Tag Archives: Madagascar

The first climate change famine is here: Madagascar is desperate

Thousands of people in Madagascar are suffering “catastrophic” levels of hunger and food insecurity as the country is hit by the worst drought seen in four decades, devastating isolated farming communities in the south. The situation could even worsen soon as Madagascar enters the traditional “lean season” before the harvest. 

Experts believe this is the first famine to be driven entirely by climate change.

A farmer in Madagascar. Image credit: Flickr / US Mission to the UN.

“The hunger season is coming,” Issa Sanogo, the UN resident coordinator on the Indian Ocean Island nation said in a chilling statement. “People may be left without the means to eat, without money to pay for health services, or to send their children to school, to get clean water, and even to get seeds to plant for the next agricultural season.”

Low levels of rain in the past two years have cause the most severe drought since 1981, especially in the Grand Sud area of the country. People are taking desperate measures to survive, eating locusts, raw cactus fruits, or wild leaves to survive, explains ReliefWeb, an information service provided by the United Nations. 

The UN estimates that about 1.4 million people are in high levels of acute food insecurity, with 30,000 experiencing the highest internationally recognized level of food insecurity. This is driven by a “devastating drought” and the global health crisis of the Covid-19, which has steeply increased food prices due to low availability, the UN said.

The worst is yet to come. The situation is likely to deteriorate further in the very near future. Over 500,000 children under the age of five are expected to be acutely malnourished through April 2022, of which over 110,000 are likely severely malnourished and require urgent life-saving treatment. Such a severe crisis is unprecedented, said UN resident Sanogo. 

“The drought has gone on for longer than expected, and the funds received are insufficient to cover current and future needs. We must act now: annual crops are a problem that will probably become a new crisis in the next agricultural season. There is an urgent need to implement long-term solutions,” Sanogo said in a statement.

Non-governmental organization such as the World Food Program (WFP) are carrying out emergency programs that involve food assistance and distribution, prevention and treatment of acute malnutrition. They are also working with small-hold in the south of Madagascar, helping them procure land and make the right decisions on what to grow. However, given the scale of the crisis, this is unlikely to be enough.

The role of climate change

Madagascar is the world’s largest grower of vanilla, most of which is produced in the northeast of the world’s fourth-largest island. Citizens in the south rely on subsistence agriculture from small landholdings. Shelley Thakral, a spokeswoman for the WFP, told local media the south is “vulnerable” as it’s dry, while the north has plenty of tropical rainforests and is more shielded by the effects of climate.

While Madagascar frequently experiences droughts and is also affected by the change in weather patterns caused by El Niño, experts argue that climate change can be directly linked to the current crisis. In 2016, the El Nino effect caused a rainfall drop of 75% compared to past 20 years in the south. This caused harvest losses of up to 95%. 

The people have also been affected by sandstorms. Their croplands are now filled with sand and cannot produce anything.

The recent landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported an increase in aridity in Madagascar, which is expected to increase if climate change continues, Rondrgo Barimalala, a Madagascar scientist told BBC. The current crisis should be a powerful argument for people “to change their ways,” he said.

Chris Funk, director of the Climate Hazards Center in California, told the BBC there’s a link with “warming in the atmosphere” and the current crisis in Madagascar and said the local government has to work to improve water management. They could forecast when there’s going to be above normal rains so farmers can use that information.

The situation in Madagascar, even taken on its own, is troubling. But given that we’ll be feeling the effects of climate change more and more, this is likely one of many such events to come. As families in Madagascar starve, we’ll have to contend with this thought

Fossil Friday: Adalatherium, the largest mammal to run with the dinosaurs

New research sheds light on a 66-million-year-old mammal that lived alongside the dinosaurs. The findings help us better understand the evolutionary history of mammals from the southern supercontinent Gondwana — today’s Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, India, and Arabian Peninsula.

Adalatherium huiA, photograph of skull and skeleton with BC, skeletal reconstructions in left lateral and dorsal views. Image credits David W. Krause et al., (2020), Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Christened Adalatherium hui, which is a combination of Malagasy and Greek meaning “crazy beast,” the paper describes this new species based on an almost complete, excellently-preserved fossil skeleton. The authors explain that this specimen is the most complete for any mammal yet discovered in the southern hemisphere from the time of the dinosaurs.

Oldboy

Research on the fossil specimen was carried out over a period of 20 years or so. In its day, the opossum-sized animal was a giant of its family, as most mammals at the time were mouse-sized. It lived on Madagascar near the end of the Cretaceous period (145-66 million years ago). At first glance, it looks quite like a badger, but that similarity is only skin-deep, the team explains.

Adalatherium is simply odd. Trying to figure out how it moved, for instance, was challenging because its front end is telling us a completely different story than its back end” says Dr David Krause of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, co-lead author of the paper.

“Knowing what we know about the skeletal anatomy of all living and extinct mammals, it is difficult to imagine that a mammal like Adalatherium could have evolved; it bends and even breaks a lot of rules”.

The bizarre features Dr Krause makes mention of include a greater number of vertebrae in the animal’s torso than in other mammals, a strange limb arrangement — crocodile-like hind legs with sprinting front legs that could be tucked underneath the animal as in modern mammals — front teeth like those of rabbits but back teeth that are completely unique. It was all topped off with a strange gap in the bones at the top of the animal’s snout.

Adalatherium belongs to an extinct group of mammals known as gondwanatherians, known since around the 1980s. We’ve only known the group from small fragments such as teeth and bits of jawbone, but even these showed that the gondwanatherians were strikingly different from today’s mammals. But we didn’t know where they fit in the larger tree of life due to this lack of material.

The discovery of Adalatherium thus represents a massive break for our understanding of gondwanatherians. It is the first reliable evidence of the shape and structure of this family of mammals, and will help us piece together how they went about their lives. For example, its hind legs seem tailored to digging, but its front legs are indicative of an animal that evolved to run at great speeds.

