About 160 million years ago, Madagascar
broke off the mainland of Africa and this island grew in isolation into a land of biodiversity that’s unlike any other place on Earth. Humans didn’t impact this paradise until about 2,000 years ago, allowing the island’s spectacular and unusual life forms to flourish. Lemurs, giant centipedes, and miniature chameleons inhabit Madagascar’s landscape, which include tropical rain forests, spiny deserts, mountainous areas and dry deciduous forests
There is no animal on the national flag of Madagascar but if there were, it might as well be a lemur. People probably know more about the lemurs of Madagascar than they do about the rest of the country, its people and culture and its other unique natural wonders. And since lemurs are so well known, they could serve as unofficial ambassadors to represent Madagascar’s biodiversity as well as its conservation plight.
IN DEPTH: Learn about newly-discovered mouse lemurs, the Antafondro mouse lemur and Arnhold’s mouse lemur.
These mostly tree-dwelling creatures vary from the smallest primate in the world, Madame Berthe's Mouse Lemur (Microcebus berthae) discovered in 1992, to the indri (Indri indri), which sings a heart-rending chorus in the rain forest.
Madagascar is also home to 340 reptile species including more than half the world’s chameleons. One of the most interesting is the dwarf chameleon, which is slightly more than one inch (2.5 centimeters) long, making it one of the smallest vertebrates in the world. Of the country’s 222 amphibians, all but one are found nowhere else.
The birds of Madagascar are also extraordinary. More than 209 bird species are regularly found in the country, and nearly 50 percent are considered to be endemic to the island. Among the threatened species are the Madagascar serpent-eagle (Eutriorchis astur), the Madagascar heron (Ardea humbloti), and the Madagascar fish-eagle (Haliaeetus vociferoides). Extinct species include the elephant birds – at nine feet tall, one species was the largest bird known to have lived.
Madagascar plays host to an incredible number of plant species. Scientists estimate that there are perhaps as many as 14,000 vascular plants on the island, 90 percent of which are endemic. Among Madagascar’s notable plants are six of the world’s eight species of baobab tree, which are well adapted to the island’s drier regions.
Should you travel to Madagascar, you’ll need a guide. The island’s native creatures are elusive, found only in remote regions, or confined to very small areas. Even for scientists, Madagascar is a land of wonder. At least 22 new mammal species and subspecies have been described from Madagascar in the last decade and a half.
NEW TO SCIENCE: Explore some of the many species that Conservation International and partners have discovered recently.