Northen  Madagascar  &  Mauritius  

( + Round  Island )

Dec.  2005  -  Feb.  2006,  Part  2

Or ,  jump  to  Part  1  -  Southern  and  Western  Madagascar ,  the  ' Tortoise  Tour

My 'Mad Tortoise Tour' group departed for home on January 21, but I wasn't alone for long.  British friends Jim Pether and Tony Jones arrived the next night, and by the next morning, we were flying to the extreme northern Madagascar city of Antsiranana (= Diego-Suarez).  From there we went off on several exploratory excursions.

Our first night was spent hiking to the top of Montagne des Francais (French Mountain).  By the time we reached the summit, it was after midnight and my photo vest was clinging  to my sweat-soaked body like a soggy mop.  But at least the near-100% humidity encouraged high herp activity.  We found numerous panther chameleons (Furcifer pardalis), dwarf chameleons (Brookesia tuberculata?), spiny-tailed ground geckos (Paroedura stumpfii), two Henkel's leaftail geckos (Uroplatus henkeli, left pic), and a 2'+ snake of the genus Stenophis (right pic) that I didn't have a clue to its identity; it may be Stenophis inopinae.

I lost a single roll of my exposed slide film somewhere during my travels - guess which one!  I thank Jim Pether for helping me fill in some blanks with his images.

 

Panther chameleons always cause me to burn some serious quantities of film.  It's hard to stop clicking when they look so good!  Directly below is a young male from the outskirts of Antsiranana as it prowls through thorn scrub. 

 

The panther at left (below left) is from near Ambanja in the Sambirano Domain, in hunting mode just as found.  The one to the right was found walking across Route National #6 at the post 49 kilometers (30.4 miles) north of Ambanja.  It was one of the nicest specimens for showing blue that I'd ever seen, and was very non-typical for representing the ones from that region based on my past experiences traveling through there.

  

 

On the return drive back north, we took a small detour at Ambilobe and headed a few kilometers west.  This male F. pardalis was spotted from the road near a village.  Seconds after this shot, it tried unsuccessfully to zap the juvenile, pale green Oustalet's chameleon with its tongue (which was non-coincidentally ambling up a vertical stem nearby.

 

We dawdled too long playing with panther chameleons and got back to Montagne d'Ambre (Amber Mountain) too late to buy an entry permit to go night hiking.  It was a minor inconvenience, though, because we found plenty of chameleons sleeping in the bushes around Joffreville outside the park, including the pair of Petter's chameleons (Furcifer petteri) below.  The larger, double-'horned' male is on the left.  Curiously, the female (right) was totally yellow and blue-spotted when first found, but rapidly turned solid green as we bothered her for pics.  For several minutes I assumed the change occurred equally on both sides of her body, but noticed that such was not the case when she twisted toward me for the shot shown.  The question immediately hit me:  Did she control the one-sided color change for greener camouflage aimed only at me?  Could her purposely changing only one side's appearance have had an advantage, like allowing the change to happen more quickly on the side important for fooling the potential 'predator'?

     

 

My 2006 trip also included a 3-day visit to the Mascarene island of Mauritius in the southwestern Indian Ocean.  This turned out to be an unforgettable 'side trip', especially when governmental permission to visit Round Island was granted at the eleventh hour.  As I later learned, Jim, Tony and I may have been the first non-scientists to be allowed access in the past 15 years.  Below is a view of Round Island (with Ile aux Serpentes in the background) from the air.  It seems the old mapmakers may have gotten confused by the proximity of these two islands :   Ile aux Serpents  is quite round and has no snakes, while Round Island is not round and has snakes.

 

If Round Island appears bleak to you, it's not your imagination.  This wind-swept volcanic dome island, 1000 feet high and less than a square mile in area, is located 22 km north of Mauritius.  In the mid-1800s goats and rabbits were introduced by seafarers.  Fortunately (miraculously !), rodents didn't also make it there.  By the 1970s, they had eaten the vegetation down to nearly bare rock.  The native forest that formerly covered much of the slopes is long gone, and little soil remains.  There's no landing beach; the 'shore' is nearly vertical cliffs all the way around.  Landing a boat safely on Round Island is not a possibility, so we arranged a pricey alternative with the Mauritian military police to take us out via their helicopter (below left). 

