After three months in Madagascar, I have returned to my home in California, and looking back at this whirlwind of a journey I feel compelled to give a brief account of what I’ve learned on my travels as well as my perspective on the state of the environment in the country. This adventure has no doubt been my most exotic and eye-opening experience in wildlife conservation yet. Working for the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP) was a real privilege and I learned so much about what it takes to work in a developing country. However, there is still a very long and difficult road ahead for the economic development of the country and the conservation of its natural resources. I’ll get into more of this later on in my post but I first want to switch gears and start off by talking a little bit about the natural history of Madagascar and the amazing wildlife I got to see on the island during my time there.
Madagascar’s Natural History
As I’ve already mentioned in some of my previous blog posts, Madagascar is a land of incredible biodiversity. It is the fourth largest island on the planet but its level of endemism is unparalleled–about 90% of its plants and animals are found nowhere else on our planet. Scientists have puzzled over this unique assemblage of flora and fauna for decades, and have hypothesized as to how this island came to be so richly populated. The answers come from a field of study called biogeography, which examines the distributions of living things based on evolution, changing climates, and continental drift.
Over evolutionary time, animals disperse across the changing landscape, sometimes making unlikely journeys between continents and landmasses when sea levels are low. Alternatively plants and animals can become separated from the mainland if pieces of land break off from the mainland as islands, sparking the formation of new species in a process known as vicariance. Madagascar has a very interesting biogeographic history, and every taxonomic group seems to have its own story as to how it got to Madagascar. While some species “rode” the island as it separated from the other landmasses during the breakup of the supercontinents millions of years ago, most species arrived more recently via immigration from mainland Africa, crossing the Mozambique Channel by flight (birds) or by drifting across the ocean on large floating pieces of debris (mammals, reptiles, and amphibians). There are many pieces of evidence from fossils, geological formations, and DNA studies to corroborate the occurrence of both these events numerous times in Madagascar’s history. A more in depth explanation of Madagascar’s biogeography can be found at UC Berkeley’s Evolution site here, or in the references listed below. I will now give a few natural history accounts of the species I saw while in Madagascar.
Reptiles and Amphibians
As an amateur herpetologist, I found Madagascar’s reptiles and amphibians to be incredibly fascinating and spectacularly bizarre. I saw cryptic geckos and frogs that turned invisible, tiny chameleons that hung upside down by their tails while sleeping, and snakes that have evolved to look nearly identical to the completely unrelated garter snakes I grew up catching in the States. These critters were encountered hiding in the leaf litter, clinging to rocks, slithering through tree branches, and sometimes even skittering across the dining table.
One of the most exciting herpetological finds for me was a sub-adult Madagascar tree boa (Sanzinia madagascariensis) at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. This is one of four species of boa found on Madagascar. They are one of the apex predators in these eastern forests, hunting birds and small mammals including mouse lemurs. The Malagasy boas are fascinating from an evolutionary standpoint, as they are not closely related to the New World boas and anacondas, even though they look very similar. In fact, based on DNA evidence, the ancestor of the Malagasy boas was likely a worm-like burrowing snake from East Africa that rafted over to the island on floating driftwood, and then subsequently evolved the same lanky body type as the tree boas found in the Amazon.
The Mantellidae frogs are another group of herps unique to Madagascar that are thought to have colonized Madagascar from India some 70-90 million years ago as the two landmasses were splitting apart and there were still land bridges for animals to cross.
These new Malagasy arrivals evolved into many different shapes, sizes, and colors. There are over 200 species of Mantellidae with many still to be described by science, and there are frogs that live in the trees, some that live in the leaf litter, and some that live only in streams. One famous genus, Mantella, has convergently evolved to look just like frogs from a different continent. Mantellas are brightly colored poisonous frogs that resemble the poison-dart frogs from South America. Mantellas are not closely related to these poison-dart frogs, but they fill the same ecological niches. I was lucky enough to see several species of Mantellid frog, including the golden mantella (see my previous blog post here).