Its teeth are indicative of a herbivore lifestyle, computer micro-tomography imaging revealed, but the structure of its back teeth is unlike that of any mammal, fossil or alive, ever seen. The authors admit that they have no clue why they’re shaped the way they are, or for what purpose.

All in all, the animal likely grew to about 3.1kgs in its adult years. While it lived, Madagascar had already been separated from Africa for over 150 million years and from the Indian subcontinent for over 20 million years.

“Islands are the stuff of weirdness,” says Krause, “and there was therefore ample time for Adalatherium to develop its many extraordinarily peculiar features in isolation.

Adalatherium is an important piece in a very large puzzle on early mammalian evolution in the southern hemisphere, one in which most of the other pieces are still missing,” adds Hoffmann.

The paper “Introduction to Adalatherium hui (Gondwanatheria, Mammalia) from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar” has been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Insect-hunting dino “the size of a teacup” unearthed in Madagascar

A diminutive fossil is teaching us about how dinosaurs evolved to their impressive sizes.

3D restoration of Kongonaphon kely.
Image credits Frank Ippolito / American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

Christened Kongonaphon kely, meaning ‘tiny bug slayer’, this dinosaur is unusually proportioned — it was about the size of a coffee cup. The dino belonged to the group which dinosaurs and pterosaurs (flying dinosaurs) eventually branched away from.

Small, but dangerous!

“There’s a general perception of dinosaurs as being giants,” says palaeontologist Christian Kammerer from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, first author of the paper describing the findings.

“But this new animal is very close to the divergence of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and it’s shockingly small.”

The tiny dino lived on Madagascar during the Triassic period some 237 million years ago. It stood a measly 10 centimetres (about 4 inches) in height, but its extended family — group Ornithodira — would go on to evolve into the giant dinosaurs we saw in Jurassic Park.

Researchers are, understandably, keen to better chart this transition from very small to colossal, but we haven’t found many specimens from the early Ornithodira lineage.

Artist’s impression of the tiny dino.
Image credits Alex Boersma.

The current fossil was unearthed during fieldwork in 1998 at a fossil site in southwestern Madagascar alongside hundreds of other specimens. The authors say it “took some time before we could focus on these bones”, but they quickly figured out the fossil was quite unique.

This tiny dinosaur belongs to the Lagerpetidae family, an early group of the Ornithodira lineage. While all Lagerpetidae were small, this is the smallest one we’ve found so far. The team believes these diminutive sizes weren’t by accident, but by design.

“Although dinosaurs and gigantism are practically synonymous, an analysis of body size evolution in dinosaurs and other archosaurs in the context of this taxon and related forms demonstrates that the earliest-diverging members of the group may have been smaller than previously thought, and that a profound miniaturisation event occurred near the base of the avian stem lineage,” the team writes in a new paper.

The team bases this hypothesis on the teeth of the dinosaur. Their pits and abrasions suggest the animals mostly ate hard-shelled insects, a source of food larger dinosaurs wouldn’t even bother taking into consideration. It’s possible then that this ‘miniaturization event’ allowed dinosaurs to gain an evolutionary advantage by entering new ecological niches.

Along with a smaller size,  K. kely and its archosaur fellows likely also evolved traits that are hallmarks of today’s birds: new modes of bipedal movement, primitive fluff and down to keep warm, even primitive stages of flight, the researchers suggest.

The paper “A tiny ornithodiran archosaur from the Triassic of Madagascar and the role of miniaturization in dinosaur and pterosaur ancestry” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Giant elephant birds may have coexisted with people for millennia. VELIZAR SIMEONVSKI/THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, CHICAGO.

The elephant bird, the largest bird known to man, was actually nocturnal

Madagascar’s extinct elephant birds used to be the largest avian species that we know of. They quickly disappeared not long after humans established a permanent presence on the island off the southeast African coast. But, although humans shortly coexisted with these magnificent animals that could weigh more than a tonne, they poorly documented the birds. A new study is filling in the gaps in our understanding after researchers digitally reconstructed the brains of the extinct animals. The analysis suggests that elephant birds had a very sharp sense of smell and were nocturnal creatures.

Giant elephant birds may have coexisted with people for millennia. VELIZAR SIMEONVSKI/THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, CHICAGO.

Giant elephant birds may have coexisted with people for millennia. VELIZAR SIMEONVSKI/THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, CHICAGO.

This year was an exciting one for elephant bird research. Scientists at the Zoological Society of London reported that humans first arrived in Madagascar as early as 10,500 years ago, judging from butchered elephant bird (Aepyornithidae) remains. And, earlier last month, a research team from the same Zoological Society of London described the largest elephant bird species, aptly named Vorombe titan (meaning ‘big bird’ in Malagasy and Greek). It weighed 800kg and stood up to 3 meters tall — that’s 20 centimeters taller than an ostrich and quite larger than many dinosaurs.

Despite their formidable size, these herbivorous creatures are thought to have been very docile, having lived for thousands of years without any natural predators. When they encountered human hunters, they likely posed no resistance. Elephant birds, along with other Malagasy megafauna such as the giant lemur, became extinct about 1,000 years ago. At that time, there weren’t any scientists on the island, unfortunately, so we don’t really have accurate descriptions of their internal anatomy or behavior.

Luckily, modern science has the tools that can help us learn intimate details about the lives of animals even though they’re long gone. Although there is no elephant bird brain tissue, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin produced digital reconstructions of the skulls of two elephant bird species. The CT scans show that the optical lobes — the part of the brain responsible for processing vision — were almost nonexistent, which means the elephant bird was likely as blind as a bat. Meanwhile, the olfactory bulbs, which process smell, were much larger than expected in one of the elephant bird species and slightly larger than expected in the other.

Judging from their olfactory bulb sizes, the American researchers think that Aepyornis maximus — the species with the large bulbs — lived in the forest, while the smaller A. hildebrandti probably lived in open grasslands.

