Madagascar - Night Walks

A Short Horned Chameleon seen in Mitsinjo Reserve, Andasibe

Madagascar plays host to some of the highest biodiversity on the planet. The country has more than 11,000 endemic plant species. All species of lemurs are found in Madagascar and nowhere else. Half of the world’s chameleon species are endemic, as well as around 6% of its frog species. This is the result of the country being isolated for about 88 million years, allowing evolution to take a truly unique path.

When most people think of Madagascar’s wildlife they think of iconic species like the Ring Tailed Lemur (Madagascar’s national animal), Panther Chameleon and Giraffe Necked Weevil. They’re all amazing species and have gained their famous status for good reason, but I was also looking forward to exploring Madagascar at night in 4 of the different areas I visited there. Often you find a completely different array of wildlife that comes out at night.

Night walks presented a new challenge for me as nocturnal photography is something new and getting to grips with flash-guns, or speedlites, on and off the camera is a whole new ball game. Fortunately I had managed to get plenty of practice in working with species at home. From the easier Common Frog to the ‘never standing still’ Pine Marten of Scotland (see my blog post dated 21 August 2015) I felt more and more comfortable with the controls behind flash photography and working with light modifiers to control the direction and spread of light.

The first opportunity for nocturnal photography presented itself in Ranomafana, the first main area on a month long trip in Madagascar. Ranomafana National Park is in south-eastern Madagascar. The park was established in 1991 with the purpose of conserving the unique biodiversity of the local ecosystem. It is part of the World Heritage Site Rainforests of Atsinanana. Ranomafana literally means ‘hot water’; Rano is Malagasy for ‘water’ and mafana means ‘hot’. Unfortunately, trekking through national parks at night is forbidden in Madagascar, so night walks here follow the road. That might not sound that adventurous, but dense rainforest lines the road so a whole myriad of species can be found.

We would start at a well known waterfall just before dusk slowly walking along the road, eyes peeled, and made our down until we were close to the entrance to the national park. The first animals we came across were Nose Horned and O’Shaughnessy’s Chameleons.

A tiny Nose Horned Chameleon in Ranomfana

An O’Shaughnessy’s Chameleon seen on the roadside at Ranomafana

An O’Shaughnessy’s Chameleon seen on the roadside at Ranomafana

A tiny Nose Horned Chameleon in Ranomfana

An O’Shaughnessy’s Chameleon seen on the roadside at Ranomafana

The Nose Horned Chameleon is common in the rainforests of eastern Madagascar. They’re quite easy to identify thanks to a protrusion giving the tiny chameleon a ‘nose’. It is typically found in low vegetation, usually up to 3m off the ground. They can reach sizes of roughly 10cm. They were fascinating to watch as they moved slowly through vegetation. How they managed to hang on in the strong breeze we often had on night walks I’m not sure as they seemed so delicate. Nose Horned Chameleons were the most common species we saw in Madagascar, although only in the eastern rainforests of Ranomafana and Andasibe.

O’Shaughnessy’s Chameleon is classed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. As with all species in Madagascar, it is threatened by the loss of habitat due to slash-and-burn agriculture and logging for construction. The chameleon gets its name from the British poet and herpetologist Arthur O’Shaughnessy who discovered it. It’s range is larger than that of the Nose Horned Chameleon as it is found not only in the rainforests of eastern Madagascar but also in the central highlands as well. They can reach lengths of up to 40cm including their tail.

Chameleons are very popular with people often because of the myth that they change colour to match their surroundings. This isn’t true, they change colour depending on their mood. An angry or upset chameleon usually changes to mostly black in colour. They are able to change their colour thanks to a layer of skin cells that contain floating nanocrystals. These tiny crystals are roughly evenly spaced throughout the cell. This spacing determines the wavelength of light that the cells reflect. Contrary to what most people think, when a male chameleon comes across another male competitor or a potentially receptive female, it shifts the background colour of its skin from green to yellow, its blue patterning turns white and red becomes brighter. How they managed to evolve this trait isn’t quite clear but nonetheless it is an amazing ability.

Another feature of chameleons which I love is their prehensile tail. The term prehensile is taken from the Latin ‘prehendere’ which means ‘able to grasp’. Chameleons use their prehensile tail as a 5th limb to grasp branches as they climb through the trees.

