Exploring Mountains in North Wales

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Journey to North Wales

Upon moving back to Britain for several years, having previously worked and studied in some of the world’s most exotic locations, I have certainly been guilty of grumpily overlooking the breath-taking beauty that can be found right here in the UK. I am sure I’m not the only one to dream of the exotic beaches of the Caribbean, the mountainous Rainforests of Peru or the beautiful volcanic expanses of Iceland and wish that I could be anywhere other than dreary old Britain. With its rain, lack of volcanoes and tropical lifestyles it can often feel like a bit of a bore.

Sometimes we become so immune to how lucky we are that we stop seeing the beauty in our own lives. With that sentimental thought in mind, let me take you to my summer 2016, where my love and appreciation of British nature was reignited by a short trip to North Wales.

The Journey
The Journey

In June 2016 I signed up to take an ecology course in and around Cwm Idwal, a mountainous region in the North of Snowdonia. I had some reservations about going, partly because it was so close to the leaving date for my research in Madagascar, and partly because I was convinced that it would be pouring with rain the whole time. What if I missed the two weeks of sun that makes up the entirety of English summer? I would be devastated.

Much to my surprise and immense happiness, we arrived in Wales via a travel sickness-inducing minibus right at the beginning of a two week heatwave, one which would begin on our third day and end the day that we left. I would like to thank the God of weather for that, praise be to sunshine.

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Cwm Idwal National Nature Reserve

Our first stop was Cwm Idwal itself, the hanging valley where Llyn Idwal can be found pooled in its centre. This particular day was intermittently torrential, the last hacking cough and sneeze from the clouds that would be wiped away by the next day. We trod through the valley, learning about its geological history and marvelling at the quartz that strikes its grooves into bare rock.

Despite wading through the rain, breathing in more water than air, I couldn’t help enjoying myself. The place is phenomenal. It’s strong and massive without being domineering, the grassy patches run up the sides of mountains making way for thin waterfalls. Scrambling along rocky river banks, my soggy sandwiches long-forgotten, I discovered worlds which could’ve been the setting of ancient Welsh folklore. Surrounded in mist, the river hurried along and I slid around the rocks, trying to imagine what this place would have looked like millions of years ago.

In the Ordovician period (485-443 million years ago) the region of Cwm Idwal was covered in a shallow ocean. Sedimentary rock formed through layers of compression on the ocean bed, along with igneous rock formed from the larva of volcanoes. Tectonic plate movement eventually caused these layers to fold together and rise up forming the Idwal Syncline. Glaciation during the ice age eroded and shaped the land to the landscape that can be seen today.

We sampled plenty of freshwater sites around Cwm Idwal, searching for invertebrates as indicators of the water quality in relation to its surroundings. I spent a lot of time in outrageously long wellies. Rivers and lakes are teaming with life far beyond just fish and ducks. Take a closer look next time you find yourself at a water body, really look, and you’ll see hundreds of tiny invertebrates whizzing around the water, skating over the surface or rummaging through the beds. These tiny organisms are vital indicators for pollution levels and are irreplaceable food sources for many other amphibians, fish and wildlife.

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Research in my Wellies.

Cwm Idwal National Nature Reserve Tips

The tracks and paths are well-maintained and clear, though it is easy to wander off them and explore a little more. If you want to take things further, there are plenty of opportunities for rock climbing. Plenty of the climbs are easy but there are certainly more difficult ones to be found. So if you are a climber, Cwm Idwal is definitely somewhere you will want to check out in the North of Wales.

Parys Mountain

From the stunning natural landforms of Cwm Idwal to something completely different: The man-made lakes and hills of the deceptively named Parys Mountain. When I heard we would be hiking around Parys Mountain (in my head, Paris Mountain) surveying lakes in the boiling sun, I had beautiful visions of Mount Snowdon Mark 2. I expected a suave, mountainous area covered in flowers and all the natural beauty that Wales had to offer. This was not the case.

Parys Mountain is an abandoned copper mine. It’s not a mountain, it’s a pit. But a gorgeous one at least, located in north east Anglesey. You can imagine my surprise when we pulled up to completely flat land, and had it announced that this was Parys Mountain. Despite my disappointment I was quickly enthralled by this Mars-like dusty red area, full of warning signs and holes in the land just begging to be explored. 

Parys Mountain
Parys Mountain

The history of Parys Mountain makes it particularly special. The mine dates back to thousands of years ago during the Bronze Age, where the mining of the copper ore first began. This was discovered when mining resumed here in the 18th century, and it was quickly realised that they were following in the footsteps of others.

Various castoffs of the mining process still remain in Parys mountain, polluting the water causing various surreal colouration’s of reservoirs. Once again, we were surveying invertebrates to determine the impact of these different contaminations on local wildlife. Not much other wildlife survives here due to the high levels of pollution and soil contamination. 

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Reservoirs at Parys Mountain

Parys Mountain Tip

I didn’t realise this at the time, but there are actually some sections of the mine you are allowed to enter with the correct guidance and equipment. For more information and to arrange a tour, contact the Parys Underground Group. Definitely my plan for next time!

Mount Snowdon

Of course our trip would never be complete without an arduous climb up Mount Snowdon. Dogs and children bounded ahead of us as we struggled our way up an increasingly cold mountainside. I developed a fear of heights four to five years ago after falling off a cliff in Australia, and had only recently recovered in part due to working at a theatre with a very, very high Upper Circle level. I was concerned that I would panic the whole way up the mountain, but I think that when you are somewhere inspiring, things like fears begin to matter less and ebb away. I walked close to the edge to challenge myself not to feel scared, and by the time I got to the top of the mountain I was happily dangling my feet over the edge, thrilled that Wales had thrown my fear of heights out of my brain and off the mountaintop. I got the most pleasant feeling being up high and seeing birds flying lower than me. I spend so much time feeling jealous of birds, that it feels pretty good to be higher up than them for once.