Previously, researchers thought that the closest living relative to the elephant bird was Nea Zealand’s giant moa. This has led many to believe that elephant birds were day-time foragers as well. The genetic analysis of the new study, however, suggests that the flightless and nocturnal kiwi might be a better fit.

Based on the new genetic relationship and sensory information, the authors conclude in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that elephant birds were likely nocturnal animals. Their poor eyesight was not a problem, as today’s kiwi can attest, especially considering that elephant birds had no natural predators to worry about — until they met us.

The biggest birds in history were probably nocturnal — and blind

They did have a keen sense of smell, though and probably lived in forests.

Giant nocturnal elephant birds are depicted foraging in the ancient forests of Madagascar at night. Image credits: John Maisano / University of Texas at Austin Jackson, School of Geosciences.

The biggest birds known to science are named, rather unceremoniously, elephant birds. Elephant birds lived on the island of Madagascar and went extinct around 1000-1200 AD, for reasons that are unclear (but probably include human activity). They were large, flightless birds. Scientists found that one species stood at least 3 meters tall (9.8 feet) and weight up to 730 kg (1,600 lb).

Now, a new brain reconstruction study found that the part of the bird’s brain used for processing vision was very small — which indicates that their eyesight was quite bad, and subsequently, suggests that the bird may have been nocturnal and/or even blind. Being nocturnal is also a similarity shared by its closest relative, the kiwi bird — a nearly-blind bird from New Zealand.

Christopher Torres, a PhD candidate who led the research, says this could tell us a lot about the bird, as well as the environment in which it lived.

“Studying brain shape is a really useful way of connecting ecology — the relationship between the bird and the environment — and anatomy,” Torres said. “Discoveries like these give us tremendous insights into the lives of these bizarre and poorly understood birds.”

Although poor eyesight is consistent with the kiwi relationship, other birds that resemble elephant birds — such as ostriches — are diurnal and have excellent eyesight. This is why

“No one has ever suspected that elephant birds were nocturnal,” Torres said. “The few studies that speculated on what their behavior was like explicitly assumed they were active during the day.”

Andrew Iwaniuk, an associate professor at the University of Lethbridge and an expert on brain evolution in birds who was not involved with the research, was also surprised — though he praised the study and did not doubt its findings.

“I was surprised that the visual system is so small in a bird this big,” he said. “For a bird this large to evolve a nocturnal lifestyle is truly bizarre and speaks to an ecology unlike that of their closest relatives or any other bird species that we know of.”

Torres and colleagues also report that the largest elephant bird species had a large olfactory bulb, a trait typically associated with a forest environment. Meanwhile, the smaller species were found to have a smaller olfactory bulb, suggesting that they lived in the grasslands.

“Details like these not only tell us about what the lives of elephant birds were like, but also what life in general was like on Madagascar in the distant past,” Clarke said. “As recently as 500 years ago, very nearly blind, giant flightless birds were crashing around the forests of Madagascar in the dark. No one ever expected that.”

The study was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2018.1540

Artist impression of Vorombe titan. Credit: Jaime Chirinos.

Scientists describe world’s largest bird on record — it used to weigh more than many dinosaurs

Artist impression of Vorombe titan. Credit: Jaime Chirinos.

Artist impression of Vorombe titan. Credit: Jaime Chirinos.

Elephant birds (Aepyornithidae) are an extinct group of colossal flightless birds that roamed Madagascar until they abruptly became extinct about 1,000 years ago, likely due to overhunting by humans. Aepyornis maximus, which is also the first elephant bird species to be described, has often been considered to be the world’s largest bird. Now, the first taxonomic reassessment of the family in over 80 years suggests that scientists had previously missed a distinct genus. One of the new genus’ members has since claimed the crown for world’s largest bird.

Big Bird

The species, aptly named Vorombe titan (meaning ‘big bird’ in Malagasy and Greek), weighed 800kg and stood up to 3 meters tall — that’s 20 centimeters taller than an ostrich and quite larger than many dinosaurs.

In the previous Aepyornithidae taxonomy, scientists split the family into two genera that covered 15 different species. But in a new study, Dr. James Hansford and colleagues at ZSL’s (Zoological Society of London) Institute of Zoology have found that the elephant bird family is in fact spread across three genera and at least four distinct species. The findings were reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science. 

“Elephant birds were the biggest of Madagascar’s megafauna and arguably one of the most important in the islands evolutionary history—even more so than lemurs. This is because large-bodied animals have an enormous impact on the wider ecosystem they live in via controlling vegetation through eating plants, spreading biomass and dispersing seeds through defecation. Madagascar is still suffering the effects of the extinction of these birds today,” Hansford said in a statement.

To reach their conclusion, the researchers painstakingly studied hundreds of elephant bird bones housed in museum collections around the world. With a technological edge — a combination of machine learning and Bayesian clustering that filled the blanks in broken bones — Hansford’s team was able to spot differentiating patterns in the ancient animal’s bones that other scientists before them had missed. In fact, the Vorombe titan fossils were initially interpreted as belonging to Aepyornis maximus. 

Huge Vorombe titan bones. Credit: ZSL.

Huge Vorombe titan bones. Credit: ZSL.

Some scholars argue that the moa (Dinornithiformes), another extinct flightless bird which once used to roam New Zealand, was the biggest bird on record. The new findings clearly settle the debate, with Madagascar’s ‘big bird’ clearly leading the pack.

“Without an accurate understanding of past species diversity, we can’t properly understand evolution or ecology in unique island systems such as Madagascar or reconstruct exactly what’s been lost since human arrival on these islands. Knowing the history of biodiversity loss is essential to determine how to conserve today’s threatened species,” said co-Author Professor Samuel Turvey from ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.

Elephant birds, along with other Malagasy megafauna such as the giant lemur, became extinct about 1,000 years ago.

