Baobabs and Barricades

A major expedition to survey arthropods is completed despite civil unrest.

Three months in the desert "spiny thicket" region of southwest Madagascar have convinced Academy entomologist Brian Fisher of one thing-he prefers rain forests. Intense heat fueled cravings for bottled water, since the area's drinking water is often brackish. The sun-scorched dry forests and succulent thickets do provide rewards for scientists though: 95% of the plant species in these habitats are found nowhere else in the world, and the arthropods-ants, beetles, butterflies, spiders, scorpions and other groups-have never before been studied.

With the country in political turmoil as a result of a disputed presidential election, Fisher's recent expedition to 19 sites faced daunting transportation challenges, including gasoline shortages. Upon leaving the dry forest region, they encountered dozens of barricades defended by armed men. Fortunately, Fisher's eight-member Malagasy team was allowed safe passage at each checkpoint.

Despite hardships, this first in-depth inventory of spiny thicket arthropods was a success. Most of the arthropods collected will be new to science. Though Fisher had no idea what to expect, he found 60 new ant species, including a new species in the genus Mystrium, the tribe of "Dracula ants." In 2000 Fisher discovered a new species of Dracula ants-dubbed by Fisher the missing link in ant evolution-in his favored wet and lush rain forests in eastern Madagascar.

The National Science Foundation provides funding for Brian Fisher and Charles Griswold's four-year survey of the dry forests of Madagascar--the largest arthropod inventory in the world. Fisher is training Malagasy scientists in collection and identification techniques and collaborates with Parc Tsimbazaza, a garden and museum that will store duplicate specimens once they are identified. Fisher also receives generous funding from the McBean Family Foundation. Institutional support from the California Academy of Sciences and the South African Museum has been crucial to the success of the project.

The Madagascar project is supported in part by generous grants from the McBean Family Foundation.

Baobab tree. Photo: Brian Fisher
Having manually pulled the vehicle from the mud, the team continued looking for forest near Lake Ihotry (but never finding it). Photo: Brian Fisher
Cooking goat at our team farewell celebration.
Photo: Brian Fisher

Team photo at coast in Cape St. Marie.
Photo: Brian Fisher
Aphaenogaster swammerdami, the dominant ant of the southwest carrying a millipede. Photo: Brian Fisher

Zebu oxcart transport pulling supplies out of Mandraré River. Photo: Brian Fisher

Leaf litter extraction lab. Photo: Brian Fisher

Malaise trap in spiny bush. The spiny forest is usually 3 to 6 m in height. Photo: Brian Fisher

Porters from local village of Marovato assisting team. Photo: Brian Fisher

The expedition team descending humid forests down into the dry forests of the southwest.
Photo: Brian Fisher

Coastal landscape with spiny bush. Photo: Brian Fisher

Spiny bush with flowering Pachypodium.
Photo: Brian Fisher