Madagascar: An island on the brink

By Carol Clark | Emory Magazine | June 11, 2014

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A golden bamboo lemur peers out from its forest perch. Photo by Sarah Zohdy.

"I smell props," says Sarah Zohdy.

She looks skyward, scanning a tangle of thick, Tarzan-worthy vines, tree branches, and leaves that weave the dense rain forest canopy one hundred feet above.

"Do you smell that?" Zohdy asks a new arrival to Madagascar's Ranomafana National Park. "They have a scent like maple syrup."

Then, whoosh! A wide-eyed, fur-covered acrobat, mostly arms, legs, and tail, leaps out of one clump of leaves and disappears into another.

"Props!" Zohdy confirms, smiling at the comical performance of the creature. "Their legs are crazy long for their bodies."

Propithecus edwardsi, more commonly known as a sifaka, is one of nearly one hundred species of lemurs. These primitive primates, with large, round eyes and wet, dog-like noses, are unique to Madagascar, an island in the Indian Ocean, off the southeast coast of Africa.

Lemur ancestors arrived in Madagascar some sixty-five million years ago, perhaps floating over from mainland Africa on mats of vegetation. Isolated on the island, the Earth's fourth largest, lemurs evolved independently from other primates, diverging into a striking cast of characters: From the teddy-bear cute black-and-white ruffed lemur to the creepy, bat-like aye-aye.

Zohdy's favorite is the mouse lemur, the smallest primate in the world. "The adults weigh about as much as a fun-sized package of M&M's and can fit into the palm of your hand," she says. "The babies are no bigger than a Ping-Pong ball and, basically, all eyeballs."

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