Until recently, the earliest documented presence of humans in Madagascar dated to 2,400 to 4,000 years ago. Most likely, these first settlers sailed from Borneo across the Indian Ocean. The first settlements, however, date back to 1,500 years ago, marked by an increase in fire frequency across the island’s central highlands used to clear forests. Grass pollen throughout the island around the year 1000 suggests that, by that time, cattle replaced many areas where there were once forests. Finally, around the year 1500, the first Europeans set foot on the island.

A new study published this month, however, suggests that humans and the island’s megafauna coexisted for up to 9,000 years with limited negative impact on the local ecosystem.  More evidence may help settle the now reopened question of Madagascar’s extinct megafauna.

Aepyornis maximus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Humans arrived on Madagascar 6,000 years earlier than previously thought — so then what killed the elephant bird?

Aepyornis maximus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Aepyornis maximus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In Madagascar, one of the most important biodiversity hotspots on the face of the planet, there once was a giant avian species that stood 3 meters tall and laid eggs bigger than even those of dinosaurs. The elephant bird, as this majestic but now-extinct species was named, was wiped out by humans around 1,000 years ago, after arriving on the inaccessible island only a couple centuries prior — or did they?

Ancient butchery

Disarticulation marks on the base of the tarsometatarsus. These cut marks were made when removing the toes from the foot. Credit: ZSL

Disarticulation marks on the base of the tarsometatarsus. These cut marks were made when removing the toes from the foot. Credit: ZSL

Researchers examined the leg-bones of Aepyornis maximus, an elephant bird species, which was dated to 10,500 years and were stunned to notice clear cut marks made by humans tools. The findings suggest that humans arrived on Madagascar far earlier than people thought. They also point to a more complex extinction story than meets eye.

“Our research provides evidence of human activity in Madagascar more than 6,000 years earlier than previously suspected—which demonstrates that a radically different extinction theory is required to understand the huge biodiversity loss that has occurred on the island. Humans seem to have coexisted with elephant birds and other now-extinct species for over 9,000 years, apparently with limited negative impact on biodiversity for most of this period, which offers new insights for conservation today,” said Dr. James Hansford from the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology.

The fossils were retrieved from Iakaka, a once quiet village in the south-central part of the island that turned into a bustling town numbering tens of thousands of inhabitants following the discovery of important gemstone deposits. While digging for sapphires and other precious stones, the locals came across supposed dinosaur bones that later turned out to belong to giant lemurs, crocs, and elephant birds.

Chop marks made with a large sharp tool on fresh bone. Credit: ZSL.

Chop marks made with a large sharp tool on fresh bone. Credit: ZSL.

Patricia Wright from Stony Brook University and colleagues examined some of the bones, among them those belonging to a specimen more than 10,000 years old. Etched on the bones are “chop marks, cut marks, and depression fractures consistent with immobilization and dismemberment” by prehistoric humans.

Until recently, the earliest documented presence of humans in Madagascar dated to 2,400 to 4,000 years ago. Most likely, these first settlers sailed from Borneo across the Indian Ocean. The first settlements, however, date back to 1,500 years ago, marked by an increase in fire frequency across the island’s central highlands used to clear forests. Glass pollen throughout the island around the year 1000 suggests that, by that time, cattle replaced many areas where there were once forests. Finally, around the year 1500, the first Europeans set foot on the island.

It has always been assumed that humans rapidly hunted down Madagascar’s megafauna to extinction, wiping out species like the giant lemur and the elephant bird. However, the new fossils indicate that humans and the island’s megafauna coexisted for up to 9,000 years with limited negative impact on the local ecosystem.

“This new discovery turns our idea of the first human arrivals on its head. We know that at the end of the Ice Age, when humans were only using stone tools, there were a group of humans that arrived on Madagascar,” said Wright in a statement.

“We do not know the origin of these people and won’t until we find further archaeological evidence, but we know there is no evidence of their genes in modern populations. The question remains – who these people were? And when and why did they disappear?”

Humans still seem to be the main culprits for the elephant bird’s extinction but things are certainly not as simple as they seemed before. Perhaps these early pioneers only visited the island occasionally or the communities they formed were too fragile to form a footing over thousands of years. It also seems likely that the introduction of farming and wide scale deforestation between 1,000 and 1,500 years ago quickly offset the equilibrium between human activities and the local wildlife. More evidence may help settle the now reopened question of Madagascar’s extinct megafauna.

Scientific reference: J. Hansford el al., “Early Holocene human presence in Madagascar evidenced by exploitation of avian megafauna,” Science Advances (2018). advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/9/eaat6925. 

Asian Common Toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus). Credit; Wikimedia Commons.

Invasive toxic toads could trigger an ecological disaster in Madagascar

Asian Common Toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus). Credit; Wikimedia Commons.

Asian Common Toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus). Credit; Wikimedia Commons.

Before humans arrived on the island, Madagascar had been largely isolated for up to 90 million years. It never had toads, for instance, not until humans brought them along with their ships. One species of toad, the Asian common toad, was first spotted in 2014 along the island’s largest seaport and left scientists worried. The toad secrets a slime that is highly toxic, and considering its harmless appearance, many native species might mistake it for easy prey and die a horrible death. Now, a new study confirmed these fears — the toad’s poison is toxic enough to kill the vast majority of Madagascar’s unique biodiversity, including the iconic lemurs along with hundreds of other species found nowhere else in the world.

An ecological time bomb

The problem with introducing a foreign species is that there is always the risk of spreading a new disease, predation or new competition for resources. For instance, the Burmese Python hitched a ride to Florida and made a habit of feasting on a variety of endangered birds and even alligators. In Australia, European rabbits bred like crazy, earning them the distinction of becoming the most significant known factor for species loss in the continent. In Madagascar, the numerous waterways, drainage systems, and rice paddies offer the perfect breeding grounds for Asian common toads (Duttaphrynus melanostictus). Just one female can produce thousands of eggs.

