Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Africa is Not a Country Photography Exhibit

For those of you in the Portsmouth, NH area, a photography exhibit entitled "Africa is not a Country" is up and running for the month of November. I have 4 photos in the show (including one of Victor, shown below), and proceeds from the sale of my photos and postcards will benefit my African manatee research. The exhibit is being held by the Seacoast African American Cultural Center and admission is free. To get directions or read more about the show, please click here.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ancestral Manatee Fossil Found in Senegal

An interesting new scientific paper was just published reporting the find of a fossil vertebra that has been identified as a Prorastomid, the earliest ancestral family of Sirenians (which includes all manatees and dugongs). The fossil closely resembles the oldest known member of the Prorastomid family, Pezosiren portelli, which was a dog or pig-sized aquatic mammal that lived 50 million years ago. Unlike today's manatees and dugongs, Prorastomids had legs and could walk on land, although they also had adaptations to the aquatic environment such as nasal openings on top of their snout for breathing at the surface of the water, and dense, heavy rib bones that helped them submerge. It is believed they lived in shallow coastal ecosystems and fed on plants. One difference with the new fossil is that it is 40% larger than the previous Pezosiren fossils found in Jamacia, and it may be a different species.

This is an artist's drawing of what it is believed Pezosiren portelli looked like. Drawing courtesy of locolobo.org
This is a Pezosiren portelli skeleton that was found in Jamacia. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, Photographer: thesupermat.
One thing that makes this new fossil find particularly exciting is that it was found in northern Senegal. Up to now all Prorastomid fossils have been found in the New World, although it was hypothesized that the family evolved in Africa (they are part of a group of animals known as Afrotheria, which also includes all the other the sirenians, elephants and hyraxes). So finally there's proof of the existence of Prorastomids in Africa. Dr. Daryl Domning, one of the paper's authors and the world authority on sirenian taxonomy, hypothesized in 2001 that Prorastomids originally evolved in the Old World and moved along ancient shorelines to reach the locale that is the present day Caribbean. 

Interestingly, after Prorastomids reached the Caribbean and Americas, and after millions of years, their ancestors evolved to become dugongs (there were once numerous dugong species in the Caribbean, but today there's only 1 species, found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans) and manatees (which are believed to have originated in an ancient inland sea in South America that today is the Amazon basin). So the manatees we see today in Africa did not evolve there directly since the time when their ancient ancestors the Prorastomids lived there. Instead, the manatee family (Trichechids) evolved in South America, then somehow moved back across the Atlantic Ocean, probably at least a few hundred thousand years ago, although the exact time frame is still unknown (and is one of the things I hope to estimate through my genetics research). So the manatees in Africa today have returned to the continent where their ancestors first evolved 50 million years ago. Pretty cool!  

The map below shows the way the continents and oceans looked during the Eocene Epoch, 50 million years ago, and the locations where the the Prorastomid fossils have been found. The vertebra on the right is the new discovery from Senegal. The phosphate mine where the fossil was found is not far from where I've been working at Lac de Guiers, so maybe I'll be able to visit it someday.
Images courtesy of: Hautier, L., R. Sarr, R. Tabuce, F. Lihoreau, S. Adnet, D. Domning, M. Samb, and P.M. Hameh. First Prorastomid Sirenian from Senegal (Western Africa) and the Old World Origin of Sea Cows. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32(5):1218–1222, September 2012.

Thank You Jonathan!

After 4 long, hot months, Jonathan's time in Gabon has come to an end. This week he returned home to Puerto Rico to continue his Masters degree studies and his work with Antillean manatees. Jonathan achieved great success with Victor and his Gabonese caregivers during his second round of work there. We are thrilled to report that as of 2 weeks ago Victor has now been completely weaned from the bottle and is eating a diet of 100% plants! This is amazing work in only 4 months and although we expect Victor to lose a bit of weight during this transition, he's healthy and on track to be released in a few months. His Gabonese team now has the skills to continue feeding the plant species Victor eats, monitoring what he eats, and conducting periodic health assessments.

