18 new spider species discovered in Madagascar

This video says about itself:

7 March 2014

Pelican spiders hunt other spiders, plucking at their webs to lure the prey closer and then using long necks and jaws to hold them at a distance. Read more at sciencenews.org.

From the Smithsonian in the USA:

Spider eat spider: Scientists discover 18 new spider-hunting pelican spiders in Madagascar

Discovery highlights the case for conserving a shrinking, unique biodiversity hotspot

January 11, 2018

Summary: Scientists examined and analyzed hundreds of pelican spiders both in the field in Madagascar and through study of pelican spiders preserved in museum collections. Their analysis sorted the spiders studied into 26 different species — 18 of which have never before been described. The new species add to scientists’ understanding of Madagascar’s renowned biodiversity, and will help scientists investigate how pelican spiders’ unusual traits have evolved and diversified over time.

In 1854, a curious-looking spider was found preserved in 50 million-year-old amber. With an elongated neck-like structure and long mouthparts that protruded from the “head” like an angled beak, the arachnid bore a striking resemblance to a tiny pelican. A few decades later when living pelican spiders were discovered in Madagascar, arachnologists learned that their behavior is as unusual as their appearance, but because these spiders live in remote parts of the world they remained largely unstudied — until recently.

At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, curator of arachnids and myriapods Hannah Wood has examined and analyzed hundreds of pelican spiders both in the field in Madagascar and through study of pelican spiders preserved in museum collections. Her analysis, focused on spiders of the Eriauchenius and Madagascarchaea genera, sorted the spiders she studied into 26 different species — 18 of which have never before been described. Wood and colleague Nikolaj Scharff of the University of Copenhagen describe all 26 pelican spider species in the Jan. 11 issue of the journal Zookeys.

Wood says pelican spiders are well known among arachnologists not only for their unusual appearance, but also for the way they use their long “necks” and jaw-like mouthparts to prey on other spiders. “These spiders attest to the unique biology that diversified in Madagascar“, she said.

Pelican spiders are active hunters, prowling the forest at night and following long silk draglines that lead them to their spider prey. When a pelican spider finds a victim, it swiftly reaches out and impales it on its long, fang-tipped “jaws,” or chelicerae. Then it holds the capture away from its body, keeping itself safe from potential counterattacks, until the victim dies.

Today’s pelican spiders are “living fossils,” Wood says — remarkably similar to species found preserved in the fossil record from as long as 165 million years ago. Because the living spiders were found after their ancestors had been uncovered in the fossil record and presumed extinct, they can be considered a “Lazarus” taxon. In addition to Madagascar, modern-day pelican spiders have been found in South Africa and Australia — a distribution pattern that suggests their ancestors were dispersed to these landmasses when the Earth’s supercontinent Pangaea began to break up around 175 million years ago.

Madagascar is home to vast numbers of plant and animal species that exist only on the island, but until recently, only a few species of pelican spiders had been documented there. In 2000, the California Academy of Sciences launched a massive arthropod inventory in Madagascar, collecting spiders, insects and other invertebrates from all over the island.

Wood used those collections, along with specimens from other museums and spiders that she collected during her own field work in Madagascar, to conduct her study. Her detailed observations and measurements of hundreds of specimens led to the identification of 18 new species — but Wood says there are almost certainly more to be discovered. As field workers continue to collect specimens across Madagascar, “I think there’s going to be a lot more species that haven’t yet been described or documented,” she said.

The spiders Wood personally collected, including holotypes (the exemplar specimens) for several of the new species, will join the U.S. National Entomological Collection at the Smithsonian, the second-largest insect collection in the world, where they will be preserved and accessible for further research by scientists across the globe.

All of the pelican spiders that Wood described live only in Madagascar, an island whose tremendous biodiversity is currently threatened by widespread deforestation. The new species add to scientists’ understanding of that biodiversity, and will help Wood investigate how pelican spiders’ unusual traits have evolved and diversified over time. They also highlight the case for conserving what remains of Madagascar‘s forests and the biodiversity they contain, she says.

Funding for this study was provided by the Danish National Research Foundation and the National Science Foundation.


Ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar

This video says about itself:

25 December 2017

In Madagascar, a small piece of rainforest holds an inspiring conservation story. See how a group of local people have banded together to protect the island’s much-loved ring-tailed lemur in this short film by Robin Hoskyns.

Madagascar Henst’s goshawks, new study

This is a Henst’s goshawk video from Madagascar.

