Madagascar’s biota is hyperdiverse and includes exceptional levels of endemicity. We review the current state of knowledge on Madagascar’s past and current terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity by compiling and presenting comprehensive data on species diversity, endemism, and rates of species description and human uses, in addition to presenting an updated and simplified map of vegetation types. We report a substantial increase of records and species new to science in recent years; however, the diversity and evolution of many groups remain practically unknown (e.g., fungi and most invertebrates). Digitization efforts are increasing the resolution of species richness patterns and we highlight the crucial role of field- and collections-based research for advancing biodiversity knowledge and identifying gaps in our understanding, particularly as species richness corresponds closely to collection effort. Phylogenetic diversity patterns mirror that of species richness and endemism in most of the analyzed groups. We highlight humid forests as centers of diversity and endemism because of their role as refugia and centers of recent and rapid radiations. However, the distinct endemism of other areas, such as the grassland-woodland mosaic of the Central Highlands and the spiny forest of the southwest, is also biologically important despite lower species richness. The documented uses of Malagasy biodiversity are manifold, with much potential for the uncovering of new useful traits for food, medicine, and climate mitigation. The data presented here showcase Madagascar as a unique “living laboratory” for our understanding of evolution and the complex interactions between people and nature. The gathering and analysis of biodiversity data must continue and accelerate if we are to fully understand and safeguard this unique subset of Earth’s biodiversity.
Madagascar has been isolated from mainland Africa and Asia for more than 80 million years and has developed a distinctive flora and fauna, with more than 90% of its species endemic to the island nation. It is also home to the Malagasy people, with a population of about 30 million, and was first colonized by humans around the first century BCE. The island’s biodiverse wildlife is highly threatened, and much of its human population lives below the poverty line. In Reviews, Antonelli et al . and Ralimanana et al . characterize the biological history and diversity of the island and examine conservation status and actions required to protect biodiversity and improve living standards and well-being for the Malagasy people. —SNV
A review explains that Madagascar’s biodiversity is the product of complex processes that produced remarkable life-forms, many remaining undocumented.
The Republic of Madagascar is home to a unique assemblage of taxa and a diverse set of ecosystems. These high levels of diversity have arisen over millions of years through complex processes of speciation and extinction. Understanding this extraordinary diversity is crucial for highlighting its global importance and guiding urgent conservation efforts. However, despite the detailed knowledge that exists on some taxonomic groups, there are large knowledge gaps that remain to be filled.
Our comprehensive analysis of major taxonomic groups in Madagascar summarizes information on the origin and evolution of terrestrial and freshwater biota, current species richness and endemism, and the utilization of this biodiversity by humans. The depth and breadth of Madagascar’s biodiversity—the product of millions of years of evolution in relative isolation —is still being uncovered. We report a recent acceleration in the scientific description of species but many remain relatively unknown, particularly fungi and most invertebrates.
Digitization efforts are already increasing the resolution of species richness patterns and we highlight the crucial role of field- and collections-based research for advancing biodiversity knowledge in Madagascar. Phylogenetic diversity patterns mirror that of species richness and endemism in most of the analyzed groups. Among the new data presented, our update on plant numbers estimates 11,516 described vascular plant species native to Madagascar, of which 82% are endemic, in addition to 1215 bryophyte species, of which 28% are endemic. Humid forests are highlighted as centers of diversity because of their role as refugia and centers of recent and rapid radiations, but the distinct endemism of other areas such as the grassland-woodland mosaic of the Central Highlands and the spiny forest of the southwest is also important despite lower species richness. Endemism in Malagasy fungi remains poorly known given the lack of data on the total diversity and global distribution of species. However, our analysis has shown that ~75% of the fungal species detected by environmental sequencing have not been reported as occurring outside of Madagascar.
Among the 1314 species of native terrestrial and freshwater vertebrates, levels of endemism are extremely high (90% overall)—all native nonflying terrestrial mammals and native amphibians are found nowhere else on Earth; further, 56% of the island’s birds, 81% of freshwater fishes, 95% of mammals, and 98% of reptile species are endemic. Little is known about endemism in insects, but data from the few well-studied groups on the island suggest that it is similarly high. The uses of Malagasy species are many, with much potential for the uncovering of useful traits for food, medicine, and climate mitigation.
Considerable work remains to be done to fully characterize Madagascar’s biodiversity and evolutionary history. The multitudes of known and potential uses of Malagasy species reported here, in conjunction with the inherent value of this unique and biodiverse region, reinforce the importance of conserving this unique biota in the face of major threats such as habitat loss and overexploitation. The gathering and analysis of data on Madagascar’s remarkable biota must continue and accelerate if we are to safeguard this unique and highly threatened subset of Earth’s biodiversity.