Eighth Continent: Life, Death, and Discovery in the Lost World of Madagascar

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Madagascar, the world's fourth-largest island, is a land where lizards scream and monkey-like lemurs sing songs of inexpressible beauty. Where animals and plants that went extinct elsewhere millions of years ago — tenrecs, fossa, upside-down trees — thrive in a true Lost World. Where the ancestors of the Malagasy, as the island's eighteen tribes are collectively known, come alive in rollicking ceremonies known as "turning the bones." Here, join Peter Tyson on a diverting odyssey with four scientists out to plumb ...

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Madagascar, the world's fourth-largest island, is a land where lizards scream and monkey-like lemurs sing songs of inexpressible beauty. Where animals and plants that went extinct elsewhere millions of years ago — tenrecs, fossa, upside-down trees — thrive in a true Lost World. Where the ancestors of the Malagasy, as the island's eighteen tribes are collectively known, come alive in rollicking ceremonies known as "turning the bones." Here, join Peter Tyson on a diverting odyssey with four scientists out to plumb the natural and cultural mysteries of this extraordinary land.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Madagascar, actually the Earth's fourth-largest island, has the distinction of hosting one of the greatest collections of endemic species, that is, plants and animals that exist nowhere else. It is under extreme ecological peril owing to deforestation and population growth, and scientists and conservationists are anxious to study and preserve as much of Madagascar's unique ecology as possible before it's too late. The island also presents historical mysteries, since there are curious gaps in the archaeological record of the original settlers. To learn more about these issues, science writer Tyson tagged along on the expeditions of specialists in herpetology, paleoecology, archaeology, and primatology. He reports in great (and occasionally repetitive) detail on their research projects, adventures in the field, and scientific and historical background. He finds more questions than answers on his travels and freely admits to being baffled by Malagasy customs and way of life. This ambitious book perhaps tries to cover too much ground, but few other books available introduce readers to this fascinating, unique nation. Recommended for both academic and most public libraries.--Beth Clewis Crim, Prince William P.L., VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Eric F. Powell
Part field report, part travelogue, part ecological history, Tyson's book is an engrossing testament to one of the planet's most astonishing places. His tales from the field, by turns moving and hilarious, are interwoven with descriptions of the island's bizarre wildlife-from screaming geckos to upsidedown trees-and their uncertain future at the hands of the Malagasy, who are desperate for fuel wood and farmland. Read this book to get a sence of what future generations may be missing.
Kirkus Reviews
By turns thoughtful and vivacious, science writer and Nova producer Tyson draws an anecdotally rich portrait of the biological wonderland known as Madagascar. It is difficult to grasp the plant and animal wealth of the island of Madagascar. Scientists refer to such natural abundance as megadiversity, and they see its current imperiled situation as a biodiversity crisis of the first order. Tyson traveled to the island four times over the course of the last decade, each time to explore some aspect of the Malagasy bioscape. He moves in the company of fascinating, and acutely drawn, characters. He meets a herpetologist who seeks answers to the island's evolutionary bounty and its role in speciation (i.e., how one species grows out of another) and endemism (a high percentage of the living matter on Madagascar is known only there). He spends time with a paleoecologist who is trying to reconstruct ancient landscapes in order to gain insights into the extinction of the megafauna. He lives among the Malagasy in an attempt to gather some impression (which he readily admits is fleeting and less than partial) of their culture. And he witnesses the efforts of conservationists to redress the intense environmental degradation that ensues as the island's shattered economy sends residents into the countryside to cut firewood and farm the fragile earth. Tyson's science writing shines; it is a testament to his fluency that he can impart an understanding of vicariance and dispersal, and even the isostasy responsible for continental drift, without missing a beat. Or introduce a bestiary (whose names would spark memories of Dr. Seuss in most readers: tenrecs and fossa, golden-crowned sifakasandfat-ailed dwarf lemurs). One conservationist puts it bluntly: "The country will be either lost or saved during the working life of the current generation." A fine portrait of Madagascar's singular culture and biodiversity, its great beauty and dire straits.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380794652
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/1/2001
  • Pages: 416

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Deep into a Primordial Land

The Perfumed Isle

Behave like the chameleon:
Look forward and observe behind.
--Malagasy proverb

It is my first night ever in Madagascar, and Just like that, my prayers are being answered. I arrived this afternoon on the island of Nosy Be off the northwest coast, and already I'm hiking on a rainforest trail with Christopher Raxworthy, a herpetologist from the University of Michigan, searching for "herps"--reptiles and amphibians. Moments ago, through the darkness farther up the trail, someone yelled, "Uroplatus!" I felt a surge of adrenaline, for Uroplatus is the generic name of the leaf-tailed gecko, one of Madagascar's most otherworldly creatures.

