Introducing Madagascar’s Most Weird and Wonderful Creatures
By Philip Briggs | Updated December 23, 2021
Madagascar is arguably the world’s single most important biodiversity hotspot. Its ancient island stock has evolved in near-isolation for 90 million years, supplemented only by the occasional vagrant that winged across from mainland Africa, or floated across on an islet of floating vegetation. As a result, this evolutionary experimental lab is home to some 1,000 vertebrate endemics (species that occur nowhere else) and possibly ten times as many unique invertebrates. Here we introduce you not only the monkey-like lemurs for the island is best known, but also a cast of other oddballs including nymphomaniac parrots, fruity frogs, and matchstick-sized chameleons.
Descended from bushbaby-like stowaways that crossed the Indian Ocean 30 million years ago, lemurs are Madagascar’s most charismatic endemics, with their soft round eyes, woolly coats, and peaceable temperaments. The largest of 100-odd species is the indri, a tailless black-and-white tree-hugger that looks like the progeny of a panda and a colobus monkey, and has an eerie call reminiscent of a whale on a helium binge.
Where to see indris: This Critically Endangered lemur is common in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park.
A memorable feature of Madagascar’s rainforests is a symphony of nocturnal froggy noises whose sources can be traced by torchlight. All but two of the island’s 300-odd frog species are endemic, the most peculiar being the tomato frog, which resembles a plump ripe tomato in most respects – though not on the culinary front, thanks to a foul-tasting secretion that glues shut the mouth of any predator foolish enough to try its luck.
Where to see tomato frogs: You might be shown a dozen different colorful tree frog species on a guided night walk in any national park, but the tomato frog is confined to the northwest and most easily seen around Maroantsetra.
The world’s most important center of chameleon diversity, Madagascar is home to several heavyweight species, most notably the footlong Oustalet’s and Parson’s chameleons, which rival each other as the world’s largest chameleon.
Where to see giant chameleons: The habitat-tolerant Oustalet’s chameleon occurs all over Madagascar; you are likely to see it, or other giant chameleons, in most national parks.
Sifakas are silken-haired lemurs whose upright stance, powerful legs, and arm-like forelimbs facilitate a unique vertical ‘cling and leap’ mode of arboreal locomotion. Most sifakas look as clumsy on land as people do in trees, but not so Verreaux’s, which performs a spectacularly comical dance as it bounces along the ground, head facing forward, body flipped sideways, arms aloft, and heels clicking like a furry flamenco dancer.
Where to see Verreaux’s sifaka: This Endangered southwestern endemic is most likely to be seen dancing in Berenty Private Reserve.
Don’t judge a parrot by its feathers. The vasas of Madagascar, with their uniform grey-black feathering and tendency to seasonal baldness, might be outwardly frumpy, but this disguises what is probably the keenest sex drive in the avian world. The sexually dominant female is prone to distributing her favors among a harem of eager males, who (uniquely among birds) possess an erectable inch-long hemi-penis. As for vasa intercourse, far from being a typically brisk and functional avian affair, it endures for up to an hour, frequently attracting an excited flock of voyeurs and hopefuls.
Where to see vasas: Two species are recognized and both are widespread and conspicuous throughout Madagascar
Madagascar’s largest and most widespread carnivore looks a bit like a cross between a genet and a puma, though its closest relatives are probably the mongooses. Notoriously secretive, it is the world’s most arboreally agile carnivore, a prerequisite for hunting down leaping lemurs in the forest interior. The fossa is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN red list, and an increasingly fragmented population is estimated at fewer than 2,500 adults.
Where to see fossas: The two main numeric strongholds are Masoala and Midongy South National Park, but it is most easily seen in Kirindy Reserve, where a few individuals are semi-habituated.
With a bright red chassis and hinged black neck more than double the body length, this bizarre and boldly marked weevil doesn’t resemble a giraffe so much as a crane mounted on a toy fire engine.
Where to see giraffe-necked weevil: Guided walks in Andasibe Mantadia National Park.
The world’s weirdest primate, the aye-aye is so anatomically deviant it was once classified as a rodent on account of its squirrelly tail, coarse fur, rat-like incisors and diabolical demeanor. It uses echolocation to find its prey of wood-boring larvae, extracting any suitable morsels from the bark with a long skeletal middle finger. Persecuted by locals as a harbinger of death, the aye-aye was feared to be extinct prior to its rediscovery in 1957. It is now known to be quite widely distributed, though population numbers are anybody’s guess.
Where to see aye-ayes: It is likely to be seen only where it has been habituated, notably on Île de Coq (Pangalanes) and Kianjavato Research Station.
The chameleons of the genus Brookesia are mostly so tiny that they could establish a commune in a matchbox. Associated with leaf litter in the island’s rainforests, this genus includes the world’s smallest reptile Brookesia nana, which is less than an inch long and was first described earlier in 2021.
Where to see dwarf chameleons: One or another Brookesia species occurs in most forests in Madagascar. A good place to see one of the tiniest species is Amber Mountain National Park.
Descended from Madagascar’s earliest mammalian colonizers, tenrecs have evolved to fill a remarkable variety of niches, as borne out by their common names: aquatic tenrecs lead an otter-like lifestyle, mole tenrecs inhabit self-dug burrows, shrew tenrecs scamper mouse-like on the forest floor, while hedgehog tenrecs roll themselves into a spiky defensive ball when threatened.
Where to see tenrecs: Secretive and nocturnal, tenrecs are likely to be seen only in captivity.
Evolutionary pride of place among Madagascar’s wealth of endemic birds goes to the family Vangidae, which provides a textbook example of adaptive radiation from a single founding population. The 22 vanga species outdo Darwin’s finches when it comes to divergent beak structures (not to mention size, shape, color, and call); the widespread blue vanga and hook-billed vanga are rather shrike-like, other species are more like warblers or flycatchers, while outliers such as nuthatch vanga, sickle-billed vanga, and helmet vanga respectively resemble and occupy niches similar to those of woodpeckers, woodhoopoes, and hornbills.
Where to see vangas: One or more species occurs in most destinations in Madagascar.
Endemic to Madagascar, these large lizards possess a remarkable capacity to render themselves near invisible to diurnal predators (and all but the most attuned of human eyes) thanks to their mottled bark-like scaling and habit of resting flat and motionless on a tree trunk. The largest species is the foot-long giant leaf-tailed gecko, which reputedly possesses more teeth than any other living creature.
Where to see leaf-tailed geckos: With difficulty, unless you’re with a good guide, in which case one or another species can be seen in most forests.
Terrestrial and sociable, the ring-tailed lemur rather resembles a vervet monkey, but it has a foxy face, banded tail, and predilection for sunbathing with arms half-raised as if supported by an invisible side-rest.
Where to see ring-tailed lemurs: Endemic to southwest Madagascar and common in several parks there, notably Anja Community Reserve.