This photo shows Jonathan collecting the last blood samples before he left Gabon. This is the first time anyone has been able to collect and analyze baseline blood values for a West African manatee calf over time. This data, as well as other samples we are collecting, are giving us the first understanding of the growth and health parameters of this species. All photos below are courtesy of Jonathan Perez-Rivera.
Brice, one of Victor's Gabonese caretakers, has been working with Victor since the day he was rescued 2 years ago. He and the rest of the Gabonese team will now oversee all Victor's daily needs until he is released back to the wild this coming winter.
Victor munching plants at the edge of his enclosure. The team records not only which species of plants Victor eats, but which parts of the plant (leaves, roots, stems, etc.)

So Thank You for all your hard work Jonathan!!

Saturday, September 08, 2012

News for the week

Jonathan reports that Victor now weighs 102 kg! He is eating 70% of his daily diet in plants and has been reduced to 1 bottle feeding a day, so we're thrilled that his transition to plants is going incredibly well! The trick is to keep Victor gaining weight while he's weaned from the high calorie milk formula onto a diet of plants, and so far Jonathan and the Gabonese team are succeeding with flying colors!! I hope to post more photos of our pudgy friend soon.

In other news, my colleague Aimee Sanders and I have started work on a new West African manatee educational video that will feature Victor as well as other footage of manatees, their habitat, and conservation efforts throughout the species range. We plan to produce it in 4 languages (English, French, Spanish and Portuguese) so that it can be used in all African countries where the West African manatee occurs. We hope to release it next spring, after Victor's release, so that we can include that event in the video. We are also creating an English version of our Save the African Manatee t-shirts to be used in educational outreach efforts in English speaking African countries.

I'm now back in Florida for a few months and starting my stable isotope analysis of the many reference plant, mollusk, and fish species I collected in Senegal this summer. It's very interesting for me to learn this new technique, which will identify what manatees are eating in different parts of their range. This in turn will help us understand important food sources and seasonal habitat needs for the species. I'll also continue my genetics analysis this Fall, and my colleague Katie Brill is already working to age the 18 new ear bones I brought back from Africa. So hopefully lots of exciting new information is coming soon!

2 species of freshwater catfish in the drying oven. Once fully desicated they will be ground into powder for stable isotope analysis.
The week ended very nicely when I received news from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund that my project has been awarded a grant for the 5th consecutive year in a row! I'm so grateful to have such loyal funders! Thank you Disney!!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Gabon: Victor update

I just received a message from Jonathan that Victor is now 98 kg!! He is now eating 50 - 60% of his diet in plants daily, and his bottles have been reduced to twice a day, so he's definitely transitioning well to an adult manatee diet. Jonathan reports that some of Victor's favorite plants to eat are red mangrove, hippo grass, and water lilies. Victor's last milk powder shipment should have reached Gabon at the end of last week, and although I haven't received conformation of that, hopefully in this case no news is good news! We are awaiting results of Victor's latest blood tests from a local hospital in Gabon, but all signs point to a healthy, growing manatee making good progress towards being able to survive in the wild.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Back to the USA

Sadly my field season is coming to an end, so I packed up all my manatee samples, as well as the plant and other manatee food reference samples to ship back to Florida for analysis. Besides the actual packing I've been getting all my permits in order for export and import of samples, which actually takes a mind-boggling amount of time and preparation. Permits can take months even years to get, and separate export and import permits are required for plants and wildlife samples, not to mention the research permits both from the USA and Senegal. This is one of those tedious but necessary parts of fieldwork that they never tell you when you're in school, but can make your life impossible if you don't get everything just right. So over the last couple months I've worked hard to get all the paperwork in order, and I'm relieved it's done for now!

