Magical Madagascar worth saving
Scientists have joined forces to save magical Madagascar by using a new method they hope to apply to other hot spots of biodiversity. For full details you can check my colleague Deborah Zabarenko’s story.
As someone who has had the great privilege of visiting this island continent twice I can only say: “Right on!”
Madagascar is a classic example of natural selection at work: most of its species have evolved in splendid isolation because the island broke free from the rest of Africa tens of millions of years ago.
This is what evolution and natural selection are all about. It is no coincidence that Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace separately stumbled upon this profound notion in the 19th century while observing life on islands — or, more specifically, the difference to be found in life on islands often only a few miles apart.
Its snakes have no venom because that is an evolutionary trait they picked up after Madagascar and the rest of Africa went their separate ways.
It has boa constrictors (which I have observed in its forests) which are found nowhere in Africa but are found in South America. Why? How? Because, or so goes one theory I have heard, Madagascar and South America BOTH broke free from Africa at one point. So it stands to reason that they might both keep something that died out in Africa and vice versa.
That is the dynamic of natural selection.
I could go on and on and on. Madagascar is most famous for its roughly 70 species on lemurs, dainty primates that come in all shapes and colors. The largest among them, the indri, has a haunting cry that belies its small stature and which sent tingles down my spine the first time I heard it.
For a good popular introduction to the study of island life I would recommend David Quammen’s superb book “The Song of the Dodo.” It inspired me to go to Madagascar in the first place with my wife when I was a Johannesburg-based correspondent.
And if you really want to see natural selection at work on an island, go to Madagascar yourself. Eco-tourism can help preserve species by giving rural people an economic incentive not to hunt them or destroy their habitat. And that can only help the scientists and their new efforts to save this cradle of weird and wonderful evolution.