Lemur …

Lemurs are our very distant relatives although you would have to climb a very long way up our family trees before you found our last shared ancestor perhaps about 65 million years ago. That is when the Haplorhini and the Strepsirrhini went their separate ways. You and I, the monkeys and the apes are haplorhine.

Not too long after that the ancestors of today’s Lemurs made their split with the ancestors of the other Strepsirrhini, the Lorises and Galagos, by the not so simple means of migrating to Madagascar. That was somewhere in the vicinity of 60 million years ago. Madagascar was already an island having split from Africa about 100 million years  prior and from India about 30 million years prior. (There is, incidentally, a nice animation of the breakup of Gondwana <HERE> . You can drag the pointer through time and take in the break up at your own pace).

Nowadays such a journey would mean swimming, against the current, at least 560 km from Mozambique. 60 million years ago Africa and Madagascar were just as far apart but further south and ocean currents were likely to have been more favourable to animals washed out to sea on a raft of floating vegetation. Representatives of only five orders of terrestrial mammals established populations in Madagascar so it can’t have been too easy. It is considered most likely that the arrival of just one raft load gave rise to all the various lemurs.

The taxonomy is, of course, in a state of utter chaos. In 1994 there were 33 species, by 2008 there were about 100. DNA analysis is finding splits especially in the nocturnal species where the outward appearance is fairly uniform. I filched the version below from Wikipedia and modified it slightly …

The extant Lemurs comprise five families (and there are three extinct families)

  • Family:Daubentoniidae: aye-aye
    • Genus: Daubentonia (1 extant species, 1 extinct species)
  • Family:Cheirogaleidae
    • Genus: Allocebus: hairy-eared dwarf lemur (1 extant species)
    • Genus: Cheirogaleus: dwarf lemurs (6 extant species)
    • Genus: Microcebus: mouse lemurs (21 extant species)
    • Genus: Mirza: giant mouse lemurs (2 extant species)
    • Genus: Phaner: fork-marked lemurs (4 extant species)
  • Family:Indriidae
    • Genus: Avahi: woolly lemurs (9 extant species)
    • Genus: Indri: indri (1 extant species)
    • Genus: Propithecus: sifakas (9 extant species)
  • Family: Lemuridae
    • Genus: Eulemur: true lemurs (12 extant species)
    • Genus: Hapalemur: bamboo lemurs (5 extant species, 3 extant subspecies)
    • Genus: Lemur: ring-tailed lemur (1 extant species)
    • Genus: †Pachylemur (2 extinct species)
    • Genus: Prolemur: greater bamboo lemur (1 extant species)
    • Genus: Varecia: ruffed lemurs (2 extant species, 3 extant subspecies)
  • Family:Lepilemuridae: sportive lemurs
    • Genus: Lepilemur (26 extant species)

I was lucky enough to see and photograph at least one representative of every family except the Daubentoniidae … the Aye-aye is very hard to find in the wild.

Family: Cheirogaleidae represented by a Mouse Lemur


Family: Indriidae represented by the Indri


Family: Lemuridae represented by the Common Brown Lemur


Family: Lepilemuridae represented by the White-footed Sportive Lemur


Lemurs have a low basal metabolic rate, as much as 20% below the values predicted for mammals of similar body mass. This may have been a trait that enabled the founding population to survive their time on the raft. It may also be as much as they can manage on their fairly energy poor diet, the larger lemurs mainly subsist on leaves, the smaller ones mainly on fruit. Various behaviours such as huddling and opening themselves to the morning sun serve to increase their body temperature …


Nonetheless they are extremely agile and athletic. When Sifakas cross open ground they do so by bounding on their hind legs and are likely to finish the journey by bounding well up the trunk of the tree they are heading for.


And if the trees are close together why not fly?


An Australian is inclined to compare a lemur with the Koala, similarly arboreal, similar diet but one a gymnast and the other a couch potato. Why? The quick answer is the Fosa (pronounced Foossa – long O soft S). This is Madagascar’s largest carnivore, it is somewhat catlike but with a longer body. It will climb trees and it does take lemurs. Thus they need the agility to evade predation.

