Most of them know that Madagascar is a big island off the east coast. But those who visit can be baffled by the place, finding that the wildlife they’re familiar with on the mainland is not replicated here. A suite of ferocious predators has been swapped for a family of odd, mongoose-like carnivorans; in place of the herds of herbivores are gentle, arboreal lemurs. Most travelling birders are aware of the island’s several endemic bird families, including species that are drastically different from anything on the African mainland.
Madagascar is profoundly unique and rich, so different from the rest of the world that it’s sometimes called ‘the eighth continent’. Not only does it have the high level of endemism characteristic of islands, but it also boasts remarkable diversity, which for some groups approaches that more typical of a continent. Despite having only 0.4 per cent of the earth’s land area, Madagascar holds about three per cent of the global tally of plant and vertebrate species, and the vast majority of these are endemic. The island is a treasure trove of biodiversity and a ‘laboratory of evolution’, much like Galápagos but on a grander scale. Visiting it is almost like travelling to a parallel universe, in which evolution has been free to run wild on a completely different course. If only Darwin had made it to Madagascar…
Any discussion of what makes Madagascar special has to start with plate tectonics. This large island has long been separated from other landmasses, despite currently lying only 300 kilometres from the African coast. It was part of Gondwana and then, after that southern mega-continent began to divide, it was connected to India – and perhaps even to Antarctica and South America – more recently than to nearby Africa.
The island’s most prominent topographical feature is a band of mountains along the eastern side. Catching most of the moisture that comes off the Indian Ocean, this escarpment waters lush rainforest. The interior and west are in the rain shadow, although seasonally heavy rains penetrate the northern two-thirds of the west, allowing the growth of a tall, semi-deciduous forest. The south-west has only a brief annual rainy season so the predominant habitat is semi-desert scrub, known as ‘spiny forest’. This is by far Madagascar’s most visually distinct biome, unlike any other place on earth. Some of its most striking plants are many-‘tentacled’ octopus trees and corpulent baobabs. The striking differences between the three vegetation types – rainforest, semi-deciduous forest and spiny forest – are a major factor in Madagascar’s mega-biodiversity. Not only is it a large, forested tropical island, but it is internally diverse.
While it is Madagascar’s profusion of wildlife that captures the imagination and draws many visitors, it is the extraordinary birdlife that is the attraction for birders. A student of biogeography with no prior knowledge might look at a map of the region and guess that Madagascar would have a rich subset of African bird species, plus a few of its own endemics, perhaps a couple dozen at the most. This would be wrong on every score. Madagascar has a strangely low bird diversity of only about 300 recorded species, but about half of these – an unusually high percentage – are strictly endemic and another 20 or so are regional endemics. There are almost 40 endemic bird genera and six endemic families, two of which constitute their own orders. This is an astounding claim to fame, considering that there are only about 23 orders of birds on earth.
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