Madagascar, the island country off the coast of Africa that many people associate with lemurs, is a hotbed of biodiversity.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, scientists discovered 615 new species there – including 41 mammals and 61 reptiles – between 1999 and 2010. WWF says 95 percent of the island's reptiles, as well as 89 percent of its plants and 92 percent of its mammals, aren't found anywhere else on the planet.
So when Seneca Park Zoo Society representatives set out with photographer David Liittschwager to take his One Cubic Foot project to Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar, the team expected to document a large number of species. For the project, Liittschwager places a one-cubic-foot box in a promising spot and photographs all of the species that move through it in a day.
The team brought back 500-plus samples so that the species' DNA could be "barcoded" for a Smithsonian database. The Smithsonian started the database to help scientists better identify and differentiate species, as well as to catalog DNA sequences of living things and serve as a record when species go extinct.
Staff at the Smithsonian figured that 20 to 30 percent of the Madagascar samples would be new to the database, but about 90 percent were, says Pamela Reed Sanchez, the zoo society's executive director. And around 20 of the species they collected – mostly insects – may have been previously unknown to science, she says. Researchers are now working to sort that out.
"It's going to be national and international news," Reed Sanchez says. The Seneca Park Zoo Society is an independent educational, conservation, and advocacy group tied to the zoo, and it funded the project.
Mahandry Hugues Andrianarisoa, a conservation biology student pursuing his master's degree from the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar's capital, is in Rochester through the end of July to help prepare a report on the research for the Malagasy government. He was part of the team that did the fieldwork in Ranomafana National Park and recently traveled to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to work on DNA barcoding of the collected species
He says the findings could become a valuable tool for conservationists taking on one of Madagascar's biggest environmental problems: deforestation. The research helps provide a more complete picture of what could be lost when Madagascar's forests are destroyed, and it helps strengthen the case for protecting those areas, he says.
He'll be able to take some of the skills he's learned, he says, including DNA barcoding, back to Madagascar and use them to help protect the country's forests. For example, mining and manufacturing companies have to study the potential impact their projects will have on forests and provide environmental restoration plans, Andrianarisoa says. When there's more documentation of the species that make up or rely on the forests, officials can make better decisions around those projects, he says.
Madagascar is not a wealthy country, and typically children leave school when they're 10. Andrianarisoa is one of the exceptions: he pursued his studies with support from his parents, who are teachers in a small town, with the hope of making his country better.
Much of Madagascar's deforestation results from families doing what they need to in order to live, Andrianarisoa says. They clear land to grow food or to harvest trees for wood and charcoal. He wants to return to Madagascar to teach people about the environment and help families find new ways of supporting themselves. He sees education as key to protecting Madagascar's biodiversity.
But all of that will take resources, and the funding just isn't available in his home country. That means he needs to find partnerships, he says. The same holds true for reforestation efforts, which he also wants to work on.
"The situation is getting hard," he says, "so we want to make sure it's happening as quick as possible."