A report, Treasure Island: New biodiversity in Madagascar, from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF ) says that an astounding 600 new species have been discovered in just the past decade there, while also emphasizing the threat to the island’s diversity due to recent political and economic turmoil. The new species include 385 plants, 42 invertebrates, 17 fish, 69 amphibians, 61 reptiles and 41 mammals, as described by the WWF:
- Berthe’s mouse lemur — discovered in 2000, it’s the world’s smallest primate. It weighs 30 grams, and its body is just 10cm long.
- Tahina palm — this massive fan palm flowers only once in a lifetime, producing a spectacular, giant cluster of flowers
- Komac’s golden orb spider — the first spider of its kind discovered since 1879, and the largest to date, it spins huge webs of golden silk, often more than a metre wide.
- a new colour-changing gecko — usually brown like the bark of a tree, this lizard can quickly change to bright blue during courtship.
In the Guardian, Mark Wright, conservation science adviser at WWF-UK, notes that Madagascar’s isolation that has led to such a plethora of species:
“It split from Africa a long time ago and then subsequently split from the Indian block 80m years ago. It has had 80m years for evolution to have a bit of fun,” said Wright. “It is a very odd island. In terms of its geography, it helps speciation. There’s a mountain ridge down the middle, so on the east of the island you’ve got rainforest, but everything on the west is a rain shadow. So you get an enormous variety of environments from the very wet to the very dry. It’s a fantastic range of environments into which species can adapt.”
Wright also comments on how vulnerable the wildlife on Madagascar is in the face of human development:
The vast majority of people in Madagascar still use wood for heating, cooking and building, leading to enormous pressures on forest habitats. As the human population has expanded in recent years, there has been a rise in slash-and-burn agriculture. Over the past 20 years, Madagascar has lost more than 1 million hectares of forest, and in the aftermath of a coup in March 2009, the rainforests were pillaged for hardwoods such as rosewood, destroying tens of thousands of hectares of some of the island’s most biologically diverse national parks — including Marojejy, Masoala, Makira and Mananara.
Protecting the island’s biodiversity will have to involve locals, said Wright, and it will have to include incentives for them to look after their forests. “If they have no practical way of making a living, of course they are going to turn to the natural resources sector and see what they can get from that, and who wouldn’t do it?”
One way to help conserve the many species of Madagascar is to only buy wood and paper products that come from sustainable sources, says the WWF. The WWF has started the What Wood You Choose campaign which encourages people only to buy wood from good, sustainable and legal sources.
Who knows, there might be 600 more yet-undiscovered species in Madagascar — it would be more than a tragedy for them to be lost due to deforestation and the loss of their habitats.
The video below by Julien Chupin, who participated in the WWF International Young Volunteer (Explore Programme) in 2006, is about human development and the environment in Madagascar.
Photo of a mouse lemur in Nosy Mangabe, Madagascur, by Frank.Vassen.