I'm on the edge.
On the edge.

Mount Snowdon Tip

I was looking forward to getting the old train back down the mountain, but when I got to the top we discovered that the train is about four times more expensive to get back down than it is to go up. Presumably this is to take advantage of exhausted climbers. I wasn’t exhausted I just really like trains, and was pretty sad to have to use my boring feet again. If you want to get the train I’d strongly recommend getting the train up and walking back down, you’ll be able to enjoy the scenery just as much.

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My Impressions of North Wales

After leaving Wales I swore I would be back, and soon. I’d spent a large portion of my trip imagining how I would go about moving to Wales (as I do with everywhere I go), and what kind of house I would live in (A teeny cottage in a valley by a tree, FYI). I felt I’d connected more with the nature on my (almost) home-turf, and couldn’t wait to get back home and start exploring my beautiful forests and hills again.

General Advice for Visiting North Wales

Despite our luck with fairly consistent hot and clear weather, it can change in a matter of minutes. Bring waterproofs, sunscreen and plenty of layers. Make sure that you visit the towns and villages nearby as they themselves provide a quirky insight into how life has flourished in the beautiful North. Go places and do things you’d normally shy away from, there are plenty of incredible places to go and things to see, all you need is time. 

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Madagascar Adventure Part 6: Students and Scenery in Matsedroy

Be-a-utiful sunrise at Matsedroy.

This is part 6 of my Madagascar series. To start at the beginning, click here.

Matsedroy camp was a kind of paradise. It felt too nice to be existing in such an extraordinarily beautiful place. The sky was always bright blue and the sun was always hot. The openness of Matsedroy camp compared to the shaded Mariarano base camp meant that the heat was always on you. I loved that, and I quickly developed the tan to prove it. (Or was it just a constant layer of dirt? Both.)

Matsedroy camp - By Hannah Williams.
Matsedroy camp – By Hannah Williams.

My first week at Matsedroy was quite busy with plenty of school students, research assistants and dissertation students about the place. I spent a lot more of the first week hunched in the common area working on my dissertation than I did conducting botany plots. One of the highlights was being able to supervise some of the school students collecting data for their projects while out in the forest.

Towards the end of the second week everyone left base camp except for a handful of us. It was a brilliant contrast to the crazy, ever-busy noisiness that I had become accustomed to in the last three weeks. It was so peaceful and so pleasant, often the Malagasy scientists would play guitar and sing together outside. It was beautiful and contributed to the ethereal, dusty beauty of the place. I began to forget about the world outside, and conversations frequently occurred over whether we could just live here permanently.

Matsedroy - By Lewis Kramer
Matsedroy – By Lewis Kramer

The peace was quickly shattered by an onslaught of school groups arriving at camp. They always turned up shattered, dusty, and completely fearful of their surroundings. They often couldn’t comprehend having to wash their own clothes by hand, or having to shower with water from a lake. They asked for advice on how to deal with the dusty earth which got everywhere; in your shoes, tent and lungs. They panicked over small scratches and the fact that scorpions could be found on camp. Some groups recovered quickly and enjoyed the new experience, others simply pined for home and expressed regret for coming here in the first place. Those tended to be the kids that didn’t have to fund-raise.

It reminded me of going on a school trip to Iceland with a private school that I had attended when I was a teenager. I could not for the life of me figure out why they all wanted to stay bundled up on the bus, complaining of the cold and the wet and refusing to get out and see the incredible gorges and waterfalls. WHY would you go to a place literally called the ‘land of ice’ if you can’t stand the cold and wet (although I was told it had something to do with a hope of meeting ‘hot Icelandic boys’, that didn’t work out). I didn’t understand why they had come at all if they just wanted to talk over the guide who told amazing stories of ancient history and folklore, and complain bitterly about every journey and every destination. They could’ve just rented a coach and parked it at school and sat in it whining and bitching with each other for 10 days and had exactly the same experience. I don’t know if you can tell, but I did not like school.

Iceland - Definitely worth getting out the bus for.
Iceland – Definitely worth getting out the bus for.

I really can’t understand this kind of behaviour, and the only thing I can link it to is extreme privilege. When you think about the number of teens who would give anything to visit and learn in wild places like Madagascar, like Iceland, it’s just sad and deeply unfair.

Having complained about the stroppy school groups, there were thankfully far more excited and engaged students to be found. On one particular night me and Ali went out frog hunting with a group of students who were so enthusiastic. They were fascinated by the toe-biters and the possibility of crocodiles being nearby. Though their initial response upon seeing a tenrec was mostly along the lines of ‘oh it’s just a hedgehog’, after a brief explanation they soon realised how lucky they were to come across it.

Toe-biters... No need to explain the name! By Frank Vassen.
Toe-biters… No need to explain the name! By Frank Vassen.
Tenrec - By Frank Vassen - Flickr: Lowland Streaked Tenrec, Mantadia, Madagascar, CC BY 2.0
Tenrec – By Frank Vassen – Flickr: Lowland Streaked Tenrec, Mantadia, Madagascar, CC BY 2.0

I began to lead forest plots with the school groups. These went a lot better than my first attempt, and I enjoyed them enormously. Forest plots are straight forward; a 20m by 20m plot is laid out, tree circumference and height is measured, saplings are counted within a 2m by 2m plot within the main plot, and canopy cover is calculated. To my surprise I quickly discovered that forest plots were not the favourite of most students. Indeed, they somehow found searching for lemurs and reptiles along transects and catching bugs and frogs around lakes more exciting. Who knew? I worked out that the best way to help them enjoy the process was to make it all into a game. They got points for vocalising their intense enthusiasm and passion about trees, for singing songs, and for finding cool stuff in the forest. It was actually a heap of fun, a highlight was when one group sang ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ in the middle of the forest plot. They won the game.

