Into the Canyons

After attending the productive ACSAM2 meeting at Valbio in Ranomafana it was great to get back into the field. Keeping a bunch of herpetologists and conservationists cooped up in a room for three days makes them thirsty for the outdoors.

After a quick venture into Vatoharanana in Ranomafana National Park the team, now joined by Angela from the veterinary sciences department of the University of Tana, headed southwest into the land of sandstone canyons of Isalo National Park. I was filled with excitement to be amidst a new habitat! Most of the drive was through savanna like habitat but then in front us arose the giant sandstone rock formations. In Isalo we also teamed up with Angelica Crottini, Franco Andreone, and Goncalo Rosa, to do some sampling, which was great because they knew the sites from there countless years of work in this region.


As we walked to the first site, Zahavalo, and the sun beat down on us like nothing I have experienced before, it was unbelievable to think that many frogs flourish in this harsh dry habitat of Isalo, but between the sandstone there are canyons filled with gallery forests and oases of water that provide refuge for the frogs. At Zahavalo, the canyon was still completely dry, and at first thought I figured that we wouldn’t find anything, ,but as we looked along the rock faces, there were holes in the canyon walls, and every once in a while you would see little eyes peering back out at you. We found 6 Gephyromantis corvus within the canyon walls. Not too many frogs but this species is one of our target species for Isalo so it was great to find them!

Isalo canyons 1


The next day, our goal was to find our other target species, Mantella expectata and Schaphiophyrne gottlebei, and thanks to the expert advice of Goncalo and Franco we were directed to a site called Malaso. The small pools of water within this canyon seemed to provide a refuge for all the frogs. We found 15 Mantella under one rock on the side of the pool, 8 more G. corvus and 2 Scaphiophyrne gottlebei. It was a successful day!

Mantella expectata

Scaphio gottlebei

Now that we had accomplished our mission in Isalo, we decided to head out on our two day drive back to the east coast, to the Reserve Speciale Manombo.

Travelling to the eastern lowlands

As we descended toward the coast we were met by a wall of humid heat and the sweet smell of lycees. There were lycee’s everywhere! (which we all indulged on 🙂 )

ando lycee

The road to Manakara and then to Farafangana was suprising good and only about the last 20 km was unpaved. Luckily the big rains had not really hit yet otherwise those 20 km may have been untraversable. Farafangana was quite a big town filled with lycees, mangos, coconuts, etc as would be expected in the lowland habitats.

The story of our missing bag

We found a hotel and unpacked the car in order to prepare for the field work starting the next day. I had collected my personal bags and taken then to the room, and then went to collect the duffel bags with all the probiotic sampling gear, AND IT WAS NO WHERE TO BE FOUND! My mind was racing, “Where could it be? It has to be here? Maybe its on the roof rack? We searched and searched the car but it was not there.“ The bag had been stored in our drivers room in Isalo so we asked if he remembered bringing it to the car. He looked at us blankly and we knew, THE BAG MUST HAVE BEEN LEFT IN ISALO…a whole 15-16 hours away.


Ando and I sat and discussed what we should do as it was impossible for me to do any field work here without that bag. We called the hotel to confirm the bag was there and now there were two options: travel the whole way to Isalo by taxi brousse or try to arrange we someone we know from Isalo to bring the bag and we could meet in the middle to pick up the bag. I was hoping and praying for the second option! After some negotiations with the hotel and a local guide we work with, we came to an agreement: our guide in Isalo (Haja) would travel with the bag from Isalo to Fianarantsoa and Angela and I would travel from Farafangana to Fianarantsoa. Ando would stay with Rajery (our herp guide in Monumbo) and complete the taxonomic work she had planned in Monombu.

I thought the excitement was over now that we have a plan but little did I know what would be in store for us one our 15 hour taxi brousse adventure!

There was only one taxi brousse to Fianarantsoa each day at 3pm so we departed the next afternoon. Luckily we had one of the bigger vans and got the front seats next to the driver which was quite luxurious for a taxi brousse. The start of the journey was quite uneventful and after we stopped for dinner I was actually able to get some sleep. At about 2 am I was awoke by a “Crash, Bang, Bang” and our taxi brousse had swerved off the road and flip on its side! The three of us in the front seat were OK, in a slight panic I tried to open the my door as it was the only exit point…but it would budge so I rolled down the window and crawled out. I tried again from the outside to get the door to open but I couldn’t. Angela and the driver crawled out and were able to crawl out and the driver was able to get the doors open. One by one the passengers crawled out and amazingly no one was significantly injured. Everyone was able to walk away from the vehicle! We all waited on the road side while they unpacked the top of the taxi and soon a big truck drove by and helped to pull the taxi brousse out of the ditch and back onto the road. Amazingly the taxi was still working so by about out 5:30 or so all the stuff had been packed onto the top and the people piled back in. By a little after 6 we had arrived in Fianarantsoa, and we found Haja waiting for us with our sampling gear.

I have to say I will think twice before taking taxi brousses again.

Now we have arrived back at Valbio in Ranomafana where we will stay for the next couple days .

Working to save the frogs,