Tag Archives: island biogeography

Lemuria

This post isn’t about a lost, mythological animal. It’s about a lost, mythological continent.

The history of scientific thought is marked with many mythological and hypothetical places. Most famous and enduring is Plato’s lost continent of Atlantis, written about in his Timaeus and supposedly located in the ocean for which it’s named. Despite the odds that Atlantis was a parable designed to prove a philosophical point — this is Plato we’re talking about, after all — authors, adventurers, spiritualists and even some modern archaeologists have chosen to take the myth literally. The Pacific Ocean has its own mythological sunken continent of Mu, invented by French explorer Augustus Le Plongeon, who claimed to have teased the fact of its existence from hieroglyphs at the ruins of a Mayan temple. Le Plongeon claimed that descendents of Mu, fleeing the catastrophe in every direction, went on to found the empires of Egypt, Mesoamerica and India. Later fantasists connected the Mu diaspora with the cultures of Easter Island and New Zealand.

There was a third sunken continent proposed in the 19th century, this time located in the Indian Ocean. Its “discoverer” was neither a philosopher nor a deluded anthropologist, but a reasonably unromantic British ornithologist named Philip Sclater. It was a hypothetical continent proposed to answer a biogeographical mystery for which science had no answer yet: the inexplicable existence of prosimian primates in both Madagascar and the Indian subcontinent. Sclater called it Lemuria.

Biogeography, the study of why certain species live where they do, was Sclater’s forte. In 1858, he proposed six zoographical regions (Aethopian, Neotropical, Indian, Australasian, Palearctic and Nearctic) which are still used by biologists today to describe zones of life. He collected nine thousand bird specimens, wrote several indispensable books of natural history, and founded The Ibis, the official ornithology journal of Great Britain. And though it was Harry Johnston who “discovered” the okapi, it was Sclater who gets credit for scientifically describing the animal — despite never having seen one — and naming it after its discoverer.

But it was in Madagascar in 1864 where his eminent zoological legacy took a turn toward the supernatural. Astounded by the incredible diversity of lemurs on that strange island, he took to wondering why Madagascar was blessed with all the lemurs, yet mainland Africa had none. What’s more, the fossils of ancient lemurs had been found in India, where the lemurs’ distant cousins, the lorises, also lived. He reasoned that Madagascar and India must have, at one time, been connected by a now-sunken continent. Geology was a new science then, and large-scale catastrophes were much on the mind of the Victorians, so a scuttled landmass the size of the proposed Lemuria couldn’t be ruled out with complete certainty. The true story of the division of African and Asian lorids is, of course, even more mysterious and possibly even more violent.


Sclater’s Blue-Eyed Black Lemur

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Silent Island

When writing about the Lesser Short-Tailed Bat colonizing New Zealand 30 million years ago, I wrote it from the perspective of the bat. But no species can colonize an inhabited island peacefully. The bat might think of itself as a pilgrim, while the native birds consider it an invader. And as humans invade and colonize each other’s lands by caravan, ship, and airplane, a form of animal imperialism has followed us.

Guam is a South Pacific island that was, at one point, idyllic. We cannot know what the ecosystem of Guam looked like 4,000 years ago when it was first colonized by humans, but when the dust and blood settled over the millenia, those early pioneers forged a sort of peace accord with the island, and the ecosystem re-calibrated itself to accommodate them. These people became the Chamorro, a culture based on the principles of respect and reciprocity. They had a mythology, but no religion; ancestor veneration took the place of deity worship. (Although there is one 17th century account of human sacrifice.)

Then, in the 15th century, the Spanish invaded. To say nothing of the misery visited on the people, the island was invaded by the rats, pigs, dogs, chickens, deer, and water buffalo the Spaniards brought with them; an ecological blitzkrieg. When control of Guam was passed to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War of 1898, we established a major naval base there (and introduced the poisonous and insatiable cane toad), which in turn was captured by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. The Chamorro suffered torture, beheadings, and rape under Japanese occupation, and the island suffered the Giant African Snail which devastated the island’s crops. This is not to mention all of the invasive plants and pathogens introduced, which starved the local wildlife and pushed out the native vegetation. Then, in the 1950’s, when the island was again under the stars & stripes, we struck what could be the finishing blow.

This is the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher. No picture I could find could do justice to the magnificent plumage of this bird, which I have seen at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. It behaves very much like North America’s belted kingfisher: furtive, with a raspy, laughing call, and specialized for diving into the water to catch small fish. It was once found all over the island. Now the kingfisher, like most of the birds on Guam, is extinct in the wild, the victim of American imperialism and a little brown snake.

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Island Getaway Sweepstakes

The Place: The Tasman Sea, 5 miles off the coast of New Zealand. The Time: 30 Million Years Ago. A Spring typhoon crawls eastward toward the coast, drinking the ocean as it goes, putting limbs of lightning steadily one before the other. The loud darkness to the West has eclipsed the sun, but over the island the purple dusk is settling and mixing with the grey smoke overhead. The wind is intolerable. It whips the seawater into a green froth. Yet up there, at the crest of the storm front, you can see the specks of life, flotsam picked up by the wind on its march. A pink pigeon is sucked into the vortex and plummets into the water, breaking its neck. A flock of ibises, or what is left of them, fights the wind but ultimately falls to it. And there, the tiniest speck of all, flapping like a bit of cloth in this squall, is a miraculous bat. She started out his journey with a thousand roost-mates, of which she is the only one left. Exhausted from nearly a thousand miles of traveling atop the wind, she falls into the ocean. But she doesn’t die; instead, she starts swimming with her wings in a clumsy breaststroke over to a piece of driftwood and clings to it with her fragile thumbs. Shivering and gasping, but alive, she hugs the battered wood as she did her mother when she was a bee-sized infant. In the morning, the typhoon is past, and she wakes up shipwrecked on the shore of an unknown land, full of fern trees and ten-foot tall birds, giant centipedes and carnivorous parrots. Bone-wet and near death, she crawls up the beach to the safety of the saltweed. It is a world without mammals. She is the first. She won’t be for long.

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