Cover image for Antipode : seasons with the extraordinary wildlife and culture of Madagascar
Antipode : seasons with the extraordinary wildlife and culture of Madagascar
Heying, Heather E. (Heather Elizabeth)
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
xviii, 270 pages 8 unnumbered pages of plates : color illustrations, map ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QH195.M2 H48 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



By definition, "antipode" is a point on the earth diametrically opposite from another. As a field biologist specializing in reptiles and amphibians, Heather Heying has been to some of the most remote places on the globe. Her career consists of trekking through dense rainforests, sitting for hours at a time observing elusive creatures, and spending weeks on end in remote, sometimes inhospitable locales. But nothing she previously experienced quite prepared her for the three seasons she spent studying the tiny, bright, poisonous frogs found only at what is the antipode of her world, both geographically and figuratively - the island-nation of Madagascar.

The majority of Madagascar's wildlife is endemic -- found nowhere else. Lemurs rule the forest canopy, while on the ground, snakes and lizards search for evening meals of frogs and bugs, all against a gorgeous backdrop of rainforest. It's a biologist's paradise - but at times can also be a foreigner's worst nightmare. Madagascar in no way resembles what most Westerners know as normal existence. Technologically, it is laps behind the first world. Time shuffles by at a slow gait. Poverty is rampant - people pride themselves on how many pots of rice a day they eat. Language and culture barriers, combined with bureaucratic red tape, can make travel virtually impossible.

In stories that are in turns moving, insightful, hilarious, and beautiful, Heather recounts her experiences -- from run-ins with naked sailors and unusually hostile lemurs to tropical hurricanes and greedy tourist entrepreneurs. As she carefully navigates an obstacle-strewn path, she gradually uncovers the hidden lives of the beautiful yellow and blue poison frogs she studies. And all the while, she is coming to understand her role as a female Westerner in a foreign society, and her intense love for and fascination with the stunning cultures and wildlife of Madagascar.

Author Notes

Heather E. Heying was born in Santa Monica, California, and received her Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Michigan. She currently resides in Olympia, Washington, where she is on the faculty at Evergreen State College.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Antipode is defined as the opposite side of the world. Heying grew up in Santa Cruz, California, and the nearest landmass on the other side of the globe is Madagascar. A field biologist by training, the author made four trips to Madagascar between 1993 and 1999 to study the island's poisonous frogs. Heying recounts the adventure of studying little-known animals in a non-Western country. The insularity of Madagascar makes it a wonderful place to research evolution and endemic animals, but can also create problems for the still fairly rare foreigners that come to study these animals. Mixing stories of terrestrial leeches, lemur bites, and the petty bureaucracy of obtaining visas and permits with the wonder of observing maternal behavior in Mantella frogs or of watching an aye aye lemur at night, Heying conveys the difficulties--and the marvels that more than balance them--that keep naturalists coming back to learn the secrets of little-known areas. In her quiet, meditative prose, the author helps us to understand the lure of field research. Nancy Bent.

Library Journal Review

The subtitle of Heying's memoir of her field studies in Madagascar is slightly misleading. Instead of attempting a general overview of the wildlife of the island (as in Peter Tyson's The Eighth Continent), Heying offers a detailed account of her work and adventures primarily on Nosy Mangabe, a smaller island off the northwest coast of Madagascar. This tiny island, while devoid of carnivores, birds, most of Madagascar's famous lemurs, and even ants, abounds in frogs in particular the mantella, a colorful and toxic frog with interesting breeding behavior that Heying studied for insights into evolutionary biology. Heying relates her own "evolution," from her initial frustration and dismay over the slow pace and poverty of the island to a growing resourcefulness, respect, and fondness for the people who live there. Much of her actual research involved sitting perfectly still for hours, watching tagged (and even tattooed!) frogs go about their business. She does an excellent job of conveying both the rigors of field research in a remote location and the intellectual joy of "basic research" the kind of science that does not necessarily lead to direct benefits for humankind. While this is not a crucial title, many readers who liked Margaret Lowman's Life in the Treetops will also enjoy Heying's blend of science and travels far off the "beaten path." Beth Clewis Crim, Prince William P.L., VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



