Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/October 1875/Animal Life in Madagascar

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THE large island of Madagascar has of late excited a special interest among the lovers of natural history; the richness of its soil has been acknowledged, and the character of its vegetation and of its animals classified. During the present century, Europeans have chiefly visited the northern part of the island, and expressed in glowing language their admiration of its shores. The bay of Diego-Suarez, which is situated in the most northerly point of the island, is spoken of as one of the wonders of the world, and that of Passandava most enchanting. This, however, is not a fair picture of the whole; like other islands, it presents very striking contrasts. A recent traveler, M, E. Blanchard, who has visited certain parts of the island, chiefly to explore its mineral resources, describes in his book ("L'Île de Madagascar," J. Claye, imprimeur) the great chain of mountains and the desolate solitudes to the west of Imerina, where there are immense tracts that no one has trodden. In one part, Nature displays her boundless riches, where the native can live without working, and civilized man procure the enjoyments of material life; in another, the ungrateful land scarcely yields any food; the rocks are sterile, the soil is bare, and a stream of water to render the existence of man or beast possible, is not to be found.

Climbing with difficulty the high, abrupt downs, the pathway has to be opened through thorny bushes, and plains stretch out at the summit; not a tree or shrub is to be seen; desolate, uninhabitable, and depressing, as the deserts of Egypt and Arabia. After a long march through the sand, a new scene opens; the nopal is now found growing—a sure index to the abode of man. These plants, upon which the cochineal insect chiefly lives, are natives of America, but have long been naturalized in Africa and the south of Europe; the Arabs no doubt introduced them into Madagascar. Wherever a country is unwatered by streams, they are an invaluable resource for the inhabitants. Here, every family possesses its plantations of nopals, and gathers the fruit in a peculiar manner. With the point of their lances, they adroitly detach them, thus avoiding their redoubtable thorns; and roll them in the sand to get rid of the silky covering which incloses these spikes, afterward peeling them with the iron point of the dart. They appease hunger, assuage thirst, and permit the poor people to live in places where, for weeks together, water is not seen.

In these solitudes, where the forests are immense, animal life can multiply without fear of man, and yet the fauna of Madagascar offer some singular features. The traveler can pass along without fear of the lions, leopards, and panthers of Asia and Africa; neither do zebras and quaggas gallop over the plains. In other countries, wherever the climate is hot enough, monkeys enliven the woods; here, not a single species is to be found. The horse and the ass are unknown; and, what is still more extraordinary, ruminants, such as stags and antelopes, are absent. It is true that there are large herds of cattle, which constitute the great riches of the Malagaches, as the natives of Madagascar are called, but they have been imported probably from the southern part of Asia. This species is remarkable from its boss or lump of fat on the back, and is strikingly beautiful when seen in large herds wandering over the plains. The sheep, too, are peculiar, from their enormous tails, which consist of a mass of fat—a common feature in those belonging to the African Continent. Goats are common, as well as wild-pigs, which ravage the plantations; but these are supposed to have all escaped from vessels, and not to be indigenous to the island.

The monkeys of other lands are, however, replaced by the lemurs—graceful little creatures of many different varieties. There is a great resemblance in their attitude and manner of life to the ape, so that they have been styled monkeys with the fox's muzzle. Their agility is marvelous; they leap through the air to a great distance, settling on a branch, which perhaps bends under their weight, and dart off again in evolutions of astonishing rapidity. A wood frequented by troops commands the astonishment and admiration of the traveler, from the intelligent appearance and incessant gambols of these lively animals. The largest kinds are about three feet in length, while the smallest are not larger than a rat. The true lemur, which is distinguished by a long snout and tail, prefers fruit for food, but does not object to crunch a small bird, a lizard, or insects. These are diurnal in their habits; while the chirogales, possessing short paws and pointed teeth, shun the light, and only appear in twilight and moonlight, when they make great havoc among lizards and small game. These curious mammifers are characteristic of Madagascar; other species do exist elsewhere, but the nocturnal kind are found nowhere but in this and the Comoro Islands.

In the most solitary parts of the southwest region lives that strange creature, the aye-aye, or chiromys. A nocturnal animal, gentle and timid, it is about the size of a cat, with a large head, round full eyes not dissimilar to those of the owl, an enormous tail, and most extraordinary formation of the fore-paws; the middle finger being long and slender. This, which looks like a deformity, is, in truth, a wonderful arrangement of Nature for its special way of life. As it lives on the larvæ hidden in the trunks of trees, the finger can be easily introduced into the fissures from which it tears the coveted prey. Naturalists think it forms a link between the squirrel and the monkey. The Malagaches seem to be impressed with a superstitious dread of the animal, owing to its sleeping all the day in the most secret haunts; nor do they ever molest it, astonished as they seem to be by its peculiar physiognomy and movements.

