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Facts About The Fascinating Mammals of Madagascar

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 2

The island of Madagascar broke away from Africa some 165 million years ago apparently, then 100 million years later (some sources say 88 million years) it also broke its ties with mainland India. It is the fourth largest island in the world and has numerous peripheral islands.

 Lying off the southeast coast of Africa, it has been isolated for so long that 90% of its wildlife is endemic only to the island. Despite massive deforestation, Madagascar has over fifty national parks together with other protected reserves.

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Lemurs have been named as 'Madagascar's flagship mammal species'. There are almost a hundred species and subspecies of lemurs. Another dozen or so species have become extinct since humans arrived on the island. The ancestors of the lemur family are believed to have arrived by a raft of some sort from Africa. Lemurs have adapted to a wide range of habitats. Almost all are classified as rare, endangered or vulnerable.

Credit: Wikimedia

Lying off the southeast coast of Africa, Madagascar has been isolated for so long that 90% of its wildlife is endemic to the island. There are over fifty national parks together with other protected reserves.

Ring-tailed lemur
Credit: By sannse (sannse) via Wikimedia Commons

Note the hands and feet on this ring-tailed lemur. This attentive mother has two babies.

The word comes from a Latin root meaning spirits or ghosts. They are primates. Before humans came to the island, there were lemurs as large as gorillas. All the large species are now extinct. The living species range in size from 30 grams to 9 kgs. They have nails instead of claws and communicate by scent and sound rather than by sight.

 The species have adapted in several different ways to the highly seasonal climate of the island. Some go into states of torpor and/or hibernation. Some develop seasonal stores of fat. There may be strict breeding seasons.


Almost all the living species of tenrecs are endemic to Madagascar. These are insectivores which range in size.

 Tenrecs or otter shrews also have a number of species, around 30, on the island. Another three are found on mainland Africa. These are highly diverse with some resembling hedgehogs, shrews, mice, opossums and otters. Habitats include living in trees, burrowing underground, living in aquatic environments and living on the ground. They are unusual in that they have one opening, a cloaca, for the excretion of waste and for reproduction. They have a low body temperature and males have no need of a scrotum to cool their sperm.

Credit: Wikimedia

Tenrecs resemble hedgehogs and are related to shrews and opossums. They may be found on the ground, in trees or in aquatic environments.

Most are nocturnal with very sensitive whiskers but bad eyesight. Although the number of teeth varies from 32 to 42 depending on the species, dentition is not completed until well after the animals reach their full body size. Some may have only one or two babies; other have up to 32. Females may have up to 29 teats.


Malagasy Giant Rat

The Malagasy giant rat (Hypogeomys antimena) looks a little like a rabbit and grows to about 1.2kg. It is about 33cm long with another 25cm of tail. The coarse coat varies from grey or brown to reddish with much paler undersides. The ears are prominent and pointed. The back legs are so long and muscular that they are able to leap almost a metre in the air when avoiding predators.

Malagasy Giant Rat
Credit: Wikimedia

The Malagsy giant rat is also called votsota or votsovotsa. It is found only in the Megabe region of Madagascar.

The rat is monogamous and both parents help raise the young. The males are especially protective and will ignore their own danger to defend their offspring. These are nocturnal creatures and live in burrows with multiple entrances. They keep the openings blocked to keep out the Malagasy ground boa. Pairs are territorial. The rat is listed as endangered. Loss of habitat, predation by feral cats and dogs and disease have all had an impact on populations of the rodent.



There are eight carnivores on the island, all of which belong to the family Eupleridae. The largest is the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox). Although this is very similar in appearance to a cat, it is a type of civet and has been compared to a small cougar. The length of the head and body may be up to 31 inches with a maximum weight of 19 pound. The males are larger than the females. It has no trouble climbing up and down trees, head first.

Credit: Wikimedia

The fossa is cat-like and carnivorous.

Over half its diet comes from lemurs. It also eats rodents, lizards and birds. They hunt by day and by night and are considered solitary although cooperative hunting has been documented. The one to six young are born blind and without teeth. It is sexually mature at around three or four years of age and has a life expectancy of around twenty years in captivity. The fossa is classed as vulnerable with habitat destruction being the main threat to its existence.


The falanouc (Eupleres goudotii) is also known as the Malagasy small-toothed civet. It is found mostly in lowland rainforests. It is solitary and territorial. It has a length of about 50cm together with a tail of about 24cm. Because of the low body and long snout, it resembles the mongoose. It is plain and brown.

Credit: By Mariomassone (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Falanouc on display in the Natural History Museum of Genoa. It resembles a mongoose but has unique dentition. The teeth are backwards-facing and flat. It is secretive and shy. If captured, it will scratch but not bite.

During April and May it may store fat in the body ready for the dry moths of June and July. The single baby is born with its eyes open and will follow the mother when only two days old. By the time it is nine weeks old, it is eating solid food and leaves the mother shortly after.

Small Indian Civet

The Small Indian Civet (Viverricula indica) was introduced to the island, the only carnivore to have arrived in this way. It is about 104cm long, a third of which is the tail. It is a yellow- or  brown-grey in colour. The back has longitudinal bands and spots on the sides. There are eight or nine dark rings round the tail. It is slender and good at climbing trees. It is often kept as a pet to catch rodents and is easily tamed. It competes with the ring-tailed mongoose for food and habitat.

Small Indian Civet
Credit: Wikimedia

The small Indian civet is the only introducted carnivorous mammal on Madagascar.


The remaining carnivore types are five species of mongoose. The ring-tailed mongoose (Galidia elegans) is the largest of the five. It is long and slender and a dark red colour but black feet. The tail is bushy and ringed red and black. It may reach 38cm long and weigh up to 900 grams. They are agile and adept climbers. They mostly eat small mammals, fish, reptiles and eggs.

Grandidier's Mongoose
Credit: By Grigory Morozov [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) via Wikimedia Commons

The mongoose is an agile climber. Small mammals, reptiles, fish and eggs form the main diet.

Both Grandidier's mongoose (Galidictis grandidieri) and the broad-striped Malagasy mongoose (G.fasciata) have striped bodies. The former has eight wide, dark stripes on the back and sides while the latter is divided into two subspecies, one of which has five stripes and the other eight to ten.

 Insectivorous mammals include shrews, hedgehogs and moles. The Madagascan pygmy shrew (Suncus madagascariensis) lives in forests. Information on the pygmy shrew is scanty. It is believed to be more common in the less humid western and southern parts of the island from sea level to 1500 metres. It is thought to be solitary, insectivorous and nocturnal. It may have one or two young.

 For a solitary island, Madagascar certainly has more than its fair share of interesting fauna.

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Mar 29, 2013 10:10am
I think I love lemurs! Thumbs up for this post JudyE.
Mar 31, 2013 9:02pm
They're certainly cute! Thanks for the comment and thumb. And welcome to Infobarrel.
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