A Naturalist's Paradise

In a wonderland called Madagascar, a modern-day Darwin discovers hundreds of new species

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Steven Goodman slipped through the looking glass in 1989 when he first set foot on Madagascar, a biological wonderland 250 miles off the eastern tip of Africa. In thatched-hut villages where some people had never seen a white foreigner before, he heard ghostly screams emanating from a nearby rain forest at night. Undaunted, Goodman entered stands of wet, green trees dense with tangled bushes and lianas. He discovered the cries came from an assortment of lemurs—primates with large eyes, foxlike faces, and bushy tails—that predate monkeys and the great apes and have long been extinct everywhere else in the world. Farther inland, he trekked through arid forests where giant jumping rats surfaced among baobabs—odd, upside-down trees with wide bases and pointed tops—as well as through a sandless desert landscape speckled with thorny armored bushes with thick, fleshy leaves that harbored hissing cockroaches. 

“Madagascar is the sort of place that even the guys at DreamWorks couldn’t come up with,” says Goodman, a biologist with the Field Museum in Chicago. “When I realized how few of the species there had been classified by Western scientists, I knew I would never leave. This is paradise for someone like me.”

The fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar is just slightly larger than California but is home to more than 5 percent of all known species of plants and animals. Eight of every 10 creatures there exist nowhere else on Earth, including more than 40 species of lemur, 65 species—half the world’s total—of brilliantly colored chameleon, and 800 species of tropical butterfly. Humans first showed up on the island only 2,300 years ago, and no one knows for certain why or how the early pioneers arrived. Over the course of the last two millennia, however, the native Malagasy and foreign visitors slowly and relentlessly denuded the primeval forests that once covered the island in order to plant rice and pasture fields. They also hunted the native megafauna to extinction centuries ago, including the tratratratra, a gorilla-size lemur that weighed up to 400 pounds, and the elephant bird, which weighed nearly half a ton and may have been the inspiration for a 13th-century tale of a giant bird that carried Sinbad the Sailor to safety. Elephant egg remains retrieved in coastal waters are larger than any other single-celled fossils ever found, including dinosaur eggs.

Goodman, now 47 and married to a Malagasy woman, lives in the island’s capital but spends most of his time trekking into the wilderness, his 6-foot-2-inch frame towering above equipment-laden porters. In 15 years he has led 170 expeditions and documented more than 500 previously unknown species of creatures, including Microgale nasoloi, a tiny hedgehog-like tenrec that feeds on insects and scurries about the forest floor; Heteroscorpion magnus, a giant scorpion that hides in rock crevices in the northeastern part of the island; and Cryptosylvicola randrianasoloi, a tiny, sparrowlike warbler that lives high in the forest canopy. Today as little as 10 percent of the island’s original vegetation remains, and unique species are disappearing as quickly as researchers can discover them. Goodman played a key role recently in persuading the government of Madagascar to dramatically increase the amount of protected land. “We’re still racing to find out what’s out there,” he says. “It’s hard to describe the quivering sensation of holding an animal in your hands that no Western-style scientist has ever seen before.


Mud Wrestlers
Madagascar has about 250 known species of frog, and herpetologists estimate there are at least twice that number to be found. The United States, by comparison, has 90. Biologist Steven Goodman’s imperviousness to wet weather led to his discovery of an elusive species that German researchers named Aglyptodactylus securifer. “You don’t see these guys at all for 10 or 11 months. Then the rainy season starts, and they all come out of the mud and have a massive orgy,” Goodman says. “Within a few days they all disappear, leaving gobs of eggs floating about.”


Loudmouthed Lizard
The bark of the flat-tailed gecko is much worse than its bite. Despite a large menacing mouth, Uroplatus fimbriatus cannot inflict much damage with its weak jaws and small teeth. But geckos are the only reptiles that make distinct vocal sounds, and U. fimbriatus’s especially well-developed larynx allows it to make a wide variety of barks, droning hums, and even screams. In recent years 3 new species of the flat-tailed gecko have been discovered, bringing the total to 11. All have a chameleon-like ability to change color and textured skin that makes them hard to spot on tree branches.


Scrappy Skink
Goodman and other researchers have increased the number of known skinks on Madagascar by a third in recent years. He picked up this as yet unnamed member of the Amphiglossus genus from a river habitat so remote that no known westerner had ever been there before. “We use a trap we call a pitfall—a series of large buckets flush with the ground and a 300-foot-long plastic barrier bisecting them,” he says. “Anything that encounters the barrier just walks along until it falls into one of the buckets.” Though only seven inches long, this specimen has powerful limbs and put up a respectable fight while being bagged.

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