Can fungus help grow trees in Madagascar?

Thomas Timberlake and Cyprien Miandrimanana write from Madagascar about a field experiment using fungus to help tree seedlings survive.

One of the problems that has long bedeviled ecological restoration efforts in Madagascar is persuading young seedlings to grow at a pace of more than just a few centimetres per year. The site of Ankafobe in the central highlands is a prime example, with many five year old individuals, planted in the anthropogenic grassland surrounding the remaining forest fragments, still no taller than waist height. Clearly, the environment into which the seedlings are planted is in some way inhospitable.  One hypothesis to explain seedling underperformance  is that they are not managing to establish their normal symbiotic relationships with vesicular arbuscular mycorrhizae (VAM) fungi on which most higher plants depend.

Scaled visual comparison of VAM and VAM-less seedlings at Mitsinjo in Andasibe, Madagascar.

Scaled visual comparison of VAM and VAM-less seedlings at Mitsinjo in Andasibe, Madagascar.

In a VAM symbiosis, plants exchange a significant carbohydrate donation to the fungus in return for important nutrients, particularly phosphorus, and often increased drought tolerance. So if mycorrhizae propagules are absent in the savanna soil, this could well explain the slow growth rates and high mortality observed among planted tree seedlings at sites like Ankafobe.

In response to concern about poor seedling performance, various restoration projects in Madagascar have begun inoculating their nursery seedlings with VAM using a simple protocol pioneered by Mitsinjo, a restoration project in the eastern rain forest of Andasibe. Soil (presumed to contain mycorrhizal fungus) is gathered from underneath forest trees, mixed with sand in a sack-lined pit and then sown with rice and beans to act as hosts for the developing VAM. After three months of maturation, you have a sack-full of VAM inoculum, ready to be applied to the young germinating seedlings – one teaspoon per plant.

Many groups in Madagascar swear by the VAM protocol and the visual results can be compelling, but as yet there have been no experiments in the country to rigorously test whether this method is actually effective. This lack of clear evidence is what prompted us to work on a series of experiments testing and perhaps refining the VAM protocol.

We planted 480 native tree seedlings with and without VAM inoculation to test whether this method increases seedling survival and growth in the degraded savanna around Ankafobe. Digging into the solid laterite and planting the experimental seedlings was hard work but our efforts were rewarded one day with the sighting of a family of 10 young Tenrecs (Tenrec ecaudatus) who ventured bravely out of the security of the forest to observe the progress.

Planting complete, we took our “Time Zero” measurements and then a small sample of roots from both VAM and control seedlings to return to Antananarivo and check for the presence of mycorrhizae vesicles. The process of staining involved cooking up some rather nasty chemicals in our improvised laboratory – the kitchen – back in Tana.

Our next project will be to replicate our VAM study in Ananalava, a humid site on the east coast that contrasts with the drier climate of the Malagasy Highlands. Repeating our study in different environments will help generalize our results and recommendations for people working across this heterogeneous island.

Cyprien in our kitchen laboratory preparing an improvised stain to look for VAM vesicles.

Cyprien in our kitchen laboratory preparing an improvised stain to look for VAM vesicles.

A Tale of Two Highlands Part II: Ankafobe, Madagascar

Leighton Reid, James Aronson, and Chris Birkinshaw all contributed to this post on restoration in one of Missouri Botanical Garden’s community-based conservation sites in Madagascar. They are currently travelling together discussing opportunities for ecological restoration in MBG’s Madagascar Program and more generally for the country as a whole.

Madagascar’s central highlands appear as a grassy sea – an undulating terrain with intermittent red gashes where heavy rain has dramatically eroded the landscape. Driving north along the national highway from the capital, Antananarivo, one sees Eucalpytus trees growing near villages, as fuel and firewood plantations, but there is almost no natural forest. The few natural communities that remain represent vestiges of a former world.

The view across the road from Ankafobe - nearly unbroken grassland.

The view across the road from Ankafobe – nearly unbroken grassland.

Our destination today is one such vestige – the Ankafobe reserve. Ankafobe is a tiny (33 hectare) strip of native forest growing near the headwaters of a highland stream. Water-loving Pandanus trees demarcate the stream bed and provide fruits for several lemur species. A Souimanga Sunbird (Cinnyris sovimanga) flitters from tree to tree. Just outside of the forest, highly flammable grassland stretches to every horizon.

Pandanus spikes stand out in this thin patch of gallery forest at Ankafobe.

Fragmented gallery forest at Ankafobe. Spikey Pandanus demarcate the streambed. Red strips in the background are incipient forest restoration plots, where the soil has been turned over prior to planting nitrogen-fixing shrubs and native trees.

MBG staff and local villagers are working to restore forest on these bare hills, but it is not an easy task. Between clumps of grass is baked, orange laterite – rock hard soil bereft of life and nutrients. Tree seedlings planted in it grow slowly, or not at all. To improve seedling growth, MBG scientists are testing several strategies. One method is to turn over the soil and seed hearty legumes, whose symbiotic bacteria replenish soil nitrogen – a key ingredient in DNA.

Last October, a wildfire jumped the double fire breaks surrounding Ankafobe and burned a piece of the forest. Two hundred people from the local village (with a population of 600) voluntarily and spontaneously fought the fire for three days. Their impressive response minimized damage to this small forest and raised hopes and excitement about working together on conservation going forward.

The wildfire highlighted this forest fragment’s vulnerability, but it also provided a unique opportunity to observe the response to fire by a natural biotic community that has almost disappeared from the world. A number of trees were completely burned up that had been growing in the savannah just outside of the forest. Unexpectedly, several of these resprouted from their base and from superficial roots at some distance from the main stem. Nearby, the burned grassland bloomed an interesting  array of geophytic plants – particularly orchids – that were rarely observed in unburned grassland. These observations seem to support the hypothesis that at least part of the highland flora may be adapted to fire – a controversial idea that complicates the already challenging task of managing Ankafobe.

Ankafobe is a rare gem; a green emerald that stands out from the surrounding countryside and supports at least one species found almost nowhere else. The reserve is also a special opportunity for ecological restoration. Hard-won lessons from this site could eventually be used to restore tens of thousands of square miles of Madagascar’s central highlands.

Chris Birkinshaw (center) and the Ankafobe restoration team after a rainy afternoon in the field.

Chris Birkinshaw (center) and the Ankafobe restoration team after a rainy afternoon in the field.