madagascar

Land of Heat and Dust

Madagascar is an island of extremes. While the east is cloaked in soaking rainforest, the west and south is almost a desert. This is a scorching landscape where it might not rain for 9 months of the year, and some years not at all. To live here, you have to be a specialist. The animals and plants of the dry southern lands are stranger and more mysterious than on any other part of the island - and their strategies for surviving the dryness are extraordinary. In this programme, we follow their fortunes as the year swings by and they wait for the brief rains to return. We feature a family of Verreaux's sifakas, a kind of lemur living in one of Madagascar's strangest forests. This is the 'spiny forest', like nowhere else on earth all the trees here have savage spikes, and some drip toxic chemicals. But the sifakas are totally at home here they don't need to drink, getting all the moisture they need from the plants hard leaves. And they have an incredible knack of moving among the dagger-like spines without harming themselves slow-motion film shows the siafakas' technique, though quite how they avoid spearing themselves remains a mystery. But how will their tiny babies survive such a hostile place? As they dry season takes a grip, we follow the lives of even stranger creatures living in the iconic baobab forests on the west of the island. Among these bulbous trees live huge-eyed mouse lemurs - the world's smallest primates - emerging at night to feed on the sugary droppings of bizarre fluffy bugs. This is a land where opportunists survive the lean times- we show the strategies of a female vasa parrot, which gets males to feed her by singing loudly to them. She's quite an odd-looking bird - normally glossy black, in the breeding season she goes bald, and her head turns orange. In some rare places, the desiccated land gives way to patches of green forest, clinging on to the edges of rivers that run almost dry. In these forests live gangs of ringtailed lemurs, bringing up babies through the toughest time of year. But these canny lemurs have tricks to get through the hungry days -they catch giant flying insects, plucking them from the air. It's a rare and extraordinary sight - but only a few lemurs really have the knack! When at last the rains come, for a few fleeting weeks everything changes. The forests are transformed, and life rushes to make the most of it. A very unusual chameleon moves through the greenery - Labord's chameleon is the shortest-lived land vertebrate in the world. This striking animal lives just twelve weeks from hatching to adulthood. It spent nine months in an egg, and has only three months to pack in the rest of its life - growing to adulthood, fighting off rivals, mating and dying soon afterwards - an extreme strategy in a place where resources are low! These animals are all unique to the island, and exquisitely adapted to these seasonal changes. But their challenge is not just with the passing seasons. Much of Madagascar's extraordinary wildlife is under threat - from hunting and loss of habitat - and none more so than in the south of the island. As David Attenborough sums it up: 'We are still unravelling the mysteries of Madagascar's wildlife. How tragic it would be, to lose it before we've even understood it.'

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