While at Matsedroy I often made plans with friends to meet them at 5am while it was still dark, hike up the hill and watch the sun rise. I would subsequently abandon these plans as soon as my alarm went off, and often missed the departing groups of sunrise enthusiasts. The one time I made it I’d gone to bed a little drunk at about 1am, woke up at 5am without realising I was still drunk, and subsequently hiked up the wrong mountain in the dark. I realised I was missing the sunrise, just about managed to snap a distant picture, then got lost on my way back down. I arrived back on camp just as light was creeping in covered in cuts and scratches where I’d lost the path and just bombed it through thorns to the bottom of the hill instead.

Be-a-utiful sunrise at Matsedroy.
Be-a-utiful sunrise at Matsedroy.

To be honest I regret nothing, it was a lovely sunrise and I find myself great company, even when drunk. I did however spend the rest of the day wrapped up in hangover-hammock as my body once again smashed me headfirst into a disproportionately aggressive hangover.

But if you are going to feel like your insides have been chewed up, spat out, kicked around then shoved back down your throat again, Matsedroy was not a bad place to do it.

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Lost, Sick and Deceived in the Forest

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Welcome to Part 4 of my Madagascar series. To start from Part 1, click here.

On Monday the 27th June I was thrilled to be given the responsibility of leading a forest plot on my own with a group of research assistants. It went about as terribly as it could have gone.

The site we were going to was deep in the forest in an area where there are plenty of pig trails criss-crossing the main paths. Our guide hadn’t been to this area for at least a year and couldn’t exactly remember the way. We got lost following a pig trail but luckily we had a GPS. Unluckily, the GPS seemed to only want to direct us straight through a pathless, thick patch of forest. This would’ve been fine if it was just us botanists on our own, but as I was responsible for a team of research assistants as well, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of dragging them through the spiky undergrowth particularly as one of them was very, very sick. It was scorching hot and after searching for an easier way into the forest, and deciding that if we wasted any more time we would probably have to carry the sick girl back to base camp, we left.

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In the afternoon Rindra, Theo and I went back out into the forest to do a botany plot alone. This went a hell of a lot better, we were becoming pros at this. 

In the evening I decided to go on another night survey. Without adequate sleep I revert back to a barely-functional, angsty and unbearable-to-be-around teenager. So I was understandably concerned that I would be back too late to cope with my early start for botany plots the next day. I was assured by my friend Georgie, another dissertation student studying frogs, that it was simply a 20 minute walk to the river, less than half an hour surveying frogs, a quick stroll upstream and back home all within a couple of hours. Great. Sounds great Georgie. Sure I’ll come Georgie. Yeah. Really great. 

Ribbit
Ribbit

Georgie is extremely intelligent, upbeat, hardworking, resilient and relentlessly cheerful. Whilst this is usually a beautiful combination of personality traits day-to-day, in the middle of the night, feeling sick, exhausted and beyond tired it is far less endearing (sorry Georgie) (not really Georgie) (YOU TOLD ME WE’D BE HOME WITHIN 2 HOURS GEORGIE. YOUR TIME ESTIMATION IS TERRIBLE. GEORGIE.)

Having complained bitterly about Georgie’s time prediction skills and emphasised how precious sleep is to me, I did have an awesome time overall.

The walk to the river (40 mins) was awesome, it was like the kind of thing you do at Go Ape, Or one of those other tree top trail things, just on the ground and over water. We clamoured over make-shift bridges and logs, over gullies and streams, balancing carefully to get across or clinging to sticks stuck in the mud, swinging ourselves around the rice paddies in the pitch darkness. The sky was massive and open and full of stars. The wind smelt earthy and it felt good to fill your lungs with it.

Walking to the River
Walking to the River

We soon got to the main river, as it was the wet season even at its deepest point it didn’t go beyond my knees. There was a large group of us, around 20, which was very rare. We all set about catching frogs for Claudia and Georgie to measure, weigh and identify as part of their projects, as well as for several Malagasy scientists. Frog hunting is pretty fun. We waded around the banks gathering frogs, I wasn’t very good at spotting so I teamed up with a girl who had much sharper eyes than me. She’d shout when she found one and I’d pounce, usually coming up with a handful of mud, maybe with a frog wriggling around too.

Frog Hunting
Frog Hunting and Analysis

Someone even found a massive Indian Bullfrog! We named him Glen and we loved him. He was so strong he broke the bag we tried to weigh him in. He was so heavy we couldn’t weigh him because he went past the scales. 

Georgie + Glen = <3
Georgie + Glen = <3
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Glen and the size of all the other frogs.

By the time we finished it was 9:30. I was already incredibly sleepy from doing three surveys and a lot of hiking and was looking forward to heading back. But surprise! We were now going to do a second survey for 3 Km along a river bank. This was a herpetology survey, which involves walking really, really slowly, trying to spot any herps (frogs, snakes, chameleons etc…) on the way. The photos below were all taken by Lewis Kramer.

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Going in for the grab!
Going in for the grab!

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Even better though were the trees. Forests at night are completely enchanting, you feel like magic could exist and all sorts of hidden secrets could be out hiding from you. It was no different tonight, and I stopped to take a photo of almost every banana tree I saw.

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Another highlight was when a squawking gaggle of geese turned up and were aggressively trying to spook us. It had been a running joke on camp that all the stupid stuff happens to Lewis, a dissertation student studying spatial ecology. The moment I decided I loved this human was when he broke a table. We were playing Bananagrams by candlelight and Lewis got up to get a drink or something. We heard this almighty crash and all turned our head-torches to see what had happened. Lewis was lying on the ground after walking into one of the less-than-sturdy tables which had promptly collapsed flat on the floor. What was great though was that he was in a sort of twisted superman position lying on the table with this super awkward smile on his face and had made no attempt whatsoever to get up. I am laughing while I type this. I can’t take it its still too funny.

