Walking in Perinet
Article & Images by Piero FariselliSince I was a child, have been always longed for visiting Madagascar. I got this “fatal attraction” because in my father’s encyclopedia there were stunning pictures of marvelous frogs, chameleons and lizards from Madagascar. Eventually, in September 2001 with my wife, we had the occasion to visit the Madagascar rain forest. Given the short time to our disposal we had decided to concentrate our attention to one of the most accessible and almost pristine places: the natural reserve of Andasibe-Mantadia, more commonly known as Perinet. The main goal of our visit was to encounter as much as possible of the Perinet “smaller majority,” as Piotr Naskrecki calls them in his recent wonderful book. We planned our journey accordingly, and I brought with us my Pentax K 1000 with my 1:1 macro 105/2.8, my 70-210 macro zoom, my twin flash, since I knew that nights would have been more prolific, and of course a lot of Fuji Provia 100 film rolls.
Unfortunately, just the first day in the park I broke the flash support, but thanks to my wife’s hair elastics I could take pictures with the flashes! Actually about half of the pictures were useless because the flashes bent too close to the front lens, but at least I could take photographs.
A second bad news was the fact that for our main natural interests the season was inappropriate. All travel guides indicate that the dry season and September in particular, is one of the best months. But this is the Madagascar late winter! Nonetheless, this place is so marvelous that even in its winter it can offer stunning encounters with small and fantastic creatures.
Just to remember, Madagascar is one of the world’s largest island, a little larger than France but slightly smaller than Texas. It is a unique naturalist’s paradise, whose plants and animals have evolved in isolation for more than 150 million years. Because of its remoteness, Madagascar was not invaded by humans until around two thousand years ago. Of course after the arrival of human beings the integrity of this incredible island declined—and is still getting worse day by day. Nevertheless, Madagascar’s natural life is still gorgeous, and the island has highest biodiversity on the planet. Actually, about three quarters of Madagascar’s species are endemic, meaning they live nowhere else in the world. The island is home to stunning animals including lemurs, brightly colored chameleons and geckos, colorful frogs and a variety of other creatures. Sadly, due to habitat destruction and hunting, many of Madagascar’s unique animals are threatened with extinction.
Madagascar’s biology is so delicate that there are animals that may only live in tiny areas, and that cannot deal with environmental changes. When my wife and I walked around the Mantadia-Andasibe reserve we hardly noticed that there were zones in which the original palissander forest was replaced by eucalyptus trees. But our local guide explained us that we would have had no chances of finding animals in these apparently similar but new type of forests. In practice there were invisible walls (for our blind white humans) that were not crossable by the endemic fauna. Nevertheless, during night walks, we were able to see several species of Madagascar reptiles, frogs and creepy crawlers. Among them, the beautiful small tree-chameleons were one of the most exciting encounters. Madagascar hosts about two thirds of the world species of chameleons including both subfamilies, typical chameleons (Chamaeleoninae, tree-chameleons or simply chameleons) and dwarf chameleons (Brookesiinae or brookesia). The chameleons live on the branches of trees, while brookesias live on the ground and are very difficult to locate, since they are really tiny and match the background quite accurately. Among brookesias there are the smallest chameleons in the world (less than 5 cm). Unfortunately, my wife and I were not able to spot a single individual in a more than a week, but this is usually the case if you are not really lucky or don’t have months to search. Madagascar is also home of the largest (Calumma parsonii) and smallest (Calumma nasuta) tree-chameleons in the world. C. parsonii can reach 75 cm (including the tail), while C. nasuta is no longer than 10 cm, but usually less (including the tail).
Chameleons are diurnal, solitary, and often aggressive towards members of their own species (marked by rapid color change and aggressive posturing). They are ambushers—opportunistic hunters that wait for prey to pass within range of their long tongues. Chameleons move in bizarre way; they slowly rock back and forth between each step taken. This is done, as other small animals like mantids and stick-insects do, to mimic the movement of the leaves being blown by the wind. Since they are not very fast, in this way they can approach arthropods (their main food) without being spotted by possible predators and use their fast tongues—that they can extend more than the length of their body—to “shoot” their prey.
Even though chameleons are diurnal, they are very difficult to see during the day, and can be better individuated at night, since they become paler and with some training they can be located with a spotlight. They can be found attached to the tips of the leaves of bushes, usually of ferns, with their tail curled mimicking a growing leaf. Chameleons are also very famous for their ability to change colors, but contrary to the popular belief, they rarely do it to match its surroundings. The ability of changing color is mainly adopted to communicate, especially for conveying emotions, defending territories, and “talking” with the other sex.
When we noticed them on the bushes, we had always the impression of finding gems hanged on the leaves. We were always impressed by their fantastic color and shape, and we were amused by their ability of moving their eyes independently, so that they can point into two opposite directions. Their marvelous brain, differently from ours, can deal with different images at the same time. Of course to judge the distance a binocular view is needed, so that when they spot prey both eyes converge toward it. Chameleons are really built for an arboreal life with their flat body that can be easily balanced on thin twigs. Moreover, their feet are modified so that they can have secure movements on the twigs and leaves, by having two fingers fused together and the other three closing in opposite direction as strong clamps. These fantastic animals also have prehensile tails, very rare among reptiles, used for grasping objects when climbing and moving.
Chameleons are armless for humans, however as frequently happens with small creatures, are feared by the majority of the local population. However, chameleons are part of the local traditions, and they are also subject of several proverbs like “like the chameleon, one eye on the future, one eye on the past” or “ugly as a chameleon.”
During our evening walks we were also so lucky to meet the real camouflage champion: the leaf-tailed gecko (uroplatus). Uroplatus can change colors to match their surrounding so well that even the expert local guides touch the bark of the trees where they live in order to detect their presence. As many geckos, they are inactive during the day, and only move when disturbed, but at night they actively hunt arthropods.
Madagascar also hosts special jewel-geckos: the phelsuma. They are so brightly colored that are very popular in exotic pet trades. Even though this was not the right season, we had the chance of seeing them in the warmer part of the day. As geckos phelsuma are very unusual, since they are diurnal only and their diet includes fruit and flower nectar.
Finally it is not possible to not take pictures of Malagasy frogs. Madagascar is thought to have more than 300 species of frogs, 99% of which are endemic. Frogs are the only amphibians found in Madagascar; there are no toads, salamanders or newts. Among them the most famous are the tiny frogs (1–3 cm only) of the Mantella, mantidactilus families and marvelous tree frogs such as the boophis. Mantellas are strikingly beautiful frogs and fill a similar ecological niche to the poison dart frogs of South America in that both use bright colors to advertise their toxic skin secretions to predators. Using an opposite survival strategy are the Mantidactylus which rely on cryptic camouflage instead of stunning colors.
When we left Perinet, we had two contrasting thoughts—happiness and sadness. The former because of the astonishing beauty and uniqueness of that piece of land, but the other thought was about the delicate nature of Malagasy environments, in which the fauna and flora are hardly known and almost left unprotected.
Madagascar Wildlife, A Visitor’s Guide
Hilary Bradt et al 2001 Bradt Publications.
Madagascar, A Natural History
Ken Preston-Mafham, 1991, Facts on File
A Fieldguide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Madagascar
Frank Glaw & Miguel Vences, 1994, Moos Druck, Leverkusen and FARBO, Köln