The Extinction Express | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

The Extinction Express

While Madagascar teeters on the edge of an ecological catastrophe, Field Museum biologist Steve Goodman does what he can to save the remains.


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


Soon after he arrived in Madagascar in 1989 Steve Goodman, a research biologist at the Field Museum, had his nose rubbed in some hard truths about the country. He accompanied some visiting herpetologists to a remote forest on the island to search for reptiles and amphibians, and they collected several skinks previously unknown to science. The herpetologists went home and wrote up their discovery for a professional journal, then found they needed photographs of the skinks' habitat. Goodman, who was still in the country, obligingly went back to the forest to take them, but there was nothing to photograph. The forest was gone. The article, which announced the discovery of a new species of skink, also had to announce its extinction.

When Goodman told this story during a recent visit to Chicago he didn't pound the table or raise his voice. On a poor island with hundreds of unique plants and animals, losing or gaining a step on the grim reaper is all in a day's work.

Goodman works for the World Wildlife Federation and the University of Antananarivo as well as the Field Museum. At the university, which is in the capital, he runs the Ecological Training Program, which teaches local, or Malagasy, biologists; so far 38 students have graduated, and more than 30 of them are working in conservation, most on the island. Sometimes he brings colleagues or students to Chicago to do work they can't do on the island.

These days Goodman makes only one trip a year to Chicago, and he hardly ever comes in the winter. "It was 38 or 39 degrees in the field last week," he said when we met on a cold, rainy morning in December. He meant Celsius, or over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. He was in town to give a lecture and promote his new book, the 1,710-page The Natural History of Madagascar, which he coedited with Jonathan Benstead of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Photographer Harald Schutz gets equal billing on the cover, and his spectacular images are on display at the museum through July 5. The lecture and exhibits are part of the museum's nine-month series of educational events being held under the rubric of "The Year of Biodiversity and Conservation."

Weighing in at just under nine pounds, The Natural History of Madagascar contains 253 scientific papers from 281 contributors (65 of them Malagasy) and was produced at breakneck speed. Goodman and Benstead submitted the manuscript to the University of Chicago Press just 16 months after they invited colleagues to contribute, a process that commonly takes three to five years, particularly when a fifth of the contributions have to be translated from French or German. The book's acknowledgments include an apology to those whose work had to be omitted because they couldn't keep up the pace.

Lawrence Heaney, curator of mammals at the Field Museum, calls the publication "an enormous achievement" and attributes the speed in part to Goodman's high energy--"he barely sleeps"--and in part to his knowing the subject so well, having worked in Madagascar for 15 years now. "Sticking with one topic for even five years is a long time," says Heaney, because research funding is so fickle. "Fifteen years is extremely unusual outside of institutions like the Field. We can see things through to this kind of fruition in a way that you can't do anywhere else."

Goodman and Benstead worked so quickly in part because they were trying to keep up with the mushrooming scientific knowledge about Madagascar. The number of amphibian species known to exist there has risen from 131 in 1991 to at least 230 today, and more discoveries are expected. Twice as many rodent species are known today as in 1990. In 2000 three articles in one issue of the International Journal of Primatology announced the addition of 11 new species of lemurs.

We're not used to hearing about increasing numbers of species, especially among mammals, but these numbers reflect only an increased effort to find them. As Goodman points out, "Things are disappearing at a rate greater than we're discovering them."

Less than one-sixth of Madagascar's natural vegetation is left. Commercial loggers and subsistence farmers continue to cut and burn the forests, fragmenting the remaining stands, if not eliminating them altogether, and accelerating erosion. So much of the island's red soil washes into the blue-green Indian Ocean that astronauts have identified the plume as "Madagascar bleeding."

What the astronauts can't see are the victims of this process. The island's largest rodent--the rabbitlike, nocturnal, and monogamous Malagasy giant jumping rat, Hypogeomys antimena--is now confined to a small area of western Madagascar, where native carnivores and nonnative dogs prey on the few hundred that are left. A not yet fully described species of the small freshwater fish Pantanodon survives only in southeastern Madagascar, in a single swamp that's 30 feet wide and 150 feet long. The forest upstream is being cut down, writes the University of Michigan's John Sparks in The Natural History of Madagascar, making the fish likely to disappear "as its habitat becomes progressively degraded" by eroding soil.

Even in this parlous state, Madagascar remains for biologists a Christmas present bigger than the box it came in. At 227,000 square miles, it's not quite the size of Texas. But because it's isolated and the terrain is extremely varied, Madagascar is more like an eighth continent than a mere island.

The isolation is obvious if you look at a globe. Madagascar lies 280 miles off the coast of southern Africa. It's been cut off from everywhere for 88 million years--since before T. rex walked the earth. That's far longer than most species have existed, and more than enough time for new ones to evolve and adapt, making Madagascar a living laboratory of evolutionary processes. Most of its species are found nowhere else--they're what biologists call "endemics." The island was so inaccessible that human beings arrived there only 2,600 years ago, quite possibly from the distant east: today's Malagasy language is closer to Indonesian than to African tongues.

Isolation breeds uniqueness, and Madagascar's varied geography bred multiplicity. The island stretches 1,000 miles north to south, and its mountains rise as high as 9,000 feet. It's largely tropical, but some places resemble the Swiss Alps. More than 236 inches of rain fall every year in the northeast, fewer than 11 inches in the southwest. (Chicago averages 36.) The resulting habitats include rain forest, desert, grasslands, upland forest, and bare-rock highlands. Unique species would also have evolved on an isolated island that was, say, a tabletop prairie oriented east to west, but not nearly as many. "There is no other place in the world with this level of combined species richness and endemism," write Goodman and two colleagues in their introduction to the book's mammal section. Of 101 native species of nonflying mammals on Madagascar, not one occurs anywhere else on earth.