Anyway, when I saw two people behind me being chased by said gaggle of geese I remember thinking that I would put real money on one of those people being Lewis. It was. The other was Katy, who generally doesn’t have such derpy things happen to her, but there are always exceptions.

Fight me.
Fight me.

So the first 20 minutes of walking along the river was quite fun. We saw some cool stuff, we had a laugh and enjoyed the beautiful surroundings. The next 3 hours I did not enjoy quite so much. I had felt ill for about 4 days at this point, and despite my usual ‘rest + recover’ stance towards illness, I had done my best to stubbornly deny my sickness. As we continued to walk, I felt progressively ill until I couldn’t even lift my head up without feeling like I was going to vomit. I spent the last hour of the walk staring at my feet, wading through the river, and pleading with my innards to chill.

There was a particularly pretty part of the river towards the end that wound thinly through the forest. We saw kingfishers roosting on overhanging trees and the canopy branched over us, the tips from either bank almost touched one another. The magic quickly wore off as I felt a second wave of nausea hit. 

Taken by Lewis Kramer.
Taken by Lewis Kramer.

At midnight Ryan, a herpetologist, asked “How is everyone’s enthusiasm levels?”

Thankfully Lewis answered for everyone when he said “Rock bottom”.

Nearly all of us then left, going back home along the adventurous path. We were shattered and got the giggles badly. I can’t remember what over exactly though I have a distinct memory of everyone trying to do a Liverpool accent. Crazy people like Georgie and Claudia stayed up until 4am completing the survey, because they have an energy which I can only dream of one day possessing. 

I finally went to bed at 1am, woken only briefly by someone vomiting outside their tent. Little did I know the stomach bug apocalypse was about to take hold of camp hard, strangling the intestines of every victim it touched. 

I was so tired the next day that my alarm didn’t wake me, and I was instead woken by the delicate tones of one of my supervisors, Pete, screeching my name on behalf of Rindra to get up. I got ready in about 2.5 seconds but by the time we got to the botany plot I felt so sick I could barely stand up and Rindra had to escort me back to camp. 

I miss Rindra.

The last entry in my journal pretty much sums up how I felt when I got back:

‘I am taking the rest of the day off to feel sick. I haven’t showered in a couple of days so I’m definitely considering that. But as it stands I’m only like 30% certain that I will shower today.’

Stephanie xxx

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Base Camp Life in Madagascar

Mouse lemur - Taken by Lewis Kramer

After a much needed 10 hours sleep, I awoke to the sounds of the ever-loud and excited base camp. I decided to spend the morning out in the forest doing a forest survey. What surprised me the most about the forest was that it didn’t feel totally different to other forests I’ve been to around Europe. Sure it was hot and dry which obviously marred my ability to make any comparison between this forest and the UK, but the trees of dry, deciduous forests have to be experts at retaining water and are therefore limited in the size that they can grow. This resulted in the trees being relatively short and quite thin. It was a shame that very few of the plants were in flower at this time of year, making the majority-endemic tree species even harder to identify.

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Tree in Mahamavo forest – Taken by Hannah Williams.

I love forest surveys because they give you the opportunity to get to know a forest more intimately than other surveys allow. You go off-trail into the forest, stomping around in the undergrowth and tripping over logs just as you should be. Also, trees don’t run away from you and hide. They just sit there waiting to greet you. You can study them as closely as you want and, as I said before, I enjoy the natural obstacle course that it takes to get to them.

A forest plot in this instance consisted of going to a predetermined site and marking out a 20mX20m transect. Every tree within that transect would then have their circumference measured at breast height and their height estimated. The canopy cover would also be recorded and a separate 2mX2m transect would be laid out in order to take a sapling count.

Back at base camp I had my very first jungle shower; a bucket and cup in a sectioned off area of camp. It was awesome actually. When you get back from a survey all dusty and sweaty with the contents of the entire forest in your hair, as I often did, it was so refreshing to pour a bucket of water over yourself. On my way back to the tent I had my first encounter with lemurs. There is a colony of Coquerel’s Sifaka’s that passed over camp almost every day. Their main aim seemed to be to steal bait from the lemur researchers but they seemed almost as interested in us as we were in them. One of my friends had a dream that the lemurs were conducting a human behaviour survey on us from the trees. Sounded about right. It was brilliant to watch the way they moved, jumping between the trees like a gang of extremely agile babies.

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Lemur colony
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Agile babies
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look at them fly!
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SO climby
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Lemur Love <3

I also had a stab at doing my laundry, this too was a bucket based system (one which umpteen visiting sixth former’s would complain about). The Malagasy staff had it on point, the western staff did not. I just chucked everything in a bucket with some soap and swooshed it around a bit until it didn’t smell quite so bad anymore. I later found out from my friend Rindra (spelt Reindra throughout my journal, thank goodness for facebook), a botanist from the capital city Antananarivo in Madagascar, that it was normal for the vast majority of people all over Madagascar to hand wash clothes. She found it strange that most people, even the poorer people in England, have washing machines. She’d also never heard of a dishwasher before which was fun to explain. (You put all your dirty dishes in a machine, close the door, press start and go shopping. When you get back, it’s done). She thought that English people must be very lazy, and I couldn’t really argue with that.

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Staff members Ali, Michael and Jenni demonstrating beautifully.

I also took time out of my busy first day to take part in one of the most important activities in Madagascar; lying in a hammock. Hammocks are man’s gift to the world and I would like to thank Dr. Hammock for bringing such a glorious invention into being. I napped in hammocks, I chatted to friends in hammocks, I read in hammocks, I stared at the lemurs passing overhead from hammocks and I recovered from hangovers and stomach bugs in hammocks. Since returning to England, I am now the proud owner of a hammock. But it’s basically winter now so will have to wait another year for that one week of summer.

