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Since the age of dinosaurs, Madagascar has thrived in isolation off the east coast of Africa. In this real-life "lost world," hundreds of animal and plant species, most famously the lemurs, have evolved here and only here, while other creatures extinct elsewhere for tens of millions of years now vie with modern man for survival. It's a land of striking geography, from soaring mountains to vast canyon lands, from tropical rain forests to spiny desert. And its people are a conundrum unto themselves, their origins ...
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Since the age of dinosaurs, Madagascar has thrived in isolation off the east coast of Africa. In this real-life "lost world," hundreds of animal and plant species, most famously the lemurs, have evolved here and only here, while other creatures extinct elsewhere for tens of millions of years now vie with modern man for survival. It's a land of striking geography, from soaring mountains to vast canyon lands, from tropical rain forests to spiny desert. And its people are a conundrum unto themselves, their origins obscure, their language complex and distinct, and their beliefs fascinating. In The Eighth Continent, Peter Tyson will guide you into this, the planet's most exotic frontier, so you can see for yourself why it's been called "the naturalist's promised land."
Part scientific exploration, part adventure saga, part cultural and historical narrative, The Eighth Continent follows Tyson's journeys with four scientific experts as they explore the fourth-largest island in the world:
For if Madagascar is one of the most fascinating environments on the planet, it is also one of the most endangered. As the Malagasy hack a subsistence from the island's dwindling forests, they also threaten its diverse habitats and its rich biological diversity. It is not an easy situation to resolve, nor is it easy to answer the burning question at its heart: Can Madagascar be saved? In The Eighth Continent, Peter Tyson navigates this tortuous path as he delves into the island's storied interior as well as its misty past.
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..."