for National Geographic. “We’d like to know what the interaction was between people, climate change, habitat change … that contributed to the demise of the giant lemurs. Because knowing that might give us some perspective on what we have to prepare for the future.”