Plant and Animal Life in Madagascar

Written by daniel zimmermann
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Plant and Animal Life in Madagascar
Several species of baobab are endemic to Madagascar. (Getty Thinkstock)

You will not find lions, elephants, and giraffes roaming about in Madagascar, but its endemic offerings are even more fascinating. From a fat, succulent tree called the baobab to a carnivorous predator called the fossa, the flora and fauna of this island nation are unique. Unfortunately, extinction threatens many species. A pygmy hippopotamus and the elephant bird were among the first to go.

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Endemic Species

Most of Madagascar's native plants are endemic, which means that they occur naturally only in Madagascar. More than 9,000 endemic plants grace the Malagasy landscape, including hundreds of orchids and more than 150 species of palm trees like Borassus sambiranensis, a fan palm. Endemic animals also dominate the countryside. Many species of frogs and lizards live only in this island nation as well as mammals like the tenrec and birds like the red-capped coua. Among endemic insects butterflies and moths number in the thousands.

Plant and Animal Life in Madagascar
Many of Madagascar's lizards are endemic. (lézard de Madagascar image by Tahiti from Fotolia.com)

Xerophytes

A xerophyte is a plant that can survive in regions where the climate is dry. The thorny harpoon plant (genus Uncarina) dwells in the dry Ankarana Plateau in northern Madagascar and the octopus tree (Genus Didierea) inhabits the equally arid Berenty Spiny Forest in the southern part of the country. The octopus tree derives its name from its many tangled branches. It belongs to the family of four xerophytic genera, all of which are endemic to Madagascar.

Helpful Plants

Some of Madagascar's plants confer special benefits upon the human race. The ravenala, which looks something like a fan palm but actually belongs to the ginger family, has often helped thirsty travellers, who can break off one of its stems and drink water from it. Other Madagascar endemics possess alkaloids of medicinal value. The Madagascar periwinkle, for example, effectively fights leukaemia, especially in children, and the local populace uses Tephrosia purpurea, a plant of the pea family, to combat many different ailments.

Andringitra Mountains

As you climb Andringitra Mountains of Madagascar, you soon leave tropical vegetation and enter what is calles a "sclerophyll forest" because its trees (like Podocarpus madagascarensis) have hard, stiff leaves. In the same general area you will encounter thickets of bamboo. Higher up you will encounter vegetation in which plants of the heath family predominate. It is described as "ericoid," meaning "like the heath plant," because the scientific name of the heath family is "Ericaceae."

Eastern Madagascar

The trade winds give eastern Madagascar a more humid climate than the rest of the country. The resulting tropical vegetation provides a habitat suitable to a rich variety of fauna. A multitude of birds like the grey-crowned greenbul (Bernieria cinereiceps) and the rainforest scops owl make their home here while a large lemur called the indri utters intriguing sounds up in the trees.

Plant and Animal Life in Madagascar
Lemur (lemur image by Steve Mutch from Fotolia.com)

Mangrove Swamps

Madagascar mangrove swamps provide refuge for a variety of fauna, including birds, barnacles, crocodiles and mollusks, They resemble mangrove habitats elsewhere except that many species are endemic.

Plant and Animal Life in Madagascar
Mangrove swamp (Mangrove 3 image by nomad from Fotolia.com)

Famous Madagascar Animals

Documentaries have revealed the gregarious habits of the ring-tailed lemur of Madagascar. The aye-aye has become famous because of its unusual morphology and the wailing cry from which it derives its name.

The coelacanth is a fish with a fin structure remarkably different from other fish. It was originally discovered near South Africa and subsequently found to occur near Madagascar. When discovered, the coelacanth received worldwide publicity because scientists thought that it had long been extinct.

Plant and Animal Life in Madagascar
Ring-tailed lemur (Ring Tailed Lemur image by Dawn from Fotolia.com)

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