Enviro Monday: Madagascar’s unique plants and animals edging towards extinction

Madagascar is home to an abundance of plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. The island has been classified as a biodiversity hotspot.

This is because the island has been isolated for about 88 million years. The prehistoric breakup of the super-continent Gondwana separated the Madagascar-Antarctica-India landmass from the Africa-South America landmass around 135 million years ago. Madagascar later split from India about 88 million years ago, allowing plants and animals on the island to evolve in relative isolation.

The super-continent Gondwana before the breakup.

Kew report – thousands of plant species could be lost soon

Scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew recently released a report stating that thousands of plant species could be lost to humanity in the near future.

Madagascar’s trees, palms and orchids, which provide habitats and food for dozens of species of rare lemur and other animals, are now facing extinction due to land clearances, climate change and spreading agriculture.

Kew’s second annual State of the World’s Plants report, involving 128 scientists from 12 countries, reveals why some plants are more vulnerable than others to global threats such as climate change, disease, or pests. It presents data never seen before on patterns affecting plants in different regions.

This latest data also reveals how plants are relevant and valuable to all aspects of our lives.

The country focus of this year’s report is Madagascar, the 4th largest island on earth and the only country where Kew has a permanent presence outside of the UK.

The report looked at the data available on the island using new analytical tools and perspectives. It concludes that 83% of Madagascar’s 11,138 native species of vascular plantsoccur nowhere else on earth. The size of its flora is equal to that of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania combined.

Madagascar’s 200 unique palm species are particularly vulnerable

Madagascar is home to five unique plant families and three times as many palm species as continental Africa.

The position of Madagascar’s palms is particularly precarious. There are 204 species of palm found in Madagascar, and 200 are unique to the island. More than half of these palm species are known from a single site or have fewer than 100 individual plants left in the wild.

70% of its unique orchids are threatened with extinction

Another especially threatened group of Madagascar plants is its orchids. The island has almost 1,000 species of orchid, of which 90% are unique to the island, and 70% are threatened with extinction.

More than half their plants already lost

The island’s western dry forest, with its uniquely shaped baobab trees and grasslands that consist of grass species only found in Madagascar, have lost more than half their plants since the 1970s.

Stuart Cable, leader of Kew’s research team in Madagascar, says the problem is that this is a desperately poor country and most people live as subsistence farmers.

“They slash down forests and burn the trees to make charcoal and to free land to grow crops or graze cattle. Unless we can stop that, there is no hope.”

Madagascar is known for its endemic plants and animals, but this diversity within Madagascar creates a huge challenge for conservation which relies on the participation of local people.


Date published: June 26, 2017
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