Madagascar – a primeval Noah’s Ark

Madagascar was hit by a cyclone on 14 February, reminding everyone of the inherent fragility of life on earth. The island is a repository of flora and fauna largely unchanged for millions of years, making it even more susceptible to today’s ecological challenges.

Writing in Journeys to the Past (1981), David Attenborough describes travelling across the Indian Ocean from Kenya to Madagascar. “In the short time that it had taken us to make the crossing, we had travelled back through fifty million years of evolutionary time. We were entering one of Nature’s lumber rooms, a place where antique outmoded forms of life that have long since disappeared from the rest of the world survive in isolation.” Comparing Madagascar to an attic in which forgotten treasures lie concealed, he went on, “Lift the creaking lid of a forgotten trunk and you may pull out a bustle or a dress of such eccentric design that you marvel at the wild changes of taste and fashion. The same fascination, the same sense of entering the past, possesses anyone who begins to study Madagascar’s animals. They, too, are survivors from a bygone age.”

After the southernmost supercontinent Gondwana broke up some 200 million years ago, the landmass that became Madagascar split from India around 88 million years ago, allowing plants and animals on the island to evolve in complete isolation. Consequently, Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot in which over 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth.

Initial human settlement of Madagascar occurred between 350 BCE and 550 CE by Austronesian peoples arriving on outrigger canoes from Borneo, who were later joined around 1000 CE by Bantu migrants crossing the Mozambique Channel. Other groups continued to settle on Madagascar over time, each one making lasting contributions to Malagasy cultural life.

David Quammen in The Song of the Dodo (1996) describes Madagascar as the fourth largest island on the planet behind only Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo. Madagascar is a continental island measuring 230,000 square miles and “psychologically distant from the rest of the world and burdened with a culture that venerates cows.” In times long past it was connected to its neighbouring continent and, at the moment of its isolation, it already contained “a full community of terrestrial species” – hence the Noah’s Ark analogy.

Scientists are still discovering more species. Recently, one of the world’s tiniest lizards was spotted by keen-eyed experts on a remote limestone islet: the miniature chameleon, Brookesia micra, reaches a maximum length of just 29mm. Scientists believe it may represent an extreme case of island dwarfism – a phenomenon that occurs when a species becomes smaller over evolutionary time in order to adapt to a restricted habitat such as an island.

The discovery reminds one of Lilliput and Blefuscu, two fictional island nations that appear in the first part of the novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift. The islands are neighbours in the South Indian Ocean and are inhabited by tiny people who are about one-twelfth the height of ordinary human beings. Maybe the chameleon came from there, an ancient mariner clinging to a coco de mer blown in by a passing cyclone.

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