What Do Elvis and Lazarus Have in Common?
Duane, our executive director, and I will be taking a group of donors on a Seacology expedition to Madagascar in a couple of weeks. We're going to check in on three of our conservation projects: two in the central highlands and one in the far south. We're only there for one week, but it will be a week of wild travel from the High Plateau to the East to the Southern Dry Forest (see map at right). We'll visit two preserves, an orchid mountain and several villages that are safeguarding the Madagascar flying fox.
Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world, and I imagine it seems like a small continent when you're on it. To put it in perspective, if you've ever been to England, it doesn't really seem like an island when you visit. It feels like another charming European country, and the distances between its cities are long. Well, England is 95,000 square miles in total compared to Madagascar's 227,000 square miles, or roughly two and a half times the size of England.
Yet, Madagascar has the genuine fragility that is the trademark of an island, namely no way to escape when you run out of land. With its extraordinary and threatened endemic biodiversity, Madagascar is a global conservation priority. Ed Stoddard of Reuters echoes that sentiment ("Magical Madagascar Worth Saving"). In doing research for Seacology's upcoming expedition, I uncovered fantastical creatures we have hopes of spotting while there. Lemurs, of course, and quite a variety. We plan to visit Andasibe, several hours from the capital, Antananarivo. This forest shelters the largest surviving lemur species, the Indri Indri, also known as "Babakoto" in Malagasy. Indris reach the size of a six year old child and are legendary for their eerie wailing cry.
While seeking info, I came across a new phrase that piqued my interest. I frequently research the taxonomy of animals for grant writing, which translates to discovering animals that are endangered, threatened or vulnerable. Which sometimes further translates into me being pretty forlorn about the state of the earth's environment. However, in this quest for the flora and fauna of "The Red Island," I fell upon Lazarus taxon, a term used often in paleontology, the study of dead organisms, and neontology, the study of living organisms. The term comes from the New Testament story of Lazarus being raised from the dead by Jesus, where a species once considered extinct reappears. This possibility gave me a resurgence of hope, especially when I discovered a species on Madagascar that reappeared after once considered extinct.
The Madagascar Serpent eagle is a bird of prey rediscovered in 1993, sixty years since the previous sighting. This marked an important discovery because of the relative dearth of predators on the island. One of the rarest birds in the world, it was located by its unique vocalization. This beautiful raptor is still endangered. But dude, endangered is way better than extinct. I doubt if we'll be seeing this Lazarus taxon on our hikes, but I am comforted to know it's alive, protected and thriving.
I guess the most famous Lazarus taxon is the Coelacanth. This guy was missing in action for 80 million years before he resurfaced in 1938! When he turned up again, he contained the exact DNA of fossil records. As a counterpoint, an Elvis taxon is a species thought to be extinct, rediscovered, then found to be missing common DNA with the original organism. It's really a new species. I think one day they'll discover the Loch Ness monster and say it's a Lazarus taxon, which it might be. Or, it might just be an Elvis taxon impersonator.