This site does not support Internet Explorer for Macintosh. Please use Safari, Firefox or Opera.

Program Locations

Overseas Seminars - Madagascar


Biological and Cultural Aspects of Island Geography: Madagascar
Study in Madagascar with Bob Siegel

Arrival Date in Antananarivo, Madagascar: July 1, 2013
Departure Date from Antananarivo, Madagascar: July 22, 2013

Information Session: Wednesday, October 10, 12:15 - 1:30pm

@Room 029, Ground Floor, Sweet Hall


Madagascar is an ideal location for learning about cultural and biogeography and about the value of island studies in general. 

Islands are natural laboratories for studying a wide variety of subjects from biological diversity to cultural and linguistic diversity.  It is not coincidental that Darwin discovered the process of natural selection as a result of his studies in the Galapagos.  In a similar manner, Papua New Guinea has been a long favorite for studies of linguistic diversity, and key infectious disease processes related to measles have been discovered in Iceland (Cliff and Haggett) and the Pitcairn Islands (Peter Panum).  The fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar constitutes one of the most remarkable island laboratories in the world, offering a unique combination of size, location, and isolation. 

This seminar proposes to look at island biogeography in the broadest sense of the term embracing not only the origins and distribution of flora and fauna, but of the human inhabitants as well. 

One focal point of the seminar will be species biodiversity.  Madagascar has the highest level of endemic species found anywhere.  This extraordinary diversity extends all the way up to the family level (depth of diversity).  From dense tropical rainforests with diverse lemurs and a profusion of chameleons to baobabs and the spiny forests of the south, Madagascar’s diversity extends across the biological kingdoms (breadth of diversity).  By way of comparison, Madagascar’s endemic diversity dwarfs that found in the Amazonian rainforest.  This has led some people to refer to Madagascar as “The Eighth Continent”.  Madagascar’s species biodiversity is imperiled by loss of habitat, human population growth, climate change, and changes in human life-style.  The fate of Madagascar may augur the fate of the world at large.

The island also holds a wide range of phylogenic mysteries including the presence of boas whose closest relatives live in South America.  The majority of indigenous species stem from the time before the breakup of the Gondwanaland supercontinent or from subsequent transmarine island migrations (such as the primates).  One of the most dramatic impacts on Malagasy fauna stems from the relatively recent arrival of humans. As in other locations, this event led to the rapid extinctions of the island’s megafauna including the giant ground lemurs, and the elephant birds – the largest species of birds (dwarfing even ostriches in size).  It is still possible to see existing shell fragments from their eggs.  (Tim Flannery describes this process in his book The Future Eaters.)  Unlike the dodo or the moa, elephant birds are rarely mentioned, illustrative of how distant Madagascar is from Western consciousness. 

One important aspect of species biodiversity is the development of specialized adaptations unique to this island.  The Malagasy orchid Angraecum sesquipedale, offers a remarkable example of species adaptation, still particularly pertinent more than 150 years after Darwin published his landmark work.  Upon seeing this giant orchid in 1862, Darwin predicted the existence of an insect with a long proboscis that could serve as a pollinator.  It was more than 40 years after his death that the giant hawk moth, Xanthopan morganii praedicta was discovered.  A radiation of lemurs has produced related species as small as a mouse to as large as a big dog.  Euphorbs and baobabs demonstrate plant adaptations to conditions of lower precipitation, and the sundews of Isalo capture insects to survive in nitrogen depleted soils.  The vicious civet-related fossa has filled a predatory niche and resembles nothing so much as a young mountain lion.

Island geology will comprise a second focus.  We will look at its currently geological features and how they impact the inhabitants as well as its tectonic origins.  Tectonically, its proximity to Africa is misleading. In geological terms, it has been a wanderer that has only recently moved towards the coast of Mozambique.

Though relatively recently inhabited by humans (within the last 2000 years), it is also remarkable in terms of culture.  This will form a third focus.  There are over 18 distinct cultures differing in clothing, religion, burial rituals, taboos (fady) and other cultural practices.  Remarkably, they all speak a common language – Malagasy.  Even more remarkably, the closest extant language is a dialect spoken by a small group on Borneo.  Intensifying this linguistic enigma is the fact that some of the local religions consider the direction of Borneo to be sacred and organize their buildings and houses with this in mind.  In terms of physical appearance, there is a gradient among the inhabitants that correlated with elevation and distance from the coast.  In the central highlands, the Malagasy are strikingly Malaysian in appearance.  Towards the coasts, they much more closely resemble residents of nearby Africa.  The dependence on rice and cattle (zebu) are reminiscent of Asia and Africa respectively.  There are also many interesting cultural amalgamations of more recent origin: including French style consumption of frogs legs and morning baguettes, Arabic paper making techniques of Ambalavao, and the rickshaws of Antisirabe.


A number of developmental issues will also command our attention including: the impact of globalization, population growth, poverty, climate change, deforestation, loss of species diversity, poverty.  In particular, overpopulation is leading to the rapid destruction of the remaining forests and the consequent endangerment and extinction of unique species and genera.  In a particularly ironic example, sisal plantations have developed to produce biodegradable packing materials.  Unfortunately, this practice requires the destruction of irreplaceable forest.

In order to take full advantage of the proposed location, the seminar will travel to a number of locations within Madagascar, including Antananarivo, Ranomafana, Isalo and Andasibe.