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Fun game – how many people can you fit in a hammock without it falling down? Answer: not four. L-R Georgie, Emily, Jen and me, all dissertation students.

Lunch was rice and beans. I don’t just mean on this day, I mean every day. There were small beans, big beans, medium beans, large beans… Everyone had a favourite bean. What started out as ‘hmm, this is actually quite nice, healthy too, maybe I should make this sort of thing for lunch back in England’ quickly became ‘If anyone so much as shows me another bowl of rice and beans I will drown their face in it’. Our saviour came in the form of Grazella who was at base camp making and selling the most delicious samosas I have ever put in my face. They were often my substitute for lunch, and when she started selling bread it was samosa sandwiches all round. Grazella was making and selling samosas to save money for a master’s in agriculture, so I thought the right thing to do was to buy as many as humanly possible, for Grazella of course. The sacrifices I make for my friends.

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Grazella

Late in the afternoon it was finally time to meet with my supervisors to discuss my dissertation. I was pretty confident that I had a well thought through and feasible proposal which just needed a tweak here and a smoothing out there. One of the supervisors emphatically disagreed and it was back to the drawing board for me. That was a bit of a downer, I have an enormous fear of being found out as a fraud, of people going ‘hang on, she’s actually really stupid and crap at science’. I know I’m not alone in this, and I’m not just talking about science. It was a bit of a setback and I spent the rest of the day (and night) in my tent fretting about what to do, reading over the limited number of papers I’d been able to download before arriving on camp where there was no internet.

I’m a classic case in that I constantly have to battle through the feeling of ‘I am finding this task difficult, therefore if I don’t try at all then I can still convince myself that I am good at this thing’. I think writers especially are notoriously bad for this. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve given up on a story or novel because I found the first draft too difficult to get through, it’s taken me years to get past that. At the end of the day, failure is good. If you don’t try hard at something you are allowing your fear of failure to outweigh your determination for success. It’s best to just view your failures as the foundations on which to build your successes.

The following day, after a lot more reading and conversations with my other supervisor Joe, I managed to come up with something that had a bit more structure and a bit more focus. For day two I was quite pleased with that, and now that I could relax a little I was actually pretty happy with how seriously our projects were being taken, and how quickly the scientists were working with us to make sure we developed a clear structure for ourselves over the next six weeks.

I spent the rest of the day recovering from the trauma that is interpreting strings of scientific papers for hours. This recovery was mostly hammock based, see below.

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This is the worst photo I have ever seen of myself, and that includes the ones taken of me whilst going through puberty.

In the evening I went out on my first invertebrate night survey. I’m not a night time person and all of my research was conducted during the day so I often spent the evenings working on my project or fannying around with other staff and students. (Sidenote: I’m also not a morning person. I’m really more of a 10am-3pm kind of person. Modern life is a struggle for me.) This survey was easily my favourite night survey that I did whilst in Madagascar due to the amount that I saw, and the excitement I felt with it being my first time out at night. There is something magic about the forest at night time (unless you’re somewhere like Luton of course, then it’s just scary and you should leave). The moonlight hits the leaves and branches of trees overhead creating ethereal shadows as you stumble through, trying to make out the outlines of any creatures around. What I’m trying to say is, my headtorch didn’t work very well and I fell over a lot.­

I saw oustalets and Angels chameleon’s as well as mouse lemurs, spiders and a praying mantis. We were actually collecting moths which I was pretty terrible at, but the place was just teaming with wildlife. I’m pretty bad at keeping my camera on me for these kinds of things. I do love photography but I sometimes find if I carry my camera around I have this niggling feeling in my chest that I need to be documenting everything, and honestly I’d rather just enjoy the moment and write thousands of words about it later. So instead, here are a load of photos that I’ve stolen from my friends:

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Oustalet’s Chameleon-taken by Dave Andrews
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Angel’s Chameleon – Taken by Dave Andrews
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Mouse lemur – Taken by Lewis Kramer

When we returned to base camp, we played one of many, many hundreds of games of bananagrams (speed scrabble) that took place during the expedition. We also played ‘dirty words only’ bananagrams and I’m still pretty proud of myself that I managed to get ‘rimjob’.

The next morning saw me go on the first of many hundreds of botany plots. This was where the bulk of my data was coming from, and also where I first properly met my friends Rindra, Liantsoa (whose name I have spelt as ‘Leanne-Sue’ throughout my journal), and Harison (I managed to get his name right, give or take an ‘r’ here or an ‘s’ there). They were the funniest group of people ever to work with. They are all Malagasy botanists and knew a lot more than I did about literally everything. It was an honour to work with them, not to mention an enormous amount of fun. We definitely didn’t always understand each other, it is a pity but I can currently only declare myself fluent in English (though I’m coming for you, Spanish!), so I’m not much use when it comes to communicating in a foreign language, other than cracking out the occasional ‘Ou est la bibliotheque?’ or ‘Je suis on sort au cinema’. The Malagasy staff however nearly always had at least three languages on the go; Malagasy, French and English, as well as some knowledge of other Malagasy dialects. Wow. They would apologize to me for not getting a word exactly right in English or not understanding the fast-talking nonsense that comes out of my mouth. I’d say you definitely can’t apologise to me when my Malagasy is non-existent, and unless you want to listen to me talk about my cat for five minutes my French isn’t much more use.

IMG_2655 (2)
Only picture on my computer right now with all three of us… I’ll explain later. L-R Liantsoa, me and Rindra. Above is Laurence, another staff member and amazing singer!