  Antipode PART I 1 You Are Here Madagascar is an immense island. It is the fourth-largest in the world, after Greenland, New Guinea, and Borneo. All told, it is slightly smaller than Texas. This great red island lies off the east coast of Africa, in the Indian Ocean, not two hundred miles from Mozambique, but has less in common with Africa than one might expect, given its close proximity. Madagascar has been separated from all other landmasses for at least 80 million years, and in that time, the biota has become extraordinary and unique. Ninety percent of its plant and animal species are endemic--found nowhere else on the planet. There are neon-spotted frogs, and fully grown chameleons the size of pocket change. Enormous baobab trees looking as if they've been planted upside down. Bats with built-in suction cups on their wrists and ankles. Carnivorous pitcher plants. Leaf-tailed geckos that flatten against and blend in so perfectly with tree trunks that you can look one in the eye at six inches and think you're admiring bark. Every time you take a step in what remains of the wilderness of Madagascar, new surprises meet your eyes. And then there are the lemurs. More monkey than ape in character, but not actually either, prosimians are among the most primitive primates. All Madagascan prosimians are commonly called lemurs, although some, technically, are not. Living species include the black-and-white indri, which look like giant teddy bears; they sing duets with their mates at first light, and again as the sun sets; their mournful song carries miles across the forest, and often across deforested land where they can no longer live, evoking haunting memories of their bygone presence. The island is also still home to the tiniest of primates, the mouse lemur, a big-eyed fur ball that scurries about in the trees with the aid of its opposable thumbs, the whole package smaller than a human fist. And there's the aye-aye, a scruffy, mangy-looking beast with bat ears and a long, wispy tail. This otherworldly creature uses an elongated middle finger to pull sap and insect larvae out of trees, filling the woodpecker niche in a place with no woodpeckers. Local legend suggests that if you see an aye-aye, you must kill it, else bad luck will fall upon your village. Aye-ayes are, understandably, a bit shy of people nowadays. Aside from the aye-aye, the Malagasy myths that have risen up around the lemurs are mostly ones of exaltation. The indri is believed to have saved a man who, having broken a critical branch, was stranded high up in a tree. It is fady to hurt an indri. Other lemurs are hunted for food, but they are admired for their dexterity and skill in the trees. Tales are told of their social habits--one Malagasy friend told me that female lemurs seek out and eat the leaves of a toxic plant when they want abortions. And they are even, sometimes, valued for their beauty in this country at the bottom of the world's economic ladder, where aesthetic concerns are rarely a priority. It is still a matter of some debate how both the landmass of Madagascar and the people living on it came to be there. Madagascar probably split from Africa early in the breakup of Gondwanaland, but remained attached to what would become the Indian subcontinent to the north, Australia and the Southeast Asian islands to the east, and Antarctica to the south and west. The last landmass with which Madagascar rifted was India, which ultimately broke away and moved north toward a collision with Asia that would raise the Himalayas. Were the first Malagasy people Africans, Indians, Southeast Asians (present-day Indonesians), or Pacific Islanders? Perhaps Polynesians, with a bit of Southeast Asian, and some Arab blood, picked up during what must have been a long journey by boat. Few anthropologists agree on when people began arriving on Madagascar. But it is clear that neither the people nor the wildlife bear much resemblance to those on the African continent, and a sure way to insult a Malagasy is to refer to him as African. Although Africa and Madagascar are physically quite close, strong water currents in the Mozambique Channel make it difficult for anything to cross between the two. Madagascar was a stopping point on trade routes throughout the age of colonial Europe--indeed, the oldest map of the region where I work was made by Dutch pirates. There are more than twenty distinct tribal groups, several variations on a theme of animist religion, and very little industrial or technological development. The French colonized Madagascar in the late nineteenth century, but they were ousted in a democratic vote in 1958. Lingering French influence explains both the prevalence of the French language across the country and the surreal appearance of fresh baguettes in even rural markets every morning. Due to widespread corruption, the new government gradually began provoking protests, and in 1975, it was replaced by the socialists. From then until 1992, during the socialist era in Madagascar, outsiders were particularly distrusted, and foreigners who hadn't managed to stay behind when the French left were not often let in during this period. The socialists had come in with grand ideals and plans, but they soon fell into disrepute. In 1992, after years of increasingly vocal protests from the people, a multiparty democracy was formed, and Dr. Albert Zafy was elected president. His administration, too, soon lost popularity, and in 1997, in a democratic vote, Didier Ratziraka, the former socialist head of state, became the president of Madagascar. By early 2002, Madagascar was again in a state of uproar, and the future of the Malagasy government was unclear.     