Madagascar is a unique island that evolved independently of the mainland and cultivated its own ecosystem, different from that of Africa. Researchers from the University of Cincinnati conducted a study that found that the extinct pygmy hippos that inhabited Madagascar preferred forests, unlike their continental African relatives, who preferred open grasslands.
The role of forests in Madagascar’s ecological past
A study published in the journal Plants, People, Planet raises doubts about previous perceptions of the island’s landscape. It turns out that the vast grasslands that now dominate Madagascar are the result of human activity rather than natural habitat. This discovery underscores the important role that forests played in the island’s ecological past.
Malagasy hippos are unique creatures
The Malagasy hippos that lived in Madagascar some 150 million years ago were much smaller than their African relatives. However, they were still one of the largest land animals on the island, along with the Nile crocodiles and the giant flightless elephant bird. They resembled the dwarf hippos that now inhabit the forests of West Africa.
Research and analysis
Researchers performed isotopic analysis of stable carbon and nitrogen found in the bones of Malagasy hippos to determine their preferred habitat. It was found that these hippos did not graze on grass in dry, open habitats as previously thought. Rather, they preferred plants found in wetter forest landscapes. This suggests that forests were more prevalent in Madagascar before human intervention.
The role of forests in Madagascar’s history
This discovery points to the importance of forests in Madagascar’s history. In the past, when forests were more widespread, Malagasy hippos found their natural habitat in them. However, human interventions associated with the development of agriculture, cattle grazing, and the cutting of trees for firewood and building materials have altered the landscape and reduced the area of the forests.
Professor Brook Crowley, the lead author of the study, believes that the Malagasy hippos were quite similar to the dwarf hippos found in the forests of West Africa. He notes that this assertion is based on isotope analysis, which allows us to determine the animals’ diet and, therefore, their preferred habitats.
This discovery is important for understanding Madagascar’s ecological past. It helps us rethink the island’s landscape and understand how human intervention has changed its natural habitat.