There is a major flaw in this argument. The DNA studies show that the Aye-aye split from the other lemurs early after colonisation. The radiation that brought about the diverse forms seen today occurred between 42 million years ago and 30 million years ago. Madagascar was without mammalian predators until about 20 million years ago. The Fosa may have sharpened their skills but the skill set existed for more than 10 million years before the Fosa arrived.

Ankarana …

Way back in the Jurassic the area that is now Ankarana was the floor of a shallow sea. This resulted in the deposition of  limestone more than 200 metres thick. The break up of Gondwana got underway at the end of the Jurassic, about 150 million years ago. The limestone has weathered to produce a karst landscape – caves, sinkholes, underground rivers. And where the limestone is uncovered the surface is very sharp and there are many pinnacles, the local term is tsingy from the Malagasy for a place where walking in bare feet is a really bad idea. What an economical language Malagasy must be.

The tsingy share the landscape with deciduous forest and all the good things that occur in the remaining Madagascan forest.

The Ankarana Special Reserve was declared in 1956 and protects about 182 km2. It has an annual rainfall that averages about 2,000 mm (79 in). Don’t forget the raincoat. About 100km of cave network has been mapped, some of which are home to Nile Crocodiles. It boasts 11 species of lemur and 14 species of bat. One species of Baobab is found only here, Andansonia perrieri.


You should be getting quite expert at this by now … the answer’s below.

The view across an expanse of stingy …


And some of the denizens of the forest …


Sanford’s Brown Lemur above, Crowned Lemur below.


We ventured into one of the caves where we were warmly received by the locals …



At Ankarana we stayed at Ankarana Lodge, nice rooms, nice gardens and very enjoyable swimming pool. The restaurant next door did a splendid job of feeding us, especially considering the distance to the nearest significant shops.

And for anyone struggling to find the Leaf-tailed Gecko …


Perinet …

Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is on the eastern edge of the central highlands and is firmly ensconced on the tourist itinerary for a combination of reasons. It can be reached by a good road from Antananarivo, it offers a very good chance of seeing Indri and boasts good accommodation. Most tourists won’t actually make it into the Mantadia section of the park because the road is a monster and is reportedly getting worse for lack of maintenance. Instead they will spend their time either in the Analamazaotra Reserve or at Vakona which has a population of lemurs established on Lemur Island.

The lodge at Vakona (pronounced Vakoona, there is no short O sound in Malagasy) is surrounded by a mature eucalypt forest that could have been snatched from somewhere in the Australian Great Divide. Up the hill, out of picture to the left is a stand of what looks remarkably like Eucalyptus regnans. There are no Lyrebirds but instead Paradise Flycatchers, Crested Drongos, Vasa Parrots and Sunbird-Asitys.


The Analamazaotra Reserve is secondary forest on the hills with overgrown abandoned fish ponds and rice paddies in the valley. Local guides must be hired and they will repay you by finding Chameleons and Leaf-tailed Geckos that you would otherwise walk right past. During the morning the Indri proclaim their territories by call, which carries a huge distance, when you are close up you can understand why. I found this example on youtube …

I found it very evocative.


In the past there were much larger lemurs but the Indri is the largest of the extant prosimians. They live in small family groups consisting of a male and female in a longterm monogamous relationship and their offspring. Females reach sexual maturity between the ages of 7–9 years and then bear offspring every two to three years. They feed mainly on leaves but will also eat seeds, fruits, and flowers. They are critically endangered largely due to habitat destruction.

Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is also home to another ten lemur species including Diademed Sifaka …


Black and white Ruffed Lemur …


and for an overload of cute, the Eastern Lesser Bamboo Lemur …



Nahampoana …

After a few days at Berenty our long-suffering bus took us back to Fort Dauphin. Along the way we were able to see the Triangular Palms endemic to this region and we also spent a little time in another section of spiny forest.

After a night in Fort Dauphin we visited Nahampoana about 10km north. This is essentially a botanical garden in which native wildlife have found a refuge amongst exotic trees.


It’s a splendid scene and I’ve done my best to disguise the fact that the Verraux’s Sifakas are sitting in eucalypts. The gardens are well maintained and cover about 50 hectares (approximately 125 acres).


The animals are fairly approachable, above we have a male Collared Brown Lemur and on sentry duty below is a Ring-tailed Lemur.


We found a few chameleons, their eyes are capable of the independent movement … you get the most pleasing photos when they take the trouble to look back at you.


