Madagascar dry forest ecosystem

Adriana Mondragon-Botero

Research Q & A

What’s your hometown?

Cali, Colombia (South America)

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working in the dry forest ecosystem in southeast Madagascar. My research project assesses whether soil moisture influences plant-species distribution, abundance, or functional diversity differently in the dry spiny and dry gallery forests. Additionally, I am using a plant functional trait approach to predict species’ responses during restoration, particularly during the early stages of seedling establishment. My aim is to understand how traits differentially affect species’ responses to barriers present in these two types of dry forest ecosystem. This knowledge would help in species selection to improve restoration success under specific site conditions. With the Bell Museum fellowship, I was able to acquire equipment for plant trait and soil analysis and spend the summer in Madagascar, gathering data.

How are you working toward that goal?

During my summer field season, I set up 10 permanent forest plots (20 x 50 m) in the dry spiny forests of the reserve. In each plot I counted, tagged and identified plant individuals above 10 cm DBH. Unknown plant specimens were collected for taxonomic identification. In each plot, I took soil samples and was able to complete initial soil analysis in the field. Leaf and wood anatomical traits were measured in adult plants in the trees and from seedlings in the local nursery. Now, I am analyzing those data, refining my research methodology, and preparing for a new field season. In the reserve, I have been working with local guides to involve them in the restoration process, and engaging the reserve managers, to ensure the long-term persistence of the project.

Why are you focusing your work in that area?

Tropical dry forests are among the most exploited, endangered and least studied forest ecosystems of the world. These forests support the livelihoods of millions of people worldwide, but despite their importance for local populations, they continue to diminish without proper protection. Increasing our understanding of how plant and soil features interact in dry forests is critical to understanding how these forests function and to evaluate their potential for restoration especially in view of new and more variable climate regimes, including severe drought. The southern dry forests in Madagascar are highly fragmented and degraded due to over-exploitation of wood, especially for charcoal production. Restoration interventions that expand forest cover or help maintain existing forest fragments are necessary. By incorporating plant functional traits to better select plants for restoration programs, restoration success can be increased. Similarly, documenting the existing plant diversity in the Berenty Reserve is a crucial step for conservation. With the extensive plant inventories that I have been conducting in the reserve, I aim to contribute to cataloguing the existing plant species. Malagasy flora exhibits astonishing rates of endemism (almost 90 percent of the plants are endemic). Although efforts to better document plant diversity have increased, more than 2,200 species of higher plants endemic to Madagascar remain to be described.

Where are you working on research/field work?

I am working in Berenty Reserve in Madagascar. It is a 1000 ha private reserve that harbors the last forest fragments remaining in the Mandrare River basin. This is an important site for primatologists, who have been doing extensive research in lemurs, notably in the white dancing lemur (Propithecus verreauxi) and maki lemur (Lemur catta). This reserve is comprised of two main forest types: dry gallery forests along the river margins and dry spiny forests dominated by the succulent and thorny Alluaudia trees.

What will your next steps/research be?

I am currently analyzing data collected during my previous field season and identifying the plants that I collected in the reserve. I am planning to go back to Madagascar this summer to establish more forest plots and resurvey the ones that I have already set up. I will also collect additional soil samples to be analyzed at the University of Minnesota. I plan to stay in the reserve during a whole year, to measure plant traits and collect data during the wet and dry seasons. This step is important to assess if there are any differences in plant responses during both seasons. Also, this will allow me to study in greater detail the biology and taxonomy of the plants present in the reserve. During this time, I will also strengthen my relationships with local guides to collectively construct a phenology calendar. This calendar will allow us to collect seeds to propagate a wider variety of native species for the restoration project currently under way.

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