Madagascar: Island of earthly delights

The island is a treasure trove of unique creatures—more than 600 of them

Island of earthly delights

Harald Schuetz/WWF Madagascar

Madagascar is one of Earth’s last great tropical wildernesses and, in the past decade, scientists have found an incredible 615 new species there, according to a new report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Among these discoveries—including 385 plants, 42 invertebrates, 17 fish, 69 amphibians, 61 reptiles and 41 mammals—some sound almost too fantastic to be believed. The cork bark leaf-tailed gecko, for example, looks like a crawling piece of bark, with its craggy tan-coloured skin. The massive tahina palm flowers only once in its life, producing a spectacular bloom before it dies. And Berthe’s mouse lemur, the smallest known primate, is so tiny it can fit in the palm of your hand.

The fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar is home to five per cent of our planet’s animal and plant species, and more than 70 per cent of them can’t be found anywhere else. Its landscape is widely varied, from tropical rainforest to volcanic mountains, broad plains and desert; surrounding waters are home to some of the world’s largest coral reef systems. With better sampling techniques and DNA analysis, scientists are finding species there they’d never previously observed.

Madagascar’s rampant biodiversity can be partly explained by its unique geological history, says Richard Hughes, the WWF’s regional director in Madagascar, reached over the phone from the capital of Antananarivo. The island split off from the African continent about 165 million years ago, and broke free from India over 80 million years ago; human settlement there, he notes, “only dates back around 2,000 years.” As a result, plants and animals have had a long time to evolve in isolation, inspiring some scientists to call Madagascar the eighth continent.

The island is a treasure trove of unique creatures, many of them highlighted in the report. (These discoveries weren’t made by the WWF, but rather by researchers from around the world, all of whom agreed to have their finds included.) Komac’s golden orb spider weaves giant webs of golden silk, and a “glam-rock chameleon,” one of 11 chameleon species found in Madagascar since 1999, has gold and purple shimmer around its eyes. One fish, called lamena in the local Malagasy dialect, has a bright orange body, red fins and luscious blue lips. Including Berthe’s mouse lemur, 28 new lemur species have been described since 1999. “What’s particular about Madagascar is that some of the things we’re finding are relatively large,” Hughes says. “There are thousands of plants, insects and reptiles that haven’t been discovered, but it’s not that common to find mammal species.”

Many of the newly described plants—including six types of coffee, 10 from the pepper family, 39 aloe species and eight palm trees—are just as remarkable. One type of edible yam has several lobes and looks like a cow’s udder, and a recently discovered orchid, Clare’s polystachya, has clusters of orange flowers and smells of citrus candy.

Rampant poverty, the WWF notes, puts Madagascar’s biodiversity at risk. Valuable plant and animal species (from rosewood to geckos) are exported for profit by traffickers, just as large swaths of forest are destroyed for livestock grazing, agriculture or firewood and charcoal production. Because of deforestation, “during the rainy season Madagascar seems to be bleeding,” the WWF report says, as millions of tonnes of laterite (a red claylike topsoil) are washed away, eventually smothering reefs around the island. Today, experts think that about 90 per cent of Madagascar’s original forest cover is gone.

The WWF, which has been active in Madagascar for 47 years, has several objectives, which range from promoting sustainable agricultural and fishing practices to investing in renewable energy sources. Safeguarding this unique place is crucial, Hughes says. Describing 615 new species in one short decade is “a lot of discovery,” he agrees, “but it’s only a drop in the bucket of what we know is really there.”

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