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Without action Madagascar could lose 23 million years of evolution

The East African island is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, but the climate crisis and habitat loss has put this reputation at risk.

Scientists are warning that a wave of extinction could soon hit wildlife in Madagascar, with more than half of mammals living there listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

About 90% of the plants and species living there are found nowhere else on earth and now a new study has uncovered a concerning fact: it would take 23 million years of evolution to replace the endangered species if they were to go extinct.

‘It’s abundantly clear that there are whole lineages of unique mammals that only occur on Madagascar that have either gone extinct or are on the verge of extinction, and if immediate action isn’t taken, Madagascar is going to lose 23 million years of evolutionary history of mammals, which means whole lineages unique to the face of the Earth will never exist again,’ said one of the authors Steve Goodman, MacArthur Field Biologist at Chicago’s Field Museum and Scientific Officer at Association Vahatra in Antananarivo, Madagascar.

Madagascar has been described as a ‘mini continent’, as it’s the world’s fifth largest island that is about the size of France and is home to 219 known mammal species, including 109 species of lemurs.

But the results came as a surprise to the study authors, as this is far longer than what has been estimated for other islands, like New Zealand and islands in the Caribbean.

Luis Valente, a biologist at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, said: ‘It was already known that Madagascar was a hotspot of biodiversity, but this new research puts into context just how valuable this diversity is. These findings underline the potential gains of the conservation of nature on Madagascar from a novel evolutionary perspective.’

The international team built a dataset of every known mammal species to live in Madagascar over the last 2,500 years and discovered at least 30 had since gone extinct.

Scientists then built genetic family trees to see how long it took for each species to evolve before estimating how long it would take to ‘replace’ endangered species if lost.

It would take three million years to recover the diversity of animals already lost over the past 2,500, but if currently endangered mammals were to go extinct it would take 23 million years for evolution to rebuild the biodiverse island.

‘It would be simply impossible to recover them,’ adds Goodman.

Human action, such as habitat destruction and over hunting, has endangered more than 120 mammals on the island which could be lost forever.

Urgent action is required to rectify the situation, as authors are calling for political corruption and inequality to be wiped off the island.

‘There is still a chance to fix things, but basically, we have about five years to really advance the conservation of Madagascar’s forests and the organisms that those forests hold,’ said Goodman. ‘Madagascar’s biological crisis has nothing to do with biology. It has to do with socio-economics.

‘We can’t throw in the towel. We’re obliged to advance this cause as much as we can and try to make the world understand that it’s now or never.’

Photo by Chien C. Lee

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