Roots of the Sky



Practically all the mammals of Madagascar are endemic to the island with the most famous being the Lemurs.

Lemurs are related to the true monkeys and are known as prosimians, or " before the monkeys", meaning that they are are even older lineage than the monkeys and apes in evolutionary terms. As more advanced apes evolved on mainland Africa, the lemurs found refuge on Madagascar as it broke free from the mainland and have survived to the current day in a myriad of forms and adaptations to their environment. There are new species being identified on a regular basis and although most of these new species are within the mouse lemur group, which are the smallest primates in the world and currently comprise about 30 species, there have been a few large species recently discovered. The Golden Bamboo Lemur, Hapalemur aureus, was only discovered as recently as 1985 and although this is a fairly large animal, it's habitat deep in bamboo beds meant it had avoided discovery for so long. It is still a highly endangered species due to it's limted range and specialised diet. All the Lemurs are threatened by habitat destruction and some are confined to very small pockets of remaining natural forest.
The famous dancing Lemurs of Berenty Reserve in the South are Verreaux's Sifakas and although we have seen this species at Kirindy where they are being studied in detail we have never seen them walk on two feet along the ground. Sifaka's are very acrobatic and we had great fun trying to photograph them as they moved fast through the tree tops.

The Aye-Aye is perhaps the strangest lemur with it's long thin middle finger which can rotate 360 degrees! It taps on tree trunks and by listening to the resulting movement of insect grubs beneath the bark will then use it's long thin finger to impale the grub and extract it. The long finger is also used to scoop out fruit pulp.

The Indri is the largest Lemur in Madagascar and it's call is perhaps one of the most amazing natural calls I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. When we saw them in 2001 we were all still fresh with excitement having seen a successful total solar eclipse at Morombe but the Indri's early morning calls were such an experience that they actually became the highpoint of the trip for many in the group. It also started my love affair with Madagascar because I just had to find out what else was on this wonderful island.

The political turmoil  in Madagascar (2009) has meant the collapse of  protection in may of the existing National Parks for many endangered species of Lemur. There has been an alarming increase in the numbers of Lemurs being trapped and sold as bushmeat as people struggle to provide food for their families. See the following article for more information.

Another animal I first came upon in 2001 was the Fossa, Cryptoprocta ferox, which is Madagascar's largest predator with adults weighing up to 10kg. It hunts Lemurs and is a very agile climber. I saw my first Fossa in a wildlife park between Antananarivo and Perinet-Andasibe and it was love at first sight. Like most people who first see one of these extraordinary animals I though it was a member of the cat family. It is actually more closely related to the mongoose but certainly acts like a cat. There are no native cats in the Madagascar fauna. The Fossa is a fine example of convergant evolution. It has basically evolved to take the place of the big cats in mainland Africa.
The Fossa is both nocturnal and diurnal.

There are some other carnivores worth mentioning which are also endemic to Madagascar. The Fanaloka, Fossa fossana, which is a small  fox like predator, and the Falanouc, Eupleres goudotii. Both these two are nocturnal and difficult to see in the wild . The Falanouc's diet is comprised mainly of earthworms and it's elongated snout and tiny conical teeth are perfectly adapted to catching this prey. The Fanaloka feeds mainly on rodents, small tenrecs, reptiles, frogs and even freshwater crabs. Both of these species store fat in their tails which they live off during the winter months. There are also about 5 species of mongoose which are all difficult to see but I did manage to see a pair of  Narrow Striped Mongoose, Mungotictis decemlineata, on a forest trail in Kirindy in 2004 just after sunrise. There is only one introduced predator on the island and that is the Small Indian Civet, Viverricula indica, which is probably the most likely of all the predators you will come upon as it commonly associates itself with human habitation.  Cats and dogs have  gone wild in Madagascar with the latest research suggesting that wild populations of cats may now exist while dogs survive in semi wild conditions on the edge of native forests. There is one semi native breed of dog, The Coton de Tulear, which may have spent time roaming the island in a partially wild state before being redomesticated. It is a small terrier type dog. You should look this dog up as it is a fascinating breed.

 There are other mammals on the island which also deserve more attention and one of these groups is the Tenrecs. The Tenrecs are a very ancient group of mammals and their history dates way back in the fossil record. On Madagascar thay have evolved to fill every habitat available. There are tenrecs which look like hedgehogs, like otters, like moles and like field mice and shrews. They are a fascinating group of mammals which are often overlooked for the more exotic lemurs. Because of their generally shy and retiring nature there are probably more species awaiting discovery.

36 species are present with 24 of these being endemic. The 3 species of fruit bat play an important role in the pollination of Baobab trees, particularly in areas where the Baobabs have become isolated from the original forest by deforestation. In situations like this the fruit bats may be the only remaining pollinators of these trees. Of these fruit bats, the Madagascar Flying Fox, Pteropus rufus, may acquire a wing span of  over a metre.

Madagascar also has a varied collection of rodents which are all well adapted to their respective environments. There are currently 24 recognised species of  rats and mice endemic to the island and 3 introduced species, the Brown and Black rats and the House mouse. The 3 latter ones  are closely linked to human habitation as they are elsewhere in the world. There is also growing evidence that the Black Rat in particular is having a detrimental  effect on the native rats and mice by competing for food and by predation. They also are a threat to ground dwelling bird species eating eggs and nestlings. This is not unusual to Madagascar as similar trends have been recorded globally where these species have been introduced. Amongst all these rodents one of the Malagasy endemic species stands out from all others and that is The Giant Jumping Rat, Hypogeomys antimena, which hops around like a kangaroo.............only on Madagascar!

As there are lots of photos of the Lemurs I have put them in a group on their own. Please click on the Lemurs photos button for their images.
The other varied mammals have a link of their own also above left.

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