 I did eventually pluck up the courage to learn a little bit of Malagasy from them, but I certainly did not do as much as I should have. It is a privilege to be able to communicate with people all over the world in all kinds of different cultures, and it’s sad that it is not inherent in us, mostly English-speaking people, to make the effort to learn other languages. For instance, we had an amazing guide from the local village called Theo who did nearly all of the plant identification for us. As there are so many different ecosystems in Madagascar containing so many different kinds of trees, not to mention that none of them were flowering, they were incredibly difficult to identify and tell apart. If we had had to go around with books there is simply no way I or anyone else would’ve been able to do their botany research, but because we had Theo it was possible. But I couldn’t communicate with Theo. Here was this awesome person with a mind full of ethnobotany and I couldn’t discuss anything with him. There was some translation through the others of English to Malagasy to a different dialect and back again, but it was difficult.

The way I see it, is that every one of us holds an entire library that only we have access to, and if you want to hear these other stories then you have to talk to people. But if you don’t study languages, you are missing out on the stories that are least similar to your own, and I do love a story.

That is why I now have French and Spanish duolingo.

More next week on botany research and camp life!

click on the link to catch up on last weeks post detailing my jouney fron London to Mahamavo: https://lifeforaforest.com/2016/08/29/travel-in-madagascar/

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Mahamavo Region – Madagascar

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Madagascar

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Photo by Bernard Gagnon

Madagascar is an island off the southeast coast of Africa, well-known for its spectacular biodiversity.  Over half of all known chameleon species can be found here, as well as tenrecs, lemurs and baobabs.

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Tenrec – By Frank VassenFlickr: Lowland Streaked Tenrec, Mantadia, Madagascar, CC BY 2.0
Coquerels Sifaka - photo by Dave Andrews.
Coquerel’s Sifaka – photo by Dave Andrews.

Many of the species found in Madagascar are endemic, meaning that they are not found anywhere else in the world.  This makes the region even more important, as medicines and other such uses may be sourced from plants here and nowhere else.  The unique beauty of the area is important to conserve, as we will never have a replica.

By Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium - Lowland rainforest, Masoala National Park, Madagascar, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45133077
By Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium – Lowland rainforest, Masoala National Park, Madagascar, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45133077

Mahamavo

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Mahamavo is located in the Northwest of Madagascar, and consists of dry forests, wooded grassland-bush land mosaic and several large mangrove areas on the coast.  It is located in the region of Mahajanga at an average elevation of 469 feet above sea level.  Mahamavo is sparsely populated at 23 people per mile and the greatest natural threats to the area are droughts and cyclones.  The warmest month is October, with an average temperature of 33.9˚C at midday and coolest is July with an average of 16.9˚C at night.  The temperature is relatively constant all year round, though it does decrease significantly at night.  August has on average the greatest amount of sunshine, peak rainfall occurs during the wet season in January and dry season occurs around June.  The climate in Mahamavo is humid and classified as a tropical savanna with a tropical dry forest biozone.

Photo by Frank Vassen - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Photo by Frank Vassen – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

These forests and wetlands hold incredible diversity, Diurnal lemurs such as Coquerel’s Sifaka and the Common Brown lemur are present in this area, as well as 5-6 nocturnal lemurs.

Common Brown Lemur By David Dennis - originally posted to Flickr as Brown Lemur in Andasibe, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9002868
Common Brown Lemur By David Dennis – originally posted to Flickr as Brown Lemur in Andasibe, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9002868

Two notable species found in the Mahamavo region are Oustalet’s and Angel’s chameleon.

Oustalet's Chameleon by Dave Andrews
Oustalet’s Chameleon by Dave Andrews

  The wetlands in the region are home to the critically endangered Madagascar fish eagle and the endangered Humbolt’s heron.

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Madagascar Fish-Eagle

Fossa are carnivorous cat’s endemic to Madagascar, found in the Mahamavo region, as are Uroplatus geckos.

By Chad Teer - originally posted to Flickr as [1], CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4436196
Fossa By Chad Teer – originally posted to Flickr as [1], CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4436196
Uroplatus ebenaui - Spearpoint leaf-tail gecko by Dave Andrews
Uroplatus ebenaui – Spearpoint leaf-tail gecko by Dave Andrews

The Madagascar flying fox and the Nile crocodile are also found in the Mahamavo region.

Madagascar Flying Fox - By Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Madagascar Flying Fox – By Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Crocodile in Madagascar.
Crocodile in Madagascar.

Vegetation found in Mahamavo forests include Commiphora, Dalvergia, Hildegardia, Fernandoa madagascariensis, Croton elaeagni, Alchornea perrieri, Dalbergia spp., Euphorbia stenoclada  and Delonix spp.  Biogeographically the Mahamavo region is located between Northern and Western species pools, this results in a wealth of incredible species being present, but as always there is still so much more to be discovered.

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Euphorbia stenoclada

Threats to Mahamavo

Threats to Mahamavo, including the Mariarano and Matsedroy forests, include fire, climate change, coal production and the expansion of agriculture.

Logging in Madagascar
Logging in Madagascar

Human activity is present in the Mahamavo region, particularly the Mariarano forest where communities rely on the forest for food, fuel, building materials and medicine.  The wetlands are used for fishing, which is the main resource for the coastal communities present.

Slash & Burn in Madagascar - By Diorit - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12470773
Slash & Burn in Madagascar – By Diorit – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12470773

Human populations in the Mahamavo region are found in the Dry forests, such as Mariarano, where several thousand people reside.  Subsistence farming is common here, where rice, maize and manioc is grown, and Zebu is kept.  Sources of income include mat-weaving, raffia palm harvesting, charcoal production and forest resource extraction.

