Extinctions in Madagascar:
A Real-Life Whodunnit
Madagascar is a California-sized island that separated from
the east coast of Africa 165 million years ago. Madagascar has
evolved many plants and animals that occur nowhere else in the
world; until recent centuries this included some quite large
animals: the pygmy hippo, lemurs the size of gorillas, giant
tortoises, and half-ton ostrich-like birds. According to the
fossil record, humans arrived on the island about 2,000 years
ago. Today, Madagascar has no native terrestrial animals bigger
than twenty-five pounds. Many of the unique plants and animals of
Madagascar are extinct or threatened with extinction, probably
due to a combination of human activity and climate change.
Paleoecologists such as David Burney study the fossil remains of
animals and plants to determine what the climate and ecology of
Madagascar were like before and after the arrival of humans.
David Burney received a Master of Science degree in conservation biology from the University of Nairobi, Kenya, where he studied human impacts on the cheetah. He received the Ph.D. in zoology from Duke University pursuing the science of paleoecology - the study of past environments - and is presently an associate professor in the department of biological sciences at Fordham University. Dr. Burney has used microfossils, as well as more conventional archeological and paleontological techniques to study environmental change and extinction in Hawaii, the Caribbean islands, Madagascar, Africa and North America. We spoke with him about what relevance extinctions on Madagascar have to present day environmental concerns.