Perhaps Madagascar’s most well-known herps are its chameleons. These lizards have eyes that swivel independently of each other, prehensile tails for clinging to tree branches, and special skin cells that change color based on the animal’s hormones. I saw several different species here including the world’s largest, the Parson’s chameleon, and one of the smallest, the leaf chameleon.
Chameleons are thought to have colonized Madagascar from mainland Africa two different times. They diversified and filled many different ecological niches on the island, and today Madagascar is home to a majority of chameleon species.
The avian life of Madagascar is not as species-rich as one might expect for a tropical island. However many of the birds on the island are found nowhere else on Earth. In fact, Madagascar has one of the highest endemism rates for birds of any other comparable tropical island. One family in particular is an evolutionary marvel: the vangas. The vangas are a group of about twenty birds that all look radically different from each other with some possessing long curved bills and others with large, bulbous crushing bills. However, DNA studies have confirmed that these birds all evolved from one common ancestor and that each one developed its own body type and bill morphology to suit its needs, whether that was extracting flower nectar with a needle-like bill, or cracking seeds with a short, stout bill. The vangas have been called the “Darwin’s finches of Madagascar” as they are yet another example of the wonders of island evolution and ecological specialization.
Perhaps my favorite bird I saw in Madagascar was the bizarre Madagascar cuckoo roller. This strange, big-headed bird flies over the jungle canopy, making a comical rolling call while searching for insects and lizards to eat. The males and females have very different plumages, with males donning an iridescent green and purple wing overcoat on a grey body, and females sporting an overall speckled greenish tan down. This ancient species is the only one in its order, and is considered to be among the most evolutionarily distinct species of all birds, with no close relatives. I was delighted to see these handsome birds both at Andasibe and Ranomafana National Parks.
Last but not least of my natural history accounts of Malagasy fauna (and I hope I haven’t bored my readers with all this sciencey talk) is the lemurs. In three months of living in Madagascar I was lucky enough to see 15 species of lemur including the smallest–the mouse lemur; and the largest–the indri. There are over one hundred species of lemur, many of which have only been described with the use of DNA analysis. In fact, the MBP’s Conservation Genetics Lab housed at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium has described 24 new lemur species in recent years. These amazing primates are completely unique to Madagascar, and they have several features that are not found in monkeys and apes. Lemurs branched off from the primate family tree relatively early on, and so one could think of them as “primitive primates”. One big difference between lemurs and the more derived monkeys and apes is that lemurs rely more heavily on their sense of smell when foraging for food and communicating with other family members. Lemurs have scent glands on their body that they use to communicate to others, and one of the important behaviors we collected data on in the forest was whenever an animal scent marked a tree branch or log. Lemurs also have a special dental oddity, not shared by their other primate relatives, called a tooth comb, where the lower incisors stick out at a sixty degree angle and can be used to groom fur.
Lemurs are synonymous with Madagascar, but how they got there has been a long-running question in biogeography. The DNA evidence suggests that lemurs diverged from other primates after Madagascar split apart from Africa and India, so the ancestor of all lemurs must have somehow made it across the Mozambique Channel by seeking refuge on a floating peace of driftwood, and then diversified over millions of years into the huge array of species we know today. Even more amazing, a recent paleontological study by Gunnell 2018 et al. reexamined a fossil specimen from Kenya that had originally been described as an extinct fruit bat and found that this animal had actually been a primate called Propotto, more closely related to the strange aye-aye lemur that lives today in Madagascar.
By dating this fossil and looking at DNA divergence times, the researchers concluded that actually two different lineages of lemurs dispersed from Africa to Madagascar independently. This would mean that the aye-aye, which I tracked with MBP guides late one night in the jungles of Kianjavato, actually is much more evolutionarily distinct from all other living lemurs, having evolved separately from a different lemurine ancestor.
Watching the mother aye-aye with her daughter in the forest was one of the most special moments for me in Madagascar as this was probably the most elusive and unique animals I’ve ever seen in the wild. Knowing the incredible natural history of these animals makes the experience all the more extraordinary. In fact I think personally that gaining a scientific understanding of the world we live in makes life so much more enriching and fulfilling.
