Field Photos from Madagascar, Aug.-Sept. 1998

In 1998, a group of us from the Field Museum in Chicago and the University of California – Santa Barbara left for a one-month expedition to Madagascar. Representatives of these institutions had visited Madagascar previously, primarily to prospect the Isalo II Formation, a group of rocks of Middle to Late Triassic age (225-230 million years old).  These previous expeditions had been quite successful, meriting return trips to collect more specimens.  Our plan was to spend about three weeks in the dry southwest part of the island, quarrying productive localities and, if time permitted, prospecting for new sites.

On Tuesday, August 18th, our plane arrived in the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo (better known as Tana).  We made our way from the airport to the house of Steve Goodman, a researcher at the Field Museum who lives and works in Madagascar.  Although Steve was in South Africa at the time, he and his wife, Asmina, were kind enough to let us stay at their house for a few days while we got all our supplies together, rented trucks and drivers, made sure the permits were in order, and prepared to head out into the field.The photo to the right was taken looking out over Tana from Steve and Asmina’s back patio. The stadium and the medical school are visible in the midground.
Antananarivo, Madagascar

The capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo (Tana).

From Tana, we headed south across the central plateau of Madagascar.  The scenery was beautiful, though it was often punctuated by the burning of areas of grasslands and forest for agriculture.  Some of the more interesting sights included the traditional two-story brick (clay) dwellings in the area.  The top floor of these dwellings constitutes the sleeping area for the family, while the lower level is used as an area for livestock and/or a place to store grain.
Brick Houses

Traditional brick houses in central Madagascar.

Odors are often strongly associated with certain places, and the odor I most strongly associate with Madagascar is the smoke associated with firing bricks and making charcoal (traditional charcoal, not Kingsford briquettes).  The charcoal is produced by building a large fire, letting it get nice and hot, and then covering it with grasses and other vegetation.  This allows the fire to slowly burn out as it uses up all the available oxygen and all the volatile gases are burned off, leaving charcoal behind.
We bought large bags of charcoal at roadside stands such as this one and brought them with us into the field for cooking.  Gina Wesley and George Kampouris are in the foreground; John Flynn, some Malagasy students, and the charcoal vendor are in the background.
Buying Charcoal

Buying charcoal at a roadside stand.

For whatever reason, Malagasy words and names never seem to be pronounced the way they appear.  Such is the case for the name of one of the towns we stopped in for lunch: Ihosy (pronounced Ee-oosh’).  The standard fare at the small establishments we dined in was a big bowl of rice with a small amount of meat on top.  Beef (omby) is common there, so that was our usual topping.  Grit/bones are also a usual (if unintentional) ingredient.
Pictured from left to right are me, John Flynn, Gina Wesley, Bill Simpson, and Anne Yoder.  We are eating at the Hotely Sariari.  (A hotely is like an inn – you can stay and/or dine there.)
Lunch in Ihosy

Lunch at a small establishment in Ihosy.

When we got closer to the area where we were going to be working (off the southwest edge of the central plateau, near Isalo National Park), I really started to feel like I was in Africa.  The topography became wide open savannas punctuated mostly by palm trees and lots of termite mounds.  Of course, unlike African savannas, large mammals (other than cattle) are essentially nonexistent in Madagascar; there are no large hoofstock native to Madagascar and most of the larger mammals in general tend to occur in more forested environments.
Palms and Termite Mounds

Typical topography of the dry southwest.

One of the neatest aspects of going to Madagascar is seeing the various flora and fauna there.  One of the most characteristic plants of Madagascar is the baobab tree (genus Adansonia).  Although baobabs also occur in Africa, the greatest diversity (seven of eight species) occurs in Madagascar.  The trees are easily recognizable, having large, thick trunks that seem to prematurely split into smaller branches.
Baobab Tree

A baobab tree, characteristic of Madagascar.

We spent most of our time in Madagascar right next to the Malio River.  Our campsite was situated in a beautiful grove of mango trees right next to the river, and both of our main quarries were within site of the same river.  Since southwest Madagascar is a very dry area, much of the agriculture also occurs near the Malio.  The farmers build series of drainage ditches and flooded fields that transport enough water to permit the growing of rice, one of the staple crops in the region.
The area pictured to the right was a place of constant activity; families were often seen enjoying the shade of the small stand of trees in the center.  Off to the right of the trees, some of the farmers are plowing a field using a team of omby.  The bright green indicates where rice is being grown.
River Valley

Rice paddies in the floodplain of the Malio.

