Working for birds in Africa

Extinct Madagascar: Picturing the Island’s Past

Mon, 08/01/2016 - 15:10 -- abc_admin
Steven M. Goodman and William L. Jungers, with plates by Velizar Simeonovski, 2014. University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, UK. 296 pp, 21 colour plates, 87 halftone figures, 12 tables. Hardback. ISBN 978-0-226-14397-2.
p 124

This new publication by Steven Goodman and William Jungers recreates the extraordinary fauna and environments that once occurred in Madagascar during the past 2,500 years. Part 1, entitled; Madagascar in perspective: past and present’, deals with the history of the island, including its geology and palaeontology, dating the past, natural climate change and human colonisation. Part 2, entitled ‘Case studies’, examines the various fossil localities so far discovered on Madagascar, and recreates in detail the fauna and palaeo-environment of these particular sites based on subfossil evidence. 

Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, harbours one of the highest concentrations of endemism on earth. Our knowledge of modern Madagascan faunas and ecosystems is comparatively well known, but this represents only half of the story. The authors take the reader on a journey back in time to reveal the island’s past ecosystems. Elephant birds (Aepyornithiformes), the heaviest birds ever to have lived, occurred alongside the giant fossa Cryptoprocta spelea, a leopard-sized carnivore that dwarfed its surviving relative. Giant tortoises Aldabrachelys spp., one the size of a small car, and pygmy hippos; Hippopotamus lemerlei were the prime herbivores of forests and grasslands. Most notable was the diversity of giant lemurs, including a giant aye-aye Daubetonia robusta and a gorilla-sized ground lemur Archaeoindris fontoynontii, while aptly named baboon lemurs Archaeolemur spp., koala lemurs Megaladapis spp., and the most peculiar of all, the sloth lemur Palaeopropithecus maximus with its outsized digits, inhabited the forest canopy or roamed the forest floors. Sadly, this spectacular megafauna has long since disappeared, and the authors provide evidence as to the probable causes. It appears that natural shifts in climate and ecological changes, as well as locally a major tsunami, were the main reasons, whereas the arrival of human settlers around 2,500 years ago probably accelerated extinction rates. 

This book is written in a style that is not only scholarly, especially as this is the first time that all of this information has appeared in one place, but also makes for a fascinating read for the interested layman. For those who require their imaginations be satiated further, the book includes the incredible artwork of Velizar Simeonovski, a specialist in reconstructing past faunas and landscapes. Simeonovski uses the increasingly popular palaeoart technique of drafting illustrations on a computer, which gives a sense of vivid realism. The only fault, in my opinion, with the colour plates is the random placement of species identification keys, which are of course important, but partly obscure the colour reconstructions. This certainly distracts from enjoyment of the paintings in their entirety. For anyone wishing to understand the role of natural climate change and its effects on ecosystems, this book provides an important and conclusive story for Madagascar at least. It also shows the negative effects that humans have had on a native fauna that had evolved in isolation over the last 88 million years.

Julian P. Hume

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