The course will consist of daily presentations by the faculty leader and by other local experts.  Each student will also be required to give one presentation during the course. The bulk of the day will be devoted to site visits to places and people relevant to the themes of island geography.  These field visits will be divided into 1) parks and preserves including the lemur park and a reptile park near Antananarivo and 2) cultural sites including marking, paper-making factories, burial sites, schools, and the sisal factory near Berenty.  We will also have evening discussions of island related issues stemming from student observations assignments described in “Prerequisites and Expectations” below.


Living and Traveling Conditions
The lodging for this seminar will consist of guest house accommodations, with the possibility of a brief homestay with a local host family. Students will be in shared rooms in all lodgings with private or common bathrooms. Students should understand that the conditions in Madagascar can present difficulties and challenges not encountered here at Stanford. Students should be prepared for pit toilets, lack of electricity, no internet access, bucket showers, new foods and limited food choices, while having less privacy and personal space than they are used to at the home campus. Students are expected to be flexible and willing to adjust to the host culture to take advantage of this experience.

Students should be expected to do a fair bit of moderate hiking during the seminar. This program includes travel by airplane, bus and car, and visits to several locations around Madagascar. Dietary selections may be limited so students with severe restrictions should carefully evaluate their ability to participate comfortably. If you are uncomfortable traveling under such conditions, you should not apply to this seminar.


Robert Siegel ( is Associate Professor of Department of Microbiology and Immunology, the Program in Human Biology, and the Center for African Studies.  He is the recipient of numerous teaching awards including the Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching.  His courses focus on virology and infectious disease, on genetics and molecular biology, on global health and development, on photography, and on Darwin. He serves in an advisory capacity for numerous international NGOs, organizations, and projects including FACE AIDS, Support for International Change, Ocean Medicine Foundation, TeachAIDS, and Free the Children. Over the past decade, Prof. Siegel has traveled to Africa ten times.  Prof. Siegel led the overseas seminar in Tanzania for Bing Overseas Studies Program in 2012 and 2006. He has done fieldwork on malaria in Papua New Guinea and HIV in East Africa.


Enrollment Capacity
15 undergraduate students.


Prerequisites and Expectations
No academic prerequisite are required. Student projects will consist of 1) critiques of background reading 2) field research, 3) daily field observations and 4) student presentations.
Students should be expected to chose a topic of interest and research that topic prior to the course. They will supplement their research will in country observations and interviews.  These topics will be presented to the group thoughout the seminar.  A write-up on the presentation topic will be turned in following the seminar.  Students will also be expected to keep a series of daily observations – four short observations and one on which they elaborate.  (These can be thought of as the equivalent of four Twitters and 1 blog posting per day.)

Students should be expected to attend one hour mandatory preparatory meeting every week during Winter Quarter, and at least one mandatory orientation meeting to be conducted via Skype during Spring Quarter.


Grading Basis
Satisfactory/No Credit.


Passport and Visa
Students are solely responsible for obtaining their passport and visa. Every BOSP participant MUST have a signed passport that is valid for at least 6 months after the scheduled RETURN date from the overseas program. Students who do not have a valid passport must apply for a new or renewed passport immediately. For information on obtaining or renewing a U.S. passport see To expedite your passport processing, click on the following link and go to the appropriate tab:
For visa information for this specific seminar, please click on the link below and go to the appropriate tab:


Health and Safety
Students on international programs should be aware that attitudes toward medical conditions, disabilities, and psychological conditions vary by culture and under the laws of the host countries. These differences impact the level of treatment and accommodation available abroad. Students should give serious consideration to their health and personal circumstances when accepting a place in a program and should consult with their physicians.

Students must be aware that certain immunizations are required to protect their health in Madagascar. Students must review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website for complete information on health conditions and vaccinations in Madagascar at Students must also consult the on-campus Vaden Health Center Travel Clinic ( Students are expected to make an appointment with the on-campus Vaden Health Center Travel Clinic as soon as they are accepted to the program at (650) 498-2336 ext. 1 to discuss any health concerns, pre-departure immunizations and any personal prescriptions before going abroad.


Students must review the U.S. State Department’s consular information website for complete information on safety and security in Madagascar at


While overseas, students are advised to be alert to their surroundings, and be particularly aware of any health and safety advisories for the areas in which they will be visiting. As with any foreign travel, emphasis will be placed on staying away from questionable situations, avoiding injury, and preventing infectious disease. Students will be expected to travel in groups, avoid travel at night, and stay with the group unless prior approval is obtained. Additional issues of personal health and safety and precautions will be discussed in detail during the pre-seminar preparation and upon arriving in country.


Other Considerations

Certain diseases are present in Madagascar and the risk of contraction may be reduced through proper vaccinations (e.g. Hepatitis A and B, typhoid fever, and rabies,), medications (malaria) and/or behavior precautions (Schistosomiasis, dengue fever, HIV/AIDS, etc.). Students must discuss with the on-campus Vaden Health Center Travel Clinic or a physician the best ways to prevent malaria.  There are several types of malaria prophylaxis (prevention) drugs.  These medications usually need to be started prior to travel and continued for various periods after traveling. Students will be expected to be up to date on all relevant vaccines including Hepatitis A,  Hepatitis B, measles, mumps, rubella, typhoid, tetanus, and polio. Any illness or health concern should be immediately reported to the instructor.  Gastrointestinal illnesses are common, though rarely serious. Students should consult with their physicians to be prepared for this potential illness.

If you are uncomfortable traveling under such conditions, you should not apply to this seminar.