News from the field: Frog surveys from Ambohitantely

by Bela Barata - September 1, 2020

Kat Mullin, a PhD student from Cardiff University, is using cutting-edge genetic tools to investigate the effects of habitat fragmentation on amphibians in Madagascar. In January 2020 she went off to Madagascar in an exciting field trip to collect more data for her PhD research. With a very productive start, Kat spent much of her time in the forest enjoying being back and also collecting precious data on threatened frogs.

Unfortunately, her field trip to Madagascar was cut short due to COVID-19. On Friday 20th March 2020, the Government confirmed the first three cases of COVID-19 in Madagascar. To prevent further spread of the virus, strict lockdown and social distancing measures were in place in Antananarivo, Tamatave and Fianarantsoa. Authorities suspended local and national transport. Only essential businesses remained open. The Government imposed an overnight curfew and individuals required to stay at home. These restrictions were slowly eased as the number of cases started to decrease (peak in Jun-Aug).

From January to March, Kat was able to visit four forest sites in the central plateau of Madagascar.

Early February, in Ambohitantely, after days of relentless rain, Kat and her field team had a really good survey, finding three of her new candidate frog species and recording some frog calls. In Andasibe she got lots of her study species and saw loads of baby frogs, small snakes and lizards, and a bird of prey in the forest! Fieldwork in Anjozorobe was a lovely surprise: Kat found frogs even on her tent! She collected some very exciting data (watch this space!) and saw the bright green tree frogs in amplexus, something she had never seen before.

Ankafobe is made up of two small forest fragments and one of the smallest protected areas in Madagascar. The area is very degraded and also understudied.

Kat noticed this fragment while mapping her sites and suggested to include as one of her study fragments. The prospects of finding her frog targets, due to the proximity to Ambohitantely, sounded like a thrilling opportunity to explore a new location. The reserve revealed amazing surprises, despite it’s small size. For instance, it is home to several species of lemur. Frog-wise, Kat had spectacular and she even extended her stay to collect more frog data!

Going back home before planned.

Kat was willing to stay in the field for longer and remain in Madagascar as planned. However, she was getting more and more intense messages from family and friends. They were advising that perhaps she should start to consider leaving Madagascar over the developing COVID-19 situation. During her stay in Ankafobe, the Government announced that the country would be closing their international borders. Based on dates announced, Kat had only two flights available. She was able to get on a flight back home the day after arriving from fieldwork.

The situation with COVID-19 is highly dynamic and impacts countries in which Durrell works in different ways. Of primary concern is ensuring the health and safety of Durrell staff, the animals in our care at our overseas captive centres and for the communities we work with. We were positive Kat was making the right decision and fieldwork could wait another season.

With good data in hand (but not as much as she expected!) Kat is now doing lab analysis and already finding interesting results! We are looking forward to sharing some of them with you. Kat Mullin writes a blog about her experiences in Madagascar: life, work, travels and frogs. You can read her stories here: https://katribbetson.wordpress.com/

Follow Kat’s work and adventures on her blog! And watch this space for upcoming results from her PhD!