The bird list wasn’t huge but included Lesser Vasa Parrot and our first sighting of Madagascar Blue Pigeon. The gardens hold some Radiated Tortoises and some captive Nile Crocodiles.

Berenty …

After breakfast, fresh croissants of course, we checked out of the Hotel Colbert and headed for the airport.

We had met Dennis, our Malagasy guide, the day before but today we started to get to know him better. His English is good, his smile is almost permanent. I will tell you more about him in due course but today we fly.


We fly south to Fort Dauphin aka Taolagnaro – the Malagasy, just like us in Oz, are busy replacing the names bestowed by recent colonists with those bestowed by previous colonists, the flight is delayed and we travel not by the direct route indicated in the itinerary but via Toliara on the west coast. We had been warned that Madagascar Airlines schedules were more provisional expressions of intention than rigid timetables. We got to Fort Dauphin  a couple of hours later than was intended, climbed into a bus and travelled 80kms to Berenty. The journey took three hours, we arrived after dark. The alleged road was shared with trucks some of which had trailers (B-doubles in Australian terms) coming from Antananarivo 1100 kms or four days rugged driving away. It had once been sealed, the remaining tar stood up like table top mountains surrounded by potholes and muddy swamps. I do not wish to be reincarnated as a Malagasy bus.

Berenty Reserve is an island of residual forest in  a sea of sisal plantation. Or even an ocean of sisal. I imagine it was set aside to assuage the conscience of the plantation owners as they annihilated the environment. It is now home to some readily accessible lemurs and a tourist hotspot. The accommodation is excellent and you always know the food is good when you see the locals dining there …


Over the next few days we walked in the gallery forest and in the spiny forest and made the aquaintance of Ring-tailed Lemurs, like the guy with the croissant, and Verraux’s Sifaka,


and the Red-fronted Brown Lemur.


We also got to see the White-footed Sportive Lemur and the Reddish-grey Mouse-Lemur and some nice birds.

And lament the loss of habitat. Sisal is grown for fibre which can be made into string or cloth. If you have abandoned plastic bags for the benefit of the environment and take along a sisal bag ponder on the habitat that existed before the sisal plantation was established.




Madagascar …

I’m leaving today.

I have been to a lot of out of the way places and the most frequent response from friends and co-workers has been “why?” … but that’s not the case with Madagascar. It seems that everyone has their own inner Madagascar, it may not be the first place on their bucket list, but when you mention it, eyes light up. Is it the movies, is it the Lemurs at the zoo or is it some TV documentary?

If you allow Australia the privilege of being an island as well as a continent then Madagascar is the fifth largest of the world’s islands. It’s about 1500 km top to bottom and about 570 km wide at its widest point. It’s about 420 km west of its nearest neighbour, Mozambique. The central highlands range from about 750 to 1500 metres. The east coast gets the rain, the west and south coastal regions are dry.

Madagascar was part of Gondwana and although it is now close to Africa it parted from the Africa-South America landmass around 135 million years ago. It kept company with India until about 88 million years ago. Its prolonged isolation has given it a very special evolutionary history. If friends and co-workers had said “why?’ instead of “ooh” this would have been my answer – to see the wildlife.

The population is a little over 22 million and on average they survive on about $450 a year.

Human settlement first came from the east some time between 350 BC and 550 AD, making Madagascar one of the last substantial land masses to receive the benefit of people. The founding population is estimated to have been around 60 to 200 individuals based on genetics. They likely arrived by outrigger canoe from Borneo. Subsequent settlement was mainly from subsaharan Africa.

Approximately 90 percent of all plant and animal species found in Madagascar are endemic, including the lemurs (a type of prosimian primate), the carnivorous fossa and many birds. According to Avibase there are 300 species of bird and 108 are endemic. The chameleons are another highlight, the island is home to two-thirds of all the world’s chameleon species and is possibly where they first evolved.

Some of the animal colonists have had better luck than others, the Malagasy Hippos are gone unless I happen to stumble across the kilopilopitsofy, although the Nile Crocodile is worth looking out for (diligently). The Elephant Bird survived until the 17th or 18th century. They stood about 3 metres tall, weighed about 400 kg and laid eggs which could be greater than a metre in diameter.

Now where did I put my passport and the tickets?

I will not be posting until my return so please, call back in about three weeks.