From the University of Cincinnati in the USA:

How do you track a secretive hawk? Follow the isotopes

Isotope research could help steer the conservation of many threatened species

December 11, 2017

Summary: A study has found that the rare Henst’s goshawk of Madagascar hunts lemurs in low-lying areas that are most at risk to deforestation. Researchers could use this isotope analysis to study the habitat and prey needs of other threatened species that are difficult to track.

University of Cincinnati professor Brooke Crowley wanted to know the hunting range of the Henst’s goshawk, a large forest-dwelling bird of prey that ambushes small animals.

Henst’s goshawks are difficult to find because of the rugged, inaccessible forest where they live. Little is known about their population. But because of their limited distribution, they are listed as near-threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Locating even a single goshawk nest required weeks of exploration by Crowley’s research collaborators.

So Crowley decided to conduct an elemental analysis using strontium, naturally occurring isotopes found everywhere on Earth that travel the food chain from the soil to plants to herbivores and predators.

Specifically, Crowley compared the ratio of strontium 86 and strontium 87 isotopes in rainforest leaves collected across Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park to isotopes found in the remains of 19 partially consumed lemurs collected in or around goshawk nests to learn where the birds of prey were hunting.

Crowley, an associate professor of geology and anthropology at UC’s McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, found that goshawks appeared to hunt almost exclusively at lower elevations in forest that is most at risk to agriculture and other human impacts.

The findings could help steer conservation efforts for goshawks and other vulnerable species.

“It’s hard to observe goshawk behavior in the wild. This is a good, indirect way of tracking habitat use,” Crowley said.

Her findings were published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin.

Crowley has been to Madagascar four times for various research projects. For this study, she partnered with an eclectic team of experts, including wildlife biologist Sarah Karpanty, an associate professor at Virginia Tech, who conducted fieldwork on goshawks for her dissertation. (Her brother, Jeff Karpanty, is a UC graduate).

Karpanty scoured Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park, which protects 160 square miles of mountainous rainforest. The park is rich in biodiversity with more than a dozen kinds of lemur, primates found only in Madagascar. The park varies in elevation from 1,500 to 5,000 feet above sea level, which provides a variety of habitats for its many plants and animals.

But between the mountainous terrain and frequent drenching rains, finding even a single goshawk was a challenge.

“It’s not easy. You have to cover a lot of ground on foot. You’re in remote sections of Madagascar. So you try to get to high points where you can watch where birds are flying,” Karpanty said.

Used in falconry since the Middle Ages, goshawks have a telltale white stripe over their eyes that gives them an especially fierce countenance. Goshawks inhabit dense forests on six continents, taking advantage of cover to ambush prey from small animals to other birds. Their short wings and long, rudder-like tails make them supremely adapted to maneuvering through the tree canopy.

“They rely on surprise,” Karpanty said. “They live in dense, older forest. They sit and wait and then go into a quick dive after prey. They can tuck their wings to get through narrow gaps in the forest.”

Goshawks are at the top of the food chain wherever they are found. Having good numbers of apex predators is a sign of a healthy or intact ecosystem.

Karpanty donned rappelling gear to climb 40 feet into abandoned nests after nesting season to see what Henst’s goshawks were eating. They used a slingshot to fire a fishing line over a sturdy branch to rig the climbing ropes.

“I practiced climbing a lot at gyms. I was young, childless at the time and fearless!” Karpanty said. “My guides were really good with the slingshot.”

Not surprisingly, she found the skeletal remains of several kinds of small lemur.

Conventional tracking methods of tracking wildlife such as using radio-telemetry were impractical in the park’s rugged terrain, she said.

“We radio-tagged some birds but were unsuccessful in tracking them,” Karpanty said. “You have to do everything by foot so we’d lose the birds all the time. From our radio-transmitter data alone, we couldn’t know the extent of their range.”

Karpanty sent Crowley bones from 19 lemurs she found at four goshawk nests.

Crowley also enlisted the help of lemur expert Andrea Baden, an assistant professor at Hunter College. Baden studies anthropological biology and has spent years following endangered lemurs in Ranomafana and other parts of Madagascar.

“It’s tough. We’re working in montane rainforest. A lot of people have a misconception that all tropical rainforests are hot. But this is cold and rainy. You’ll have months of nonstop rain. Everything is damp constantly,” Baden said.

Crowley has also explored this park on Madagascar’s verdant eastern coast.

