As far as biodiversity ‘hot spots’ go, it’s hard to beat Madagascar, a medium sized island off the southeast coast of Africa. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), from 1999 to 2010 some 615 new species have been discovered on the subtropical island. That list of new species is comprised of 42 invertebrates, 61 reptiles, 69 amphibians, 17 fish, 385 plants, and 41 mammals (note: discoveries of just one new species of mammal are rare) and includes the world’s tiniest known primate, and a spider which builds a web over three feet in diameter,
What accounts for the tremendous species richness of the island? Biologists believe that the island nation’s quite ancient, geologic isolation from the mainland of Africa (quite ancient) and the more recent separation from the Indian section of the crustal plate (about 80 mya) set the stage for its uniquely evolved biodiversity. Add to that a mountain range that runs down the center of the island — creating wet and dry regions and providing a geological barrier to inter-breeding — and you have the perfect setting for evolution to unfold in marvelously unpredictable ways.
Every year, the biological “treasure trove” that is Madagascar becomes better known to the scientific world. Unfortunately, the island — a former French colony — is now experiencing the growing environmental problems that come with modern industrialization, as in so many other wild places around the world.
Plantations are being cultivated on a large scale (the nation accounts for half the world’s exports of vanilla) and deforestation, oil/gas extraction and mineral mining operations are spreading. Since 2009, the island nation’ s government has been threatened by political instability following the ouster of its controversial president Ravalomanana and the installing of Rajoelina after a series of deadly protests. Foreign corporate interests are often competing with foreign scientific ones, while illegal trade in exotic species is a growing problem.
In the midst of this, the people of Madagascar — comprised of 19 different ethnic groups — struggle to educate themselves and deal with the pressures of a modernizing world and the imperative of preserving the rich biodiversity of their native land.
A Few Facts about Madagascar’s Biodiversity:
The island nation is home to 99 species and sub species of lemur (including the exquisite ring-tailed lemur) that are found no where else but on Madagascar; lacking monkeys and other competing primates, Madagascan lemurs have flourished and diversified. Nearly all of these prosimians are listed as rare, endangered or threatened.
Madagascar is home to over 10,000 species of plants, 90% of which are found nowhere else. One such plant — the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) — has found use as a highly effective treatment for leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease.
Six out of eight of the world’s known baobab (tree) species are found only on the island nation (known as the “eighth continent” by ecologists).
Madagascar is home to 260 specie of reptile (again, 90% of which are found only on the island) and two thirds of the world’s chameleon species. It is also home to the world’s smallest specie of bee.
Visit the WWF International site to see more Madagascan animal and plant pictures.
Avenue of the Baobabs: Frank Vassen ; CC – By – SA 3.0
Periwinkle (flower); Biswarup Gangulyb ; CC – By – SA 3.0