Wild Madagascar

Madagascar, The Red Island, is home to a host of outlandish creatures that could have been dreamed up by Lewis Carroll. Nick Garbutt falls under its spell.

Opening spread of Wild Madagascar article

The Red Island of Madagascar is home to a host of outlandish creatures that could have been dreamed up by Lewis Carroll. Nick Garbutt falls under its spell.

Glance at a map of Africa and it would be easy to dismiss the omelette-shaped island off the south-east coast as nothing more than an insignificant chip off the old continental block. You might assume that its fauna and flora would be an impoverished version of the biological riches found on the mainland. Think again.
Madagascar may be ‘merely’ 400km from Africa at the Mozambique Channel’s narrowest point, but when you’re there you feel light years away. It is not just different: it is very, very different.
Where else might you find a primate that thinks it’s a woodpecker, a gecko that screams like a banshee and morphs into tree trunks, or a beetle with pretensions to being a giraffe? There are also chameleons the size of ants and rats the size of rabbits. Truly, Madagascar is a topsy-turvy place.
Like countless other visiting naturalists, when I first set foot on the island 20 years ago I felt as if I had followed Alice into Wonderland. Since then I have returned many times to the ‘Red Island’ (its soil is often a distinctive terracotta colour) and it has never failed to work its magic.
Land of lemurs
Eighty per cent of Malagasy wildlife occurs nowhere else - a staggering statistic. But of the thousands of weird and wacky endemic animals found here, it is the telegenic lemurs that have become the stars.
These charismatic mammals are offshoots of the primate family tree, most closely related to bushbabies and pottos. With no higher primates to compete with on Madagascar, they were able to diversify into more than 100 species, encompassing a wonderful variety of shapes, sizes and behaviour.
At one extreme are the nocturnal mouse lemurs - the world’s smallest primates. A big silverback mountain gorilla can easily be 6,500 times heavier than the tiniest of them all, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur - a ridiculously cute, goggle-eyed creature that tips the scales at just 25g.
Collectively the most abundant members of their family, the hyperactive mouse lemurs are a highlight of night walks through wooded areas, leaping nimbly among the trees in search of berries, blossom, beetles and other titbits.
My favourite lemur, though, is the largest living species- the indri. In looks it recalls a gangly, piebald teddy bear, and it can perform prodigious leaps of up to 10m between trees. But its plangent, haunting cries are more extraordinary still: they have the emotional power of whalesong.
In the early morning, waves of this hackle-raising sound travel far and wide through the indris’ rainforest home in the humid east of the island, as each family announces ownership of its territory.
Weird and wonderful
Of course, the lemur tourists most want to see is an instantly recognisable species synonymous with Madagascar itself. But though the ring-tailed lemur is today a global pin-up, it is rather atypical of its family. It lives in unusually large groups (on average 12 - 15 strong), spends about a quarter of its time on the ground and thrives in extremely arid habitats in the hot and dusty south.
No discussion of lemurs is complete without a mention of the animal that encapsulates all that is outrageous and wonderful about Malagasy wildlife. Hardly anyone gets to see one in the wild (I have had six sightings in two decades) and most photographs of it are taken in zoos, which only adds to its allure. Enter the aye-aye.
The aye-aye is the epitome of zoological deviance: a jumble of quirky physical features and even quirkier behaviour. Its incisors grow continuously like a rodent’s, its gremlin hands have clawed digits and a skeletal middle finger, its ears are massive, mobile and leathery like those of a bat, and its mammary glands are between its hind legs.
When foraging, it acts as if it were the progeny of a woodpecker and a squirrel (neither of which occurs on Madagascar). It survives largely on insect finger food, tapping the wood of rotting trees and listening for a hollow sound or the movement of juicy grubs.
Curious carnivore
At one time, before humans gatecrashed the evolutionary party 2,000 years ago, Madagascar was probably 80 per cent forest, and those forests were full of lemurs - ideal prey for a top predator. But no cats, dogs or civets reached the island after it drifted away from Africa 165 million years ago. So the coast was clear for a completely new type of hunter to emerge and fill the gap.
The evolutionary end-product was the fosa (pronounced foo-sah). An arboreal hunter par excellence, it is sleek, lithe and fantastically agile, climbing at speed - helped by ‘reversible’ ankles like squirrels - to chase lemurs through the canopy or (more often) ambush them at night as they sleep.
Fosas have an eccentric mating system. Preoccupied with procreation, in October they abandon their shy, nocturnal habits, and females in oestrous climb favourite trees (they return to the same ones every year) to advertise their availability. Over a week or so a female attracts several males with scent-marking, all of which may mate with her.
Faced with such stiff competition, fosas have developed some interesting sexual adaptations. They possess the largest penis relative to body size in the mammal world, and can maintain an erection for six hours.
Vanishing acts
One-of-a-kind mammals like the fosa or aye-aye are undeniably exciting for the naturalist, but they represent just one element of Madagascar’s peculiar fauna: its endemic reptiles, amphibians, birds and insects are equally memorable. I’m especially fond of the flat- or leaf-tailed geckos, which have taken the art of deception to sublime levels.
These lizards mimic tree bark - but they don’t just have the same mottled coloration. They have gone much further, developing a skirt-like frill of skin around their entire outline to help them merge imperceptibly into a tree trunk or branch. Should this fail to deter predators, the larger species suddenly open their shocking red mouths, while letting out a blood-curdling scream.
Another fascinating group of lizards with cryptic coloration are the chameleons, which probably originated here. Today, more than 80 species - half of the world’s total - are restricted to the island.
They range from leviathans to Lilliputians, and many sport horns and armoured ‘shields’ behind the head. The heavyweight champ, Parson’s chameleon, reaches a length of 70cm - the massive, three-horned males have the swagger of mini Tricerotops.
The same cannot be said of the pygmy stump-tailed chameleon. Rarely over 20mm long, this tiny titan is among the smallest reptiles on Earth. One variety, Brookesia peyrierasi, is found on the idyllic island of Nosy Mangabe, off the north-east coast, where it hunts ants in the leaf-litter and tries to avoid spiky, hedgehog-like tenrecs.
Land of diversity
Charles Darwin never visited Madagascar, but had he done so I can’t help thinking that its fantastic biodiversity would have helped inspire his work on evolution. Take the vangas. This endemic family of birds displays a huge range of body size and beak type that, if anything, is even more pronounced than in the famous Galápagos finches.
The 15 species of vanga have evolved to occupy niches filled in other parts of the world by woodpeckers, wood-hoopoes, shrikes, tits and nuthatches. They provide an excellent example of adaptive radiation - the process by which a small stock of ‘founder’ individuals is isolated and then driven to diversify in spectacular fashion.
Vangas are not the only group of animals on Madagascar to show remarkably close parallels to unrelated species elsewhere. The Malagasy poison frogs (mantella) seem uncannily similar in both appearance and behaviour to the poison-dart frogs of Central and South America (Dendrobatidae) - an exquisite example of convergent evolution.
In fact, the Malagasy versions are not nearly as toxic as their New World counterparts, though their bright warning coloration is every bit as striking.
Kit-built insects
If I had to pick one creature that sums up what makes the Red Island so special, however, it would be the giraffe-necked weevil. Try to picture a glacé cherry with a mini Anglepoise lamp attached at one end - this beetle is like nothing else on Earth. It appears to have been assembled on a whim from a kit.
But why the long, magnificently articulated neck? The female uses it like a crane-cum-robotic arm to neatly roll a leaf of the species’ preferred host tree into a hollow tube. She then lays a single yellow egg, barely larger than a pinhead, inside the snug nest.


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