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Meet Me in Madagascar

Research posts

The first in a series, this post features the work of Museum scientists in Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa that has long been irresistible to naturalists.

Nearly 85 percent of Madagascar's vertebrate species, and about the same percentage of plant species, are endemic to the island—that is, found nowhere else on Earth. But today, the island’s biodiversity is threatened from many sides: agriculture, illegal logging, and charcoal-making have encroached on fragile ecosystems.

Over the past few decades, Museum scientists and students have carried out research throughout Madagascar and continue to study, and help conserve, this island’s unique fauna. 

Ian Tattersall: Curator Emeritus, Division of Anthropology

Golden-crowned sifaka

Golden-crowned sifakas, like all lemurs, are found only on Madagascar. The species' scientific name, Propithecus tattersalli, honors Museum Curator Emeritus Ian Tattersall.

Wikimedia Commons; Jeff Gibbs


An authority on human evolution, Dr. Tattersall is also considered a father of lemur biology. He spent several seasons in Madagascar studying these mammals and their social behavior. In 1982, he wrote a now-classic book on lemurs, called The Primates of Madagascar.

John Sparks: Curator, Department of Ichthyology

In 2008 and 2011, Dr. Sparks and colleagues dove for blind cavefishes (and found new species) in caves in Ankarana Reserve on the north end of the island and in sinkholes in the southwest.

Sparks Sinkhole

Museum ichthyologist John Sparks (right) and scientist Phil Willink of the Field Museum, pictured in a sinkhole in Madagascar where one of the new species of cave fish was discovered.

© AMNH/J. Sparks


“We got quite sick from swimming in that sinkhole [where we found a bizarre, fully pigmented new species],” says Sparks. As an homage of sorts, they gave the new species a name meaning “seriously ill” in Malagasy, the main language of the island.

Chris Raxworthy: Associate Curator, Department of Herpetology

In 1985, Dr. Raxworthy led a student expedition to the island, and he’s returned nearly every year since. “There’s so much to discover—it’s like a jigsaw puzzle!” he says. He is methodically surveying the island’s amphibians and reptiles, notably snakes, frogs, and chameleons. There are about 80 to 100 chameleon species on Madagascar, or two-thirds of all found worldwide.

Learn about Dr. Raxworthy's recent survey of chameleons on island systems just east of Madagascar.


Click here to read part two and three of the story.  

A version of this story appears in the summer 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.

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