“The cold and wet got to me quickly,” Crowley added. “I deeply respect the people who go into the forest and live there among the lemurs. I couldn’t do it.”

Baden studied a variety of lemurs, in particular the critically endangered black-and-white ruffed lemur.

“It’s cat-sized. They’re comical to watch. They’ll come down to check you out and cock their heads to one side like a dog,” Baden said.

Lemurs navigate the forest from the treetops. But the terrain is harder for their two-legged relatives on the ground.

“You’ll be following animals and they can keep going in the trees, but you run into a cliff edge and you’re stuck,” she said.

“Lemurs are the most endangered mammals in the world,” Baden said. “Unfortunately, what’s left of the forest in Madagascar are these higher-elevation places because nobody can use them for agriculture.”

Philip Slater of the University of Illinois and primatologist Summer Arrigo-Nelson with the California Institute of Pennsylvania also contributed to the study.

Baden and Arrigo-Nelson collected leaf and fruit samples of plants the lemurs were observed eating in different habitats and elevations in Ranomafana, recorded their location and shipped the dried specimens to Crowley for strontium analysis.

Researchers measured the ratio of strontium 86 and strontium 87 isotopes in lemur bones and the leaves collected from different forest habitats. These isotopes are released to varying degrees into streams and soil from the weathering of rocks. Plants absorb the strontium with other nutrients in the soil. Strontium then gets absorbed by animals when they eat the plants. In this way, the widely varying ratios of strontium isotopes creates a unique geographic signature.

By measuring strontium in lemurs and the many diverse habitats of the park, Crowley could infer where goshawks caught their prey.

Crowley used a similar analysis to track the movement of extinct mammoths and mastodons that roamed what is now Ohio.

Crowley said her findings suggest that vulnerable species could be susceptible to development pressures even in large parks such as Ranomafana, which is nearly 40 percent bigger than Ohio’s biggest protected area, Shawnee State Forest.

“We make population estimates based on the area of protected land, assuming that animals are equally distributed over that space,” Crowley said. “We may be protecting land that animals may not be able to use.”

The study concluded that conserving and restoring lowland forest could be critical for the survival of goshawks on the island.

The research was funded in part by grants from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Leakey Foundation, Primate Conservation, Inc., and the National Geographic Society.

Lemur expert Baden said the study’s findings support what she has observed firsthand about lemurs and their predators. Improving or restoring habitat for goshawks will help endangered lemurs, too, she said.

“Lemurs are in trouble. They’re in dire straits,” Baden said.

Habitat loss is the biggest cause of their decline. And now there is an emerging threat: the bushmeat trade.

“The Malagasy people have a taboo against hunting lemurs. It’s related to ancestor worship. They long believed that lemurs resembled their ancestors,” Baden said.

Still, a 2016 study published in the journal PLOS One found widespread consumption of bushmeat. And for at least some of the Madagascar families surveyed, lemur was on the household menu, the study found.

Worse, because of its rich deposits of precious metals such as gold and other natural resources, Madagascar has been called “the next El Dorado.” Foreign workers employed by mining companies have no cultural prohibitions against eating lemurs or other forest animals they poach, Baden said.

“Those taboos just fall apart. So now we’re seeing a bigger bushmeat trade that is completely unsustainable,” Baden said.

Karpanty said Madagascar can enlist the help of the goshawk for future conservation efforts. Predators such as bald eagles make good ambassadors for wildlife conservation, Karpanty said.

“It’s easier to motivate people to conservation action when you’re talking about interesting top predators,” Karpanty said. “In this case you have an endangered predator and endangered prey, the lemurs. It highlights the fragility of the ecosystem.”

Madagascar whirligig beetles, from the Triassic till now

This video says about itself:

This video shows the Malagasy striped whirligig beetle (Heterogyrus milloti) in its habitat in Ranomafana National Park, Fianarantsoa, Madagascar, during the 2014 expedition.

From the University of Kansas in the USA:

Meet Madagascar‘s oldest animal lineage, a whirligig beetle with 206-million-year-old origins

October 4, 2017

Summary: A new study suggests the Malagasy striped whirligig beetle Heterogyrus milloti boasts a genetic pedigree stretching back to the late Triassic period.

There are precious few species today in the biodiversity hotspot of Madagascar that scientists can trace directly back to when all of Earth’s continents were joined together as part of the primeval supercontinent Pangea.

