Guest Post: My trip to Madagascar, and why you should jump on a plane and go now! (Mammals and Birds)

Guest Post by Katy Klymus

I am not the type of person that has many regrets. However if you were to ask me a year ago, what regrets I had, the only real one would have to be not going to Madagascar several years ago when I had a chance. The choice has haunted me for more than a decade. Finally, realizing that my research was not going to get me to Madagascar any time soon, last April I said “Screw it, I’m going to Madagascar”. When I told people where I was going for two weeks on vacation, most people thought it was cool, exciting, adventurous, and many people asked me why I chose to go to Madagascar. Coming from a non-biologist I completely understood the inquiry, but when my biologist friends also asked me this, I was dumb-founded. My answer to this question was simple…..Why wouldn’t you go?

Let me explain. I am fascinated by all the spectacular forms of life, my interest in biodiversity led me to study biology. I assume that many of my colleagues have a similar admiration for biodiversity. Given this appreciation for biodiversity, one simply must visit Madagascar. Madagascar is recognized as one of the planet’s biodiversity hotspots. Hotspots are defined as areas that must: 1 – contain at least 1,500 endemic vascular plant species 2- must have 30% or less of its original vegetation remaining. Endemic means that a species is found only in particular geographic area. With that level of endemic plant life, one expects high endemism of other species. More generally, hotspots are regions that contain a high number of endemic species and are threatened with destruction. The idea being that concentrating conservation efforts in these hotspots would do the most good in reducing biodiversity loss. About 88 mya Madagascar broke away from what is now India, and since then most of its wildlife has evolved in isolation, leading to the incredible diversity with an estimated 90% of its wildlife being endemic. From a biologist’s standpoint, who would not want a chance to experience the unique flora and fauna of Madagascar?

So now let me tell you about the wildlife that I was privileged to see on my trip, and I hope to encourage you to visit Madagascar yourself.

Mammals
Starting with my favorite, lemurs (infraorder Lemuriformes) compose more than 20% of the world’s primate species, and are found absolutely nowhere else but here. Lemur diversity is spectacular, from the diminutive mouse lemurs (world’s smallest primates, 30-70 g) to the sonorous indri (largest of the living lemurs, 6.8 kg), to the other worldly, long-fingered, grub eating aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis).

Molecular evidence suggests that all lemurs form a monophyletic lineage, and that a single rafting event from mainland Africa led to the ancestors of the lemuriforme diversification (Yoder 1996). Over 100 species of living lemurs can be found today in Madagascar. Several extinct giant lemurs once roamed Madagascar, weighing up to 160 kg. These, along with all other Malagasy megafauna were believed to go extinct roughly 2000 years ago coinciding with man’s appearance on the island.

Goodman’s mouse lemur
Goodman’s mouse lemur

On our first evening we did a night walk near Andasibe National Park and saw our first lemur, Goodman’s mouse lemur (Microcebus lehilahytsara). That next morning we hiked in the park. Shortly after starting we had a group of Diademed sifakas (Propithecus diadema) hanging overhead. Our guide then moved us towards an area where groups of indri (Indri indri) were known to visit. Along the way brown lemurs (Eulemur fulvus) scurried across our path. Not too much longer and soon we were hearing the calls of the largest living lemur. Indris pair for life and the male and female will duet in the morning, with a call that can carry over 1.5 miles. Having a background in bioacoustics, this was a highlight of my trip, and admittedly I teared up listening to the singing pairs sitting overhead. Indris and sifakas are relatively long limbed lemurs and spend most of their time in the trees, though if need be sifakas will cross open ground with their unique and somewhat comical bounding bipedal gait (video here). However, once in the trees these lemurs are powerful and fast leapers. Before leaving the park we also saw a group of wooly lemurs (genus Ahavi ) huddled up for a day’s sleep. We also visited a private park which had several species, the animals apparently having been donated as rescues. Here we saw a black and white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata). These guys, although common in zoos, are very rare in the wild, with habitat loss and bush meat being their major threats. A couple days later we visited Ranomafana N.P. where we saw red-bellied lemurs (Eulemur rubriventer) and had a pair of red-fronted brown lemurs (Eulemur rufus) jumping around us. In the southern part of the country, we got to see the iconic ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta), at the Anja Community Reserve, a unique community-based conservation organization.

Black and White Ruffed Lemur
Black and White Ruffed Lemur
Ring-tailed Lemurs
Ring-tailed Lemurs

Four other major mammal groups are found in Madagascar: bats, rodents, tenerec, and carnivores.

Tenrecs (family Tenrecidae), are a diverse group of insectivorous mammals that have radiated in Madagascar filling numerous ecological niches. A remarkable example of convergent evolution, many species morphologically resemble mice, shrews, hedgehogs, and moles. Originally placed in a clade with the shrews and hedgehogs; molecular evidence places them in Afrotheria along with elephants and hyraxes.

Fossa
Fossa

The carnivores of Madagascar are also extremely unique, all ten species belong to the endemic family Eupleridae . The fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), is the largest mammalian carnivore on the island. Although cat-like in appearance, the fossa and members of Eupleridae are more closely related to mongooses. Fossas are widely distributed across the country but are in low abundance throughout its range, which is restricted to the ever-diminishing forests. We saw one in captivity at a small private park. Like the lemurs all Euplerids are believed to have descended from a single origin.

Birds
About 51 % of the 209 bird species in Madagascar are endemic. They were a bit trickier to see than I had hoped; but I did see and identify 13 species including: the Madagascar Crested Drongo (Dicrurus forficatus), the Madagasar Coucal (Centropus toulou), the Madagascar Green Sunbird (Cinnyris notatus), the Madagascar Hoopoe (Upupa epops marginata), Grey-headed Lovebirds (Agapornis canus) and a Madagascar Kestrel (Falco newtoni). The only good picture of a bird I got was of the juvenile Madagascar Kestrel. I hoped to see members of the family Vangidae are representative of an adaptive radiation. Similar to the finches of the Galapagos Islands or honeycreepers of the Hawaiian islands, members of Vangidae exhibit an extraordinary range of sizes, colors, and beak shapes. These divergent phenotypes are tied to differences and adaptations to diverse ecological conditions. Oh, well, now that I know the good birding spots I’ll make sure to spend more time birding on my next trip.

Madagascar Kestrel
Madagascar Kestrel

I will wrap it up here for now. My next post will cover reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants.

Katy Klymus is an evolutionary biologist and conservation geneticist. She is currently working on environmental DNA applications to species management and biodiversity surveys. For more information visit my website or follow me on twitter @ekate78.

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