5 Surprising facts about Madagascar

Reader's Digest Editors 30 January 2019

Madagascar is an awe-inspiring land which houses an abundant variety of plants and animals which have evolved to suit the unique climate

Nearly 1,600km (1,000 miles) long and 500km (310 miles) wide, the island of Madagascar has been separated from Africa for millions of years. Its distinctive flora and fauna include spiky trees, minute lemurs, and pop-eyed chameleons.


1. It's home to the weird and wonderful Aye-Aye

Imagine an animal the size of a cat, with large cupped ears, vicious teeth, and bulbous eyes. Add to this a bristly grey coat, a bushy tail, and slender fingers, one of which is exceptionally long. This is the ayeaye, Madagascar’s strangest primate.

Its bizarre looks help to equip the aye-aye for its nocturnal tree-dwelling lifestyle. Large eyes give it good night vision. Big ears help it to locate insects. Sharp claws and incisors help it to climb and to chisel fruit, and its elongated middle finger is perfect for getting to those ‘difficult to reach’ places, such as inside a coconut.


2. The world's smallest primate lives in Madagascar

Once thought to be extinct, the world’s smallest primate was rediscovered in Madagascar’s forests in 1993. Looking like a mouse, and tiny enough to sit in a hand, the western rufous mouse lemur’s body, excluding its fluffy tail, is just 11cm (41/4in) long.

Mouse lemurs are nocturnal treedwellers with forward-facing eyes like humans, and grasping fingers and toes for climbing. They enjoy a varied diet, including fruit, leaves, flowers, and sap, as well as insects and tree frogs.


3. It's the chameleon capital of the world

A third of chameleon species live on Madagascar. Chameleons spend most of their lives in the trees, where their bodies are particularly well adapted for survival. They catch insects with their long sticky-ended tongues, which shoot out with astonishing speed to ensnare their prey in just a tenth of a second. Their swivelling eyes give good all-round visibility; the local people have a saying: ‘Behave like a chameleon: look forward and observe behind.’

One of Madagascar’s most unusual species is the panther chameleon, which uses a palette of vivid red, green, and turquoise skin pigments to change colour and attract potential mates.


4. A Madagascan fish has an ancient link to human evolution

The coelacanth is a primeval deep-sea fish thought to have been extinct for 60 million years. Then in 1938 it was spotted by an incredulous museum curator in a South African fish market. It is now known that the seas around Madagascar are an important home for this slow-moving living fossil.

The coelacanth’s remarkable feature is its fins. Most fish have fins directly attached to their bodies, but the coelacanth’s fins have muscular bases like stubby legs. It is this limb-like arrangement that closely resembles that of the first land animals to crawl out of the sea millions of years ago.


5. Thorny boughs pose no problem for primates

Madagascar’s long isolation from mainland Africa has led to the evolution of unusual plants. The dry south-west corner is home to spiny forests, which contain specimens found nowhere else on Earth.

The octopus tree trails a mesh of spined branches up to 10 m (30 ft) into the sky. Its trunk is stubby, and its tiny leaves fall at the onset of the dry season.The Madagascan ocotillo is a close relative. It, too, has long wispy stems armed with ferocious thorns, which—although covered in thorns sharp enough to rip skin—fail to deter lemurs from leaping among its branches.