Monday, June 26, 2017

Word from Beatrice our new Research Assistant!

Well its turning out to be a busy winter season here at the Maru! Of course winter here is not quite like that in the northern hemisphere, day time temperatures hover comfortably around 25-30 degrees Celsius.  This month we are happy to welcome Matt, our new intern, and Beatrice our new Research Assistant.  We've also been working with student researchers from Opwall, a great British based research and education organization.  But enough from me, below are Beatrice's first impressions of her stay with us! Stay in touch to hear more from her and our other research partners.


"Almost two weeks since I first arrived from France! Looking for an opportunity to work in an environmental research program, I applied for a position as a research assistant here, at the Maru Research Center. And so far, I couldn’t be happier!
I was warmly welcomed by Justin Kraus, the head of the program, after a four-hour drive from Lilongwe airport to Mzuzu. With amazing food and a good night’s sleep, we were all set to leave for Nkhata Bay the next day. As we arrived into town, we saw the beautiful, huge Malawi lake, it almost looks like the sea! The research center where we are staying is a 20-minute walk to town, in Chikale. I met the two interns, Charlotte and Fergus, at the center, which was -to my surprise- not too shabby at all. Justin showed me around, I helped with getting the scuba gear ready for diving and, before I knew it, dinner was ready. Vegetarian curry with chapattis, delicious! The next day was to be my first diving experience. We reviewed the theory and first skills I would have to perform and off we went! It was quite scary at first to be honest, though I am feeling more and more comfortable under water now.
Before I knew it was the weekend, Charlotte having gone away with some friends and Justin heading back to Mzuzu, Fergus and I spent the weekend at the house enjoying the lake and coming up with new recipes to cook Malawian staples. Wanting to discover the town I headed down to Nkhata Bay. The streets were loud and busy: it was market day. I walked around, went to the shops, etc. Everyone seems very friendly and helpful. Watch out for the cars though!
Charlotte and Justin having come back, we headed once again to the lake for a dive. As part of my open waters, a fun dive was scheduled and it was great! All these beautiful cichlids everywhere, the clear blue water, what a sight! During the week I got to join Charlotte and Fergus on their weekly water quality monitoring survey. We measured the pH, temperature, turbidity, total dissolved solids and counted micro invertebrates for the SASS test on six different sites belonging to two different rivers, both flowing into the lake. It was very interesting to learn from them and exciting to get started on the research program! Justin and I went out diving a couple of times working on my diving skills, and the rest of the time was consecrated to learning the theory and of course learning the names of the cichlids in the area and being able to recognize them. Which isn’t always easy…
We went out in the evenings, where I discovered Nkhata Bay’s nightlife, which is very entertaining. There are all kinds of local restaurants with good food, hustling bars, there is even a cinema! Fantastic!

I really believe this experience will be both knowledgeable and a lot of fun!"

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

First Dive


“The wave action, the sound, the clear, warm and deep water, the colourful fish species, the sandy beach and the endless horizon soon convinces your mind that you are taking it easy on an island paradise next to a tropical ocean.”

Today we are leaving for Kande Beach to the south. It’s another fifty kilometre drive along the edge of the lake, yet another spectacular journey past indigenous forest, quaint villages and rubber tree plantations.
We aim to visit The Maru research centre and the Aquanuts PADI dive centre, both owned and operated by Justin on the same premises. The Maru Research centre revolves around the study and survey of the cichlid fish species prevalent in the lake. Of all the lakes in the world, Lake Malawi is blessed with the biggest biodiversity of aquatic life.

(Cichlid fish refers to the type of fish you will find in your average home aquarium. Many of these colourful fish come from places like Lake Malawi).

Kande Beach is the original site that gave birth to the Maru Research Centre, and as we drive I enquire from Justin why he decided to open a satellite station at Nkhata Bay. He explains to me that many cichlid species of fish are site specific, meaning that there are a variety of micro-biomes where only certain species occur, it is therefore vital to survey the lake as comprehensively as possible. Nkhata Bay has the added advantage of a relatively rocky shoreline and these freshwater rocks acts like ocean reefs where a vast variety of fish species congregate. This location is therefore a great asset to The Maru. Each location offers a unique insight into the diversity of fish in Lake Malawi, which in turn is an indicator of the health status of this diverse aquatic world.

We arrive at Kande Village after a short drive where we stop for supplies. This tiny settlement lies a few kilometres inland of Kande Beach. After our little shopping spree we leave the village and the main road behind and head to the lake shore on a narrow dirt road. We reach the Kande Beach Resort a few minutes later. The Maru Research Centre is situated right next to the resort. I immediately take my flip-flops off to explore the beach. It is large with fine sand and this space is markedly more open and sparsely populated than Nkhata Bay. It is as beautiful, but with a totally different atmosphere, it being more off the beaten track, so to speak. I decide that I love both spaces, but if I had to choose my favourite would be the bay with its vibrant hustle and bustle. (What can I say, I like observing people more than fish. That’s probably one of the reasons why I’m not a scientist.)