First, a little prerequisite history:  Gerald Durrell recognized the plight of Round Island's wildlife after a visit in 1976 and helped initiate a project to captive breed some of the vanishing endemic herps at his zoo on the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel.  Telfair's skink (Leiolopisma telfairii), below right, was one of those rare herps; I wondered if I'd have any hope of seeing one in the field.  I soon got an overwhelmingly positive answer!

  

Dr. Rajen Sookaria, senior staff member of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, accompanied us as guide from the mainland.  Once on the island, the resident Round Island research team thoroughly checked our gear for exotic seeds or hitchhiking critters that might get established accidentally.  The pic below left was snapped looking at the floor next to the inspection table.  There are now tons upon tons of Telfair's skinks on Round Island!  Everywhere !  The small research station is literally infested with them.  That pic was not set-up --- that's just how abundant they were, even inside the building!  I had to glance at the floor before every step to avoid squashing skinks.  The lizards had absolutely no fear of people and investigated anything that moved or was new in their turf.  When a piece of my potato chip hit the floor, they attacked it like a pack of jackals.  It was very cool seeing endemic island herps completely lacking fear of man as I'd only previously read about. 

A second gray, foot-long lizard calls the island home - the Round Island day gecko (Phelsuma guentheri), below right.  It's the largest day gecko, and lives only on this tiny piece of real estate.  I was able to easily photograph a pair in a palm tree using a 60 mm macro lens and ring flash because they too were not worried about me approaching quite closely.  The one pictured was about 9 inches (23 cm) long.

  

Round Island's formerly denuded landscape is bouncing back with a vengeance now that all the goats and rabbits were finally killed off 15+ years ago.  Jim, Tony and I found six herp species with relative ease.  The palm clusters and rock overhangs (left) were like havens for many of them. 

I photographed this ornate day gecko  (Phelsuma ornata ornata), right, on the same palm trunk on which a pair of P. guentheri were also seen.  These were the most colorful P. ornata I saw anywhere on Mauritius, and they did not flee from my lens when it was only six inches away for shots like this.

We also found three specimens (one juvenile and two adults?) of one of the two endemic Round Island snakes, the  keel-scaled boa (Casarea dussumieri).  The one pictured is a male about 24 inches / 61 cm long; they may get over 4.5 feet (1.37 m) - females only???  The one I found had a hemipenal bulge as I'd expect in an adult snake.  All were hidden under debris of palms in deep shade by day.  Unlike the island's lizards, they were nervous and flighty.

We saw no sign of the other endemic, fossorial boa (Bolyeria multocarinata) that hasn't been seen alive since the mid-1970s.  Without any real evidence to back me, my snakehunter instincts tell me there's still a chance it might exist in pockets of mulchy soil around clumps of palms on the lower elevations.

 

Back on the Mauritian mainland, I had the pleasure of spending my last day there wandering through Owen Griffiths' La Vanille Crocodile & Tortoise Park on the south coast of the island.  What a beautiful and remarkable zoo and botanical garden!  Besides an enjoyable day photographing in the park, in trees along the entry drive I observed what may be the most interesting herp behavior of my entire trip.

