Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Picturing Madagascar's past

Cover features elephant birds Aepyornis hildebrandti 
and the giant lemur Archaeoindris fontoynontii
Extinct Madagascar by Steven M. Goodman and William L. Jungers has just been published by  The University of Chicago Press (ISBN-13 978-0-226-14397-2). As implied by the subtitle Picturing the Island's Past the text centres around 20 superb colour plates by the Bulgarian artist Velizar Simeonovski each depicting the fauna found at a particular fossil site.

The emphasis is on the larger species of reptiles, birds and mammals that became extinct and the authors explore possible causes ranging from climate change to hunting. This bias means that smaller mammals, such as tenrecs and endemic rodents, are scarcely mentioned except in the synoptic tables.

Aldabra giant tortoises - relatives of the extinct Malagasy species
Muhammad Mahdi Karim (Gnu Free Documentation Licence)
However, I found it fascinating to learn that the extinct giant tortoises (Aldabrachelys spp.) are likely to have been important grazers and that the extant species on the Aldabra Atoll represent a greater biomass per square km than the mammals on the Serengeti grasslands.

Malagasy crowned eagle piercing the shoulder blades of a sloth lemur
The chapter on an extinct raptor, the Malagasy crowned eagle Stephanoaetus mahery, was exciting; by analogy with the extant African species S. coronatus, it likely was a predator of large lemurs including the likewise extinct sloth lemurs (Palaeopropithecus spp.). But the book's plan makes it harder to find a coherent account of, for example, the "Madagascar aardvark" Plesiorycteropus madagascariensis. No reference is made to a study showing that this enigmatic species belongs to the Afrosoricida and thus is related to the tenrecs and golden moles (here).

Apart from the plates, figures are in grey tone. They include historical photos such as Grandidier's 1898-99 expedition. However, even more recent photos lack sharpness and contrast, perhaps due to the quality of paper chosen.

The introductory chapters give useful information on the geology and history of the island including the origins of the Malagasy people from Austronesians and Africans. In general the impact of humans in past centuries may have been overstated. The chapter on elephant birds concludes there is no evidence they were hunted to extinction and some evidence they may have been victims of climate change. The real and frightening aspect is the enormous habitat loss that has occurred in the last 60 years and that is still ongoing.

1 comment:

  1. Really glad to have found this! I have been looking for realistic and beautiful interpretations of the large extinct fauna for a while now.