Nose Horned Chameleon

O’Shaughnessy’s Chameleon

The incredibly cute Brown Mouse Lemur

One animal I was most hoping to see in Ranomafana was the very cute mouse lemur. Before the trip in Madagascar I had read that Ranomafana was one of my best chances at seeing this tiny little primate, especially as they’re enticed by offerings of banana from the local guides. The species we managed to see up close was the Brown Mouse Lemur. Body alone they only reach 12cm in size. Add another 12cm for their tail and you’ve got one of the smallest primates in the world. It is a hard concept to grasp that they’re related to us. They moved incredibly quickly through the trees, so fast in fact that you didn’t really see their limbs moving, rather they ‘pinged’ from branch to branch with amazing agility so as not to crash into nearby twigs.

The Latin word ‘lemures’ means ‘ghost’. Traditionally Malagasy people have associated nocturnal lemurs, including this little species, with spirits no doubt because they are active at night. Brown Mouse Lemurs live solitary lives and only come together to mate. They’re able to store up to 35% of their body weight in fat in their tails and hind legs, using it when food is scarce.

Hardly surprising, although sadly, they’re listed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to habitat loss and the pet trade.

More photos of my time in Ranomafana and the surrounding area can be found here.

Tiny Brown Mouse Lemurs are attracted in with offerings of banana by local guides

Brown Mouse Lemur

Brown Mouse Lemur

Brown Mouse Lemur

Brown Mouse Lemur

The Spiny Forest of Ifaty, famous the world over for it’s weird and wonderful plants

The next chance at nocturnal photography was on a night staying at Le Paradisier in Ifaty. I was on my way to Anakao in the hope of seeing Red Billed Tropicbirds on the nearby island of Nosy Ve. Ifaty is famous for it’s Spiny Forest. All plants in this area have evolved to cope with extreme drought. Perhaps the most famous is the family of Baobab trees. These amazing trees are fire resistant and store a large amount of water in their bottle shaped trunk. They grow incredibly slowly; between 1mm and 5mm a year. 7 of the 9 Baobab species in the world are native to Madagascar. The local people don’t cut down these trees as they have a superstition around them, known locally as ‘fady’, as they believe that the spirits of their ancestors are inside of these ancient trees.

While on the night walk around the hotel grounds of Le Paradisier I came across a Madagascar Cat-Eyed Snake. Locals fear all snakes. Again, ‘fady’ surrounds snakes - they’re called ‘kakalava’, meaning ‘long enemy’. Snakes have always received a bad rap, a primordial fear, from the Biblical reference that snakes introduced evil to man. Personally, along with all reptiles, they have fascinated me. Far from being slimy, scaly creatures who are out for the sole intention to make our lives a misery, they move with grace and have some of the most intricate and beautiful patterns and colours found in the natural world.

In fact, Madagascar is home to more than 80 species of snakes of which none are dangerous to humans. The country has no vipers, adders or cobras, only boas and colubrids. While some snakes are venomous snakes, they’re rear-fanged and only capable of inflicting a painful bite. Nonetheless the local Malagasy people I was with kept their distance from this Cat-Eyed Snake while I took a few photos of it.

You can see more of my photos from Ifaty here.

Madagascar Cat-Eyed Snake

Green Bright-Eyed Frog seen on the roadside near Andasibe village

My third opportunity for night walks and some further nocturnal photography came when I was back in the eastern rainforests of the country, only this time in the well known area of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Andasibe was a place I was most looking forward to visit. It is the land of the Indri, or Babakoto as it is known locally, the largest living lemur in Madagascar. Not only that, but the rainforest of Andasibe is rich in biodiversity from lemurs to frogs and chameleons. As an animal lover, it is heaven on earth, and as a wildlife photographer, it is like being a kid in a candy store. Most of the frogs, chameleons and geckos in Andasibe are active at night, so I squeezed in as many night walks as possible.

The first was in a reserve known as Mitsinjo. I was keen to support this reserve as it was formed in 1999, called Association Mitsinjo, by residents of the local village. In 2003 they gained management of Analamazaotra Forest Station, one of the best places to see the Indri. Association Mitsinjo provides employment for more than 50 members of the local community. Roughly half of their employees are certified tourist guides for the Andasibe area, while others work on a project by project basis. In total their activities have an effect on more than 400 households in the Andasibe area. It is the perfect example of how the local community is working in harmony with nature; so vital in a place like Madagascar where deforestation is rife and discoveries for medicinal purposes and advancements in science are still being found.

Along with my local guide, Barry, the first species we came across was a stunning Short Horned Chameleon roosting in low vegetation. I tried a few different lighting techniques and settled with using two flash-guns, one from the front-right and another from the rear providing back-light. As I’ve already mentioned I find the prehensile tail of a chameleon fascinating, and this particular chameleon had it’s tailed perfectly coiled. The most distinctive feature of the Short Horned Chameleon is its large, ear-like occipital lobes. When threatened, it raises its ear-like flaps to increase its apparent size.

