30 March 2017

Working with local botanists in Madagascar: fieldwork in a biodiversity hotspot

MSc students from Kew and Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) reflect on experiences from their field trip to Madagascar, where they worked with local botanists and saw astonishing plants and fungi.

By Yannick Woudstra , Shawn O'Donnell and Shannon Skarha

Madagascar forest canopy

Why did we go to Madagascar? What did we do, learn and collect there?

For two weeks we were taken on a journey across the country by brilliant local botanists to see the wonderful plants and fungi of Madagascar. The local experts from the Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre (KMCC) taught us valuable tropical plant identification skills and showed us how to recognise several key Madagascan taxa. Furthermore, seeing their involvement in conservation projects made us feel hopeful for the future of Madagascar’s biodiversity.

Parc Botanique et Zoologique Tsimbazaza

One of the keystones in Madagascar’s conservation, and the first destination on our trip, was the botanical garden at Parc Botanique et Zoologique Tsimbazaza (PBZT). In a tour around the garden, the local staff showed us exciting conservation projects: we saw a field of yams (Dioscorea spp.) planted in the shape of Madagascar, containing native (and some endemic) yam species, showing the natural diversity of such important crops. 

We were taken to the orchid nursery, where KMCC specialists Frank Rakotonasolo and Landy Rajaovelona are helping to propagate endangered endemics. A recent success was the conservation of the critically endangered Angraecum longicalcar (related to the famous Darwin’s orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale) dozens of individuals of which were replanted in the wild following propagation (Rajaovelona et al. 2013). 

The garden is an inspiring place to see Madagascar’s native plants. It is free to enter and is used to show people the importance of conservation.

Having seen some of the native plants in the garden we were excited to go into the field to collect specimens for research: we were not disappointed. Our next destination was the dry forest in Ankarafantsika National Park, where the vegetation is dominated by large trees and shrubs. We were amazed by the wild lemurs climbing Euphorbia trees covered in spikes. But Shawn O’Donnell (MSc student) jumped even higher when he saw a flowering mimosoid legume.

Flowers in alcohol

Shawn recounts "As well as learning as much as possible from the KMCC botanists and Kew staff on this trip, my specific mission was to keep an opportunistic eye peeled for mimosoid legumes in flower that I might be able to collect for my research project. I am researching the ecological contexts and evolution of pollen structure and pollination systems in the mimosoid legumes in Madagascar.

"There are 127 native Madagascan species scattered throughout this clade, 116 of which occur nowhere else on the planet. A further 18 species have been introduced by people. How many would be in flower in mid-February at the sites we were to visit? Atypical rainfall patterns in recent months made the answer to this question anyone’s guess.

"Along the drive through the Central Plateaux between Antananarivo and Ankarafantsika, I noticed a white-flowered and a pink-flowered Mimosa, as well as what appeared to be two different species of Dichrostachys in flower. However, our collecting permits covered only the National Park and a special community reserve that we were to visit, so these first glimpses remained just that: observations.

"In Ankarafantsika, with the help of several other students who generously adopted my mimosoid mission, we collected in ethanol two species of Mimosa and one species of Albizia that were in flower, as well as an additional Albizia and Entada in fruit. After re-living the tantalising glimpses of the uncollectable mimosoids along the roads between Ankarafanstika, Tana and Analalava, I managed to make several non-fertile collections of what might, upon comparison with type specimens, turn out to be two species of Viguieranthus, in the humid forest site at Analalava.

"Now back at Kew, my task is to extract, collate and analyse relevant data alongside existing information, and continue to cultivate collaborative relationships with the Malagasy experts at KMCC."

Collecting herbarium and fungarium specimens

The western dry forests of Madagascar are one of the most threatened biomes in the country. That’s why Stuart Cable (research leader in Kew’s Madagascar team) and his collaborators at KMCC are working on a rapid inventory of areas like Ankarafantsika National Park. This hard and labour-intensive job was made easier with keen students on hand to assist. We helped the KMCC team with the collections whilst at the same time learning from their expertise on local flora.

Bat Vorontsova (Kew’s grass taxonomist) was there to help with the grasses and sedges, David Goyder (Kew’s Apocynaceae expert in tropical East Africa) brought his expertise on tropical plant families, and Tuula Niskanen (one of Kew’s excellent mycologists) made sure the fungi weren’t forgotten.

In just three days, we collected 289 herbarium and 150 fungarium specimens. In addition to this, Shannon Skarha (MSc student) was digging for root samples to explore mycorrhizal diversity.

Digging for roots

Shannon says "The forests of Madagascar offer a plethora of mycological delights for those willing to rummage around the scenery. The aims of my study, however, were not only to observe and record what was above ground, but to explore the depths below ground as well.

"By collecting mycorrhizal roots from both endemic and non-native tree species, my goal was to gain a better understanding of the plant-fungal relationships within Madagascar. With help from the local guides, we were able to identify tree species known to harbour ectomycorrhizae in their roots

"Once digging down in the dirt, I attempted to uncover and follow roots from said trees while keeping a careful eye out for any potential fruiting bodies. From this study, we‘re attempting to generate baseline diversity data for Madagascan fungi, as many are yet to be described.

"Additionally, our findings may aid in future studies and conservation efforts, providing a better understanding of the specificity of these symbiotic relationships."

In Analalava half of the group was lucky enough to spend the night in the community reserve, eating traditional local food and seeing the community conservation project up close.

Because it had been very dry for a while, there weren't many fungi to collect; however the plant diversity was absolutely stunning. We saw many trees with diverse understories, and stems covered in epiphytic plants. We even went to the roost of a fruit bat colony that retook its niche in the forest reserve.

This trip was an amazing experience and all of the students were very much engaged. I think this is mostly due to the enthusiasm of the KMCC team who are excellent botanists and great company. We saw some disheartening sights of deforestation and the trip was not always comfortable (cramped up in a hot van on a bumpy road for 10 hours) but the thoughts slip your mind when you enter the beautiful natural reserves and meet the wonderful people of Madagascar.


We would like to show our gratitude to KMCC botanists Solofo Rakotoarisoa, David Rabrehavita, Romer Rabarijaona, Helene Ralimanana, Frank Rakotonasolo, Guy Onjalalaina, Landy Rajaovelona and all the other Team KMCC members involved in this trip. The people gave this trip the colour that will stay in our memories forever and we have made friends for life. We would also like to thank Stuart Cable, Tuula Niskanen, David Goyder, Bat Vorontsova and Gimara Duncan-Rice for organising this wonderful trip. Special thanks to the conservation team at Analalava Forest Reserve and Chris Birkinshaw (Missouri Botanical Gardens) for allowing us to study the wonderfully diverse forests and for the hospitality at the campsite.