Were I telling stories about modern American suburbanites, it might be safe to assume that the time not chronicled is spent watching television, talking on the telephone, shopping, and commuting between home and work. At night, our neighbors retreat to their walleci-off homes, turn on the lights, and make themselves comfortable among their things. In Madagascar, except in the capital, Antananarivo, there are essentially no televisions or phones in anyone's private home. Even in Tana--the more manageable name for Antananarivo--these luxuries are rare. When present, phones seldom work. In northeastern Madagascar, where I work, people commute, but it is not a commute most Americans would recognize. The locals walk daily between their palm-roofed homes and the outdoor market--the zoma --which reliably has baskets and rice for sale. Communal pit toilets and open charcoal fires are the bathrooms and kitchens, respectively. Electricity exists only sporadically in the one sizable town in the region. Twice a week, a turboprop lands on the local runway, there being no reliable roads that connect this part of the island to the rest, and all children and some adults within a certain radius come to watch the spectacular event. There are no print media, no books available. A single radio station exists, though few private homes--which are primarily open-air shacks--have radios. There is no privacy, and few precious things. In Madagascar, time is so abundant as to be unmeasured, such that a request for a boat or a meal or a person to show up at a particular time, even on a particular day, makes no sense. If something else comes up, maybe that gets priority. Maybe not. Who can predict these things, and why would anyone want to? If it doesn't come today, maybe it will come tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow. Peut-être demain. Ongomba rapitso. In English, French, or Malagasy, it is perhaps the most often-used phrase in Madagascar. Meanwhile, in the United States, services are advertised based on their ability to get things there, wherever there may be, more quickly than anyone else. "When it absolutely, positively, has to be there overnight," you would do well to be in the developed world. In the States, time is measured constantly: Time is slipping away; time is of the essence; time is money. In Madagascar, no amount of coercion can cause things to move more quickly. At the sites where I actually live and work for the majority of the time, there is no commerce, nothing to buy but an occasional fish from a fisherman pulled up onshore. A boat ride away is Maroantsetra, a town of flat, hazy tropical scenes, coconut palms on plains of sandy grasses, a town where you can sometimes buy vegetables, but where there are no appliances, no good shoes, no sunglasses for sale. This town is a flight away from Tana, where for a price you can obtain hydrochloric acid (as advertised in the local newspaper), a television, a Land Rover (only on the black market), an International Herald Tribune from a week ago, a good Indonesian or French meal, and even potted plants. Tana is itself a long series of flights away from machine-washed and dried clothes, new hiking boots, delis, flourless chocolate cake with raspberry sauce, the New York Times, Harper's Magazine, Thorlo socks, alkaline batteries, duct tape, Krazy Glue, contact lenses, a blood transfusion, skiing, Snickers bars, maple trees and rhododendrons, box springs and mattresses, sulfa-free antibiotics, or anything new and improved. My most remote field site is five miles by foot from a village, which is a few hours by boat from a town, which is several hours by plane from Tana, which itself is several flights away from box springs, or transfusions. At this most remote site, all you can get is emergent trees thrust from the canopy, robed in flowers; lemurs clucking, peering; a parade of both colorful and cryptic frogs; cool breezes, with a stunning view from a tent platform; a vast forest rich with unknown life; and clean, clean air.     The great Pacific was just a mile from our house when I was a child, and when I needed to be reminded of my own insignificance, I would head down to the beach to stare across the vast ocean. In the spring, my father would drive us out of Los Angeles and into the desert, where my brother and I ran through endless fields of erupting wildflowers. The golden-orange California poppies, so garish and delicate, were my favorite. Other than those few weeks each year when sporadic rain caused flowers to actually grow wild, little grew without tending in L.A. The daughter of an Iowa farm boy turned computer engineer, I grew up believing that things don't grow unless people make them do so. My mother made our garden grow, carefully doling out water and nutrients, and if she stopped, everything died. Behind, under, and between her plants, animals from the hills scurried, reveling in this unexpected bounty. My fierce, loyal cat brought me alligator lizards. She would bite off their tails on my bed, where she would leave the tail, twitching, for me to find. It was a clue that somewhere in my bedroom a lizard with a bloody stump was hiding, terrified. This was our game, hers and mine. Every fall, scorching