We did see another species of mouse lemur here too, this time the Goodman’s Mouse Lemur. However, the moved like lightning up in the trees and was almost impossible to get a photograph of. They were fantastic to watch though so I put the camera down and followed their antics with a torch.

A Short Horned Chameleon seen roosting on low vegetation in Mitsinjo Reserve, Andasibe

Short Horned Chameleon, Mitsinjo Reserve, Andasibe

Short Horned Chameleon, Mitsinjo Reserve, Andasibe

Moving further into the Mitsinjo Reserve we came across the much smaller Short Nosed Chameleon. It is endemic, of course, to Madagascar. They are small and graceful chameleons with apparently smooth and vivid green skin. This appearance helps them to blend in with their habitat. Their head and body is slender, quite different to the generic look of chameleons. They also have a a pale line which runs along each side of their body.

Photographing this little guy wasn’t easy. As you delve deeper into Mitsinjo Reserve the path becomes steep and undulating. This Short Nosed Chameleon was found right next to the path but it was very steep. I slipped a couple of times while trying to get a good footing. Still, I was happy with the photos I managed to get of this small chameleon.

A Short Nosed Chameleon clings to a branch in Mitsinjo Reserve

Short Nosed Chameleon, Mitsinjo Reserve

Short Nosed Chameleon, Mitsinjo Reserve

One of the last critters we found on our walk in Mitsinjo was a Brown Leaf Chameleon. Just like the Short Horned Chameleon, it was clinging to low vegetation to roost for the night. I’d seen this tiny and amazing chameleon before in Ranomafana National Park but that was during the day as it was crossing our path. It was a great opportunity to get a couple of photos to show what they look like. A marvel of natural evolution in its own right, it has evolved to mimic a dead leaf. When amongst the leaf litter, these chameleons are almost impossible to spot. They’re part of the ’brookesia’ family of chameleons, the smallest in the world. As with just about every animal in Madagascar, they’re endemic to the island.

Brown Leaf Chameleon roosting

Brown Leaf Chameleon

The second night walk in Andasibe was, in my view, the best of all. Rather than going back to Mitsinjo Barry suggested walking along the road from Andasibe village to the Analamazaotra Forest Station about 2 miles away. He suggested this instead as he knew that different species of frogs were often seen - it was a great idea of his as we saw quite a few. The first we came across was this tiny Tsarafidy Madagascar Frog…

Tsarafidy Madagascar Frog

Tsarafidy Madagascar Frog

The main frog species I was hoping to see while in Andasibe, and in fact Madagascar, was from the family ’boophis’; in particular the Green Bright-Eyed Frog (boophis viridis). They’re also known as tree frogs which encompass many different frog species, but are characterised by, obviously, their arboreal nature spending their time in trees. They have the ability to change colour from mustard yellow, reddish brown and vibrant green. Also, their inner and outer irises are blue.

I couldn’t believe my luck when we came across a few of these tiny little frogs. They only reach around 3cm in size, so finding them was a challenge despite their vocals. They’re surprisingly loud for their size, and I was constantly checking the trees and plants lining the road we were walking along desperate to find one as they teased with their calls, seemingly right in front of you. As I scanned the vegetation with my torch a small yellow object in the corner of my eye caught my attention. It turned out to be the first of 3 Green Bright-Eyed Frogs we saw that night. Barry saw it too and was elated at finding one. After all, we were searching for a frog that is easily seen in the wet season or after rain, but we were searching in the height of the dry season just before the wet season began.

Green Bright-Eyed Frog

Green Bright-Eyed Frog

Green Bright-Eyed Frog

Green Bright-Eyed Frog

If this night couldn’t get any better, at the end of the night walk Barry spotted the master of disguise, a Mossy Leaf Tailed Gecko. From the ’uroplatus’ family of geckos, they’re endemic to Madagascar and have evolved the most amazing camouflage. Their skin perfectly matches a mossy branch in the rainforest and also possess dermal flaps which help them to break up their outline to practically merge with their surroundings. Just about impossible to see during the day, they aren’t exactly easy to find at night either. While I was busy searching the roadside for more critters with no success, Barry went on ahead. All of a sudden he came running back with the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store having found this gecko. It was found in a difficult spot to get near so I managed to grab a couple of shots and left it in peace.