Rice Paddies in Mariarano - By Jenni Lucy
Rice Paddies in Mariarano – By Jenni Lucy

The most common fuel in Madagascar is wood and charcoal.  This means that charcoal production is in high demand, which has caused large scale deforestation.  Although forest fires are illegal, there is little official enforcement.  Many local villagers may value the natural forest highly, but outsiders are known to come to the forests to produce charcoal.  Local people have little power or incentive to prevent this, and a fear of conflict acts as a deterrent. In order to produce charcoal a license is required.  However most people involved in charcoal production in these areas are unaware of the need for licensing, and as there is little official presence it is of no concern.  There are no charcoal plantations in the Mahamavo region, meaning that it all comes from the burnt forest itself. The current production of charcoal is not sustainable in Mahamavo, particularly as dry forests regenerate very slowly.

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Timber extraction also causes huge problems for the conservation of forests. The wood is sold as construction materials.  Yam is often grown in burnt forest clearings, preventing forest regeneration.  Slash-and-burn techniques are used to clear pastures for Zebu as well as crops.  Agriculture and Livestock contribute 60-80% of the income for the local population.

Zebu in Madagascar
Zebu in Madagascar

As there are no land rights in Madagascar, if a farmer’s land becomes drained of nutrients and is therefore no longer fertile, then the farmer has permission to clear an adjacent piece of land, usually done through the slash and burn technique, wherein vegetation is first cut and then burned before planting begins.  The same applies for zebu grazing.

Slash & Burn in Madagascar - By Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium - originally posted to Flickr as Slash and Burn Agriculture, Morondava, Madagascar, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14616879
Slash & Burn in Madagascar – By Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium – originally posted to Flickr as Slash and Burn Agriculture, Morondava, Madagascar, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14616879

As well as the obvious habitat loss caused by the slash and burn technique, it can also result in the death of animals which are unable to outrun the fires.  The knock on effects of slash and burn include soil erosion and decreased land fertility.

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Slash & Burn shifting cultivation in Madagascar – By Leonora Enking from West Sussex, England (Slash and burn agriculture) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Lemur hunting occurs in the forests, with the most common target being the common brown lemurCoquerel’s sifakas are not hunted as local populations believe it to be fady (taboo) to do so as they have some very human-like features.  However immigrants to the area rarely follow this rule and hunting still occurs.  Lemur traps are used for hunting, and are indiscriminate as to which species they capture.

Coquerels Sifaka by Dave Andrews
Coquerel’s Sifaka by Dave Andrews

Darts and blowpipes are used to hunt birds such as Helmeted Guinea fowl.  Madagascar fish eagles are hunted by stealing the young and using them as bait to lure the adult into a trap.  The African Darter and Nile crocodile are also hunted in the wetlands around Mariarano.  Feral cats and dogs may be involved in competition with endemic species, resulting in the over-predation of smaller mammal species found in the forests.

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Helmeted Guinea Fowl By Steve from washington, dc, usa – did you call me??, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3975076

Any species that causes damage to a farmer’s crops is seen as a pest, this includes lemurs which eat from fruit trees.  This can result in traps being set out, as most farming in the Mahamavo region is subsistence farming, therefore there is a thin line between having enough food for the whole family and having to go without.

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Mouse Lemur – By Arjan Haverkamp – originally posted to Flickr as 2007-07-15-12h53m31.IMG_1008e, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9617158

How do we Protect an Area such as the Forests of Mahamavo?

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  • Provide educational facilities focusing on sustainable agriculture and use of forest resources.
  • Develop alternative livelihoods, for example sustainable charcoal production which would protect the forest, improve soil in degraded areas and provide a stable income for locals.
  • Reduce the consumption of charcoal through the introduction of cleaner and fuel-efficient cooking stoves. This would also reduce the incidence of disease arisen from fuel, reduce the destruction of forests and decrease the cost of living.
  • Introduce alternative energy sources such as solar power.
  • Establish research stations to implement and maintain management efforts.
  • Develop small-scale ecotourism to provide constant employment in the area, as well as increase the incentive for locals to protect the forests.
  • Utilise local culture to benefit conservation. Fady (taboo) differs between villages;  in some areas, when the head of the village dies they are buried in the village grounds, then the entire community ups sticks and settles in a new area.  The area where the former monarch is buried then becomes sacred, and no one may enter it.  In this way, various regions on Mahamavo are protected through Fady. 

Barriers to Implementing a Conservation Plan

Many locals simply are not aware of the international value of many of their native species.  Over 70% of Madagascar’s population reside in rural areas, and only 3% have access to electricity, thus resulting in biomass being their main source of fuel.

Rural Mariarano - by Jenni Lucy.
Rural Mariarano – by Jenni Lucy.

Education on the importance of species found in the region is very much needed, because if the global significance of Madagascar’s ecosystems and their inhabitants are unknown to the locals, it is difficult for them to take pride in protecting their native regions, or to feel the urgent need of this protection to happen.  Many locals, being unaware of the protected status of certain species, do not know that they are committing a crime when certain animals are hunted.  It is important for the region to have educated citizens on the status of their immediate environment, protecting the area.

Research staff and assistants visiting the local school in Mariarano.
Research staff and assistants visiting the local school in Mariarano.

I will be travelling to the Mahamavo region in June 2016 in order to aid with this important research.  I will be investigating the abundance of important endemic plant species in the area, and how their proximity to local populations, soil pH and climate impacts their growth.  In this way my research will help to advise which areas are of most value to conserve in the region.  I will also be using this research for my third year Bioscience undergraduate dissertation, as I hope to go into a tropical forest ecology research career in the future, with a key focus on botany.

plants
Me

If you would like to read more about what I will be doing, or are interested in supporting my project, then please visit one of the link below.

www.gofundme.com/gomadagascar

http://lifeforaforest.com/2015/11/15/tropical-botany-and-ecology-dissertation/

Below is a video from Operation Wallacea, who I will be undertaking my research with.