“In Australia, the introduction of cane toads has caused profound perturbation to many ecosystems by removing key predators from local food webs with their toxins,” says Wolfgang Wüster of Bangor University, United Kingdom. “Similar effects are likely to occur in Madagascar, where toads were never present before, as well; predators that frequently feed on toads and do not rapidly learn or evolve to avoid them are likely to become much rarer or possibly extinct.”

The African island’s native islands are not accustomed at all to toads of any kind, and will likely see them as easy picking. Little do they know that the toads secrete a toxic which triggers cardiac arrest. The toad’s natural predators, such as some snakes and rodents living in South and Southeast Asia, have developed mutations that allow them to be immune to the toxins. However, the island’s predators have not had time to adapt.

Researchers at Bangor University in the United Kingdom sequenced the DNA of various native species to the islands, including snakes, lizards, frogs, birds, and mammals. Only one species, a rodent called the white-tailed antsangy, has the protective mutations allowing it to consume the toxic toad. Absent these mutations, most of Madagascar’s wildlife is vulnerable.

“Our findings confirm that the invasive toads are likely to have a significant impact on many Malagasy endemic species, adding to the country’s existing conservation problems and potentially endangering many of Madagascar’s most iconic endemic species, such as tenrecs and the enigmatic fossa, as well as a plethora of other species,” says co-author Nicholas Casewell of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

The good news is that the toads have only been spotted along a 350-km strip on the island’s northeastern coast. But range will surely expand soon given the ripe breeding conditions. There might be something we can do, but the authors of the new study haven’t offered any clear-cut solution to this ecological time bomb waiting to happen. A cleansing effort might require many millions of dollars, funding which is difficult to access and might not even work. It’s enough for a handful of individuals to survive somewhere in some isolated pockets in order to restart a huge population.

So, it seems like the situation is looking pretty dire for Madagascar’s biodiversity, which was already in a difficult spot as it were, with many species threatened by loss of habitat at the hand of deforestation.

“This is another example of how species introduced from one part of the world to another can disrupt natural ecosystems,” says Ben Marshall, a master’s student at Bangor University and first author of the new study. “Preventing the introduction of alien invasive species must be a top priority for biodiversity conservation.”

Scientific reference: Benjamin Michael Marshall, Nicholas R. Casewell, Miguel Vences, Frank Glaw, Franco Andreone, Andolalao Rakotoarison, Giulia Zancolli, Friederike Woog, Wolfgang Wüster. Widespread vulnerability of Malagasy predators to the toxins of an introduced toadCurrent Biology, 2018; 28 (11): R654 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.04.024

 

aye aye madagascar

Meet the aye-aye: the strangest looking primate in the world

aye aye madagascar

Exclusively found in the north-eastern parts of Madagascar, these peculiarly looking primates may both be the strangest and adorable looking things you’ll see all day.

aye-aye-primate

Aye-ayes (Daubentonia madagascariensis) are dark brown or black and are distinguished by a bushy tail that is larger than their body. They also look a lot like gremlins. Distinguishing features include big, penetrating eyes, large sensitive ears and very long and slender fingers. Actually, an aye-aye’s middle finger is particularly longer than the other digits, which the primate makes good use of by tapping trees for wood-boring insect larvae moving under the bark. It employs the same middle finger to fish them out. Yum!

[ALSO SEE] Pica – the practice of eating dirt and soil in Madagascar

aye-aye-primate1

I personally find the aye-ayes incredible animals, but the natives have a different story to tell. Because of their bizarre appearance, ancient legends of Malagasy considered it the symbol of death – its eerie call doesn’t help it much either. In fact, that middle finger the aye-aye is so keen on using all the time is what sealed its fate as a death bringer. Natives believe that if an aye-aye points its middle finger at you, then death will soon befall. So… aye-ayes usually get killed on sight. It’s no wonder the species is listed as critically endangered with fewer than 1000 specimens left in the wild.

 

Panther chameleon is a biological ninja

Scientists have discovered what they thought to a species of chameleon – but DNA analysis revealed that they were in fact dealing with 11 different species, hiding in plain sight.

Furcifer pardalis, a species of ninja chameleon. Image via Wikipedia.

Furcifer pardalis, a species of ninja chameleon. Image via Wikipedia.

Madagascar is known as one of the areas in the world with the most impressive biodiversity. Even now, researchers are baffled how such a biological hotspot came to be, hosting a unique melange of spectacular species – and they’re finding more and more interesting species every week. Such was the case with a panther chameleon species.

The first panther chameleon was first described by French naturalist Georges Cuvier in 1829. Male panther chameleons can grow up to 20 inches in length, with a typical length of around 17 in (45 cm). Females are smaller, at about half the size. Males are also colored more intensely than females, which generally remain  tan and brown with hints of pink, peach, or bright orange.

Biologists set out to Madagascar to figure out how and why they are able to change between such a broad range of colors, from bright red and orange to a deep green or blue. They documented 324 panther chameleons, which they initially believed to be one single species; but when they got back to the lab and conducted DNA analysis, they realized they were dealing with 11 species!

This answers some questions, but on the other hand, raises even more. It seems that the panther chameleon doesn’t actually have such a broad color variety within the same species. Instead, the confusion seems to be caused by the fact that chameleon species have extremely restricted territories; each territory comes with a specific color palette, though it’s not clear if the colors are chosen specifically to blend in with the environment.

This study is actually more significant than it might seem at a first glance. For starters it highlights once again the stunning biodiversity that Madagascar hosts, but even more importantly, it shows that customized conservation measures have to be taken if we want to protect this biodiversity. There are over 150 species of chameleons in the world, many of which are threatened by reduction of habitat. Hotspots such as Madagascar are especially vulnerable, and different species might have different needs – understanding these needs is crucial for conservation efforts.

madagascar cave

Madagascar cave is a graveyard for extinct giant lemurs

Paleontologists diving beneath the surface of a water-filled cave in Madagascar made a monumental find: a graveyard filled with the bones of a wide variety of species,some very rare, other extinct for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Some of the remains that dot the bottom of the Aven Cave in Tsimanampetsotse National Park include those of the extinct elephant bird, a flightless giant similar to an ostrich, but most bones belong to the long-lost giant lemurs.

