Madagascar’s creatures great and small

Posted on June 6, 2011


They say good things come in small packages and one new species recently discovered is so small it weighs the same as just three cups of cereal.

Berthe's mouse lemur, one of the world's smallest primates

A feather-weight among primates, Berthe’s mouse lemur (Microcebus berthae), is 10cm long and weighs around 30g.

This primate is so small it even trumps the pygmy marmoset (Cebuella pygmaea) – see below – which can weigh around 190g when fully grown.

two infant pygmy marmosets (Cebuella pygmaea)

Berthe’s mouse lemur is also among 600 new species that have been discovered in Madagascar during the last ten years. In a report published by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) it says there are 385 plants, 42 invertebrates, 17 fish, 69 amphibians, 61 reptiles and 41 mammals which have been uncovered. But we can’t pop the champagne just yet, as Madagascar continues to be a very fragile environment due to political and economic unrest.

Mark Wright, conservation science adviser at WWF-UK said: “Madagascar split from Africa a long time ago and then subsequently split from the Indian block 80m years ago. It has had 80m years for evolution to have a bit of fun.

“It is a very odd island. In terms of its geography, it helps speciation. There’s a mountain ridge down the middle, so on the east of the island you’ve got rainforest, but everything on the west is a rain shadow. So you get an enormous variety of environments from the very wet to the very dry. It’s a fantastic range of environments into which species can adapt.”

Scientists all agree there are still an unknown number of new species mankind has yet to discover, but the ones we do know about need our help if they are to survive. There are enormous pressures on habitats in Madagascar and deforestation is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity. The logging industry has taken its toll, as well as the local population who use wood everyday for heating, cooking and building material.

Throughout the world the human/wildlife conflict is an ongoing battle with casualties on both sides. Despite the island being rich in biodiversity, Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest nations. Conservationists understand that there has to be an incentive for local people to want to safeguard the precious commodities and biodiversity on their doorstep. But it’s not easy, poverty and the environment are inextricably linked.

Wright added: “If they have no practical way of making a living, of course they are going to turn to the natural resources sector and see what they can get from that, and who wouldn’t do it?”

He added: “They’ve found six new species of coffee. Economically, it’s phenomenally important and, at the same time, we know that with things like climate change, they will always be vulnerable. So it’s great to have that store of new genetic stock that you can draw on.

“You have six new species that are quite diverse – some are hairy, some have beans twice as big as the Arabica beans that we normally use for coffee. Suddenly there is a whole new batch of genetic material that we could dip into in order to work on the coffees we use at the moment.”

Madagascar is seen as one of the greatest tropical wildernesses left on Earth and I hope in another ten years its spectacular wildlife and its people will be living more harmoniously side by side.