References

https://opwall.com/wp-content/uploads/Mahamavo-2010-2012-report.pdf

http://www.bath.ac.uk/bio-sci/biodiversity-lab/mahamavo/Reports/Mahamavo%202009%20Final%20report.pdf

http://www.academia.edu/5698650/The_carnivores_of_Mariarano_forest_Madagascar_first_insights

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267923955_Patterns_of_diversity_among_reptiles_and_amphibians_of_the_Mahamavo_region_western_Madagascar

http://www.cifor.org/publications/corporate/cd-roms/bonn-proc/pdfs/papers/T1_FINAL_Ackermann.pdf

[getty src=”604576321″ width=”508″ height=”339″]

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Off To The Amazon!

Hello Everyone!

I have some extremely fun news, I am lucky enough to be leaving for Peru tomorrow, to begin a 6 month conservation internship in the Amazon rainforest.

I AM SO EXCITED.

Luckily there is solar powered internet, though I don’t know how reliable this is I should still be able to blog a bit while I am there.  Because I will be having such an amazing experience in the Amazon, the majority of my blog posts will take on a different format to my previous posts.  Instead, they will become kind of a travel/research journal.  Obviously the posts will still be primarily about the forest and its inhabitants, but it will mainly centre around my personal an

Where I will be!!
Where I will be!!

d current experiences.  There may be the odd unique post depending on what’s going on in the news etc who knows!

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Phallus indusiatus – Stinkhorn Fungus

Kingdom – Fungi

Filo – Basidiomycota

Class – Basidiomycetes

Order – Phallales

Family – Phallaceae

Phallus indusiatus
Phallus indusiatus

Phallus Indusiatus is a Tropical fungus species, it has also previously been known as Dictyophora indusiata.  It has many common names including Fish Phallaceae, the bamboo mushroom (pronounced Zhu Sūn in Chinese), veiled lady mushroom, basket stinkhorn, net stinkhorn, crinoline stinkhorn, long net stinkhorn and bamboo fungus.   The family Phallaceae are more commonly known as stinkhorns.

Phallus indusiatus
Phallus indusiatus

They can be found solitarily or all the way up to large communities.  The Phallus Indusiatus grows in soil rich in organic matter and therefore is predominantly found in tropical forests.  They are located in many different areas around the world including Costa Rica, Central and South America, Mexico, Caribbean islands, Australia, Africa and Asia.

Phallus indusiatus Community
Phallus indusiatus Community

Phallus indusiatus begins life as a small egg-shaped fungus from which a basidioma appears which can fully emerge over a matter of hours, and has a short life span of around 12 hours before decaying back into the ground.

The full structure of Phallus indusiatus
The full structure of Phallus indusiatus

This stinkhorn fungus has a pale netted indusium (veil) which hangs down from its cap and tends to grow very long, sometimes all the way to the ground.  This netted skirt can be rigid or flaccid and is sometimes withdrawn towards the cap of the fungus.  The fruit body grows to 15-25cms tall, is a pale creamy to white colour and has a spongy texture.

At immaturity the cap tends to be smooth and as it progresses and matures it becomes holed and pitted.  The conical (or sometimes bell-shaped) cap can grow up to 4cms in diameter and is covered in a greenish-brown slimy coating full of spores which gives off the odour of rotting flesh, hence the common name ‘stinkhorn fungus’.

Spore-containing slime-covered cap os Phallus indusiatus
Spore-containing slime-covered cap os Phallus indusiatus

The horrid smell attracts flies and other insects, which then aid in spore dispersal for the fungus.  The spores are ingested and some are able to pass intact through the digestive system and out to the ground alongside the insects faeces.

Flies are attracted to the Phallus indusiatus
Flies are attracted to the Phallus indusiatus

The dried form of the fungus is often sold in Asian markets for cooking.  The stinkhorns are simmered in water until tender and ready for consumption.  You are then able to cook them in a flavoured stock, or even stuff them before cooking.  They have been described as having ‘a crunchy texture and a unique musty, earthy flavour’.  Phallus indusiatus are used predominantly in vegetarian fine dining and are rich in protein, carbohydrates and fibre.    It also has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, as well as other various bioactive compounds.

Bamboo pith from Phallus idusiatus - used for cooking
Bamboo pith from Phallus indusiatus – used for cooking

In Nigeria some traditionalists believe that this mushroom, when combined with several other ingredients, is able to cast a spell of death over someone.  Because of this belief, the people of Nigeria tend to avoid consuming this mushroom.

Phallus indusiatus
Phallus indusiatus

The Phallus Indusiatus is known to have been used in medicine as a treatment for diseases of a gastric, neural and inflammatory nature.  Specifically, its medicinal properties have been utilised in Chinese medicine since 618 AD.  It is thought to contain anti-cancer properties and is often prescribed in Chinese alternative medicine to treat laryngitis, leucorrhea, oligourea, diarrhea, hypertension, cough and hyperlipidemia.  Research has also shown that several components of this fungus could possess the ability to protect or even improve the central nervous system.

Phallus indusiatus
Phallus indusiatus

Does the smell of Phallus indusiatus induce female orgasms?

An article published in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms (http://www.dl.begellhouse.com/journals/708ae68d64b17c52,2e5fc0e3182d70db,6f3ed2921c9f3802.html) states that the smell of a fresh Phallus species induced spontaneous orgasms in 6 out of 16 female participants, whilst the other 10 participants experienced symptoms associated with sexual arousal, such as increased heart rate.  It is currently unknown whether this mushroom species is an entirely new species, or whether it is a variety of the Phallus indusiatus species of which this article is about.

It is thought that compounds in the volatile area of the gleba (spore-bearing inner mass) may have similarities to human neurotransmitters released in women during sexual arousal.

The location of this fungus is known only by very few Hawaiian locals, and it is unlikely that this mushroom, or at least its extracted and refined components, will become commercially available any time soon.

Bad luck everyone!  Looks like you’ll have to stick to old fashioned methods.

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