Madagascar: A Paradise Lost?
Madagascar truly has an incredible diversity of life and I feel very lucky to have been able to experience some of it in person. However as I walked through the jungle it hit me many times as to just how dire the situation for Madagascar’s wildlife really is. Nearly 90% of all life here is found nowhere else on Earth, yet as you look around you see glaring evidence of habitat destruction and environmental degradation.
It was easy for me to see why this place has sadly been called “The Great Red Island”—vast open scars reveal the vermillion soil exposed by slash and burn agriculture, and the rivers run red where the nutrient-poor mud has leached into the water, eroded from deforested hillsides. In place of native forests, introduced conifer trees grow all over the degraded landscape, and in some places I felt more like I was in the temperate Sierran foothills of California rather than the tropical Malagasy jungle. In fact outside of the national parks and special reserves, there was little semblance of healthy virgin forest, with many areas dominated only by plants that thrive in degraded habitats. Even the national parks are not necessarily safe. We were told by our guide in Ranomafana National Park that some parcels of land are still subjected to mining and illegal timber harvesting of the endangered rosewood tree. Even more alarming, hunting of lemurs in the national parks for food is still occurring.
On one gloomy day while tracking sifakas through the jungle in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, we stumbled upon a wire snare lemur trap. After disabling the trap and gathering locational data we reported it to MBP and the park office. Local people still hunt lemurs and other protected species for food throughout Madagascar and though it is illegal, it is hard for local agencies to adequately enforce the laws. Moreover, many people living in rural communities have little to no dietary access to meat, and they subsist mostly on rice, cassava root, and beans. In these cases poaching wild animals or purchasing bushmeat can seem like a viable option for someone looking to feed one’s family.
Madagascar is among the poorest countries in the world with crumbling infrastructure and an overall low standard of living. Witnessing first-hand the struggles faced by many people in these areas made me sympathize with their situation. Most people that live in the villages where I worked will never travel more than 100 miles from the home they were born in, and they carry on their daily lives without most of the luxuries that we in the West take for granted. Many people living in rural communities throughout Madagascar do not have the same appreciation for lemurs that vazaha do because they’ve grown up with these animals living virtually in their backyard. To them, the idea that lemurs are an endangered group of animals precious to Earth’s biodiversity is a strange concept to them, especially when sources of food can be few and far between. These kinds of discrepancies in Malagasy and international perspective must be kept in mind and addressed whenever dealing with conservation priorities and objectives in the country. Instead of hegemonically imposing international values of biodiversity on the Malagasy people, conservation organizations must look for ways to make conservation economically lucrative in these areas.
Unfortunately since the country’s wildlife is one of its most internationally well-known commodities, there has been a historic trend of international aid being disproportionately allocated towards science and wildlife conservation rather than broader sustainable socio-economic development. In the late 1980’s the National Environmental Action Plan for Madagascar was funded and implemented largely by international donors whose biodiversity-centered interests were not necessarily in line with those of the Malagasy people (See Corson 2017 for a history of conservation politics in Madagascar). While wildlife conservation and research is no doubt important, human welfare must take precedence in this impoverished country, and indeed poaching and illegal logging will continue as long as people feel they have no other economic options to make a living off of. If conservation is to work in Madagascar, it has to provide direct incentive to its people. The endeavor must not be exclusively ecological, but equally social and economic, and furthermore the Malagasy people must be empowered to carry out the work, hopefully someday autonomously. Thankfully many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in recent years like MBP have been tackling these conservation issues by employing and empowering local people to carry out scientific research and forest restoration projects.
Hope for the Future
Volunteering for MBP was eye-opening for me and even though I was only with the program for three months, I believe that it is a model organization for conservation in developing countries. MBP’s primary objective is to conserve Madagascar’s biodiversity and they achieve this goal by providing jobs in the area and offering incentives for the local people to participate in conservation efforts like tree planting events. Witnessing MBP’s ingenious Conservation Credits Rewards program (read more here) in which community volunteers participate in tree planting events and earn credits to redeem for beneficial commodities like solar kits, bicycles, and portable water jugs. By incentivizing conservation and directly providing economic benefits to families in Kianjavato, MBP has found the perfect balance of matching western interests of research and conservation with the economic needs of the community, and in so doing create a harmonious effort where both people and wildlife benefit. They abide by the Malagasy saying, “Mampifandray ny tontolo” that everything is connected, and that the future of Madagascar’s amazingly rich biodiversity is beautifully tied to the well being and prosperity of its people.