Last night I flew back to the USA. Initially I had some trouble at the airport in Dakar because I was also bringing a couple manatee satellite tags back to the USA, and even though I took out the batteries and put a letter in the trunk with them detailing what they are (and even including photos of the tags on manatees), the customs folks were nervous about them (they do look a bit like bombs). I spent about 45 minutes in the basement baggage area trying to convince the officer that the tags are safe, and after he put them through the scanner about 3 times he decided he would allow my baggage on the plane, but told me he wouldn't allow it next time. So I guess I'll have to cross that bridge when I get to it...

When I got back to the departure lounge the airline representative told me I had been upgraded to first class, which definitely made my day! So I'm now back in the USA, heading to Florida and getting ready to start a whole lot of sample analysis. I'm looking forward to the results!  

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gabon: Weekly Victor update

I received some great news this morning- Victor's lost milk shipment has finally been located! Due to an airline screw up (the baggage tags apparently weren't properly attached to the trunks), the trunks reached the airport in Paris but since their final destination wasn't known because the tags fell off,  the trunks were shipped to the Seattle area home of the passenger who was transporting them to Gabon for us. He just returned there to find the trunks sitting in his garage. At least they've been found, and we're now working with the airlines to get them shipped back to Gabon, since Victor's milk supplies will be depleted again in 3 weeks.

At Victor's weekly health assessment the other day he weighed in at 94kg. Jonathan estimates Vic is eating 30% of his daily diet in plants now (up from 10% a couple weeks ago) and his bottle feedings have been reduced to 3 times per day, so he's making steady progress. My friend Ruth Leeney, who is studying dolphins in Gabon, took the following photos of Victor when she visited this week:

Jonathan taking Victor's heart rate
Looking good Victor!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Gambia: Niumi National Park

On the weekend after the workshop, Dawda and I traveled to Niumi National Park in the northwest corner of Gambia. On a map it seems relatively close to Banjul, but it turned out to be quite an adventure to get there and back!
On Saturday morning we took the ferry back across the Gambia River to the north side town of Barra. One of the guys from the workshop had given us the name of a place to stay in the park and a driver to get us there, but Dawda couldn't reach the driver, so once we got to Barra it took some finagling to find a ride for a decent price. After about half an hour we reached an agreement with a driver, then walked through Barra to a small river and waited for him while he went to get fuel for the car. This process took about an hour, then he finally returned and we all got in a small canoe to cross the river to the car waiting on the other side. About halfway across the river it suddenly started raining- a torrential downpour. We ran to the ancient Land Rover and jumped in... aside from Dawda, myself and the driver there were 5 other people in the back. We drove about 50 feet towards the beach (there's no road, the car usually drives along the beach on hard packed sand) and stopped because it turned out the tide was still quite high. At this point the driver spent some time contemplating whether he could make it down the beach, as we sat inside with rain dripping through the rusty top and front of the car (there was literally no dashboard, just wires hanging out, including the ignition!). Finally he put the car in 4 wheel drive and headed out onto the beach. As we drove at the water's edge, waves were crashing onto the car, adding to the water now pouring in on us. All we could do was laugh and hold on for dear life as we lurched along!
This is a view of the beach through the pouring rain. It felt like we were sitting under a waterfall... inside the car!
About 15 minutes later the driver realized he still needed to put fuel in the car. In Land Rovers the fuel tank is under the front passenger seat, so he got out in the rain and ran around to my side of the car while Dawda and I slid over to the driver side so he could raise my seat and put the gas in.  
After about half an hour we arrived at the village of Ginack Niji, which sits in the middle of Niumi National Park. Niumi is basically a long thin peninsula stretching north towards Senegal, with Atlantic Ocean on one side and mangrove channels on the other. Ginack Niji sits along one of the main mangrove channels and is a very peaceful fishing village.  