I meet two young students from England who are currently doing their course at The Maru. Like me, both are also newbies to the diving scene. Twenty-two year old Charlotte hails from Essex and she’s been here for five weeks. She is Keen to get into conservation. She came across The Maru Research Centre after some ‘deep’ googling, and what the course offered as far as diving and fieldwork seemed like an exciting choice, so why not? And here she is, wearing her tan lathered on by the copious Malawian sun like a seasoned veteran to the African bush. She says her first dive was challenging, but now she loves it. She plans to do a bit of everything on her way to becoming a fulltime conservationist, and this is exactly what The Maru provides, hands-on experience and knowledge gained through direct interaction with the environment.

Fergus is a twenty-one year old young man from London. He’s been here for just over a week. He’s goal is to gain some field research experience and he hopes that this will help him to get more involved in conservation and ecological research. He sees this as a good opportunity to gain experience at data collection in the field. Of course it’s not all about research. Research can be done basically anywhere, but the pristine and remote location of The Maru next to Lake Malawi has a unique allure, especially for the young and adventurous, as he explains in his own words: “It’s also just a cool experience to come to Malawi and live on a beach for three months.” And I must agree. What an adventure for a young man indeed!

I sit and work in yet another exquisite temporary office from where I can hear the gentle rolling freshwater waves until lunch, which consists of a multi-bean stew. (The beans where bought at the market in Kande Town). I have never been particularly fond of beans (especially the canned ones), but I find myself going for seconds. Finally I have been converted to the nutritional power of the bean. Heehaa!

After lunch I am prepped for my first dive by being shown a PADI video containing all the information a first time diver need to know. Scuba diving is something I have always wanted to do, but I’ve never had the time and money to take ‘the plunge’. I’m nervous and excited. I’m not sure what to expect and how I will react. There seems to be quite a few things I need to remember and I’m not getting any younger either. I’m in my forties now and to the conventional way of thinking, learning new adventure sports is a younger person’s game. I prepare myself, packing a small bag with extra clothing for warmth and my wallet so I can grab a celebratory beer on the way back… and then we start putting on the gear after which we walk about fifty metres to the lake edge and start diving, right from the ‘front door’ into the water in twenty seconds flat. Yikes! Why did I not think of that? In my mind I was preparing for this major dive expedition somewhere in some distant location.

My fears about the dive itself are soon dispelled on all counts. Justin happens to be an excellent instructor: patient with a calm demeanour. After an initial bit of unease and panic initiated by a sense of claustrophobia, I soon get the hang of hanging under water and sucking oxygen from a hose. The lake water is much clearer than I thought. This is the interesting thing about this lake: after a while you forget that you are next to a fresh body of water at all. The wave action, the sound, the clear, warm and deep water, the colourful fish species, the sandy beach and the endless horizon soon convinces your mind that you are taking it easy on an island paradise next to a tropical ocean. (The main differences being that the water is not salty and the wave action is somewhat more regular).

My first dive goes well and I manage to follow and complete all the actions I need to take with relative ease. Afterwards Justin gives more advance training to Fergus while I get to be a spectator. Soon breathing underwater begins to feel completely natural and I feel comfortable enough to take my GoPro from my pocket and start filming.  Afterwards I am stoked as well as hooked. This is most definitely my type of thing and I resolve to do it as often as possible.

The evening is spent cooking and generally relaxing (I get to make the flatbread). The Maru is a down to earth place. Accommodation and meals are simple affairs and everybody gets their turn to do the dishes, but this simplicity is part of its appeal. This is not a place to visit if you want pampered luxury, this is a real experience for real people with the focus on research. The magic lies in your interactions with the local culture in the most beautiful surroundings you can hope for, and to be guided by someone knowledgeable who brings a unique and unpretentious insight to the area of scientific fieldwork.

Personally I see myself as a navigator of the free waters on the opposite side of traditional science. I’m into poetry, art, music and the human ‘soul’ (whatever that might be); but after a mere two days in my new environment I’m starting to get a new respect for the work that is being done by at least some of these people. I think I shall give them a name, I shall call them the SS, the Sensitive Scientists.

a guest post by Chris Wait from www.freewildworld.com


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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Cichlids and Sex

Things here at Kande Beach are as beautiful as ever. The rainy season brings lush greenery, growth and new life wherever one looks. Sex is in the air and you can feel it. The pintail whydah, a native bird here does its beautiful courtship dance for a female; singing and waving its long tail (3 times the length of its body) to show her what he can do. The flat backed toads sing every night luring the females with their chorus louder than the engine of a diesel truck. The flap-necked chameleon does an amazing colour change display for its girlfriend. These courtship rituals play an important role in what Charles Darwin called sexual selection: when the female of a species bears most of the cost of reproduction, males use extravagant displays and gifts to represent their “reproductive fitness” and females choose between them.  For many male humans, muscular displays, or shards of a crystalline form of carbon can serve to win over the female.