Mossy Leaf Tailed Gecko

Mossy Leaf Tailed Gecko

On our last night walk in Andasibe the first animal we came across turned out to be something, as Barry explained, quite rare; a Canopy Chameleon. Of the 6 species of chameleon known to be in the Analamazaotra this species is classed as the rarest as they’re usually only seen in the tops of trees. It is also known as Will’s Chameleon, although I have to admit I’m not sure why. Anther tiny species of chameleon, scarcely bigger than my index finger, it is vibrant green and this one was seen in a bush at the side of the road close to Andasibe village. Barry was ecstatic about finding it considering how difficult they are to see.

Canopy Chameleon, also known as Will’s Chameleon

Canopy Chameleon

A sleeping Madagascar Tree Frog was also seen close to the Analamazaotra Forest Station at the end of the walk.

For more photos from my time in Andasibe click on the link here.

Madagascar Tree Frog

My fourth and last opportunity for some nocturnal photography was at the last destination of my journey through Madagascar; Anjajavy in the north-west of the country.

Anjajavy really stood out a major player in the conservation of Madagascar. I won’t go into the details here as you can see the reasons why on my page on this area here. What I will say is that I hope all the other conservation areas of the country and other biologically diverse hotspots follow in Anjajavy’s footsteps before it is too late.

The two photos below are of the beach that the hotel of Anjajavy is situated. The first is actually the view from my room looking over the beach and the Indian Ocean. With so little light pollution in Madagascar the stars could be seen clearly, something not often seen back in England.

The view from my room at Anjajavy across the beach

Starry night sky and palms

Each night I’d spend some time wandering along the beach as it was so peaceful without anyone around. Just the sound of waves gently lapping against the beach. The only company I had was from some little crabs scurrying around and, apart from the one seen on the rock in the second photo, trying to keep out of my way.

It was a great opportunity for a photo technique called ‘light painting’ - literally painting in light with either a torch or a speedlite onto dark areas. Each photo was taken over a 30 second or 1 minute exposure while I used a speedlite to light up the beach or rocks etc.

The photo of the crab on the rock was a little more tricky as it involved me changing the cameras’ focus from the crab to infinity mid-exposure so as to bring the rest of scene into focus. I don’t think I got it quite right but I didn’t want to disturb the crab too much so left with this photo.

It took me a while to balance the light painting in the third photo as what looks like the sun in the top right of the image is actually the moon and was particularly bright that night. I wanted to try and show the ‘Tsingy’ rock formations. Tsingy is the name given to Jurassic limestone that covers a large part of northwest Madagascar. Literally the Malagasy word ‘Tsingy’ means where one cannot walk barefoot or on tiptoes.

Tsingy meets the Indian Ocean

A little crab found on a rock while out walking along the beach

The moon and Tsingy landscape

During my time at Anjajavy I also went walking through the deciduous forest looking for wildlife. I’d spoken to Will Burrard-Lucas as I’d seen from his website that he’d been before. I was keen to see and hopefully photography mouse lemurs here and Will explained it is a great place to see them. So each night I’d follow the paths from the hotel into the forest. Usually I’d come across a Madagascar Nightjar which was protecting it’s chick from predators. It’s choice of nesting site right by the path didn’t seem like a wise decision.

Madagascar Nightjar

Madagascar Nightjar

The best way to look for any nocturnal lemur was to scan the trees with a torch and look out for eye shine. Mouse lemurs turned out to be everywhere and you would see these two little red eyes, almost demonic, of the lemur looking back at you in the beam of your torch light.

The photo below shows a Fat Tailed Dwarf Lemur high up in the trees.  Dwarf lemurs are the only primates to hibernate. This extraordinary characteristic has made them the subject of study by Duke University. The research is looking at how a these lemurs can slow down their vital organs in the hope it can be beneficial in space travel as well as emergency wards.

Fat Tailed Dwarf Lemur

While spotting mouse lemurs with a torch was relatively straight forward, getting close enough to one to photograph was a whole different ball game.

Fortunately we came across a fruiting tree right next to the path and the fruits seemed to be favoured by these lemurs. Most would ‘ping’ from branch to branch and tree to tree with lightning speed and were impossible to photograph. Grey Mouse Lemurs and Golden Brown Mouse Lemurs were the two species we saw at this tree.

Only one, a Golden Brown Mouse Lemur with a little ‘nick’ in it’s ear, casually moved around and was apparently unconcerned with me being there, nor with the flash firing. It even ate some of the fruits right in front of us.

The second and third photos were taken on my last night in Madagascar and what a way to finish an amazing trip to the country…

Golden Brown Mouse Lemur

Golden Brown Mouse Lemur

Golden Brown Mouse Lemur

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the blog. You can see more of my photos from Anjajavy here.

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