One Cubic Foot Madagascar Travel Log 1

Zoo Society Executive Director Pamela Reed Sanchez will be updating this travel log as One Cubic Foot Madagascar continues.

Part One: May 18, 2016

On a train headed to Penn Station…and then to JFK airport.  We board South African Airlines tomorrow to head for Antananarivo, Madagascar via Johannesburg.

I have not been out of the Western Hemisphere since 1986.  I have never been out of the Northern Hemisphere.

I have never been to a developing country (Mexico doesn’t count, right?).

I am prepared to have my mind blown, but I don’t even have a concept of what that means.

I’m told that as we make the drive from Antananarivo (the capital of Madagascar) to Ranomafana National Park, I will see signs of the forests burning.  Eighty percent of Madagascar’s forests have been destroyed in the last decades…and if that sounds horrendous, consider how much of our country was once forest and wild spaces.

What am I expecting? I honestly don’t know. One of the biggest revelations I’ve had in my life is that “I don’t know what I don’t know.” Colleagues on this trip have told me that it will be a few days before it hits me….how different the world is than my own current experience of it.

You can prepare as much as possible…and still not know what lies ahead.

We have, in fact, been preparing for this trip for nearly a year. The stars aligned to make it possible for us to bring David Liittschwager (creator of “One Cubic Foot”) and Chris Meyer (Smithsonian research zoologist and co-founder of the Barcode of Life Database –BOLD) to replicate One Cubic Foot in Ranomafana National Park, where lemur expert Pat Wright has been working for decades to ensure the sustainability of the 100+ species of lemurs in Madagascar. The docents at Seneca Park Zoo have been supporting Dr. Wright’s research for nearly 20 years.  I call her the Jane Goodall of lemurs, but actually, she’s more than that. When Pat first started her work in Madagascar, there were 30 known species of lemurs, and the bamboo lemur was thought to be extinct. She went in search of bamboo lemurs…and found them.  And more. Today, there are at least 103 species of known lemurs, and a great deal of this knowledge is due to the work of Pat Wright and her colleagues.

When we first skyped with Pat about the possibility of bringing One Cubic Foot to Ranomafana, her first words were, “Do you want to put the cube in the rainforest, or in the river?”

Honestly, I was thrilled that Pat already knew what One Cubic Foot was, and my colleague, Tom Snyder, and I simply said, “YES.”  Because we don’t know, yet, and won’t know until we get there, what the perfect spot will be for placing the cube for optimal biodiversity. Our hope is that with the participation of 15 teenagers from Allendale Columbia School that we will have the resources to successfully monitor more than one cube.

The work that we did in the Genesee River resulted in 17 new DNA barcode sequences being added to BOLD (a database that already has 5 million barcodes).  That was roughly 13% of the barcode sequences conducted on the specimens collected during that project.

Earlier this week, I asked the Allendale Columbia students to speculate on the percentage of barcodes collected on our trip that will be new to BOLD. Since 90% of the species found on Madagascar are endemic to the island (meaning they are found ONLY on Madagascar), and to the best of our knowledge we are only the second group to conduct DNA barcoding in Madagascar, the predictions ranged from 25% to 95%. Perhaps none of us know what to expect. But all of us know we are in for the trip of a lifetime.