Meet Me in Madgascar: Part Two

by AMNH on

Research posts

The second 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.

Eleanor Sterling: Director of the Museum's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation

In the mid-1980s, Dr. Sterling spent two years living out of a tent on an uninhabited island in Madagascar’s northeastern Bay of Antongil studying nocturnal primates called aye-ayes.

A photo of an aye-aye, perhaps taken with a flash camera, shows a furry primate with large ears, long thin claw-like digits on brown twigs and leaves, and round brown reddish eyes.
Found only on Madagascar, aye-ayes, which are nocturnal, are now known to be primates. Like other primates, they have forward-facing eyes and opposable thumbs.
Frank Vassen (Flickr)

Among the largest lemurs—weighing more than 4 pounds as adults—aye-ayes have long, thin middle fingers, which, as Sterling observed on nighttime tracking tramps, help them to tap dead wood to find larvae of insects that are as fleshy as large shrimp. Such rich food enables them to support their large brains: aye-ayes have the highest brain-to-body size ratio of any lemur.

Sterling and colleagues at the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation now work with Madagascar’s conservation corps, part of an effort to assist in conserving the numerous species found nowhere else on Earth.

Learn more about Dr. Sterling's work in a video.

Mark Siddall: Curator, Division of Invertebrate Zoology

In 2002, Dr. Siddall and other researchers spent six weeks traveling the island, eventually identifying a new species of terrestrial leech, Malagabdella niarchosorum, named for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which supported the trip through its Constantine S. Niarchos Expedition Program. In wet places like Madagascar's rain forests, finding leeches is simple, says Siddall: keep “an eye out…on the backs, shoulders, arms, and legs” of the person in front of you.

Learn more about Dr. Siddall's work in a video.


Melanie Stiassny: Axelrod Research Curator, Department of Ichthyology

In the 1980s and early ’90s Dr. Stiassny and colleagues explored the evolution of Malagasy freshwater fishes.

The team eventually located many new species, including the cichlid Katria katria, named for the Malagasy word for the fish.

Learn more about Dr. Stiassny's work in a video.

Click here to read part three of "Meet Me in Madagascar."

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