Deep in the tropical forests of Madagascar, a France-sized island teeming with strange creatures, ants glue together the richest of ecosystems. The tiny insects are armed to protect their homes with bites, stings, acid sprays and even strangling. Yet their real war against human encroachment is failing -- only 10 percent of Madagascar’s natural habitat remains.
To save Madagascar’s forests, researchers need to know what’s in them.
I'm Brian Fisher, a conservationist with the California Academy of Sciences, and I'm ready to hop in a raft, navigate a wild uncharted river and scale treacherous cliffs with a team of extreme sports professionals as guides.
It’s not about bragging rights, however -- it’s a race against time.
I need to reach one of the last standing pristine forests, called the Kasijy, before nearby populations burn them down to raise cattle. Researchers have visited the remote site only a handful of times because it’s a rugged, canyon-filled landscape resting on high blocks of limestone and sedimentary rock.
To make every minute count of the three- to six-day expedition, I'll use some fast-paced ant-collecting tricks I pioneered -- techniques that are lauded as “industrial strength” by biologist E.O. Wilson, a veritable lord of the ants. When I'm done digging, hacking and crawling through the wilderness to immortalize the Kasijy’s ant populations, I’ll display everything the team finds online for researchers around the world to see.
Ants are the glue that hold forests together. But Madagascar’s hotspots of biodiversity are vanishing, and along with them unknown species. An estimated 40 percent of the island’s species, in fact, have already perished through human encroachment.
While ants aren’t as popular as furry and feathery animals, the insects turn over forest soil, breakdown debris, disperse crucial nutrients and otherwise support an unimaginable number of species both up, down and across the food chain. The insects are also a growing resource for antimicrobial and antifungal compound discovery, as many ants manufacture such chemicals to ward off disease and even farm food.
Because Kasijy is so pristine, it also serves as a crucial data point of what Madagascar used to be like before the advent of modern civilization. The region and other forests are great places to understand the ongoing impacts of climate change on highly specialized ecosystems.
Without discovering what Kasijy harbors it’s tough to convince locals -- and the rest of the world -- that it and other Madagascar wilderness is worth preserving. For now it’s a forest begging to be turned into firewood and grassland.
My expedition aims to:
But the logistics of five inflatable rafts, provisions, a small team of scientists and professional guides won’t pay for itself. To enable the whirlwind expedition, I'll need $10,000. Another $10,000 would help support laboratory work, including the identification, description and publication of new species, and the training of local Malagasy scientists to do such work and become local stewards of their wilderness.
Brian Fisher is an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences with an infectious passion for ants. Although he specializes in the large-scale discovery, description and naming of African and Malagasy ants, Fisher is undertaking the ambitious task of building AntWeb-- a publicly accessible database of knowledge about the planet’s 22,000 different species of ants.
During the past two decades, Fisher has trekked across Africa and weathered deadly diseases, outbreaks of wars and starvation to study ants. He has also managed to survive an attack from a snail during one expedition.
Thanks to all the supporters, the expedition is on. We are now partners in this adventure and will keep you all updated on the dates of the trip and our progress. Together, we will make discoveries and help save this forest.
I just returned from a reconnaissance to the Kasijy region. We only made it to Kendreho and had to return because of a cyclone. If you want to see what it’s like to drive in a cyclone check out the blog today in the New York Times: http://scientistatwork.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/02/learning-on-the-road-to-nowhere-in-madagascar/
For more images you can check out more photos and vidoes: https://picasaweb.google.com/bpescador/CycloneTravelsInMadagascarFebMarch2012?authuser=0&feat=directlink
After this trip, it is clear we need to also purchase our own Zodiac and motor. So do encourage your friends to contribute to the expedition, we only have 5 days left to raise the funds needed for the trip.