Antoetra is a small village about 40km southeast of Ambositra. It is not a very touristy place due to its remoteness and lack of interest when it comes to wildlife. However, it does get the occasional hiker or person wanting to homestay. My friend Jason (visiting for a week) and I happened upon Antoetra by accident. While in Ambositra and setting up our two-day visitation plans for the area, we asked a local guide where we could find palm trees in the wild. The goal was Dypsis ambositrae and I actually thought it would be easy to find. The following morning our local guide informed us we had a long day ahead of us and we needed to drive on a dirt road for some distance. I knew right then we were not going to see Dypsis ambositrae in habitat. But I was up of the adventure and large palm trees were promised.
I didn’t know it going in, but Antoetra is inhabited by the Zafimaniry tribe. Their woodworks are considered to be Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity – a list maintained by UNESCO. If you read French (which I don’t), the sign in the village alludes to this.
To start the visit of Antoetra and trek into the remaining primary forest, you must first check in and hire a local villager as your guide. It wasn’t hard to find the administration building in the small village.
Recess for the younger kids.
Foosball was a popular game in Madagascar. You could find tables most anywhere—even a remote village.
Antoetra was a quiet village the morning we arrived. Most people were hard at work out in the fields already.
Even the kiosks were unattended.
Before setting out on our hike to the forest, I noticed a few clumping Dypsis planted around the village. Upon closer inspection it was immediately clear that this was something new that I hadn’t seen before in Madagascar or in cultivation. If I had to describe them I would say they looked like a cross between what we grow as Dypsis ambositrae and Dypsis sp. ‘Bef’. I had my guide ask around the village if anyone knew where this palm was in habitat. From what I was told it could be found about 10km away. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have time to try and find it.
This unknown clumping Dypsis was very colorful.
The flowers on Dypsis ambositrae and Dypsis sp. ‘Bef’ are white. This palm has red flowers like those found in Dypsis baronii.
The trek to the remaining primary forest starts off like almost every other hike I would do through Madagascar. That means walking through a slash-and-burned landscape. Notice my guide has no shoes on?
As we got closer to the rainforest, we happened upon a bunch of juvenile unknown Dypsis. We believed at the time they were a type of Dypsis decipiens.
Upon closer inspection, it didn’t take long to grasp that we were looking at something we hadn’t seen before.
This unknown Dypsis was a large palm. Its leaves were much longer and held more leaflets than Dypsis decipiens. Like Dypsis decipiens, this palm handles full sun from an early stage, as you can tell from the above photos.
As we reached the edge of the remaining rainforest, we could see a few of these palms poking out from the canopy. You can see one in the middle of the photo below. This photo provides a hint as to how big a palm this unknown Dypsis was.
After about a 2.5-mile walk, we were finally ready to enter the forest.
It didn’t take long to find our first mature adult of this palm. Seeing adults of this unknown Dypsis in habitat was truly awe-inspiring.
There were quite a few flowering adults in the forest. The largest we would see was this monster below.
Seedlings of this palm were interesting as well.
Once I was back on my computer and was able to get WiFi, I immediately sent photos of this plant to palm botanist John Dransfield. As it turned out, this was in fact possibly an undescribed species we were fortunate to see in habitat. The story goes that three years ago a Japanese ethnologist studying in the area ran into these palms on a hike. He sent plant material to Kew to assist in its identification. Nothing could be found to classify it as an already known species. April of 2016, Kew is sending an expedition to the area we were just at in an effort to describe this possible new Dypsis species. Until that time, I call this unknown palm Dypsis sp. ‘Antoetra’. In all likelihood, my friend Jason and I were the first palm aficionados to see this Dypsis in habitat. It is crazy to think a palm this large would not have been discovered years prior. It just goes to show you how much is still unknown about Madagascar and why it is so maddening to me to see the rate of deforestation. You can see below, the Dypsis sp. ‘Antoetra’ we saw and the forest in general is under threat of encroaching destruction.
The trip to the rainforest is basically an out-and-back trek. The walk back rewarded us with a few chameleon sightings. This pretty guy was a Jeweled Chameleon (Furcifer laterals). A common occurrence in the savanna vegetation of the Malagasy high plateau, this beautiful species was the only one I would see. Remember, they have spent a few million years evolving the art of not being seen.
We were happy finding the Jeweled Chameleon walking just off the trail. We couldn’t believe our luck when literally two minutes later we found this chameleon: an Elephant-eared Chameleon (Calumma brevicorne). While researching this species back home, I could not find another picture of an Elephant-eared Chameleon with this dark coloration.
As we got closer to returning to the village of Antoetra, we came upon this contraption. I had noticed these in other parts of Madagascar but never asked about them. We found out that this was how the locals made charcoal for their cooking. They would stack wood, put a bunch of flammable vegetation in, cover the pile with soil, cut out numerous openings for air flow, and then light it. Extremely basic, but highly effective for making charcoal that, when cooled, could be sold at the market.
Madagascar as a country eats more rice per person than anywhere else in the world except for Vietnam. So you are never far from a rice field.
It was a great day in Antoetra. We still can not believe that only by chance we ended up seeing such amazing palms. I would have liked to have explored more around the forest of Antoetra, but time wouldn’t allow it. It was getting late and we were ready to head back to the hotel to rest up and prepare for the next day’s exploration.
By the time we got back to our hotel in Ambositra the weather had changed. Even heavy rain doesn’t stop the Pousse-pousse runners.
Not far from our hotel we spotted the one palm that we originally set out to find that day – Dypsis ambositrae. It just happened to be in a private residential garden. We ended up ringing the bell and the caretaker came out and allowed us to get the photo of the only Dypsis ambositrae we would see the entire trip. The palm is actually named after the city of Ambosita. It is only just outside the city of Ambosita that you can find Dypsis ambositrae growing in the wild, and nowhere else in the world. It is a very rare palm in habitat but luckily it is well represented in cultivation.
The following morning we were up early and once again, after listening to our guides plan for the day, we knew we wouldn’t be seeing the now elusive Dypsis ambositrae in the wild. Why? Because we were heading back to the crossroads village of Ivato and instead of taking a left, we would be taking a right and heading west this time.
Ivato is a busy little village. While driving through I noticed it was all men in town and questioned where the women were. I would later find out the answer to that question as we reached the countryside. They were all working in the fields!
We would never find the palms the guide was told about in the area. However, all was not lost because we did happen upon a few Dypsis decipiens out in habitat. Some were quite picturesque. Like this double Dypsis decipiens next to a graveside.
This wild strand of Dypsis decipiens was found just outside the village of Tsarafandry.
Some were pretty old.
Just like many of the palms of Madagascar, there is quite a bit of variation even within a local population of Dypsis decipiens. These two palms below were in that same grouping above but showed regular leaflets with a leaf that didn’t recurve like most Dypsis decipiens.
The craziest variation of them all was this red crownshafted Dypsis decipiens.
This was a true coloration of the crownshaft. You can see that even the next crownshaft under the exposed one will be red as well. This coloration went around the entire palm. Plus, notice the flower spathe was red. The marvels of Madagascar never cease to amaze.
This Dypsis decipiens outside the village of Vohiposa even had some variation to its appearance.
Jason and I headed to Ambositra with one goal in mind—to see Dypsis ambositrae in habitat. We never accomplished that goal. Instead, we found two unknown species of Dypsis and some beautiful strands of Dypsis decipiens. We couldn’t have been happier with how things turned out.
Now, onto the next leg: Ranomafana! The views started out amazing…