Makira Lessons: Wherein A Common Bird and A Red Rat Are Low-Key High-Maintenance

Originally posted on Medium on 08/03/17.

It was a small bird, scientists said see you later bird, it wasn’t rare enough for them…

It was a small bird, scientists said see you later bird, it wasn’t rare enough for them…

If you go into the Madagascar rainforest today, you’re in for two assured sightings: a small, black-and-white bird called a Madagascar magpie-robin, and a small, red-furred rodent called a red forest rat.

The red forest rat in all its glory.

The red forest rat in all its glory.

Despite — or perhaps because — they are relatively common and can be found in lower-quality forest, very few people thought to study them. Why would one do so when you have ultra-super rare collector’s edition lemurs and carnivores to focus on? And so, their secrets would’ve stayed secret, if Zach had already called dibs on the carnivores.


Camera trapping is like a bag of trail mix: you never know what you’re going to get. That, and you’re probably going to get a lot of what you don’t want. Strap them high up on a tree and you can get face-to-face with larger animals like cows and lions.

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Soak the site with cat urine (or Calvin Klein’s Obsession, true story!), and you’ll get more curious or pissed off carnivores.

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But even with all these tips and tricks, you’ll still get a lot of random animals. For every picture of a fosa that we got, we got at least three pictures of red-breasted couas strutting or red forest rats scurrying. This is where I came in.

In their defense, they are really good at strutting.

In their defense, they are really good at strutting.

I needed a research project. Zach had over 5,000 detections of birds and small mammals. So I analyzed them, and found something very interesting that went against what was “known” about them.

What Did We Find?

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Finding #1: the Madagascar magpie-robin and red forest rat are kind of high-maintenance.

This was a shocker. Our analyses showed that both the Madagascar magpie-robin and the red forest rat were more common at sites in forest that was little-touched by people than in more degraded forests. They seem to need high-quality forest.

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Why was this a shocker? Because the little we could find about both species deemed them able to deal with the pressures of habitat degradation. However, according to our results, they came out as the most sensitive to habitat degradation of the species we analyzed (even beating out the larger Madagascar crested ibis, which we predicted would be the most sensitive).

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Finding #2: *in Seinfeld-saying-‘Newman’ voice* Cats.

I’ve already written of how the presence of murderous feral cats in the rainforest is a problem. Well, we found that three birds didn’t seem to appreciate the presence of feral cats. Three bird species, including the Madagascar crested ibis, were detected less often by our cameras when feral cats were present compared to when they were not. In particular, the ibis went completely ghost whenever more than 2 feral cats were detected at a site.

Trying to find a picture of an ibis at a site with feral cats.

Trying to find a picture of an ibis at a site with feral cats.

What Does All This Mean?

Despite being data that normally wouldn’t have been analyzed, mining our large Madagascar camera trap dataset turned out to provide interesting info. We learned that the magpie-robin and the red forest rat aren’t as low-maintenance when it comes to habitat as we originally thought. We also underscored the potential problems caused by feral cats in the forest.

But (yes!), questions remain. It’s largely just one question:

How are native birds and small mammals surviving in a landscape with a new, terrifying predator?

We might be able to determine this by putting cute GPS backpacks on the birds and rodents and figuring out what habitat they are using and comparing this to where GPS-collared feral cats are, or by monitoring their populations after feral cats are removed. Until we get the funding, though, this question will remain unanswered.

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In ‘Makira Lessons’, a series in the making, I’ll sum up the main findings of my published Madagascar research — and any bonus unpublishable tidbits— in a way that is accessible to everyone. If you have any questions, feel free to hit me up on twitter or contact me.

The papers that inspired this post are:

Using camera traps to examine distribution and occupancy trends of ground-dwelling rainforest birds in north-eastern Madagascar (pdf) and

Landscape trends in small mammal occupancy in the Makira–Masoala protected areas, northeastern Madagascar (pdf).