But a new study in the journal Scientific Reports suggests the Malagasy striped whirligig beetle Heterogyrus milloti is an ultra-rare survivor among contemporary species on Madagascar, boasting a genetic pedigree stretching back at least 206 million years to the late Triassic period.

“This is unheard of for anything in Madagascar“, said lead author Grey Gustafson, a postdoctoral research fellow in ecology & evolutionary biology and affiliate of the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas. “It’s the oldest lineage of any animal or plant known from Madagascar.”

Gustafson and his co-authors’ research compared the living striped whirligig found in Madagascar with extinct whirligig beetles from the fossil record. They then used a method called “tip dating” to reconstruct and date the family tree of whirligig beetles.

“You examine and code the morphology of extinct species the same as you would living species, and where that fossil occurs in time is where that tip of the tree ends,” he said. “That’s how you time their evolutionary relationships. We really wanted the fossils’ placement in the tree to be backed by analysis, so we could say these are the relatives of the striped whirligig as supported by analysis, not just that they looked similar.”

Gustafson noted one major hurdle for the team was the “painful” incompleteness of the fossil record for establishing all the places where relatives of the striped whirligig beetle once lived.

“All of the fossils come from what is today Europe and Asia — we don’t have any deposits from Madagascar or Africa for this group of insects,” he said. “But they likely were very widespread.”

Today, whirligig beetles are a family of carnivorous aquatic beetles with about 1,000 known species dominated by members of a subfamily called the Gyrininae. But the Gyrininae are young upstarts compared with the striped whirligig beetle, the last remaining species of a group dominant during the time of the dinosaurs. This group according to Gustafson was decimated by the same asteroid impact that cut down the dinosaurs and caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event.

“The remoteness of Madagascar is what may have saved this beetle,” Gustafson said. “It’s the only place that still has the striped whirligig beetle because it was already isolated at the time of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event — so the lineage was able to persist, and now it’s surviving in a marginal environment.”

Even today, the ageless striped whirligig beetle keeps its own company, preferring to skitter atop the surface of out-of-the-way forest streams in southeastern Madagascar — not mixing with latecomers of the subfamily Gyrininae who have become the dominant whirligig beetles on Madagascar and abroad.

Indeed, Gustafson is one of the few researchers to locate them during a 2014 fieldwork excursion in Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park.

“This one is pretty hard to find,” he said. “They like these really strange habitats that other whirligigs aren’t found in. We have video of them in a gulch in a mountain range clogged with branches and debris — there are striped whirligigs all over it.”

Unfortunately, the KU researcher said the remote habitats of the striped whirligig beetle in Malagasy national parks were threatened today by human activity on Madagascar.

“It’s a socioeconomic issue,” Gustafson said. “In the national park where first specimens of the striped whirligig beetle were discovered, there are local people who use the forest as a refuge for zebu cattle because they’re concerned about zebu being robbed. Their defecation can disturb the nutrient lode in aquatic ecosystems. Part of the problem is finding a way for local people to be able to make their livelihood while preserving natural ecosystems. But it’s a hard balance to strike. A lot of original forest cover also has been slashed and burned for rice-field patties to feed people.”

Gustafson hopes the primal origins of the striped whirligig beetle can draw attention to the need for protecting aquatic habitats while conceding that conservation efforts usually are aimed at bigger and more cuddly species, like Madagascar’s famous lemurs, tenrecs and other unique carnivorans.

“One of the things that invertebrate species suffer from is a lack of specific conservation efforts,” he said. “It’s usually trickle-down conservation where you find a charismatic vertebrate species to get protected areas started. But certain invertebrates will have different requirements, and right now invertebrate-specific conservation efforts are lacking. We propose the striped whirligig beetle would make for an excellent flagship species for conservation.”

World’s strongest spider web

This video says about itself:

Spider Shoots 25 Metre Web – The Hunt – BBC Earth

25 June 2017

Which marvel of nature can build a 2 metre orb web with silk that ranks as the world’s toughest natural fibre? – The answer is the Darwin’s Bark Spider and this real life “Spider Woman” no bigger than a thumbnail has baffled scientists with her web of steel.

These spiders live in Madagascar.

New unique Madagascar lizard discovery

This video says about itself:

7 February 2017

In Ankarana National Park, Antsiranana Province, north Madagascar, researchers discovered a new species of fish-scale gecko: Geckolepis megalepis. To escape from predators, the gecko can lose its scales at the slightest touch. The scales grow back, scar-free, in a matter of weeks.

