Possible Insight

Save the Madagascar Rain Forest

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Last night, I was lucky enough to get a personal tour of the California Academy of Sciences from Dr. Brian Fisher, a taxonomist specializing in ants.  He’s doing some amazing work trying to help Madagascar prioritize and save the 10% of native rainforest they have left.  It’s reminiscent of Willie Smits‘ work in Borneo, though focused on preservation rather than revitalization.  But it has the same feel of getting the local people committed to managing their own ecological resources.

You can donate here (I gave them $500), but make sure to write “For the Fisher Madagascar Project” in the “Comments” field.  Otherwise, you’ll be paying for the building lights.  Go ahead and leave the “Allocation” field at the default, “Campaign for a New Academy”. Update: Forgot to mention that if you donate $2,000 they’ll name a new species after you or whomever you designate.

It’s hard to do justice to what I saw last night in a blog post, but here goes…

First, you may be wondering what an ant taxonomist is doing saving the Madacascar rainforest.  Well, it turns out that ant species are incredibly specialized to their local environment. (They are the prototypical superorganism after all.)  So the density of ant species should be a major component of any good proxy for overall ecological diversity. Thus Brian and his team needed to visit the remaining rainforest to  catalog the ants (and other insects).  To accomplish this task, he’s become a combination of McGyver and Steve Wozniak: part super handyman and part super technologist.

The deforestation of Magacascar occurred over thousands of years as colonists from Asia pursued unsustaintable rice farming techniques.  So the only rainforests left, are the ones that are hard for humans to get to and work on.  He’s had to figure out everything from how to cross rivers  in an SUV (lashing plastic containers to the bottom) to how to collect specimens from forest canopies in mountains (going up in a mini-dirigible).

Then he’s had to figure out how to catalog all the specimens and sort out the thousands species. He’s helped develop composite imaging techniques that give you a full view of specimens (check out AntWeb for some unbelievable pictures). He’s had to convince Google to change the Google Earth interface so you can see layers of information at the same location (making it possible for the rest of us to see multiple photos taken at the same spot, BTW). He’s had to improve DNA sequencing and comparison techniques. He seems to have adopted the Internet/Open Source model for much of his innovations so they have a lot of positive knock-on effects.

However, I think the coolest thing about Brian is his commitment to helping Madagascarans help themselves.  He gets grants for the science and expeditions behind the species cataloging.  But that doesn’t solve the preservation problem.  So he’s helping create a local community of preservationists.  He’s helped them create their own Madagascar Biodiversity Center.  He’s bringing local scientists to the US to train and then return to increase the pace of work. He’s working with the government to finalize their countrywide preservation plan.  For that, he needs our help.

(BTW, did you know that ants sleep and queens even dream?  And each species of leafcutter ants has a corresponding unique fungus species that they “farm” as a “crop”? queens carry away a sample of the fungus as well as a dozen or so supporting microbe species in specialized pouches as a “starter kit” for new colonies.  Wild and wacky stuff.)

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Written by Kevin

June 26, 2009 at 12:46 pm

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