Sexual selection often actually works against natural selection. In situations of mainly female parental care, the reproductive success of the male is almost completely in the hands of the female. So even if a male is well camouflaged and can survive for a long time, if he doesn’t impress the female, he wont have any babies, and his genes will cease to be passed forward. In this way female choice selects for traits that sometimes actually increase the survival risks of the males. For example the agama lizard of east Africa have lost any camouflage capability when compared with their female counterparts. 



Here in Lake Malawi many cichlids have evolved a unique form of attraction. Over 200 cichlid species here build special structures to attract their females. These structures are called bowers, named after the structures built by the famous bowerbirds of Papua New Guinea. Like the bowerbirds these structures are built by male cichlids solely for the purpose of showing the girls what they can do.  In essence, the size and structure of the bower is a direct indicator of the fitness of the male. This is because, after all, if you are able to spend time digging and pushing around sand rather than finding food, you must be a strong individual with good genes to pass on.

video



There are two general bower types; either castles or pits and they are often built in large groups or congregations of many males called leks. Here, on Kande island there are species that build both types of bowers, but the most impressive, in my opinion, are those belonging to the species Dapidiochromis kawinge. The males of these species dig large pits often with diameters and depths greater than one meter. They do this by pushing the sand out of the way with their snouts. Every week here we do a survey of a lek near the island, and we try to track when the bowers are usually
inhabited. 

After the bowers are constructed, the males will remain in or above the structure and display for any passing female. If the courtship is successful, the female will lay her eggs and the male will fertilize them within the bower. The female will then scoop up the eggs with her mouth and carry them away to care for them herself. 

Female cichlids do not have to build any nests or structures, as many of them have evolved an amazing ability to brood their babies in their mouths!!! This behavior allows the mother to be mobile all the while providing round the clock parental care.

video


Here at the island we have found a couple mouth brooding resident mothers of the species Tyrannochromis nigriventer who we love to go watch whenever we have a chance. Cichlids are some of the most caring mothers of the animal kingdom, and this puts immense evolutionary pressure on the males to be more brightly coloured, or have better mating displays, or build better bowers. Cichlids can mouth brood their offspring for upto a month! Once the babies grow up, this sexually selective cycle repeats itself. As new tastes are developed or enhanced over generations whole new species with different preferences arise, continuing the ancient process that has led to the species and behaviours that we see today.

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

News from the Beach from our new Research Assistant Neha!

I got off of the plane in Lilongwe, exhausted after my journey from Canada. I was met by a smiling man who I was to drive with for the next five hours north to the village of Kande, on the shores of Lake Malawi. We drove through the beautiful countryside and countless villages that all had their little hub of shops and restaurants nestled around the main road. We reached Kande at around 7:30; it was dark, and only the bright stars and the fireflies lit the road.

I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow in my cozy cabin. The next morning I was up and at it, taking a new diver out to explore the reef. It was my first dive in the lake as well.  Right away fish of many different shapes and colours surround me. I know Lake Malawi is known as the most biologically diverse lake on the planet, but wow! The manifestation of this diversity astounds me.

The cichlid fishes are one of the largest animal groups on the planet. The group itself is thought to predate the continental drift events that separated Africa and South America around 140 million years ago as they are found in Africa, Latin America, Madagascar, and some parts of South East Asia.  However, the African cichlids represent one of the most striking examples of adaptive radiation (rapid evolutionary divergence) in the animal kingdom.

There are over 600 identified species, and many more unidentified species that live only in Lake Malawi! The lake basin is thought to be around 8.6 million years old, yet the majority of the cichlid species have been thought to have diverged from each other much more recently than the origin of the lake. To give you an idea of that insane speed, it is thought that we diverged from our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, around 13 million years ago!

There are many hypotheses as to how this group of fish has diversified so spectacularly. The geological history of the African lakes and their rising and falling cycles have given rise to many smaller lakes that have disconnected and reconnected over evolutionary time. This has allowed for many separate, but startlingly parallel, evolutionary trajectories. There are many highly behaviourally similar species that live in different regions or lakes, yet share less genetic similarity with each other than with the other species in close range.

Like Darwin’s finches of the Galapagos Islands the Cichlids of Africa have all specialized to specific ecological niches. There are species that remove parasites from the skin of catfish, and another that eats the catfish skin itself. There are scale eaters, fin-biters, sediment sifters, and zooplankton feeders. There is a group that inhabits snail shells, another that eats snails, crabs, or flies on the surface, and yet another that flips rocks to find insect larvae hidden underneath. Some species have evolved huge eyes to enable them to see in the dim lights at depths of over 100 meters, and others have evolved lateral line systems to enable them to find creatures in the mud.

These different morphological and behavioural adaptations are associated with changes in body shape and colour, jaw structure and orientation, and teeth size and form. As I float through this underwater realm I can see these novel adaptations in action. The evolutionary history of this lake, and the resulting diversity amaze me.
It is one of the many reasons that I chose to come to Malawi, and I am looking forward to my time here amongst these crazy fish!



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