From Science News:

Detachable scales turn this gecko into an escape artist

Newly discovered lizard leaves predators with a mouth full of the largest scales yet

By Elizabeth Eaton

7:00am, March 17, 2017

Large, detachable scales make a newly discovered species of gecko a tough catch. When a predator grabs hold, Madagascar’s Geckolepis megalepis strips down and slips away, looking more like slimy pink Silly Putty than a rugged lizard.

All species of Geckolepis geckos have tear-off scales that regrow within a few weeks, but G. megalepis boasts the largest. Some of its scales reach nearly 6 millimeters long. Mark Scherz, a herpetologist and taxonomist at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and colleagues describe the new species February 7 in PeerJ.

The hardness and density of the oversized scales may help the gecko to escape being dinner, Scherz says. Attacking animals probably get their claws or teeth stuck on the scales while G. megalepis contracts its muscles, loosening the connection between the scales and the translucent tissue underneath. The predator is left with a mouthful of armor, but no meat. “It’s almost ridiculous,” Scherz says, “how easy it is for these geckos to lose their scales.”

From BirdLife:

Some places are so rich in natural wonders, so extraordinary, so important for people, and yet so threatened, that we must pull out all the stops to save them. Madagascar, the “island continent”, with its flora and fauna so unlike any other, is one such place. Tsitongambarika, then, is even more special: forest unique even within Madagascar, with bizarre-looking Ground-rollers, local species of lemur, and species known only from this site. It is no wonder that this highly-threatened Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA) – the only remaining area in the south of the country that supports significant areas of lowland rainforest, but with unprecedented rates of deforestation – has inspired a magnificent donation from Birdfair.

Birdfair, the annual British celebration of birdwatching, raised an incredible £350,000 last year at its 2016 event, and now this special funding is now going to the protection of IBAs in danger in Africa. This money will not only go towards the immediate protection of Tsitongambarika, through supporting national BirdLife Partner, Asity Madagascar, and local communities; but the future of other threatened sites in Africa will be bettered thanks to capacity building of other BirdLife Partners to advocate their protection, and to a new awards scheme.

Madagascar conservation update

This 2013 video is called Madagascar -­‐ Biodiversity Hot Spot, Part 1.

From BirdLife:

Forests, wetlands and people: celebrating 20 years of Malagasy success

By Rosa Gleave, 3 Nov 2016

BirdLife Partner Asity Madagascar today celebrates its 20th anniversary, a milestone that marks years of conservation success for birds, forests and wetlands.

Named after one of the island-continent’s most fascinating endemic bird families, Asity’s founding members met at a BirdLife workshop in the 1990s.

Asity was created at a time when much of the conservation work in Madagascar was controlled by expatriates and international conservation NGOs.

“The founders of Asity wanted a Malagasy way of doing things. Their vision and dedication to create a national conservation organisation for Madagascar is at the heart of BirdLife’s principles and structure”, said Roger Safford, Senior Programme Manager who has been working with Asity for more than 15 years.

Dedication and hard graft have produced tangible results. Asity Madagascar secured full protection for three important sites: the Mahavavy-Kinkony Wetland Complex, Mangoky-Ihotry Wetland Complex and Tsitongambarika Forest. Representing 800,000 ha of Madagasy habitat, these are co-managed in partnership with local communities and supporting their livelihoods.

Securing the future of the Tsitongambarika Forest has been in progress since 2005 as part of BirdLife’s global Forests of Hope programme. Overlapping with Tsitongambarika IBA, the area hosts threatened bird species such as the Scaly Ground-roller Brachypteracias squamiger, Madagascar Red Owl Tyto soumagnei and Red-tailed Newtonia Newtonia fanovanae.

Both Madagascar Sacred Ibis Threskiornis bernieri and Sakalava Rail Zapornia olivieri depend on the now-protected wetland sites, which may be the most important in the world for these species.

Significant challenges have hampered Asity’s progress: the development of the Protected Areas programme was frozen for 5 years until 2014 by political instability.

Despite these setbacks, it is now a highly respected national NGO working alongside local and national bodies, raising its own funds from a range of government agencies, foundations, trusts, BirdLife Partners, other NGOs, corporations … and individual donations.

Asity Madagascar is strong in own right, but also forms more than the sum of its parts when strengthening the BirdLife family.

With congratulations flooding in from across the BirdLife Partnership, we look forward to another 20 years working for forests, wetlands and people across Madagascar.