By turns thoughtful and vivacious, science writer and Nova producer Tyson draws an anecdotally rich portrait of the biological wonderland known as Madagascar.
It is difficult to grasp the plant and animal wealth of the island of Madagascar. Scientists refer to such natural abundance as megadiversity, and they see its current imperiled situation as a biodiversity crisis of the first order. Tyson traveled to the island four times over the course of the last decade, each time to explore some aspect of the Malagasy bioscape. He moves in the company of fascinating, and acutely drawn, characters. He meets a herpetologist who seeks answers to the island’s evolutionary bounty and its role in speciation (i.e., how one species grows out of another) and endemism (a high percentage of the living matter on Madagascar is known only there). He spends time with a paleoecologist who is trying to reconstruct ancient landscapes in order to gain insights into the extinction of the megafauna. He lives among the Malagasy in an attempt to gather some impression (which he readily admits is fleeting and less than partial) of their culture. And he witnesses the efforts of conservationists to redress the intense environmental degradation that ensues as the island’s shattered economy sends residents into the countryside to cut firewood and farm the fragile earth. Tyson’s science writing shines; it is a testament to his fluency that he can impart an understanding of vicariance and dispersal, and even the isostasy responsible for continental drift, without missing a beat. Or introduce a bestiary (whose names would spark memories of Dr. Seuss in most readers: tenrecs and fossa, golden-crowned sifakas and fat-ailed dwarf lemurs). One conservationist puts it bluntly: “The country will be either lost or saved during the working life of the current generation.”
A fine portrait of Madagascar’s singular culture and biodiversity, its great beauty and dire straits.