June 26 – Madagascar's Independence Day

Posted on June 26, 2014

When I say “Madagascar,” do you think of the DreamWorks movie? Or of the real-life island off the coast of Africa?

Many biologists are studying
Madagascar's unique lifeforms
.
I think of a biological hotspot. That means a place with a lot of animal and plant diversity, and a place with a lot of unique species that don't exist anywhere else. Like other islands, Madagascar was a place where creatures could evolve in relative isolation from other places – and so 90% of its wildlife isn't found anywhere else on Earth!

If you're like me, you might wonder how the plants and animals got onto Madagascar in the first place, if it was so isolated. Well, a long, long time ago (hundreds of millions of years in the past) there were two supercontinents, Laurasia and Gondwana. They had been created when the landmass we call Pangaea broke up (we're talking continental drift, also known as plate tectonics), and Gondwana started to travel southward. Pretty much all of the land mass that is now in the Southern Hemisphere was part of Gondwana: Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctca, India, and Madagascar. So lifeforms were not isolated from each other during the Permian Period, when Pangea existed, and even through the early Jurassic Period, when Gondwana started to break apart, plants and animals weren't particularly isolated from one another. It has only been the past 88 million years or so that Madagascar was isolated from other land masses.

(Did I just say ONLY 88 million years???)

Madagascar is in red here.

But today we are not celebrating Madagascar's independence from Gondwana and other land masses. Instead, today Madagascar celebrates its independence from France in 1960. Along with the usual feasting and dancing and fireworks, the people of Madagascar enjoy presentations of Hira Gasy, which is a musical version of Malagsay folklore, with singers and dancers portraying pieces of poetry and favorite folk tales.


Lemurs and Medicines...

Because there were no monkeys or apes to compete with, lemurs flourished in Madagascar. The original species branched off into more than 103 species and sub-species of lemurs – and at least 17 species have gone extinct since humans arrived on the island!






There are three times as many palm species as there are on all the rest of Africa, and there are many other unique plant species on the island. One species has led to medicines to treat certain cancers, and scientists hope to discover other cures or treatments among the plant species found on this island only.


  • Check out this video about Madagascar's top predator. It's probably no surprise that humans are (accidentally) threatening the survival of this species...but you may be surprised just how! 
  • Here is a David Attenborough video clip. 


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