Ring-tailed lemurs


By Anne Cissel

This country is home to animals and plants found nowhere else on Earth.

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MADAGASCAR (mad-uh-GAS-kar) is a magical and mysterious place. But how did nature get to be so different here?

Hundreds of millions of years ago, all the land on Earth was stuck together in one big mass. Then, pieces of land broke off and slowly drifted away from each other. These pieces formed the continents we know today.

One piece of land—a little smaller than the state of Texas—broke off about 88 million years ago. It settled 250 miles off the southeastern coast of Africa (see map). This island is now Madagascar.

Like all living things, those on Madagascar slowly evolved, or changed, as time went on. But the plants and animals on Madagascar evolved separately from those living in other parts of the world. Because of this, they became more and more unusual. And now, the island has a large number of species that don’t exist anywhere else, such as the sifaka (shih-FAWK) at far right. Ready to take a journey to this wild and wonderful place?

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Madagascar has no apes or monkeys, which are members of the animal group called primates. But the country has its own kind of primates: lemurs! Most lemurs have long tails, big eyes, and pointed snouts. They live in groups, and the leaders are very often females. They love leaping around in trees and calling to each other.

Unfortunately, lemurs are one of the most endangered groups of mammals on the planet. People are working hard to save them, though. Let’s meet a few of these special primates!


In trees, sifakas can leap as far as a school bus is long! On the ground, they hop forward and sideways (see photo on page 7). People think they look as if they’re dancing.

Like most lemurs, ring-tailed lemurs live in groups known as troops. The babies get carried around on their mothers’ backs. Sometimes, a baby will get a tongue bath from a relative—as seen here above far left!

This gray mouse lemur weighs as much as two pencils. Mouse lemurs are the world’s smallest lemurs.

This black-and-white ruffed lemur is just “hanging out.” Sometimes this type of lemur dangles like this to reach juicy fruit, its favorite food. Lemurs also eat nectar, flowers, leaves, and seeds.

Indris are the largest lemurs, and they have lots of very loud calls. They almost sound like people singing. This indri might be saying, “This is my tree—back off!” or “Enemy nearby!”

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Madagascar is bursting with color. In the natural world, color isn’t just decoration. It can help animals and plants survive! Take a look at some of the vibrant hues and striking patterns you might see if you took a walk in the Madagascan forest.


These ring-tailed lemurs use their black-and-white tails as flags to keep track of each other when the troop is out looking for food.

Nearly half of the world’s chameleons (kuh-MEEL-yuns) live in Madagascar! Their skins’ natural colors help them blend in with their surroundings. But chameleons change color for two main reasons: mood and temperature. The two male panther chameleons at top flare bright reds and blues as they fight over a mate. Usually, the loser’s skin will turn dark when he’s given up. And the light blue color of the chameleon above keeps the animal cooler. A darker color would soak up the sun’s rays more, warming up the lizard.

The bright color of this Malagasy tomato frog is a warning to its enemies. When the frog is attacked, its skin will ooze a thick, gummy liquid. The liquid numbs the eyes and mouth of the attacker, causing it to drop the frog.

The red fody was once called a “Madagascan cardinal.” You can see why! The bright feathers on this male help him attract females

A plant’s colorful flowers attract animals that will drink its nectar and spread its pollen. But this rosy periwinkle is more than just pretty. Chemicals inside it can treat certain kinds of cancer.

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Madagascar has creatures that may seem familiar to you—but are actually quite different. Also, for protection, some Madagascan animals look like something they aren’t. In fact, there’s a lot on the island to make you scratch your head!


A leaf-tailed gecko blends in nicely with this tree. “Disappearing” like this helps geckos sneak up on prey and avoid becoming prey.

The spots on this Madagascan moon moth look like the eyes of a larger creature, and that can help keep predators away. Cool trick!

This lesser hedgehog tenrec may look like a hedgehog, but it’s not even a cousin. In fact, this little mammal is more closely related to elephants, aardvarks, and manatees!

OK, no one would mistake this giraffe weevil for a real giraffe. But look at that neck! Males use their extra-long necks to duel other males over mates.

Here, kitty, kitty. . . . No, wait! That’s not a cat stuck in the tree above! It’s a fossa, the largest meat-eating mammal on Madagascar. It’s more closely related to the mongoose than to cats. This tree-climbing fossa is using its extra-long tail—exactly as long as its body—for balance. And no, the fossa at right isn’t just hugging that tree. It’s leaving its scent there to say, “This is my turf!”

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Madagascar is full of surprises. Just look at the wild wonders on these two pages. The country is also home to 26 million people who have fascinating customs and cultures. But as more and more people spread across the land, many of the animals and plants are in danger of disappearing completely. If we leave parts of the island wild, these extraordinary treasures can continue to amaze us for a long time to come!


What’s the “point” of this male lance-nosed chameleon’s pointy rainbow-colored snout? It helps him get noticed by females in the area.

This lemur, called an aye-aye, is searching for dinner. It taps its long, thin middle finger along the tree branch and listens with its big ears. A hollow sound can mean a tunnel where an insect lives under the bark. The aye-aye then bites into the wood, sticks in that finger, and plucks out a meal

The nectar of the comet orchid is at the bottom of a 10-inch tube. Good thing the Morgan’s sphinx moth can uncoil its super-long “tongue” to grab the sweet treat!

Madagascar is home to the tiniest chameleons in the world, known as “dwarf” chameleons. This one is about an inch long from its snout to the tip of its tail.

Madagascar’s one-of-a-kind wonders deserve our protection, don’t you think?

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