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The last in a three-part 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.
John Flynn: Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals, Division of Paleontology
In 1996, a team led by Dr. Flynn found their first fossils in Madagascar—jaw fragments of a variety of extinct reptiles, including parrot-beaked cousins of dinosaurs called rhynchosaurs, and skulls and skeletons of early relatives of mammals. During more than half a dozen subsequent expeditions, the team discovered many more vertebrate fossils from the Mesozoic Era (250 to 65 million years ago), during which both mammals and dinosaurs evolved and diversified.
Learn more about Dr. Flynn's work in a video.
Ross MacPhee: Curator, Department of Mammalogy
In the 1980s, Dr. MacPhee studied recently extinct vertebrates, including dwarf hippos and giant elephant birds, on the island, part of his larger work on the causes of human-induced extinctions in island locales. At Anjohibe, a “tremendous cave system and one of the best paleo sites I’ve ever been to,” says MacPhee, he and others found “tons of fossils, including complete skeletons of several giant lemurs and hippos.”
Learn more about Dr. MacPhee's work in a video.
Antonia Florio: Research Associate; 2013 Graduate of the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School
In 2010, after collecting DNA evidence during a four-month trip, Dr. Florio discovered that three known chameleon species were actually seven distinct species. Active during the day, many chameleons roost at night. So Florio and other researchers collect them after dark using a headlamp to spot animals at the tips of blades of grass or branches of trees.
A version of this story appears in the summer 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.