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First published: October 2000

Madagascar

by Michael Sones

Madagascar is a stunningly beautiful African island country composed of one large island and many smaller islands which lies nearly 400 km southeast of the African mainland. It is approximately a thousand miles long and 587,041 square kilometers (226,658 square miles) in size making it the fourth largest island in the world. Greenland is larger by nearly 300,000 square kilometers.

It is a republic and the population is estimated to be 14,873,000 with the official languages being Malagasy and French. The capital city is Antananarivo and it has a population of over 1,000,000. About 75% of the population is literate and approximately 50% are Christian, 10% are Muslim and the rest worship ancestors and spirits.Ancestor worship and a complex system of taboos dominate much of religious and social life.

Baobob TreeThe first immigrants came from Indonesia more than 2000 years ago. The 'native' people of the island are known as Malagasy and are descendants of black Africans and Indonesian peoples. In the 17th and 18th centuries Madagascar was a popular base for pirates who pillaged the trade routes in the Indian Ocean. It was also popular with slave traders.

Madagascar is famed for its ecological diversity and theuniqueness of much of its flora and fauna some of which can only be found on Madagascar such as the baobab trees in the photo. It has miles of golden beaches and its jungles are a riot of colour. The evolution of so many unique species seems to be a consequence of Madagascar separating from Africa 165 million years ago. The island's geographical isolation seems to have fostered a environment allowing for the evolution of unique and diverse species.

Lemur

The lemur, of which there are about 40 species, is a primitive form of primate.[Click to hear the call of a lemur] It is home to the brightly coloured Mantella frogs which, when they were first seen by explorers, were thought to be like the poison dart frogs of South America. The island has a varied climate with it being hot and dry in the south and warm and humid on the coastal areas. Much of Madagascar used to be covered with forests but most of that has been cut down and now much of the island is covered with prairie grasses.

There are high plateaus and mountains in the centre of the island. Up to 1000 species of orchids grow on the east coast of the island.

Orchids have evolved some of the most complicated Hawk moth and orchidpollination systems of all plants. One of the most famous orchids in the scientific world is the Angraecum sesquipedale of Madagascar. It has long spurs which hold its nectar and when it was described to Darwin he said that there would be an unknown species of insect with a long tongue that would be its pollinator. Though he was ridiculed he turned out to be right as, after his death, its only pollinator was discovered. This is a species of hawk moth with an extremely long tongue later named the Xanthopan Morgani Praedicta moth in honour of his prediction.

Madagascar Landscape

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