That afternoon, February 4, 2006, I watched & photographed a gorgeous blue-tailed day gecko Phelsuma cepediana actively licking the seed core of a Pandanus (screw pine) tree.  The more-or-less round 'fruit' of the tree is like a pinecone in that multiple seeds develop around a core and fall off when ripe.  The round, yellow-white central core is the object left hanging from the tree after the many seeds (or 'keys') have fallen off; that's what the gecko in the pic at lower right is perched on.  I initially guessed that the core was the actual 'fruit', and the gecko was lapping up some kind of dried food residue as Phelsuma are known to do.  Normal feeding strategy, I assumed.  But I also noticed that a bunch of flies had gathered around the 'action', and were concentrated precariously close to the gecko's head.  They could be seen actually extending their proboscises to drink from the core's surface where the gecko had moistened it.  As I repeatedly clicked my camera's shutter, I was thinking how easy it should be for the gecko to grab a fly to add some protein to its meal.  As the thought was drifting through my head, the gecko snapped sideways and caught a fly.  It bolted it down, and then turned to grab one on the other side too.  Aha!  It was taking advantage of the situation.  And incredibly, the remaining flies never flinched, but went on as if nothing had happened.  OK, so the flies were stupid.  It wasn't until I was sitting at the airport later that evening that I started questioning what I saw.

For reference, that's a borrowed pic off the Internet ( right > ) of what a Pandanus fruit looks like before the seeds have fallen off it.  The one shown in my gecko licking shot of a fruit core above has already dropped its seeds.

By licking the dry core surface of the Pandanus seed core (it's significant to note that the core surface was dry, not moist or juicy already), I wonder if the gecko was using its saliva to mix with something present to create a chemical lure for flies, which were all right around the licked area, and nowhere else on the core.  That would be a very cool thing to have evolved.  But what if the lure had an additional function, like deadening the flies' predation avoidance reflex that should have sent them flying off at the first sign of danger?  It was like the moist stuff they were eating was making them a little 'drunk' and lowering their alertness.  The other flies didn't fly away when the gecko snatched two of them mere millimeters away!  That just wasn't like the flies I've tried to swat!

This may be an observation that's new to science, although maybe I'm just excited by 'discovering' it and missed it in the literature.  I can't claim to be particularly up on all things gekkonid.  Either way, it was very cool thing to observe and photograph.

UPDATE :   I thank Mr. Vikash Tatayah, Fauna Manager of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, for helping clarify what was probably going on in the above account.  He writes :  "The seeds (drupes) fall off the fruit.  Before doing so, it seems to me that they accumulate sugars at the top end of the drupes, which are reserves used by the drupes to aid in their germination.  The drupes turn (depending on species) yellow, orange, or whitish.  When they fall off the core (called the pepin in French), the latter still exudes what I believe to be sugary sap, rich in high energy compounds and possibly calcium.  I think this attracts Phelsuma geckos, which are after the sugars and calcium (which are rare in nature).  This product is also attractive to bees, wasps, ants etc." 

 

I still had nine more days back in Madagascar after flying back from Mauritius.  I spent them exploring two high elevation forest reserves that I'd never been to before.  The first was Ambohitantely, a patchwork of forest remnants (1500 - 1600 m elevation) scattered between rolling hills about 100 km (62 miles) north-northwest of Antananarivo {='Tana'}.  Predictably, the herps were sparser than in lower, warmer habitats, but this fine pair of Calumma hilleniusi below, male (left) and female (right), were found at the edge of the forest.

  

 

My other foray was to Madagascar's second highest mountain range -- the Ankaratras.  They're only about 50 miles south-southeast of Tana, but the road up into them was rough and slow even with 4WD vehicles.  Miguel Vences (co-author of the 1994 Madagascar herp field guide) had assembled a team of Malagasy and foreign students and researchers to study the endemic herps up there.  I became the unofficial photographer for the two days I was able to accompany them.  I found a gravid Campan's chameleon (Furcifer campani) on the ground above the tree line (below left), and also photo'd this fine Boophis microtympanum that Miguel found near the summit (below right).

 

Lastly, I thank my friend Euan Edwards for letting me crash at his home in Tana, and for also allowing me to borrow his animals for naturalistic photography.  The two beauties below were shot at his facility:  The big-eyed gecko (Paroedura masobe) - left, and the spiny corkbark leaftail gecko (Uroplatus pietschmanni) - right.  

---  END  ---

 

JUMP  TO  PART  1  -  Southern  and  Western  Madagascar ,  

The  ' Tortoise  Tour '

 

All images copyrighted by Bill Love / Blue Chameleon Ventures

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