Madagascar’s long-lost giants

Researchers dived to the bottom of a cave in Madagascar to uncover the hidden bonny relics. Image: Laurie Godfrey)Researchers dived to the bottom of a cave in Madagascar to uncover the hidden bonny relics. Image: Laurie Godfrey)

Researchers dived to the bottom of a cave in Madagascar to uncover the hidden bonny relics. Image: Laurie Godfrey)

“It’s just phenomenal,” researcher Laurie Godfrey, a paleontologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “A huge cache of fossils like this has never been explored before. Now that we know that it’s there, it’s opening up a new era in paleontological exploration.”

These extinct lemurs could grow to be as big as a gorilla! There were many such species of giant lemurs, called sloth lemurs, koala lemurs, and monkey lemurs by scientists depending on the lifestyle and modern-day animal they most closely resembled. Judging from subfossil material (when bones are too young to have completely fossilized and still contain some organic matter), experts conclude the the giant lemurs were almost all diurnal and had large areas of occurrence relative to lemurs today. Palaeopropithecus ingens ate leaves and fruit, and was adapted for slowly climbing trees and extended periods of suspension, earning it the name sloth lemur. The monkey lemur, Hadropithecus stenognathus, was omnivorous, terrestrial, and lived in open grasslands.

These diverse giant lemurs were all alive when humans arrived in Madagascar 2,300 years ago. The monkey lemur persisted until as recently as 500 years ago and may even live on in oral histories of people from southeastern Madagascar. So, what happened to the giant lemurs? We know from the spores of fungus that only grows in the dung of very large animals that Madagascar’s megafaunal population crashed a suspicious 500 years after human arrival and continued to decline over the next few centuries. Knife-cut giant-lemur bones, found in great number, are particularly suggestive towards a human-sprung demise. Today, there are only 100 species of lemurs still alive in the world – all  are endemic to Madagascar.

A giant lemur skull from the Natural History Museum is displayed on January 19, 2011 in London, England.Source: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images Europe)

A giant lemur skull from the Natural History Museum is displayed on January 19, 2011 in London, England.Source: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images Europe)

Surprisingly, the giant lemur remains recently discovered in the Aven Cave seem to suggest most of them died of natural causes,  with hardly any sign of post-death damage like the kind you’d see when something is trying to eat you (knife mark, bite mark etc.).

“The preservation is really incredible,” says Brooklyn College anthropologist Alfred Rosenberger, a National Geographic grantee who is leading the project.

A treasure trove

Size comparison of bird eggs. Left to right: chicken egg, ostrich egg, extinction Elephant bird egg.  The eggs of the extinct giant Elephant bird were the largest single-cells that ever existed on Earth -- as big as any dinosaur egg. Scientists believe the last of the Elephant birds went extinct fairly recently -- around 1700.

Size comparison of bird eggs. Left to right: chicken egg, ostrich egg, extinction Elephant bird egg.
The eggs of the extinct giant Elephant bird were the largest single-cells that ever existed on Earth — as big as any dinosaur egg. Scientists believe the last of the Elephant birds went extinct fairly recently — around 1700.

Rosenberger and colleagues believe the remains they found come from periods both before and after humans first came on the island of Madagascar. Moreover, while the giant sloth were the prize attraction, they were far from being alone. The list includes birds, turtles, crocodiles, rodents, carnivores, and more. So, the real question is: how did all these animals washed up there?

A while back, a team from the Dominic Republic explored two  other caves in Madagascar that preserve different animals from the same time as those in Aven Cave. One of this animals is the now extinct Cryptoprocta spelea, a carnivore known as the giant fossa. Clearly, there is an entire treasure trove to be found in the Madagascar caves. In the meantime, paleontologists have their hands full as it is. Complete skeletons of extinct species previously identified only from a couple of bone fragments are now at hand. Particularly, the giant lemur lineage and ancient way of life can now be traced more accurately, as well as their extinction.

“I hope the fossils will yield dates and perhaps [ancient] DNA that will bear upon the extinction process that took place,” says Stony Brook University anthropologist William Jungers.

Lemurs are the most threatened mammal species on Earth, according to a policy paper published last year in the journal Science.

“It’s a very sad situation in Madagascar. The threat to species is tremendous, there’s a high rate of extinction,” Rosenberger said in a video for National Geographic. “We’d like to know what the interaction was between people, climate change, habitat change … that contributed to the demise of the giant lemurs. Because knowing that might give us some perspective on what we have to prepare for the future.”

Story via National Geographic

Bubonic Plague Outbreak Spreads in Madagascar

If you thought the bubonic plague is a thing of the past… then think again! The dreadful disease is making a resurgence in the island of Madagascar, off the eastern coast of Africa. There have already been 138 suspected cases of the disease, with a total of 47 victims.

Madagascar is on alert after several tens of cases of the bubonic plague have been reported.

You may know the black plague as a medieval disease, responsible for wiping out a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century. But while it’s been many years since the disease has actually been active on the large scale, it never really went away. The bacteria Yersinia pestis, responsible for the plague, is still here.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified patient zero: a male living in the Soamahatamana village in the Tsiroanomandidy district in Madagascar. Since, the disease seems to have spread to other cities, including the capital Antananarivo.

While the disease is easily treatable if picked up early, if it goes undetected, it can become very dangerous in a short amount of time – even life threatening. Unfortunately, Madagascar is a very good incubator for such diseases – with high population density, relatively low hygiene and a massive rodent population. To make matters even worse, Madagascar also has very many fleas, some of which have already become immune or resistant to insecticide. Fleas and rodents are common carriers for this plague.

