Welcome to Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island and home to a host of primates unlike any others. In fact, this is the only place on the planet where you can visit some of the most primitive primates still living in the wild, including lemurs, indrids, and aye-ayes. The hip spots for Malagasy primates tend to be around the edges of the island in the warm, tropical forests where residents enjoy prime views of sandy coastlines. However, you can also find maverick species hanging around in cooler, windy regions seen at the higher elevations of mountains, and some of the bravest primates can even be found dwelling in the dry, semi-desert portions of the south end of the island.
CAUTION!! Monsoons ahead! Strong winds blowing in from the Indian Ocean can bring cyclones and torrential rain to Madagascar each year, usually beginning in December and lasting through April. During this time, powerful winds, heavy rains and floods affect all life on the island, sometimes with devastating effects to its human and nonhuman primate inhabitants. For example, there was one year where a single cyclone took out nearly 80% of prime housing space for the ruffed lemur. What happens to primates when trees are ripped up by the roots from damaging winds? No more places to rest, feed, and hide young–an unfortunate predicament for sure.
Despite some periodic weather problems, Madagascar is still a dive for quite a few special primates. In general, the plant life (flora) and animal life (fauna) groove to a very unique vibe unlike what we see anywhere else on the globe. In fact, most of the plant and animal life on the Madagascar is endemic, meaning it can be found ONLY on Madagascar! Why is that? It has to do with the location of the island. Madagascar is thought to have separated from the continent of Africa around 160 million years ago, about the same time that Gondwana broke apart. (Wanna Gondwana? Don’t you wanna? Learn about Gondwana? Check out this U.S. Geological Survey site for more about how the bodies of land once looked on our planet.)
After separating from Africa, Madagascar was well on its way to becoming one of the most unique places on Earth, especially when it comes to primates. The ancestors of the primates we see there today were most likely very small animals that floated over on large masses of vegetation from Africa very early in the island’s history. What a journey, for sure! Can you imagine hanging out in your favorite restaurant on the edge of a peaceful, winding river, watching the boats pass and listening to live music with your friends when all of the sudden, the ground breaks up, and the whole restaurant begins floating down the river and out to sea? After months of floating about in the ocean, your local Dan’s Diner finally lands on a fresh piece of land (KA-THUD!) where any survivors that made the trip will have no choice but to start new lives, completely separate from the ones they knew before. No luxuries you had known before in this new place and only those who had been able to survive months without food and water (and cell phones and toilet paper) would have made it…could you? (Uh, the correct answer here is “not likely!”)
How then could the primates that first colonized Madagascar have made such a journey? The answer lies in survival of the fittest! Some of the smaller primates that live on the island nowadays have special adaptations for dealing with food and water shortages, such as the ability to store large quantities of fat in their tails and/or the ability to go dormant (lay low, don’t move a muscle, deep sleep) when food is scarce. Scientists think that the ancestors of all the primates now living on Madagascar had these traits as well, which gave them the ability to make a long voyage and later successfully colonize the island. This helps to explain an interesting phenomenon: the habitats on Madagascar were likely similar to those seen on the mainland of Africa, but the patterns we see of plant and animal diversity on Madagascar now are so different from those found on Africa. If you travel to Madagascar, you would quickly learn that there are no giraffes, lions, or chimpanzees like you would find across the water on Africa’s mainland.
This difference most likely has to do with two things: chance and the relative survivability of those animals that initially made the long journey from Africa to Madagascar. Chance, since it could have been any chunk of land (or Diner, as in our earlier example) that broke off and went floating out to sea. Relative survivability means that larger animals such as you and I would not be able to survive long without water, so the small, hardy animals that were alive when the mass finally reached Madagascar were the ones who ended up successfully colonizing the island. Once these guys and gals (we might call them “founders”) were isolated from the mainland, they began to move out over the island, eventually filling in all the habitats, changing as they adapted to different settings. Over time, this resulted in an amazing array of unique creatures much different from the combination we now see in Africa or anywhere else in the world. (If you need help understanding how important the physical features of organisms are relative to survivability in different habitats, read up on Darwin’s finches. Come on, people, that’s good stuff!)
Getting back to what really counts (the primates in this case), you should know that there are no monkeys or apes on Madagascar…only prosimians. (Though there were once ape-sized lemurs—it’s true! Read all about these gentle giants in the Fossils section below!) Despite the lack of anthropoids, the diversity of prosimians on the island is like none other, as you will discover in the next sections.