We stayed at a small, rustic lodge called Camera Sambou that's operated by a local guide named Lamin. After we dried off, he suggested we walk into the village to meet with an old manatee hunter there.
Lamin took us to meet Mr. Jammeh and translated from Mandinka to English for me. Mr. Jammeh is (thankfully) retired now, but he hunted manatees, dolphins, and crocodiles for many years in this area. He learned his skills from his grandfather and used a harpoon to kill manatees at springs and in mating herds. He admitted that he thinks there aren't many manatees in the area now, compared to 20 years ago. Apparently there used to be 9 active manatee hunters in this area, but now there is only 1 fisherman who wants to hunt manatees. Mr. Jammeh told me the fisherman is not a true manatee hunter and has only killed 2, and that he thinks the man doesn't have the proper knowledge and skills (more to be thankful for!). In the photo below Mr. Jammeh is holding a photo of a huge Nile crocodile he killed a few years ago. It looked to be about 2.5 m long and when they opened it up they found many of the village's chickens inside!

 After the interview I walked along the shore checking out the different plant species... there are 3 mangrove species here (for those of you who are interested, they are Rhizophora harrisonii, R. mangle, and Avicennia germinans). Red mangroves grow closer to the water and have long prop roots whereas white mangroves (higher up on the beach in the photo below) tend to grow further from the waterline. At high tide manatees can access all species here and they probably also hide among the mangroves roots.  
There are also quite a few estuarine clam species and oysters here, so it seems like this area is a giant manatee buffet. Oysters grow on mangrove roots and are also harvested by the local people. We saw some oyster aquaculture in the river as well. 

Behind the mangroves were some beautiful giant baobab trees...
On Sunday morning Lamin took us out on the river to survey several nearby manatee springs. Although we searched for manatees all along the way, we didn't see any. Not surprisingly, they seem very shy here.
We went to a beautiful area of the river that was remote (no villages nearby) and off limits for fishermen because it's within national park boundaries, so apparently few people come here. Lamin told us that on sunny afternoons, many large crocs can be seen basking on this beach.
Lamin showed us the main manatee spring where Mr. Jammeh used to hunt. Lamin has also seen manatees here several years ago when he brought British tourists and they waited til about 8pm at night. The springs are tiny and nothing is visible at the surface of the water... they don't produce a boil or bubbles that can be seen, so they are only known by where manatees and fish are found.
A better view of the main manatee spring which is just under the mangrove branch....
Using environmental sampling equiment Dawda and I could detect the springs by slight changes in depth and salinity.
One spring was marked by a lone palm tree, and I wondered if someone planted it there as a marker because there were no other palms for miles around.
On Sunday afternoon it was time to reverse the trip back to Banjul. We had some difficulty locating a car since most had left earlier in the morning, but we finally found one. All the rain the previous day had swollen several small rivers, so the water came up basically to the windows... 
The tide was high again so we had to drive behind the beach until we reached a wider section. We passed this observation tower on the beach that Parks and Wildlife built for monitoring... something like this near manatee springs (along with real protection for manatees so they feel safe to come to the springs) would be perfect for local ecotourism.
Dodging waves and cows we made it back down the beach to Barra, then got to the ferry just as it was about to leave. Missing a ferry means a 2 hour wait until the next one, so we sprinted down the pier and literally jumped on board just as they pulled away from the pier.
The rest of my trip to Gambia was less eventful, and unfortunately too short. I hope to get back there to survey other manatee sites further up the Gambia River, but for now I'm happy to know that the Gambian manatee network is growing.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Gambia Workshop

