Madagascar's list of endemic species grows
The islands of the southwestern Indian Ocean, especially Madagascar, are composed of extremely fragmented natural habitats and are renowned for hosting many endemic speciesthose that cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. This is a place the California Academy of Sciences considers a global biodiversity hotspot. However, Madagascar's biodiversity is increasingly threatened, adding new urgency to the research being conducted on the island. This year, Academy scientists were able to identify 38 previously unknown ant species, seven new plants and two new spider species from Madagascar.
Academy scientist Brian Fisher, an entomologist who specializes in the study of ants, calls them "the glue that holds ecosystems together." "Ants are one of the most important members of ecosystems," says Fisher. "They turn over more soil than earthworms." But they're also some of the most overlooked, he says. "If they were bigger, they would be the most studied type of organism, but people don't see them."
Now, Fisher and his team are able to look for these small creatures in a new way. Recently, satellite companies and engineers from Google have provided Academy researchers with high-resolution satellite images of some of the least explored areas of Madagascar. Equipped with a GPS-enabled tablet loaded with customized software and recent high-res images, Fisher and his colleagues can identify which patches of forest are most likely to contain new species of ants based on their elevation, vegetation and adjacent habitats.
The work being done by Academy scientists is helping to correct a long-standing bias in habitat conservation. "If you base conservation on just vertebrates," Fisher says, "it leads you to conclude that only the largest forests are important. Ants and other insects provide a better map of true biodiversity."
New species unearthed close to home
|Contact: Chris Bauer|
California Academy of Sciences