Conservation Alert! Before heading off to learn more about the prosimians of Madagascar, please take a minute to ponder what will happen if this incredible diversity is lost for all time. Unfortunately, this is a possible outcome for the primates on Madagascar if habitat destruction continues at the current pace.
STATUS RED Madagascar is threatened by many environmental problems, including deforestation and overgrazing, which leads to soil erosion and desertification, and many of its surface waters are contaminated with raw sewage and other organic wastes. These problems affect both the nonhuman and human primates of Madagascar, and the humans need to act quickly to help stop habitat loss, which would result in the loss of thousands of unique plant and animal species in one of the most distinctive places on Earth.
YOU CAN help these primates! Groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, the Duke University Primate Center, and Madagascar Wildlife Conservation contribute significantly to conservation efforts in Madagascar. Your support of these Institutions is a great first step towards keeping lemurs in the wild where they belong.
Primate Groups of Madagascar
The most diverse array of prosimians in the entire world is found on Madagascar.
The word lemur comes from the Latin word for ghosts, referring to a high propensity for after-dark activities (nocturnality) of many lemurs. Lemurs, found only on Madagascar, have a variety of physical appearances, ranging from the smallest primate in the word, the pygmy mouse lemur that only weighs around an ounce (think little pile of 30 paperclips), to the large, fluffy ruffed lemur that weighs about the same as a housecat, to the recently extinct ape-sized lemurs that weighed over 200 pounds.
There are several main groupings of lemurs including: mouse lemurs, dwarf lemurs, sportive lemurs, bamboo lemurs, fork-marked lemurs, the crowned lemur, black lemurs, brown lemurs, the mongoose lemur, red-bellied lemurs, the ring-tailed lemur, and ruffed lemurs. Each of these groups of lemurs is distinguished from the others by differences in choice of habitat, genetic make-up, physical appearance, and dietary preferences.
Sleepy time for lemurs. Most dwarf lemurs hibernate, an unusual trait among primates. They have the ability to store fat in their tails and bodies which is used to sustain them during the coolest season of Madagascar (from about April to November). This means that they are active only for a small time out of the year, and when they wake up, look out! Everything heats up quickly to a fast and furious pace. Social interactions are at a peak with loud high-pitched vocalizations and potent scent marking, mating is rapid and frequent, and everyone engages in a feeding frenzy, during which time their body sizes double. Funny thing is that they don’t have to worry about overeating since they will lose all that weight during hibernation. Sometimes I emulate this behavior when I fall asleep on the couch after consuming a bag of cheese puffs and half gallon of cookie dough ice cream. I am almost positive that those calories melt off as I lie dormant, just like the lemurs. That is what happens, right?
Woolly Lemurs, Sifakas, and Indrids (Indridae)
These guys are the larger bodied primates of Madagascar, ranging in weight from about three pounds in woolly lemurs to over 15 pounds in the indrids. All the primates in this grouping share a common way of getting around the forest—vertical clinging and leaping. You might notice that their bodies are relatively upright, like a monkey or ape, but their legs are very long and muscular. So, if they are on the ground, they look a little strange, hopping around with arms over head, not capable of walking on all fours like other lemurs. But, no matter because when they are in the trees (where they spend the majority of time), they are true masters at aerial jumping, using their long legs to push off of branches and their hands and feet to grasp onto their landing surface.
(Image by Tom Junek)
Umm…you said Sifaka. What’s with that name, anyway? It’s hard to say without feeling well, a little, funny. The name comes from a very particular noise that sifakas make when they are threatened by a predator or by other groups of sifakas. It sounds like Shiii—focka. And while it may be their version of a curse word, like “Oh, sifaka, that is a large boa constrictor heading for my offspring,” it is not an actual recognized curse word in our language. So, say it loud and proud. When else can you use such cool syllables amidst polite company!
Now, these are one of the most amazing primates by far. Aye-ayes are large, nocturnal primates that are impossible to confuse with anything else on Earth. In fact, they seem somewhat supernatural, and many of the Malagasy people have avoided them (or sometimes hunted them) for years, pegging them as evil demons capable of putting a hex on you with their long bony fingers. This may not seem too far-fetched, given their almost gnarled appearance and their tendency to produce hissing noises when disturbed. In actuality, these little devil-like creatures are quite calm and shy, living solitary lives up in the trees. Their long, bony fingers are used to tap tree branches as they hold an ear down to listen for signs of insects in the branch cavities. Once a potential prey item is found, they will gnaw open the branch with their sharp front teeth and insert their longest finger down into the cavity until they feel a nice beetle larvae that they can pull out for a snack. In a similar fashion, when aye-ayes eat eggs, they make a little hole in the top with their teeth and then scoop out all the insides with their long finger, not a bad little tool to have when you need some hard core protein!
