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I was fortunate to have been able to participate in the French Canopy Raft Program (Radeau de Cimes) when it visited the Masoala Peninsula of Madagascar. The Masoala Peninsula is Madagascar’s last large tract of eastern coastal rainforest. Because of the remote nature of the locality, much about the local wildlife is unknown. Two distinct forest types exist in the region where we worked: lowland coastal rainforest and montane rainforest, which carpets the steep slopes of the mountains surrounding the lowlands. The beaches are beautiful and the vistas from the treetops on the mountainsides are breathtaking.
The French Canopy Raft Program is a well organized and efficient program that employs various tools to allow scientists to work and live in the forest canopy. Teams of scientists will come and go as the program visits a particular locality. The program is the brain child of world renoun canopy biologist Francis Hallé and colleagues. I can not compliment the program enough for their professional approach, the level of detail they manage efficiently, and the unprecedented access to the world’s forest canopies that they provide.
Being able to participate in the French Canopy Raft Program was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my career. With that said, this is an ideal place to make an important point. It is rare that someone forges their career alone, and my story is no exception. Because I was a graduate student when I applied to the program, I had help getting to Madagascar with the Canopy Raft Program. The famous canopy biologist, Dr. Margaret Lowman (AKA “Canopy Meg”), reviewed a proposal that fellow graduate student Mark Walvoord and I wrote to study canopy frogs. She liked it enough to write us a letter of recommendation that ultimately delivered us to this project. For that support and her belief in two young graduate students, I am forever grateful to Dr. Lowman.
Our work in Madagascar involved quite a few other folks. Jim Stout collaborated with us on this project (formerly of the Oklahoma City Zoo). Mark and I owe much to Jim with regard to keeping operations organized while working in the field. I have enjoyed quite a bit of field time with Jim, including some work along the Madre de Dios in Southern Peru. In Madagascar, we collaborated with Malagasy herpetologist Jasmin Randrianirina. We also had the great good fortune to work with Dr. Franco Andreone with our species descriptions. Franco is an exceptional herpetologist and we undoubtedly benefited from our collaborations with him. We worked with Dr. Neil Cumberlidge on our phytotelmata inhabiting crab studies and learned much from him. He is a great collaborator and mentor. We’d like to thank the Oklahoma City Zoo, the Oklahoma City Zoological Society, the Oklahoma City Chapter of the AAZK, the University of Oklahoma-Department of Zoology, the University of Oklahoma’s Graduate Student Senate, the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, and Paula Stout for their support for this project. We had additional help along the way from Dr. V. Hutchison, Dr. J. Caldwell, Dr. M. Hoefnagles, Dr. C. Leary, Dr. J. Mendelson, Dr. B. Collier, Dr. R. Bonett, Dr. F. Glaw, Dr. M. Vences, DVM A. Garcia, and M. Mandica. The road to Madagascar was a long one and the subsequent publications were possible via the help of all of the above. Thank you.
Two pieces of equipment that the program employ are the blimp and the one-man balloon. Both pieces of equipment are typically employed in early morning hours when the winds are mild. The blimp carries the canopy raft and the canopy sled to points in the forest canopy. The one man balloon is tethered to a cable that crosses a section of rainforest canopy. The operator of the balloon can move along the cable and collect samples and make observations at their leisure.
The one man balloon was great to watch as different biologists used it to collect samples and make observations in the forest canopy.
An early morning balloon ride.
The French Canopy Raft Program is probably best known for its blimp and canopy raft. When I took this shot, I was in the top of an emergent tree about 33 meters (~100 feet) above the forest floor. The tree was on a steep slope of a mountain that edged the lowland forest. The vantage point was a good one for capturing the blimp carrying the canopy raft to a selected position in the rainforest canopy.
Long before dawn, the dedicated crew that manages the blimp prepares it for its daily flights. At dawn, the blimp is nearly ready to lift the canopy raft and crews of scientists into the forest canopy.
Living on the canopy raft was spectacular. The platform is formed of rigid air filled supports with mesh strewn between the supports. Sleeping on the canopy raft involves sleeping in a harness attached to the raft. Our evenings on the raft were great. Canopy dwelling fireflies passed by and the stars were clear. Rain showers were the only challenging part of the stay.
Our climbing partner, Nouie Baiben, gets up in the morning on the canopy raft and prepares something to eat.
The canopy sled is another tool that can be used to grant access for scientists to the forest canopy. The sled is suspended below the blimp and is literally drug along the tops of the forest canopy. This allows biologists to gather samples in a few hours from a broad area which would take days or months to cover by hand and rope.
Jim Stout and Mark Walvoord prepare for a trip up in the canopy sled.
This is a shot from inside the canopy sled. One of the strange occurrences during the canopy sled experience was running into a tree branch that had an arboreal ant nest in it. When the sled struck the branch, large black ants flowed out of the nest and over the rails of the sled like water. The ants bit and stung all morning and made sample collection a challenge.
The view looking upward from the canopy sled is an amazing one.
The French Canopy Raft Program employs another piece of equipment called an ICOS unit. These are basically mobile tree fort units. We lived in one of these units for an extended period at the top of an emergent tree, over 37 meters (~110 feet) above the forest floor. One night in a rain storm the wind picked up. The top of our tree was swaying nearly 5 meters (~15 feet) in the wind. It was a wild ride.
Looking downward from the upper platform of an ICOS unit where Mark Walvoord is preparing for a vertical transect.
Most of our days and nights were spent working on the ropes performing vertical transects.
Here is a view from an emergent tree. Nouie Baiben crosses a rope we have tied between two emergent trees. Notice the treetops many feet below Nouie, those are the tree tops of the upper canopy, roughly 19 meters (~57 feet) in height.
Mark Walvoord collects water samples from a tree hole in an emergent tree.
Checking water filled tree holes was a regular activity during our project. We were surprised to find both freshwater and marine crabs living in the phytotelmata of the Masoala Peninsula.
Jim Stout is displaying a clipping from an epiphytic fern in the genus Huperzia.
Mark Walvoord, Jim Stout, and I would like to acknowledge the skills and hard work that Nouie Baiben contributed to our project. Nouie was our climbing specialist and he made all of our activities on a daily basis possible.
The coast line along the Masoala Peninsula is stunning.
Streams running through our research area were strewn with moss covered boulders.
The forest floor below our research area was covered in ferns.