Working together with the Red Cross, the Pasteur Institute of Madagascar, and the “Commune urbaine d’Antananarivo”, the WHO has already committed $200,000 in antibiotics to help contain the disease. At this moment, they don’t recommend halting imports and exports to Madagascar, but they to warn officials to be extremely careful and monitor the situation.

The common symptomps include muscle cramps, high fever, seizures, and painfully swollen lymph glands. However, the disease can also evolve in two different ways – septicemic and pneumonic. Septicemic plague results in gangrene in the extremities, and can develop if bubonic plague is left untreated. The pneumonic plague is much more contagious, being transmitted from person to person through air.

Restoration of the famous elephant bird. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The elephant bird: the largest bird to have ever lived

Restoration of the famous elephant bird. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Restoration of the famous elephant bird. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Once one of Madagascar’s crown inhabitants, the elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus) is considered the largest bird to have ever lived. The first records of the bird are from the 9th century when Saracen and Indian traders visited Madagascar and spoke of legends of the the giant roc (rukh). The elephant bird became rarer and rarer once with the settling of Madagascar’s coastal regions, then inner land, by Europeans until it eventually went extinct in the 17th century due to excessive hunting.

Aepyornis is believed to have been more than 3 m (10 ft) tall and weighed close to 400 kg (880 lb), making it the largest bird of its time. Related to ostriches and emus, the elephant bird evolved at a time when birds ruled the earth and had probably existed on Madagascar for 60 million years. Legends told of the fearsome roc which ate elephants – in truth, aepyornis was an herbivore. Even so, it had little to worry about predators thanks to its large size. When the situation called for, it could have also used its feet and heavy beak to protect itself in conflicts with others of its own kind.

Photo: Field's Collection

Photo: Field’s Collection

Their eggs had a circumference of about 3 ft (91 cm), were about 13 inches (33 cm) long and a capacity of 2 imperial gallons (9 litres). That’s about the equivalent of about 200 hen eggs or enough to make an omelette for 120 people from one single egg! It’s no wonder that European settlers hunted the bejesus out of these poor birds. The photo from above, showing an elephant bird egg next to an ostrich (Struthio sp.) egg will give you an idea of the scale we’re talking about.

Tales of the elephant bird reached many places of the world even in medieval times. Even Marco Polo is said to have witnessed the bird, as accounted in Ferdinand von Hochstetter’s book “New Zealand” from 1867.

“[..]Marco Polo already, in the famous account of his travels, locates the giant bird Rue of the myth upon Madagascar, and relates that the Great Khan of the Tartars having heard of this bird at the far off borders of the celestial empire, sent forthwith messengers to Madagascar. They really brought a feather back with them, 9 spans long, and 2 palms in circumference, at which His Majesty expressed his unfeigned delight. People laughed at this tale, as a fable, and like so many other relations made by Marco Polo on real facts, it was declared vain swaggering talk; – until tidings came establishing the fact, that very recently a gigantic bird was, and is still existing in Madagascar. This happened thus: Natives of Madagascar had come to Mauritius to buy rum; the vessels they had brought with them to hold the liquor were egg-shells, eight times as large as ostrich-eggs, or 135 times the size of a hen-egg; eggs containing 2 gallons. They related that those eggs were now and then found among the reeds, and that the bird also was occasionally seen. This was not believed either until the Museum at Paris in 1851 received such an egg from a landslip in Madagascar, measuring 2 3/4 feet in circumference, and holding 2 1/2 litres; it was in a state as though it had been laid but very recently. Now Marco Polo’s fabulous Rue has become the Aepiornis maximus of Madagascar. Yet that colossal egg, the casts of which are exhibited in almost every Museum in Europe, besides some fragments of bones in the British Museum, is all, that has hitherto been obtained of this bird. Whether it still lives, is uncertain. The natives assert to this day, that in the thickest forest, there still exists a giant bird; but that it is very rarely seen.”

elephant_bird1

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A lemur rubbing on a sweetgum's trunk leaving a unique trace of scent. Credit: Ipek Kulahc

Lemurs match the scents and voices of friends

A lemur rubbing on a sweetgum's trunk leaving a unique trace of scent. Credit: Ipek Kulahc

A lemur rubbing on a sweetgum’s trunk leaving a unique trace of scent. Credit: Ipek Kulahc

Humans are great social beings because we have an extraordinary ability to distinguish between our fellow bretheren. If you don’t suffer from prosopagnosia, also known as “face blidness”, chances are you’ll be able to easily recognize a friend’s face or voice out of a myrriad of other humans. This kind of mental ability is extraordinary and most often taken for granted, so kudos to us humans!

We’re not alone, however. Studies have shown that some animals can do this too. For instance, dogs, horses, crows and monkeys can pair up the sounds of a friend’s voice with her face. Now, researchers at Duke Universities have found that ring-tailed lemurs can pair up the signals transmitted by their friends in an even more extraordinary fashion. Apparently, male lemurs can recognize the distinct scents and voices of a female even when she is nowhere in site with extraordinary accuracy.

I can smell your voice

These cat-sized primates are native to the African island of Madagascar and besides being extremely cute, lemurs posses an extremely keen sense of smell. Their genital secretions alone contain hundreds of odor molecules, and when a lemur marks his favorite tree, others can instantly recognize who the scent belongs to.

For their experiments, the Duke reserachers introduced 15 ring-tailed lemuers, one by one, in an outdoor enclusure where they were subjected to pairwise combinations of calls and scents from familiar females. Once the lemur went inside, a familar female’s call was played from a hidden loudspeaker positioned between two wooden rods –  one swabbed with a female’s scent and the other ‘unscented’ — so that the sounds and the scents came from the same location.

In general, the lemurs paid more attention to the sounds and smells in the matched trials in which the call they heard and the scent they smelled came from the same female, than in the mismatched trials when they heard one female and smelled another.