Santa Ana winds would come in from the east, pummeling our already-parched city. If the winds coincided with a spark in the hills, brush fires erupted, sweeping across chaparral and houses with similar abandon. I remember one fire coming over the mountains toward our house, four, maybe five blocks away. A little girl, I stood on the roof with my father, with all the neighborhood fathers on their roofs, hoses in hand, wetting down the tinder of our lives. The fire, which we could not yet see, kissed our faces with raw heat. Finally, my father ordered me down, back to the room where my mother had put my little brother and our two cats. We were ready to escape to a car packed with family photos as soon as my father yelled "Go." I fell asleep curled on a pile of blankets. The next morning, I woke confused, sweating, my sinuses filled with ash. The winds had turned, and the danger was past. My parents were haunted by our closest call yet, while the children and animals clamored for breakfast. Days later, I walked through those hills while the ground was still hot, chasing lizards and snakes left uncharred. Gone were the scrubby desert plants, the only natives left in L.A. Most gardens remained, though, filled with foreign plants like agapantha and bougainvillea and night-blooming jasmine, and with yet more exotic plants, from places I could only imagine--from Brazil, and from Madagascar. The walls of books that lined our house helped me conjure these faraway places. Many of my favorite memories from childhood are of being curled up alone with a book, hiding from social obligations. I read voraciously, developing early on a passion for fantasy and science fiction and, later, classic literature. A well-told story was the best escape, and until I could start generating my own adventurous narratives, I immersed myself wholly in those created by others. Captivated by great literature all of my life, I was frustrated, in college, to find the opinions of literary theorists dictating which stories were valid and which were not. I left literature for science then, enticed by the promise of distinguishing between plausible and implausible stories by using the scientific method. Initiating my turn toward biology was Bret Weinstein, a friend since high school who, in the summer of 1989, handed me a book by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, suggesting that I might find some meaning therein. I found The Selfish Gene first daunting, then provocative, and finally inspiring. Bret has now been my best friend and lover for many years, and his enthusiasm for evolutionary biology contributed to my own desire to be a field biologist. In 1991, before either of us ever saw Madagascar, we backpacked together through Central America, where we discovered firsthand the wonder of tropical ecosystems, the sheer pleasure of finding animals in the wild, and the privilege of being allowed to watch them do what they do. It's nothing like being at the zoo and finding the monkeys in their enclosures. When you're out in their world, in a vibrant, breathing forest, their real lives are arrayed in front of you in all their complexity. Filled with hunger, predators, and tree falls, those lives can change and grow as you watch. In a way, literature and science are as different as they could be, one seeming to celebrate all the possible alternatives, the other trying to pinpoint which is most likely to be true. But in another way, literature and science are similar, as both aim to construct good stories from real life. Scientific inquiry takes the process a little further--it takes the possible narratives and assesses if they make sense, puts them to rigorous tests. Students of literature know that blood is thicker than water. Science offers us the opportunity to understand precisely why this is so. In science, we rely on hypothesis generation and falsification to assess the validity of our stories. But still, stories are what we're generating, and the most interesting stories will always have intrigue and drama, and discovering a story previously untold will forever be exciting.     During the middle of my first long field season on Nosy Mangabe, a remote island three miles off the east coast of Madagascar, my mother wrote me a letter. In it, she described a conversation she'd had with an old family friend. After she had explained to him, as best she could, what I was doing in Madagascar, he was still left with the nagging, and most basic, question: Why do it? She knew that I was, in her words, "studying something about evolution in poison frogs ... but why?" I answered her this way. Science is, at its most basic level, the process of discovering "what is." There is an objective reality out there, and scientists seek to discover that reality in spite of the subjective lens of our perceptions. We are looking for pattern amid chaos. The patterns in the universe are not necessarily useful to humans, however. As such, much of science--the sort we modestly call "basic research"--does not tend to be applicable to the curing of human disease, or to the problems of global warming. But basic research, knowledge for knowledge sake, is still the bedrock of scientific inquiry. The particular quest I'm on has a lot to do with understanding how evolution--in particular, selection--guides the appearance and behavior of everything around