Exploring Madagascar’s Lost World (A Sorta Book Review)

Hey there every peoples!

As I’m teetering on the raggedy edge, I have been trying everything to keep my mind off it. School, movies, just going out for a walk. It aint looking good. But one thing that has been helping is a book that was released near a month ago. It tells the tale of a lost world that existed not too long ago. It was a world unlike anything else on earth, and with all the press and hype concerning dinosaurs, this place is a breath of fresh air. I am of course talking about Madagascar.

Madagascar as it is today continues to fascinate us. It’s populated by strange and wonderful plants and animals, from colorful chameleons to bulbous baobab trees. Chief among Madagascar’s native life are the lemurs, thought to be the most primitive of living primates. The third largest island in the world, Madagascar is famous for its high number of endemic species (endemic= found in one place and nowhere else). Madagascar is a world apart, but what we see today is but a remnant of a much greater ecosystem. One that disappeared relatively recently and featured a bizarre assortment of beasts.

This lost world is detailed in Extinct Madagascar: Picturing the Island’s Past. It’s written by Steven M. Goodman and William L. Jungers and illustrated by Velizar Simeonovski. The book discusses the extinct fauna (mega and micro) of the island that lived during the Holocene. Comparatively puny compared to megafauna in the rest of the world, Madagascar’s megafauna is unique for going extinct after the Pleistocene. The huge beasts of the ice age died out during the late Pleistocene, between ~50,000 (Australia) and 11,000 (the Americas, Eurasia) years ago. But Madagascar’s giant animals persevered, maybe because of their isolation. Though work is continuing, it appears Madagascar’s megafauna died out ~2,000 years ago.

This book is a very welcome sight. It discusses the extinct animals, ecosystems, and climates of Madagascar in great detail. When I first learned of the island’s megafauna, i hardly knew anything. All i had heard was pygmy hippos, giant tortoise, a giant lemur (Megaladapis), and the famous Elephant Bird. It seemed like a rather depleted fauna. Not only was I left with this paltry number, but the elephant bird was the only thing I could find more information on. Later on a couple more lemurs will fill out the fauna (Paleopropithecus and Archaeolemur). But my understanding of the island was still dim… until this book came along.

A book like this comes along only once in a great while. A central, concise volume to give an excellent overview of the subject. Here, they spend the first few chapters talking about Madagascar’s geology, modern climate, human history, and other things. Then he rest of the book is spent talking about specific sites on the island. Each chapter tackles a specific fossil site (many of them are limestone caves), discussing the history of the site, it’s flora, fauna, dates, and aspects of its past climate and environment. The last two chapters talk about specific species.

The book is accompanied by 20 color plates. These are done in the increasingly popular computer painting. Now I’m not a big fan of this type of art. Most of the time they just look like dated cgi. The computer modeled creature over a modern landscape just looks disjointed and clearly photoshoped. And man is it jarring when the artist (lie images i have seen online) simply photoshops a modern animal to resemble an extinct one. Luckily, though, that is not the case here. Color plates are rather seamless. The animals blend well with the environment, save for one or two examples. The animals look natural and realistic. If only more digital art was this good!

"Cap Sainte Marie- The Ecology of Elephant Birds and their Interface with Humans" by Velizar Simeonovski. I want a poster of this to hang on my wall!

“Cap Sainte Marie- The Ecology of Elephant Birds and their Interface with Humans” by Velizar Simeonovski. I want a poster of this to hang on my wall!

"Ampasambazimba- Reconstruction of a Montane Forest and Woodland Habitat that No Longer Occurs on the Island" by Velizar Simeonovski. Front and center is the gorilla-sized lemur Archaeoindris.

“Ampasambazimba- Reconstruction of a Montane Forest and Woodland Habitat that No Longer Occurs on the Island” by Velizar Simeonovski. Front and center is the gorilla-sized lemur Archaeoindris.

"Tsimanampetsotsa- Rapid Ecological Shifts in the Face of Natural Climate Change" by Velizar Simeonovski. A lakeside community of pygmy hippos, giant tortoises, elephant birds, giant lemurs, and others.

“Tsimanampetsotsa- Rapid Ecological Shifts in the Face of Natural Climate Change” by Velizar Simeonovski. A lakeside community of pygmy hippos, giant tortoises, elephant birds, giant lemurs, and others.

"Ankilitelo- A Deep Pit Cave and Inferences about Recent Ecological and Faunal Changes" by Velizar Simeonovski. A giant aye aye (Daubentonia robusta) prepares to raid a bird nest, while a vontsira looks to munch on some cockroaches.

“Ankilitelo- A Deep Pit Cave and Inferences about Recent Ecological and Faunal Changes” by Velizar Simeonovski. A giant aye aye (Daubentonia robusta) prepares to raid a bird nest, while a vontsira looks to munch on some cockroaches.

"Ankarana II- Ecological Change of a Forest Community, a Bird's-Eye View from the Forest Canopy" by Velizar Simeonovski. Pachylemur acrobatically reaches for some fruit while the sloth lemur Babakotia watches. Idris and sifakas forage in the background.