There were two different quarries in which we collected fossils.  The first was known as the “red beds” and consisted of very fine-grained mudstones that were dark red in color.  These rocks tended to yield lots of remains of a small dinosaur-like animal, resembling a prosauropod. If these fossils really are dinosaurian, they may represent the oldest known dinosaur (approximately 230 million years old).  The bones recovered from these rocks are white, so they stand out really well against the red matrix.  All of our time in the red beds was spent quarrying – slowly removing rock, bit by bit, looking for bones and teeth.
Red Beds

Working the Triassic red mudstones.

These are what bones from the red beds typically look like when they are first excavated.  Although they are bright white in color, it is a little difficult to tell because the matrix is closely adhered to the bone.  After preparation back at the Field Museum, the bones are spectacular.
Pictured to the right are a partially articulated pair of hip bones (each including ilium, ischium, pubis), a couple vertebrae (in between them) and an upper leg bone (femur).  The dark black bar represents 10 cm.
Bones from Red Beds

Some of the postcranial bones from the red beds.

The second quarry was “cynodont hill.” These beds consisted of well-sorted bright white sandstones that were nice and soft and easy to dig through.  The fossils in the sandstone were beautifully preserved and several outstanding skulls of cynodonts (early relatives of mammals) were found in the quarry in previous years (hence the nickname).  Our task was to slowly quarry the entire site, looking for more remains of cynodonts or other mammals.  We did this by breaking off large pieces of sandstone with a pick or shovel and then slowly breaking up the large piece into smaller ones, using a rock or crack hammer.
Despite our high expectations, the best skulls seemed to have been found first; I literally went for several days without finding a single scrap of bone.  With lots of people working, however, we did find a number of smaller, partial specimens.
The photo at the right was taken on one of our last days at that quarry.  When we started, it was a small, inconspicuous exposure of white sandstone.  When we finished, it was the big pit evident in the photo.
White Beds

“Cynodont Hill” after many days of excavation

As you can imagine, the sight of a bunch of “vazaha” (white people), out in the middle of the countryside, digging in rocks, looking for bones, is something out of the ordinary for Madagascar.  Accordingly, we drew a larger and larger crowd the longer we were there.  Some of the younger boys joined in with the quarrying, using some of their own tools (and trying out some of ours for size).  I temporarily traded one of the boys my pick for his traditional shovel, and made sure to have a friend take the photo at the right to preserve the moment.
Bones from Red Beds

Some of the helpers from the nearby village.

When we were working the white beds, we had a favorite lunch spot under a big tree that overlooked the river valley.  The large network of roots provided plenty of surprisingly-comfortable places to sit, eat, and nap in the middle of the day.
For each person, lunch usually consisted of half a baguette (purchased in Tana and getting drier with each passing day), a couple pieces of cheese, some sardines in sauce or corned beef, and some canned jalapeño peppers. Together, this made quite a tasty sandwich.  We also had a small dessert, usually a twizzler or some M & Ms (measured using a film canister).
Lunch Tree

Our picturesque lunch spot near the sandstone quarry.

Being a huge reptile and amphibian enthusiast, I was constantly on the lookout in Madagascar for chameleons.  Like baobab trees, chameleons occur in Africa (and other areas) in addition to Madagascar, but Madagascar is the center of diversity for the group.  During the three weeks or so we spent in the field, I only saw two or three chameleons.  I managed to spot this one as we were driving down the road at dusk, and talked our driver into stopping so we could take a better look at it.  Although it was intent on getting away, Mena (one of our guides) held onto its tail long enough for me to snap this picture.  It is an Oustalet’s chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti ) one of the most common (and largest) chameleons in Madagascar.
Oustalet's Chameleon

A large Oustalet’s chameleon.

Steve’s sister-in-law Patti accompanied us during our entire time in the field.  In addition to being a lot of fun to hang out with, she was one of the most helpful people of the entire crew.  She often served as a translator (speaking French, Malagasy, and some pretty good English) and also usually served as the camp cook.  Here she is pictured cooking over a “fitapera” (I know this isn’t spelled correctly, but I couldn’t determine the correct spelling), a type of charcoal-burning grill made from a wheel.  In the background are two young girls from the nearby village.
A typical camp dinner consisted of lots of rice with beans and/or a few vegetables.  One day near the end of the trip we bought an omby and cooked it up for the whole village, so that was quite the treat.
Patti Cooking

Patti cooking dinner back at camp.

Each specimen we found was carefully wrapped, placed into a specimen bag, and then given a field ID number indicating when and where it was found.  After several weeks in the field, we accumulated a large number of specimens, all of which needed to be packed into crates to be shipped back to the U.S.  We spent several days at the end of the trip at Steve and Asmina’s house in Tana packing up all the specimens and putting away all the gear that was going to stay in Madagascar.  The photo on the right shows most of the specimen bags as they were laid out before being crated up.
Specimen Bags

Our bags of specimens from three weeks in the field.