UC Berkeley Understanding Evolution. “Where did all of Madagascar’s species come from?” https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/news/091001_madagascar
Lemur Conservation Network. https://www.lemurconservationnetwork.org/organization/madagascar-biodiversity-partnership/
Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership Homepage. https://madagascarpartnership.org/
Corson C. 2016. A History of Conservation Politics in Madagascar. Madgascar Conservation and Development 12 (1). https://www.ajol.info/index.php/mcd/article/viewFile/161047/150608
Crottini A, Madsen O, Poux C, Strauß A, Vieites DR, Vences M. 2012. Vertebrate time-tree elucidates the biogeographic pattern of a major biotic change around the K–T boundary in Madagascar. PNAS. 109 (14): 5358–5363. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1112487109
Gunnell G, Boyer DM, Friscia AR, Heritage S, Manthi FK, Miller ER, Sallam HM, Simmons NB, Stevens NJ, and Seiffert ER. 2018. Fossil lemurs from Egypt and Kenya suggest an African origin for Madagascar’s aye-aye. Nature Communications. doi:10.1038/s41467-018-05648-w.
Hawkins F, Safford R, and Skerrett A. 2015. Birds of Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands: Seychelles, Comoros, Mauritius, Reunion and Rodrigues. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. ISBN 9781472924094.
Jenkins RKB, Keane A, Rakotoarivelo AR, Rakotomboavonjy V, Randrianandrianina FH, et al. 2011. Analysis of Patterns of Bushmeat Consumption Reveals Extensive Exploitation of Protected Species in Eastern Madagascar. PLoS ONE 6 (12): e27570. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027570
Mittermeier RA, Louis EE, Richardson M, Schwitzer C, Langrand O, Rylands AB, Hawkins F, Rajaobelina S, Ratsimbazafy J, Rasoloarison R, Roos C, Kappeler PM, MacKinnon J. 2010. Lemurs of Madagascar. Illustrated by S.D. Nash (3rd ed.). Conservation International. ISBN 978-1934151235.
Noonan B, Chippindale PT. 2006. Dispersal and vicariance: The complex evolutionary history of boid snakes. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 40 (2): 347–358. DOI: 10.1016/j.ympev.2006.03.010
Noonan B, Chippendale PT. 2006. Vicariant origin of Malagasy reptiles supports Late Cretaceous Antarctic landbridge. Am. Nat. 168: 730-741. DOI: 10.2307/4122245.
Pyron RA. 2014. Biogeographic Analysis Reveals Ancient Continental Vicariance and Recent Oceanic Dispersal in Amphibians. Systematic Biology 63 (5): 779–797. DOI:10.1093/sysbio/syu042.
Rieppel O. 2002. A Case of Dispersing Chameleons. Nature 415, pages744–745. https://www.nature.com/articles/415744a.pdf.
Samonds KE, Godfrey LR, Ali JR, Goodman SM, Vences M, et al. (2013) Imperfect Isolation: Factors and Filters Shaping Madagascar’s Extant Vertebrate Fauna. PLoS ONE 8(4): e62086. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062086.
Tolley KA, Townsend TM, Vences M. 2013. Large-scale phylogeny of chameleons suggests African origins and Eocene diversification. Proc R Soc B 280: 20130184. DOI:10.1098/rspb.2013.0184
Yoder A, Nowak MD. 2006. Has Vicariance or Dispersal Been the Predominant Biogeographic Force in Madagascar? Only Time Will Tell. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 2006. 37:405–31. doi:10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.37.091305.110239
Note: The views expressed in this piece are my own and do not reflect those of Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership or any other organization.