“Ankarana II- Ecological Change of a Forest Community, a Bird’s-Eye View from the Forest Canopy” by Velizar Simeonovski. Pachylemur acrobatically reaches for some fruit while the sloth lemur Babakotia watches. Idris and sifakas forage in the background.

The book is written in a manner that anyone can understand what their are saying (a very needed trait, at least if you want to reach outside the scientific community). And what they introduce the reader to is an island overrun with creatures straight out of fantasy. Well beyond the few species I was introduced to so long ago, this is a fauna rich in unique animals. Instead of just the giant elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus), this book has introduced several species of different sizes. There was even another genus of elephant bird (Mullerornis) who was the size of an ostrich. There were giant tortoises related to the Aldabra tortoise, who is now found on a small atoll east of Madagascar. Two or three species of pygmy hippos were likely the chef grazers. Two species of a bizarre aardvark-like animal (called a bibymalagasian) are known. The cave fosa (Cryptoprocta spelaea), 50% larger than its modern counterpart, was among the top predators . The other two being crocodiles; the Nile crocodile, and an equally large extinct species Voay (whose tooth marks have been found on the bone of an extinct lemur).

Like today, the stars of the extinct fauna were lemurs. With one or two exceptions, they were far larger than their modern relatives, hence often being referred to as giant lemurs. Two species of “monkey lemurs”, Archaeolemur, lived on the ground, joined by the 90 pound Hadropithecus. Rounding out the ground lemurs was an enigmatic species called Archaeoindris. This creature is known from a complete skull with lower jaw and a few other bones. It has been estimated to have weighed 400 pounds, making it not only the largest lemur ever to live, but also one of the largest primates of all time. Features of the few bones we have suggests it could climb, but because of its size it likely spent most of its time on the ground.

Lemur diversity was even greater up in the trees. The smallest of them, Pachylemur, was the size of the largest living lemur, the Indri (demonstrating well the size discrepancies between past and present faunas: the smallest giant lemur was the size of the largest modern one). Next up is the slightly larger Mesopropithecus, with three species to its name. There was an extinct species of aye aye, 3-4 times larger than the modern species. Now we come to curious group known as “sloth lemurs”. These animals got that name because they are very, very sloth like. In fact, the first bones were thought to be sloths, in a remarkable case of convergent evolution. Babakotia was the least specialized, though they probably still spent plenty of time hanging upside down. Much more specialized for hanging was Paleopropithecus. There are three species known, two of which weigh over 80 pounds! I imagine that they were probably quicker than their namesake, since a sloth moves slow due to their extremely slow metabolism (unless Paleopropithecus also had one). King of the trees in Madagascar was the giant “koala lemur” Megaladapis, who was the size of a grown man (or an orangutan, the largest modern arboreal animal). But the trees were by no means safe. An extinct relative of the African crowned eagle has been found at numerous sites on the island. Given that the modern species regularly preys on primates its size, and has even been implicated in the death of a fossil hominin (the Taung Child, in case you weren’t in the know). This extinct species likely preyed on lemurs. Indeed, shoulder bones of a sloth lemur (Paleopropithecus) have been found with huge punctures in them. Given the size of an adult sloth lemur, the extinct crowned eagle probably went after sub adults.

"Stephanoaetus mahery- a Presumed Primate Specialist and it's Role in the Evolution of Behaviroal Aspects of Living and Extinct Lemurs" by Velizar Simeonovski. A subadult sloth lemur (Paleopropithecus ingens)  about to meet its doom at the hands of an extinct Madagascar crowned eagle.

“Stephanoaetus mahery- a Presumed Primate Specialist and it’s Role in the Evolution of Behaviroal Aspects of Living and Extinct Lemurs” by Velizar Simeonovski. A subadult sloth lemur (Paleopropithecus ingens) about to meet its doom at the hands of an extinct Madagascar crowned eagle.

Of course, that’s the megafauna. The book spends equal time discussing the smaller modern lemurs, rodents, bats, and birds. All these extinct animals, great and small, demonstrate how devastating Madagascar’s extinction was. Today, the largest native mammal is a 20 pound lemur (Indri). What happened? The two competing theories, like everywhere else, are climate change and over hunting. The book cautions that it’s not that simple. Indeed, studies of the fossils sites show a dramatic drying out of the island. Radio carbon dates of subfossil bones show that everything may not have died out at the same time. While many butchered bones have been found, they are currently too few in number to point to any greater trends.

The book does have one or two minor flaws. These mainly lie in the reconstructions. The bibymalagasian is portrayed as aardvark-like. But then in one plate, it looks like some tapir thing. And then the giant lemur Megaladapis. It’s always discussed as being arboreal. But in the pates it is invariably shown on the ground. What did it look like in it’s main habitat (the trees)? Not sure the reasoning behind that. And i wish there had been a couple more chapters on individual species. Like Megaladapis, since it seems to be a rather ubiquitous component of the fauna. But these are mostly minor gripes, and don’t really detract from the book as a whole.

Overall, I highly recommend getting this book. The chapters are detailed and well written, it provides a fantastic overview of the island’s past fauna, and the artwork is steller. I wish there were more books like this for specific times and places. If only someone could do a similar book on Australia (Pleistocene) and New Zealand (Holocene). Because this book has set the bar rather high.

Till next time.

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