Madagascar, an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, teems with unique animals and plants, and a recent surge in scientific attention is producing a flood of new species. Seven new bat species have been described in just the past three years.
Madagascar’s exotic suite of flora and fauna evolved as the island, slightly larger than California, was geographically isolated for 88 million years. Small primates called lemurs, for example, are found nowhere else, and at least 50 lemur species inhabit the island.
Bat Conservation International has been supporting research and conservation in Madagascar since 1993, when it provided a Student Research Scholarship for a study of flying foxes’ contribution to reseeding the island’s forests, which had shrunk by more than 80 percent during the 20th century. Since then, nine other BCI scholarships have helped pay for vital research, while two BCI Global Grassroots Conservation Fund grants supported innovative public education and conservation work.
As late as 1995, only 27 bat species of bats were known to exist in Madagascar. But for nearly two decades, Steven Goodman, Senior Field Biologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, and colleagues, working World Wildlife Fund-Madagascar, have been studying – and discovering – plants and animals of this remarkable island.
Their large-scale, multi-disciplinary surveys involved teams of ornithologists, herpetologists, mammalogists, entomologists, botanists and other scientists. They work directly with Malagasy graduate students, who collect and analyze the survey data for their theses and scientific publications. BCI is helping to support portions of our fieldwork.
Bats were added to these surveys in the late 1990s, at about the same time, scientists associated with the University of Aberdeen (in the United Kingdom) also launched a research program focused on Madagascar bats.
The bat biologists explored surveyed areas so remote that access sometimes required a hike of several days with a phalanx of 20 to 30 porters who helped carry equipment, food and gear. An incredible number of new species have been discovered, including lemurs, rodents, shrew-like tenrecs and, of course, bats. Probably no other area of similar size, except the Philippines, boasts so many recently described mammal species.
As of this past March, 37 bat species are now confirmed for Madagascar. Of the 10 species added to the list since 1995, seven that are new to science have been described since 2004.
One especially notable result of the research is the greatly expanded knowledge of the unusual sucker-footed bats, which had been considered a single rare species. These bats have sucker-like structures on their wrists and ankles that allow them to scramble up the smooth surfaces of leaves. They are found only on Madagascar, although several species of Central/South American disc-winged bats have independently evolved similar leaf-climbing features.
The surveys clearly revealed that, at least in eastern Madagascar marshes, the known sucker-footed species (Myzopoda aurita) is not as rare as had been believed. And, armed with new information about the habitat favored by this genus, researchers visited regions of western Madagascar with similar plants and features and soon discovered an undescribed species. In early 2007, this animal was named Myzopoda schliemanni, or Schliemann’s sucker-footed bat.
This research project was funded in part by Bat Conservation International, the Field Museum of Natural History, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the National Geographic Society, The National Speleological Society, the Volkswagen Foundation, and WWF.
BCI members can read the whole story of the Madagascar bat research in the Summer 2007 issue of BATS magazine.