Madagascar’s Unique Creatures Face a Wave of Extinction

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The result of 23 million years of evolution are at stake, a new study suggests.

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

From the ring-tailed lemur to the aye-aye, a nocturnal primate, more than 20 million years of unique evolutionary history could be wiped from the planet if nothing is done to stop Madagascar’s threatened mammals going extinct, according to a new study.

It would already take 3 million years to recover the diversity of mammal species driven to extinction since humans settled on the island 2,500 years ago. But much more is at risk in the coming decades: if threatened mammal species on Madagascar go extinct, life forms created by 23 million years of evolutionary history will be destroyed.

“Our results suggest that an extinction wave with deep evolutionary impact is imminent on Madagascar unless immediate conservation actions are taken,” researchers wrote in a paper published in Nature Communications. Madagascar is one of the planet’s biodiversity hotspots with 90 percent of its species found nowhere else on the planet, yet more than half of its mammal species are threatened with extinction.

So much is on the line because the island is relatively pristine and is home to wildlife that has evolved nowhere else, having split from greater India around 88 million years ago. It is the world’s fourth largest island, about the size of Ukraine, and much of its diversity has been built on species coming from Africa and then diversifying over millions of years.

“It’s about putting things in perspective—we’re losing unique species traits that will probably never evolve again,” said lead researcher Dr Luis Valente from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, and the University of Groningen. “Every species is valuable in its own right; it’s like destroying a piece of art, so what is happening is very shocking.” His team collaborated with researchers from the US and the conservation organization Association Vahatra in Madagascar.

The island is particularly known for its ring-tailed lemurs, members of a unique lineage of primates found nowhere else. Other well-known inhabitants include the fossa, a carnivorous cat-like animal, and the panther chameleon, as well as a vast array of unique butterflies, orchids, baobabs, and many other species.

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