Both males and females spent more time sniffing and/or marking the scented rods in the matched trials than in the mismatched trials. Males also spent more time looking in the direction of a female’€™s call when her scent was present instead of another female’s scent.

Unlike shrieks, yips and wails, a lemur’s odors can linger long after the animal that made them has left the area. This ability to match odors and sounds may help a lemur figure out if the animal producing the scent is still nearby. For male, this may be of crucial importance in finding a mate. “If they detect a whiff of a familiar female and she’s still within earshot she can’t be far,” said Princeton graduate student and coauthor Ipek Kulahci.

Did you find this interesting? Well, lemurs have another ace up their sleves.These tiny primates live up to seven months each year in a physiological state known as torpor (a form of hibernation), where the regulation of body temperature stops and metabolism slows down. Amazingly, the lemurs can  drop their heart rate from 120 beats per minute to a mere 6, and breath extremely crawled. If a human drops or raises in body temperature just by two degrees, he’s toast. A lemur can withstand body temperature variations of up to 25 degrees! In fact, some reserachers claim that lemuers might hold the key for deep-space travel, by allowing humans to share their hibernating patterns.

The study appears online April 16 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

A young girl holds vato malemy, a reddish earth found in riverbeds throughout the Makira Protected Area of Madagascar. (c) Christopher Golden

People eating dirt, literally. Study documents soil, raw starch ingestion in Madagascar

Some people in the world have a different perception of what’s good to eat and what’s not. For instance, it’s customary to this day in many culture around the globe to eat substances that are considered non-foods in the west, like dirt, clay, sand or raw starches like rice, weird roots and so on.  A recent study, one of the few to dwell in the subject, provides the first population-level data of pica in Madagascar. The findings might be disturbing for some – more than half of the survey community frequently ingest nonfood substances.

Pica is general term describing the craving and intentional consumption of nonfood substances, while amylophagy describes eating raw starches. Both practices have been documented since ancient times, with hundreds of ethnographic descriptions recounting this peculiar behavior among populaces around the world. Currently, biologists have identified some 180 species of animals are also known to engage in pica, possibly to rid themselves of toxins.

A young girl holds vato malemy, a reddish earth found in riverbeds throughout the Makira Protected Area of Madagascar. (c) Christopher Golden

A young girl holds vato malemy, a reddish earth found in riverbeds throughout the Makira Protected Area of Madagascar. (c) Christopher Golden

Despite these unusual practices,  neither of the two’s prevalence nor demographic  have been well characterized. With this in mind, an international team of researchers set out to conduct the  first population-level data of pica in Madagascar. They found that of 760 participants from the Makira Protected Area,  63 percent of adult males engaged in pica and amylophagy. Other studies found the behavior abundant in pregnant women and children as well, however the present study found no such evidence, though only four pregnant females were identified. Local taboos against talking about pregnancy prior to birth may have led to underreporting, the authors say.

Across the entire sample in the prior year, 53.4 percent engaged in geophagy, eating specific types of earth, including a fine white clay subsoil, fine sand and red river sediment; 85.2 percent ate such raw starches as raw cassava, raw sweet potato, uncooked rice and another local wild root; and 19 percent ate other items considered locally to be nonfood, including rock salt, used coffee grounds, charcoal, rice chaff, blackboard chalk and ash.

Now, pica has a lot of negative effects, as you might image, but surprisingly enough some positive ones as well. For instance, clay-based pica may be protective, by coating the intestines or binding directly to toxins and pathogens, thereby preventing them from entering the blood, say the researchers. Clay also acts as an anti-diarrhea, a grave issue for people living in Africa, where its one of the biggest killers of children under 5; apparently, pregnant women ingest it frequently. Some believe earth-based pica act like a multivitamin, providing much needed nutrients like  like iron or calcium to the diet, however it’s been found that these are available in too lower quantities to be worth the risks.

E earth, starch or other pica substances could bind to iron in the diet, leading to or worsening anemia. Also, some raw starches are high in calories but are not nutritious. And some substances may contain pathogens or harmful chemicals.

“It could be a really harmful behavior, which causes anemia, for example, or it could be a low-tech protective behavior,” said Sera Young, Ph.D. ’08, a research scientist in the Division of Nutritional Sciences and the paper’s senior author.

Findings were reported in the journal Public Library of Science One.

source: Cornell University.

Tiny chameleon

Smallest chameleon, just ONE inch in size, discovered in Madagascar

Tiny chameleon

A team of German and American researchers have discovered four new species of tiny chameleons on the island of Nosy Hara, just off the northern coast of Madagascar, which considered one of the smallest reptiles known to man. Some are so small they can balance on the tip of a match.

The  four new species fall under the genus Brookesia, or  leaf chameleons as they’re commonly referred to. The smallest of the four, Brookesia micra, measures in at the adult size just 1 inch, or 2.5 centimeters.  This incredibly tiny size came as an effect of “island dwarfism”, which drives some species to become smaller and smaller to adapt and cope with its environment. When faced with limited resources (habitat) and competition, a nifty trick animals employ is to get smaller.

“During the day it is very hard to find the chameleons, because they are very tiny and don’t move very much,” Frank Glaw, scientist at the Zoological State Collection in Munich, Germany, told Reuters TV on Thursday.

“The only way, or the best way, to find them is if you go out at night with headlamps and torches, because in the dusk the chameleons climb up the small plants to sleep,” he said.

[RELATED] Climate change causes animals to shrink

Tiny Chameleon

In the past, giant animals used to roam the Madagascar, however most of them have been driven extinct by humans.

“They went extinct after humans arrived, but the small animals survived,” Graw said. “Big species are vulnerable because they need big habitats and they are hunted by humans.” Small species require relatively few resources and very little space.

The researchers reported their findings in the journal PloS One.

 Photos and story via National Geographic