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Madagascar's wonderful wildlife

By Martha Hales

When a chunk of land around the size of France split off from the African continent more than 150 million years ago, a fascinating evolutionary chain of events was set in motion. Today, because the ecosystems here have existed in isolation for so long, a whopping 75% of species are unique to Madagascar. It’s a nature lover’s paradise with plenty to keep you interested, from the endless variety of insects to the fascinating plants and of course the enchanting lemurs.

Leaping lemur in Madagascar

The geography of Madagascar is another factor that has helped the island forge its own evolutionary path, as it has a broad variety of habitats and climatic zones ranging from tropical rainforest to coastal mangroves and lowland plains, all supporting a different group of species. Here we take a closer look at some of Madagascar’s incredible wildlife.

Lemurs of Madagascar

Over one hundred species of lemur roam the Madagascan forests, many of which are endangered mainly through habitat loss. These fluffy primates are very alluring with their wide intelligent eyes, patterned fur and playful treetop lifestyle.

Golden crowned sifaka in Madagascar

Throughout Madagascar, the sound of lemurs calling and ‘singing’ to one another becomes the real soundtrack of your trip, and helps you to locate and identify different groups and species. Ring tailed lemurs with their striking black and white tails are perhaps the best known of the various species, and they are relatively easy to spot in certain forests such as Anja.

Ring tailed lemur of Madagascar

Before humans arrived on Madagascar it is thought that some species may have grown as large as a gorilla, but today there are none so big. Their size ranges from the 30 gram mouse lemur to the 10 kilo indri.

Mouse lemur of Madagascar

Madagascar’s Reptiles

There are over 50 species of chameleons in Madagascar, making it the chameleon capital of the world. They take many different forms, but they generally share certain characteristics, such as the ability to change colour, eyes which can pivot independently, and for tree dwelling species, prehensile tails which can be used for grip.

Chameleon in Madagascar

Chameleons are known for their ability to change colour and many believe this is for camouflage purposes, but studies have shown that in fact the colour changing is normally triggered by moods, circumstances and used as a tool for communication with other chameleons, for example to attract a mate.

Panther Chameleon in Madagascar

Panther chameleons are among the most colourful of the Madagascan chameleons, but all of them can be tricky to spot, so consider some nocturnal nature walks with a guide on hand to help you locate them.

Chameleon at night in Madagascar

Amphibians

There is only one kind of amphibian on Madagascar: the frog. It may be the sole amphibian but it is very well represented as there are more than 300 different species living here, the vast majority (some sources claim around 99%) of which are endemic.

endemic mantella frog, Madagascar

In fact there are likely to be many species which have not yet been recorded, so the current rank of 12th in the world for amphibian richness may well need bumping up a few places in the future. As recently as 2016 a handful of new species were identified, whereas in 2009 around 200 new species were added to the list after an extensive scientific survey.

Endemic golden mantella frog, Madagascar

Birdlife in Madagascar

There are comparatively few species of birds resident in Madagascar compared to the richness of some other branches of its animal kingdom. Approximately 280 species have been recorded, but for keen ornithologists it is still a valuable birding destination as 100 of these species are endemic.

Crested Coua Madagascar

One fascinating aspect of the birdlife in Madagascar resides in the history books, because there is ample evidence on the island confirming the presence of giant flightless birds, on a scale scarcely imaginable: elephant birds weighed up to 500 kilograms and reached heights of around three metres. Their eggs weighed nearly 10 kilos and would have made a 150 portion omelette, giving you a sense of just how huge these land birds were. They are thought to have become extinct in the last few centuries, due to hunting and pressures on their habitat.

Elephant bird scale chart

Marine life around Madagascar

Coral reefs are found off many of Madagascar’s beautiful white beaches, boasting a bountiful array of sealife. Snorkelling and diving are both popular pastimes when holidaying and you can expect to see all sorts of fantastic marine life, from simple colourful shoals of fish, to turtles, manta rays, black tip reef, zebra and whale sharks and even migrating whales.

Zebra Shark Madagascar

Prime whale watching season in Madagascar is June to September, where in the sheltered seas around Île Sainte Marie humpback whales gather to calve, nurse their young and mate before moving back to cooler seas in the winter.

Humpback whale madagascar

Plants

With such a variety of climatic zones comes a wide variety of flora. The eastern strip of Madagascar where the land drops quickly from an escarpment to the sea catches a lot of the rain which arrives on this coast hence this area is mainly covered in rainforest, while the areas to the west tend to be drier.

Madagascar skyline

The country has around 12,000 recorded plant species, and of the vascular group of plants over 80% are endemic. There are wetlands, mangroves, rainforests, grassland, and dry forest all full of plants, from the iconic baobab to tiny flowering orchids.

Orchid in Madagascar rainforest

There is such a density of species in the rainforests in particular that efforts to save the remaining areas of primary forest are gaining urgency, as there are doubtless many species yet to be discovered, and plenty of others whose potential has yet to be realised.

Ranomafana National Park rainforest

Insects

Boasting over 4,500 species of butterflies and moths, Madagascar is a paradise for fluttering beauties, some of which appear only to exist in small areas of the island and nowhere else on Earth.

Comet Moth Madagascar

The total number of insect species runs into seven figures, the majority endemic. Beetles are similarly numerous as butterflies, and there are some magnificent examples to look out for, but no insects can beat the praying mantis family in Madagascar for their impressive appearance - they are very convincingly camouflaged as fresh and dried up leaves, stems, bark and twigs.

Deaf Leaf Mantis

Make it happen

Madagascar is a thrilling destination for wildlife enthusiasts from the casually curious to the scientifically astute. With so much to see and do, why not get some expert help to plan your itinerary and make sure you get the best of this destination? Contact our Madagascar specialists to turn that holiday daydream into reality. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.