On July 14 I traveled from Dakar to Banjul, the capital of Gambia, by car. I traveled with my Gambian colleague, Dawda Saine, who had flown back into Dakar after a work trip to Europe. We took a taxi to the place where you can pick up a "sept place", the 7 person (plus driver) cars that provide local transport all over Senegal. They're all old Renault station wagons that get loaded down with people and their luggage, and leave once they're full, so your departure time depends on how fast the car fills. Dawda and I secured our places in a car, then waited for 4 more passengers to arrive. I was lucky to get a window seat so I could watch the countryside roll past. This is the car when we stopped for a quick break...
We drove south into the interior of the Delta Saloum region of Senegal, where long mangrove channels end in huge salt flats. In 6 hours we reached the border of Gambia, and after I cleared immigration on both sides, we took a taxi to the ferry that crosses the Gambia River. We were lucky to arrive just as the ferry was loading, so we got tickets and ran on board. People literally pack into every available inch of space. As we crossed the river the sun set, creating an eerie light through rain clouds.
Gambia is a small country surrounded on all sides by Senegal, and it's main feature is the Gambia River, which starts in southeastern Senegal and runs through the center of Gambia to the Atlantic Ocean. Banjul sits right at the mouth of the river. I'm staying down the coast a bit in Fajara, seen at the top of the red box on the map.
My main reason for coming to Gambia was to teach a manatee research training workshop. Dawda attended manatee training at a previous workshop in Ghana several years ago, then came to Florida last winter for advanced training in necropsy and other field techniques. Now he wants to continue to try to build a network for manatee research in the Gambia, so I'm here to train 6 other colleagues and hopefully see some manatee areas to help them start thinking about study sites. The first day after I arrived, we visited the Gambia Parks and Wildlife office, and I met some people there who I'd been talking to online for several years but had never previously met in person. In meeting with the Director and several of the other folks there, we decided that this training workshop would be made up entirely of staff from Parks and Wildlife, since some of them had already received some basic manatee training.

We had 2 days of lectures that focused on fieldwork/survey techniques and sample collection, and I included some interactive activities such as practicing standard measurements (no real manatees or even an inflatable toy manatee available, so we used my inflatable orca again). Even though it's not the real thing, I find that just having the opportunity to do measurements on a 3D scale gives the guys a much better understanding of how to accurately take the measurements in the correct standardized way. We talked about the realities of doing a necropsy (because manatees are heavy and hard to manouevre if you've never done it before!). We also went over equipment and how to use and care for it.
During mealtimes the group had a chance to talk about their experiences and ask questions. They were a very enthusiastic bunch!
On the last day of the workshop we took a boat out to Tanbi natural reserve, a protected area of mangrove habitat near Banjul. Everyone had the chance to practice using the field equipment, to collect environmental data, and to look for manatee feeding sign. We also visited several freshwater springs where manatees have been sighted in the past, but didn't see any (not surprising though, because we were there at mid-day and manatees here are mostly seen at dawn, dusk and night). This trip was more to focus on the skills they'll use when they conduct their own surveys.

Dawda shows Lamin how to use the refractometer (which measures water salinity) while Musa and Fabala look over their datasheets.
Dibba tries out the refractometer.....
Nuha using the GPS. Nuha is the park manager of Tanbi so he has great local knowledge of the area and has seen manatees there before. Hopefully he can start a year round monitoring project there.
Team photo of the whole group in their new African manatee t-shirts! I am also providing the team with field equipment for manatee surveys, including a depth sounder and other environmental sampling tools.
I'm very grateful to Dawda, who set up all the local logistics for the workshop, including finding a great room for the lectures, renting a power point projector, coordinating the food, and scheduling a boat for our field practice day at nearby Tanbi reserve. He has been great to work with and I look forward to seeing the manatee network grow in the Gambia!  

Friday, July 13, 2012

Victor's milk is on it's way

Thanks everyone for your responses! We found a whale researcher traveling to Gabon tonight and a very generous person donated 5 bags of milk powder to carry over Victor until we sort out the lost bags with Air France. So the milk is on it's way. All Victor's caretakers really appreciate everyone's ideas and help!

Monday, July 09, 2012

Anyone traveling to Gabon???

Africa friends: If you know anyone traveling from the USA to Gabon anytime soon, please let me know! Air France lost Victor's milk supplies & the situation is desperate... there's only enough milk left in Gabon for the next 10 days. We need to find a way to send milk powder to Gabon ASAP. Please comment to this post or email me at: lkeithdiagne@sea2shore.org.