us. Natural selection, and its lesser-known cousin, sexual selection, are responsible for much of the complexity of the natural world, so questions about that complexity necessarily come back to questions about selection. Understanding selection, then, is a goal worthy unto itself. But if selection accounts for complexity--such as the specialized kidneys of desert-dwelling rodents in the American Southwest, or the bright red color of male cardinals during the breeding season--why not study some of the complexity that's closer to home? Why drag myself halfway around the world to do so? And why look at the sex lives of frogs? Madagascar, the place to which I drag myself for my research, is utterly unlike any other spot on the planet. More than 90 percent of its mammals and lizards are endemic; for the frogs, that number is close to 100 percent. Part of the reason for the high rate of endemism is that Madagascar is an island. By definition, islands are isolated, and isolation is a catalyst to evolutionary divergence. Divergence means speciation, and new species on an island mean unique, endemic species. Speciation is only half of the equation, though, in terms of species numbers. Extinction is the other half. While Madagascar, through its isolation, has generated massive numbers of new species, it also suffers, as does so much of the tropical, developing world, from massive deforestation. In places where populations are exploding, forests are cut down so that people can farm the land and eat. But when forests disappear, so, too, do the organisms that were in them. Only 10 percent of the original rain forest is left in Madagascar, and other Malagasy ecosystems, like the spiny desert in the south, are disappearing, too. And since Madagascar's biota--its myriad animals and plants--are so unstudied, species are surely disappearing that humans have never known, and never will. The little piece of the puzzle that I can discern in the time I have in Madagascar adds something to human knowledge that might otherwise go unknown. That said, the work I'm doing is not going to save rain forests. The particular frogs that I study don't seem to have broad ecological importance. They don't pollinate flowers or disperse seeds. They eat ants and mites, of which there are plenty, and many other animals have the same diet. They're not important prey for any known predators, probably because they're poisonous. They don't disperse seeds. If you completely removed them from the forests in which they live, those forests would probably continue to be just fine, if a lot less colorful and musical. Why, then, do I care to study them? Again, I'm basically trying to understand how evolution works. But that doesn't explain why I'm looking at behavior, or asking particular questions, such as: How do female frogs choose their mates, and how are territorial disputes settled among males? These questions are what spark my interest. Scientist or no, we all have to follow our passions. Anyone who has ever watched as their pet cat chattered at birds outside the window, or seen a dog excitedly investigate a strange new smell, knows that what animals do is curious, and worthy of explanation. I take it a step further in my research: I sit and watch animals do what they do, all day long, for months on end, and try to unravel their stories. Treachery and cooperation are words invented for human behavior, but they occur among animals as well. One of the highest compliments that can be paid a piece of literature is to call it "timeless." The story of what animals do is necessarily timeless. The natural histories that weren't good have disappeared, continually replaced by classics. Every bit of animal behavior is rich with history and possibility. Nature is filled with con artists and freeloaders, with courtships and shell games. If you can entertain yourself talking with friends about human interactions, it's not much of a leap to find nonhuman behavior fascinating, as well. It's a bit simpler, maybe, but no less important to the animals involved. For them, it's a matter of life and death: Do they get to mate or don't they? Where can they hide from the weather? Who wants to eat them, and whom will they eat? I remember clearly the first time I walked into a rain forest as a would-be scientist. It was a vast wall of green, wet and impenetrable. We were in Costa Rica, and the professor I was with turned to me and said, "Look at all the questions waiting to be asked." I gaped at him. I didn't see any questions; all I saw were leaves. But over the years, that has changed, and when I walk through this rain forest now, I still see leaves, to be sure, but through those, under them, and beyond, I see a vast array of questions. Many are yet unanswered, even more still unasked. It is the opportunity to stumble upon questions, upon stories in progress, and to sit down and try to figure out what it all means--that is what motivates me, and my research, here on the far edge of remote. ANTIPODE: SEASONS WITH THE EXTRAORDINARY WILDLIFE AND CULTURE OF MADAGASCAR. Copyright (c) 2002 by Heather E. Heying. All rights reserved. . No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010. Excerpted from Antipode: Seasons with the Extraordinary Wildlife and Culture of Madagascar by Heather E. Heying, Heather A. Heying All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.