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Springtime and Possibility in Madagascar

Cara Brook is a Disease Ecologist working in the Andrew Dobson Lab at Princeton. She currently studies the great bats of Madagascar—flying foxes—and the diseases that they carry that could spill over into humans. Capturing and studying wild bats, of course, requires an ability to blend in to Malagasy culture in addition to the environment which, luckily, Cara is quite adept at.

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Sunrise over the Alaotra-Mangoro. Maromizaha, Madagascar. (Photo by Cara Brook)

“It’s late September, and I really should be back at school…” (Rod Stewart, “Maggie May”)

It’s past late September… It’s October already, and I must beg forgiveness for my long delay in writing. My story continues on the Eighth Continent, and life has been busy of late in all of the best ways possible. The weather has turned on the far side of the world, and the air is warm and ripe with the promise of life-giving rains to come. It’s strange to think of life back home where Princetonians are donning caps and scarves to go autumn apple-picking. Here, the mangoes and pipasy are flooding the streets, and there are whispers of lychee fruits on the horizon. The bibi—animals—are stirring anatin’ny ala, and there will soon be baby bats clinging to their mothers. And to add to this aura of limitless possibility, there is new human life too. Christian’s wife just gave birth to their beautiful baby girl, Tsiky Hailie, which means smile in Malagasy. “A smile is the best gift you can give a child,” says my coworker wisely. “It’s universal.” And I can’t help but smile myself.

I’m just closing out a month of field work in and out of the Alaotra-Mangoro region of east-central Madagascar—a famous place known best for its national park, Andasibe, which is home to the largest lemur on the island, the critically endangered Indri indri, or babakoto, as the Malagasy call it. But there are bats galore, as well as lemurs, in the Alaotra-Mangoro, and I work my way among roost sites for my three target species: the Madagascan flying fox (Pteropus rufus), the Madagascan fruit bat (Eidolon dupreanum), and the Madagascan rousette (Rousettus madagascariensis).

Though I am far removed from my academic home, science has been on my mind more than ever of late. At some point in the past month, I became a third year PhD student, which means that I should begin to sound like an authority on my study subject. I’ve been grant- and paper-writing in between my field ventures, and—delightfully—I am beginning to realize that I do have things to say… and I have a vision for how this story might unfold in the years ahead. Research is such an inspiring lifestyle. It was Francis Bacon (wasn’t it?) who said, “Knowledge is power.” And with research, you get to know something better than anyone else in the world. And that is empowering to say the least.

Pathogen results from previous sampling efforts are trickling in, and new samples are flying off to various laboratories for processing as we speak. Bit-by-bit, we’re beginning to put the puzzle pieces together, and a story is slowly emerging from the mess. We have some preliminary age data back from all that tooth pulling, and it is looking like, on average, Eidolon dupreanum might be a bit longer-lived than Pteropus rufus. This is perhaps an effect of heightened hunting pressure on P. rufus. Pathogen loading is also higher, on the whole, in E. dupreanum, which is intriguing; longevity is important for pathogen dynamics and likely influences bats’ roles as viral reservoirs. Bats are extremely long-lived for their body sizes (the oldest recorded Brandt’s bat lived over 40 years in the wild!), and we’ve got E. dupreanum aged out to fourteen already. That’s not 40, but it’s still a long time for a little creature, and I wonder about its implications for disease dynamics. But there are a lot of factors that might impact pathogen prevalence differently for one bat species versus another—longevity, certainly, but also connectivity in the bat metapopulation or inter-species transmission or so much more. I’m exploring these questions of how bats maintain pathogens as long-term reservoirs for my PhD. And as Ebola rages on in West Africa, I feel a heightened urgency to understand more…

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Left, extracting a tooth from an anesthetized Pteropus rufus. Marovitsika, Madagascar. (Photo credit to Katherine Raber); Right, cementum annuli from a 14-year-old Eidolon dupreanum. (Photo courtesy Matson’s Laboratory, Missoula, MT)

With all this science, Christian and I are finding that we need more help—or at least more company as we process bats by the dozen through the wee hours of the morning. We’ve added a Malagasy masters student, Miora Rasolomanantsoa, to our team for the next few months, and it’s been a delight to work with her so far. Exchanging Yun-Yun for Miora is doing wonders for my language skills, as it has not only removed the English but also added to the Malagasy. It’s destroying my French, which I find more amusing than of serious concern. Christian couldn’t stop laughing as I stumbled over all the little connector words while talking with Dr. Jean-Michel Héraud, Chief of the Virology Unit at Institut Pasteur, when I was storing samples in the lab yesterday. In my defense, we caught so many bats that we basically did not sleep the night before…

But I digress! Miora is mazotobe, or very studious, and I am most impressed with her adaptability and resilience. It seems to be a common trait among Malagasy people, this ability to go with the flow and rise to every unforeseen occasion. Whether riding overnight in an overcrowded taxi-brousse, sleeping unexpectedly on a generous stranger’s floor, or walking all day without food and water, I find my Malagasy friends to be, on the whole, amazingly tough. Yun-Yun, ever wise beyond her young years, told me on one of those long, magical nights in Ankarana that, “We’re taught to always seek comfort in America—but, most of the time, being uncomfortable isn’t going to kill you.”

I think about these words, perched on a rocky cave outcrop in the Mangoro-Alaotra, while the first spring rains weigh down on our mist-net and skip off my garish pink gortex. I look at Zafison, our forest guide, in his soaking wet fleece. “Tsy mangatsika anao?” I ask. Aren’t you cold? And he shrugs. “Efa zatra.” Already used to it. And I laugh and shake my head. Me too, I think, suddenly overwhelmed with love for Madagascar. It was almost four years ago exactly that I first came to this country and felt the spring rain in an eastern forest not so different from this one. Now, it feels like a second home. Still, I think I’ll always try to remember my raincoat.

Read More by Cara Brook