The World Wildlife Fund has released a report stating a huge number of new species has been discovered on the island nation of Madagascar over the last eleven years. From 1999-2010, 385 plants, 42 invertebrates, 17 fish, 69 amphibians, 61 reptiles and 41 mammals have been found. (Download their report to see images of just some of the species.) Some of the plants could have medicinal value, such as Periwinkle, which might be beneficial in treating lymphoma and leukemia.
How could so many species be found on one island? First, it is actually the fourth largest island in the world, and is larger than some mainland countries. Second, it separated from the African continent over 100 million years ago, which allowed it to remain isolated from a strong human presence so animals were relatively free from that kind of predation and habitat disruption. The impact of humans is hard to overstate. In fact, because of the lasting human impact on the Earth, the current era we live in has been named the Anthropocene Epoch, or “the Age of Man,” by some scientists.
Madagascar has a human community, and it is growing more disruptive due to the influx of Western tourists and culture, but previously it was not developed commercially nor had a large human population. Even today the human population is about 20 million. Compare that with California’s 39 million and developed, huge cities – and you can see why an island over 200 miles from the mainland might provide a haven for wild animals. Also, because the island used to be a part of Africa, but split so long ago, about 70 to 80 percent of the creatures are found only there, as they evolved in isolation over a very long time.
Even though it is isolated in the Indian Ocean, the arrival of humans about 2,000 years ago started an onslaught of environmental destruction to the extent about 90 percent of the country’s original forests are now gone. Madagascar is a study in extreme contrast: although very rich biologically, the human community is very poor. This combination has made trafficking in wild animals common enough because it can be lucrative for people who otherwise have very little. Many wild species there are threatened, and some have already gone extinct due to hunting and habitat loss. For example, all the islands lemurs are in danger of extinction due to the loss of the forest habitats to logging.
Image Credit: World Wildlife Fund