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Explore the Eco Wonders of the 'Eighth Continent'


Photo by Larre via Wikimedia Commons
 
One hundred million years is a long time to be on your own. That's how long it's been since the island of Madagascar separated completely from its prehistoric supercontinent parent known as Gondwana. What resulted from that split was an island so unique in its evolution of native plants and animals that some ecologists refer to Madagascar as the 'eighth continent'.
 
And this eighth continent does have some pretty extraordinary and wonderful wildlife…  
 
 
Probably the most well-known inhabitants of the island are the lemurs, which at one time included more than 100 species, each with distinct features and characteristics, including opposable thumbs like their primate cousins (monkeys and apes). But being isolated meant Madagascar's lemurs were free to evolve without competition from their larger relatives and with few natural predators. With species ranging from the size of bushbabies, to some almost 3 feet tall, every walk through one of the island's nature reserves offers the opportunity to spot a different resident population. 
 
 
Perhaps the biggest performers of the group are the Sifaka lemurs, who are known for dancing and bouncing on the ground with limbs and tails bobbing to a beat all their own. When not doing their routines on the ground, Sifakas can be spotted flying through the air, effortlessly leaping from tree to tree with their young hanging on for dear life. Most lemurs are incredible acrobats, and the only thing more surprising than their ability to fly between branches is the sound of their high pitched singing voice and range of calls used to communicate with each other.
 

Ring-Tailed Lemur Calling, Anja Reserve” Photo by Antony Stanley from Gloucester, UK via Wikimedia Commons
 
 
Madagascar's novelties don't end with lemurs – they include some of the most interesting insects, birds and reptiles in the world, as well, including miniature chameleons so small that they literally could fit on the head of a match. 
 

Brookesia micra on a match head - Glaw F, Köhler J, Townsend TM, Vences M (2012) Rivaling the World's Smallest Reptiles: Discovery of Miniaturized and Microendemic New Species of Leaf Chameleons (Brookesia) from Northern Madagascar. PLoS ONE 7(2): e31314. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031314
 
Scientists think the size of this Brookesia micra species might in fact be a result of 'island dwarfism' that results from limited resources available on islands. Discovered only recently, these miniature marvels are continuing proof that Madagascar still holds a few surprises, with an ecosystem where 4 out of 5 of its plants and animals can be found nowhere else in the world.
 

Photo by Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons
 
Unfortunately, Madagascar is isolated no more, and less and less of this incredible island remains untouched, mainly due to human encroachment. The harvesting of rosewood and other timber has taken a huge toll on its forests and wildlife, reducing the island's virgin forest by more than 90%, and even lemurs are under serious threat with many species now considered rare, vulnerable or endangered. The good news is that efforts are being made from organizations around the world to help protect and conserve this global treasure – making now the time to visit Madagascar to learn more about its importance and to appreciate some of its extraordinary creatures in their natural environment. 
 
Learn about our Madagascar itinerary here.
Jane Canapini - July 31, 2014
 

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