There is another class of mammifers peculiar to this island, which are called tendraks by the natives, and seem closely allied to our hedgehogs. Like these, they are covered with spines, but the teeth differ, and the tail is wanting; neither do they roll themselves into a ball, but hide the head between their paws when frightened. Seven or eight species have been discovered, with some variety in the spines, some being soft, and not covering the whole of the body. They are all nocturnal in their habits, and very good when cooked. As for the carnivora, they all belong to a very small type. The wild-cat is a pretty creature. Its back is fawn-colored, traversed by four stripes of reddish-brown, and yellowish-white under the body and the paws. The ichneumon, with its long thin body and shaded skin, also gains the admiration of the traveler; it is a fearful enemy to all small or weak animals, but one of the species feeds greedily on honey. Not the least curious is the cryptoproctus, of the size and appearance of a cat, but with feet formed like those of a bear, the entire sole resting on the ground. No other example of a plantigrade animal is known.

The masked wild-boar, which is still more ugly than its European fellow, is the only mammifer met with both in Madagascar and Africa. It is a hideous creature, with high withers, low back, and little hair. It boasts of an enormous tubercle, supported by a bony prominence in the jaw, which renders the face of the animal extremely disagreeable. A species of gray squirrel, which lives in hollow trees, and bats, complete the list of the mammifers yet known in Madagascar.

It is very different as regards birds; they can cross immense spaces; and so the tern, the petrel, the albatross, and many other well-known birds, abound in this island. It is a charming sight, on a sunny day, to see flights of ducks with brilliant and varied plumage paddling and diving on the rivers or lakes. One large species, with bronze and violet reflections, like metals, its white head and neck spotted with black, is a great favorite with the natives. A beautiful teal-duck, only known here, has an exquisite blending of brown, fawn, and slate-colored plumage, with fair white wings. In the marshes stalks the proud sultana-hen, with its magnificent blue body, a red patch on its head, and coral feet adorned with a tuft of white feathers, by which it is easily distinguished among the reeds. The jacana, a bird of the water-hen family, is also peculiar to this place; mounted on long legs like stilts, and extremely long feet, it runs through the long grass, or upon the floating water-leaves, with wonderful rapidity.

The sacred ibis of the Egyptians is found in large flocks, as well as the green variety of Europe. The crested ibis is peculiar to the country; a beautiful bird, bright-red, with yellow beak and claws; a green head, from which the long plume of white and green feathers lies back. Another bird, classed among the Gallinaceæ, is remarkable for the length of its beak; while the pretty blue and green pigeons afford plenty of sport for the lover of the gun. Near the streams, the nelicourvi, a green-plumaged bird, builds its nest among the leaves, composed of bits of straw and reeds artistically woven together. The magnificent cardinal, in its bright scarlet robe of feathers, black-spotted on the back, haunts the open glades of the forest; and on the banks of streams are numbers of linnets, wagtails, and humming-birds, which are almost as small and graceful as the American ones, in addition to possessing all their beauties. The one which is the most common is also the most beautiful, with its bright-green body shaded with violet; the large feathers of the wings, brown-edged, with a violet band on the breast, succeeded by one of brown; and yellow beneath. The family of cuckoos is well represented; the blue variety is a magnificent bird, common in the woods on the shore.

As for the reptile class, it is pleasant for the traveler to walk through the forests knowing that the venomous species are unknown. Two hundred years ago, the old traveler Flacourt declared that the serpents were all inoffensive; recent experience confirms the fact. The largest is named Pelophilus Madagascariensis. There are others, such as the Langaha nasuta and Crista-galli (zoölogists having retained the name they bear among the natives), which are very singular, from the prolonged form of the snout, arising from the skin being lengthened out. Beautiful lizards, covered with brilliant scales of olive or fawn, spotted with black, white, and yellow, hide themselves under the stones, in the moss, or in old trees. But Madagascar is especially the land of chameleons; in the heart of the forests, they may be seen crouched on the branches, calm and immovable, rolling their large eyes. The crocodile is the only creature to be feared, and accidents from it are very rare, as the inhabitants greatly object to venturing into water.

The insects of Madagascar offer a thousand types for admiration. There are valuable kinds, furnishing wax, honey, and silk; the first two forming one of the natural riches of the island. The bee peculiar to the country has a black body, red underneath; it is very abundant in the woods, and makes its nest in decayed trunks of trees, whence the Malagaches tear the comb.

But there was an epoch when much more remarkable animals lived in Madagascar. In the marshes near the river Manoumbe, at no great depth, a great number of bones of the hippopotamus, of colossal tortoises, and of the limbs and eggs of the Œpyornis maxinms, have been found. The eggs of this king of birds are six times larger than those of the ostrich; and it was at first hoped that, in the hitherto unknown solitudes of the interior, some living specimens might be found; that hope has, however, vanished, though it is evident they once existed in great numbers in the southwest part of the island. They were of various species, and of different sizes. At the same period, the hippopotamus must have been abundant, as the bones of fifty skeletons were picked up in a few hours. This species, of very inferior dimensions to that frequenting the Nile, is entirely extinct.—Chambers's Journal.