Fascinating Fact! Aye-ayes hang upside down by their feet to mate, a process that can last for over an hour.
There are no monkeys living on Madagascar. (Never have been.) Madagascar has remained very isolated from other bodies of land for the past 150 million years, and monkeys never made their way over in that time. (There are some fossilized remains of lemurs there that have many interesting similarities to monkeys, but still not monkeys in the true sense.)
As with the monkeys, there are no apes on Madagascar. Again, this has to do with Madagascar’s isolation from the rest of Africa. However, do check out the ape-size lemurs that once roamed the island below in the Fossils section.
Humans of Madagascar
Humans arrived on Madagascar approximately 2000 years ago. Most people that live on Madagascar are called the Malagasy. The Malagasy society is unique since there are quite a variety of cultural influences from places like Africa, Indonesia, and even France visible in everything from the language to dress to religious practices. In fact, there are two official languages in Madagscar, French and Malagasy. (Want to say Hello? Go with Bonjour or Manahoana!) Most of the people living on Madagascar live in rural areas where they might raise livestock or grow food crops, such as rice, a household staple. Visit www.wildmadagscar.org for more about the Malagasy people.
Even though the assortment of nonhuman primates now living on Madagascar is amazing, the primates we see leaping around are not all that was once found on the island. Scientists have found bones from a variety of recently extinct lemurs, but determining the entire ancestral record of Malagasy lemurs is difficult since fossils from the oldest ancestors of these lemurs are virtually nonexistent. In fact, remains from lemurs living on Madagascar prior to about 26,000 years ago are unknown to date.
The majority of lemur bones scientists have found on Madagascar aren’t fossils at all, but are actually subfossils, in this case meaning that the bones aren’t old enough to have fossilized. These relatively young bones suggest that many of the lemurs once present on Madagascar slowly went extinct in the years following human arrival to the island (about 2000 years ago). It is likely that environmental factors, such as drought and disease also contributed to the gradual extinction of nearly 20 very unique species of lemurs.
Ape-sized lemur ahead!!! The Megaladapids were some of the largest lemurs known to date, with some reaching body sizes of almost 150 pounds, which is about the same weight as an average male orangutan or human. But perhaps even more interesting than the large body size is the girth of this animal’s teeth. Their chompers were twice as large as we might expect for an animal of that size, but that doesn’t mean they used them for killing prey. (Click for more about how the pearly whites reflect our dining habits.) Instead, Megaladapids had all the right body parts in place to make them great vegetarians: long, bumpy teeth and strong jaws for lots of side to side grinding of tough plant parts and even stretchy lips like a giraffe for plucking plants and bringing them into the mouth. It is not clear when exactly these giant lemurs went extinct, though some people claimed to have seen very large lemurs on the island as recently as 300 years ago.
Slowly went the Sloth Lemurs. The now extinct sloth lemurs, or Palaeopropithecines, are numerous in the subfossil record, giving us the opportunity to piece together an interesting mosaic of what life might have been like on Madagascar around 2000 years ago. They earned their name because of their locomotion style, or way they typically moved around from place to place. (Come on baby, do the locomotion! Learn more about how body movement is affected by ‘them bones’ in our Primate Anatomy blogs.) The skeletons of the sloth lemurs are similar to that of a living sloth, with long arms and short legs, perfect for hanging suspended upside down, and likely associated with slow, gradual movements, as opposed to a lot of leaping as we see in many living lemurs.
And you thought Megaladapis was big! Archaeoindris (arkee-oh-in-dris) was gorilla-sized but with the sloth-like body form. A heavy body makes it harder to hang suspended in the trees, and it was likely that this giant lemur moved more on the ground than up high in the forest canopy. Like the gorillas, Archaeoindris was a vegetarian, not a blood-thirsty beast, though for me it’s hard not to visualize this giant lemur causing some major drama–scaling a building, threatening the city, destroying property left to right. With the Giant Sloth Lemur’s sharp, curved nails, King Kong would definitely have met his match.