I'm in a somnambulant state, having just flown halfway around the world. From Boston, I flew across the Atlantic to Paris, through Zurich to Nairobi, then over the Mozambique Channel to Tana, where I boarded a 727 for the final leg here to Nosy Be ("Big Island"). From the island's sleepy airport, I had a forty-five-minute drive through plantations of vanilla, pepper, and ylang ylang, a fragrant tree that lends Nosy Be its sobriquet "the Perfumed Isle." Thirty-two hours after leaving Boston, I finally reached my destination, the strict nature reserve known as Lokobe. I was beyond exhausted, but how could I resist an inaugural foray into Madagascar's storied jungle?

I've come to help Raxworthy conduct the first-ever comprehensive survey of herps in Lokobe ("loo-koo-bay"). The team alsoincludes two Malagasy graduate students, two Malagasy guides and cooks, and a crew of Earthwatch volunteers. Our survey will help Malagasy wildlife managers better protect this last surviving patch of rain forest on Nosy Be as well as its menagerie of unique plants and animals. It is also the critical first step in answering questions of evolution that nag at biologists, including Raxworthy.

I hurry up the red dirt path. The two Malagasy guides and several of the volunteers already have their headlamps trained on an indistinct form clinging to a vine rising into the canopy like the Beanstalk. I crane my neck to see it, a whitish blob perhaps fifty feet up. One of the Malagasy fights his way downhill through thick vegetation to the base of the liana and begins shaking it.

"It's off!" someone yells, and just then I hear a plunk. One of Madagascar's most bizarre and wonderful experiments in evolution has just landed at my feet.

As Raxworthy gently lifts the leaf-tailed gecko off the ground, I whisper its scientific name to myself- Uroplatus henkeli. I've wanted to handle this creature ever since I saw a photo of one back in the States. With its gray, splotched skin, suction-grip feet, and crenellated, body-length fringe, the lizard looks like a lichen come alive. This reptile has taken the art of camouflage to extraordinary lengths. During the day, when it naps head-down on tree trunks, its color matches that of bark so well that, unless you happen to catch the bulge of its body from an angle, you won't see it even from steps away. The fringe, which even encircles the bulbous, night-vision eyeballs, keeps tell-tale shadows from forming.

"I think it's a male," Raxworthy says in his native Hertfordshire accent. "Big, bulged eye. Who would like to handle him?"

Before I can even open my mouth, one of the volunteers, a Briton named Garfield Dean, reaches over and carefully pries the gecko from Raxworthy's arm. As if affronted, the animal cranes its alien-looking head toward him, opens its mouth, sticks out a grublike crimson tongue, and screeches in his face: Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh! Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!

The sound sends chills down my spine, but Raxworthy reacts without missing a beat. He starts screaming back at the lizard, trying to imitate its cat-loses-battle-with-a-screen-door screech. Thevolunteers look at Raxworthy with a mixture of amusement and apprehension.

To the uninitiated, it might seem incongruous to find the foremost herpetologist working in Madagascar today screaming at a lizard in the dark of night. But Chris Raxworthy is a man who probably feels most fulfilled when he's screaming at lizards. I mean that. With his lean, six-foot-four frame, his elongated hands and feet, and the roving gaze of his walleye, Raxworthy could almost pass for an overgrown chameleon. If he shaved off the shag of black curls on his head, the effect would be complete. Watching him move through the forest, his large feet in beat-up Keds stepping soundlessly through the leaf litter, and seeing how lovingly he handles his herps, I have a fleeting thought that perhaps in a previous life he was a lizard.

"It's Malagasy tradition," Raxworthy says, the light from a cluster of headlamps finding his smile. "It's bad luck to leave the animal's call unanswered."

Thirty-one years old, Raxworthy has spent almost ten years documenting the herpetological treasures of Madagascar, discovering and collecting more species than any biologist before him. He has focused on the island's "necklace of pearls," as German biologist Bernhard Meier has dubbed Madagascar's string of nature reserves, as well as other areas bearing an unusually high biodiversity, in order to pinpoint forests deserving of immediate protection. Though only twice the size of New York's Central Park, Lokobe Reserve is just such a gem, a patch of rain forest teeming with rare plants and animals, most of them endemic to Madagascar and several endemic to the reserve itself. When it comes to reptiles and amphibians, Madagascar, including protected areas like Lokobe, remains largely terra incognita, and Raxworthy has become its Captain Cook. John Behler, a herpetologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, says that a few field scientists working on Madagascar have "indefatigable drive, a seeminglyunquenchable thirst for discovery and the ability to survive--no, flourish--under the most dreadful field conditions ... Chris Raxworthy is one of them. He is without question the dean of herpetology on Madagascar..."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2002

    A Wonderful Overview of Madagascar

    I found this book fascinating after having spent some time in Madagascar. It goes into the history of the people, culture and language, discusses Madagascars ecology and extinctions. Goes into depth on a variety of subjects, all of which were wonderfully interesting and relevant.

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