Monday, July 02, 2012

African Manatee Outreach Expands in Gabon

It's a bird, it's a plane... no wait, it's a MANATEE!
This past month an expanded West African manatee educational outreach program hit the streets, or more accurately, took to the water for a tour of Banio Lagoon in southern Gabon. My colleague Aimee Sanders, who has designed and produced almost all my manatee educational materials for Africa (posters, educational panels, t-shirts, and we're working on an educational video), has also developed a fun, interactive educational program for people of all ages to educate them about the importance of protecting manatees. My funding this year also allowed us to create a manatee costume to be used for skits, and it was a big hit with both children and adults when Aimee did her events.

Aimee visited 6 villages and had a total of 84 attendees this time, and she said people were very receptive to the programs. Discussion and skits included information about threats to manatees, their habitat needs, etc.
A boy acts out getting caught in fishing net, a common threat to manatees in Africa
Everyone got manatee coloring/activity books that were developed for my project in French by Save the Manatee Club
 Kids at Yoyo village with their manatee coloring books and the costume
 Even the adults enjoyed the coloring books!
 A little girl "feeds" a manatee toy from the bottle used to feed Victor, the orphan manatee.
Next time we hope to give out the manatee t-shirts we designed and printed this year (logistics have prevented us from getting them to Gabon yet, but we will!) to further inspire people to conserve manatees! We also plan to bring these educational programs to other African countries.  
Thanks to Naomi Parnell for all of the photos above!!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Day at the Museum

I spent Thursday at the university museum in Dakar collecting samples of bone from their archived collection of West African manatee skulls that date back to the 1940's. This was only allowed after several meetings and much discussion with the museum's curator (who I've promised to share all results with and acknowledge in publications, a small price to pay for such access!), who also then had to search for 2 weeks to locate the key to open the glass cabinet where the manatee skulls are stored. Somewhere there's also an original register that the specimens were logged into when they came to the museum long ago, but it appears to be MIA for now. Fingers crossed he can find it, because it would provide important background info on the skulls, such as exactly where they were found, if the manatees were hunted or died naurally, possibly their gender, length and weight information, etc.

Speaking of skulls, there's a huge elephant skull in the front entry of the museum, which I find quite poignant because there are only a few elephants left alive in Senegal today, all in Niokolo-Koba national park in the SE corner of the country. I also recently heard from a friend who studies lions that there may be less than 12 lions left in Senegal, and very few wild carnivores of any kind. I hope this country can take the drastic steps needed to save their wildlife. But I digress, that topic is for another day......
It's possible that only dorky biologists like myself will understand why it was amazing that I was allowed to "destructively sample" these skulls (which sounds alot worse than it is- although samples are removed from each specimen, the utmost care is taken to preserve them, and to take samples from parts that will not negatively impact them as a display specimens), but to me it was an incredible experience. Here were manatee skulls collected by the French naturalist Cadenat as he traveled around Senegal almost 70 years ago, many from Joal in the central Senegal Delta Saloum region, a manatee calf skull collected in Richard-Toll, and a few skulls with no ID number or information on them. Each of these have been sitting in these dark, dusty cabinets for years, probably only handled a couple times since they were placed there, but each possessing vital information that can help us understand and conserve the species in the present. For me it's definitely like finding treasure.
From each skull I took a tiny piece of the spongy nasal tissue bone from inside the nares (that's the internal part of the nose) for genetics, a tooth for stable isotope analyses, and 1 earbone (if they were present) for age determination. I photographed each skull and wrote down whatever information was available (some had small tags attached, others had writing directly on the skull).
On this one you can see notes about its collection by Cadenat written on the top of the skull
Tomas (with curator Alain Seck) carefully extracts an ear bone from a skull.
By the end I had samples from 18 individuals, each carefully bagged and labelled with the museum's ID number and my own. This has almost doubled the number of manatee samples I have from Senegal and will be great for both overall baseline species information, and for historical comparison. I practically danced out of the museum. Now I hope the register can be found, and I'm looking for Cadenat's publications that may include details on these specimens so I can learn more about them. Thanks again to curator Alain Seck for agreeing to this collaboration!