All this makes Madagascar an ideal place for Goodman to practice what he calls "Victorian science with a modern twist." Like Victorian-era scientists, he and his colleagues catch, identify, and count multifarious wild things in primitive conditions, often finding new species in the process. (In The Natural History of Madagascar, Goodman authored or coauthored articles on bats, lemurs, mongooses, civets, tenrecs, couas, bird parasites, and the elusive rodent Gymnuromys.) Unlike their Victorian counterparts, Goodman and his coauthors scrupulously identify every specimen and work closely with laboratories that can analyze their discoveries down to the DNA. Portions of one recent bat specimen have been parceled out to nine institutions, including the Field, so that researchers can study its eyes, sperm, mites, and more.

Goodman is glad to have the freedom to do whatever research needs to be done in cooperation with others. He says, "I can't imagine doing anything else."

Goodman's childhood in rural Michigan prepared him for fieldwork in remote areas. He grew up on a farm near Howell, a mile and a half from the nearest neighbor. "I had an incredible liberty," he says, "and that's remained a theme in my life." He was drawn to art early on and began studying birds in order to capture their movement in his sculptures. But he became intrigued with their behavior and ecology and wound up entering the University of Michigan to study biology.

The Field's Lawrence Heaney was on Michigan's faculty then and spotted Goodman as an extraordinarily productive if unconventional worker who went his own way. According to a profile in Science, as a graduate student Goodman "was spending months at a time in North Africa doing field research funded by the American Museum of Natural History and the National Geographic Society, he had published 23 papers on topics ranging from evolution and ecology to art history and anthropology, and he had co-written a scholarly book on the role of birds in ancient Egyptian culture." But he wasn't willing to concentrate just on finishing his doctoral thesis, so he left Michigan to work as an independent researcher in various countries. In the late 80s Heaney pushed the Field to hire him "to do whatever research he wants."

Five days after being hired Goodman left town with the Field's Thomas Schulenberg to work on an environmental impact statement for a mining company in southeastern Madagascar. "It was clearly a wonderful place," Goodman recalls. "You can't find a more polite people anywhere in the world." And biologically it was a treasure trove. Within two years he'd moved there permanently.

Discovering new species is wonderful. Watching them vanish isn't. Madagascar is the number one conservation priority in the world for primates, write Russell Mittermeier of Conservation International and two colleagues in The Natural History of Madagascar. The island's big-eyed, fuzzy lemurs make ideal "charismatic megafauna" in the crusade against extinctions. But those who prefer their charisma with a twist can appreciate the irascible-looking aye-aye. A medium-sized nocturnal primate formally known as Daubentonia madagascariensis, it's noted for a long, spindly middle finger that can rotate 360 degrees, which it uses to dig insect larvae out of trees and bamboo shoots. Amphibians can hold their own when it comes to weirdness: you can see a light held up to one ear of a certain Malagasy frog's head if you look in the opposite ear.

But Madagascar's flora and fauna won't be saved because they appeal to wealthy outsiders, either as curiosities or as examples of evolutionary processes such as adaptive radiation. Lowbrow or highbrow, says Goodman, we're just visitors: "The future depends on what the people of the island want to do."

What the 13 million Malagasy want to do right now is survive. They're not ignorant, they're poor. They know the forests that shelter the country's rare species also shelter the watersheds that provide their livelihood. Goodman quotes a proverb in Malagasy, then translates: "When there is no forest, there is no water. When there is no water, there is no rice." When a patch of forest is lumbered off or cleared so that farmers can grow rice, sediment washes into the local waterways and smothers rice paddies downstream. Worse, where the waterways were once relatively constant streams of water, they now alternately flood and dry up.

Acting on this knowledge isn't easy, because four out of five Malagasy are subsistence farmers with an average family income of $500 a year, and their country's basic education system has barely functioned for 20 years. There's no solving Madagascar's extinction crisis, says Goodman, without also dealing with its socioeconomic crisis. So far he's pleased with Madagascar's president, Marc Ravalomanana, who was elected two years ago following a power struggle with the former Marxist who ruled the country for two decades. Last September at an international parks conference in South Africa, Ravalomanana pledged to triple the size of protected areas on the island. But Goodman also recognizes that fencing off more land won't be enough. People who can't make a living otherwise will get around the fences and ignore the laws. One existing national preserve has reportedly lost 44 percent of its primary forest since being dedicated in 1955.

One reason Madagascar is so poor may be its recent past as a Soviet client. Goodman remembers that when he first arrived you could hardly buy a bar of soap anywhere, the Russian social center was the "pivot point of life," and Western outsiders weren't particularly welcome. According to the account by Mark Fenn of the World Wide Fund for Nature in The Natural History of Madagascar, the country's 1975 socialist revolution was quickly followed by recession and increased poverty: "To address this problem, the revolution encouraged people to go out and produce food. This course of action coincided with diminishing resources allocated to the forest service and hence its inability to apply forestry laws effectively. It resulted in accelerated deforestation throughout the country."

If the island's economy were better developed, Goodman says, cutting down the forest wouldn't make economic sense: "People burn the forest to plant rice. But the wood they burn would be worth 8 to 30 times the value of the rice"--if they had a market for it, a way to get it there, and didn't have to bribe corrupt officials en route. "If there were some infrastructure to manage the selective extraction of wood from these forests, the people wouldn't have to be subsistence farmers." He thinks Western consumers ought to use ecologically certified wood, because "noncertified hardwoods might well have come out of Madagascar illegally."

Goodman believes that the environment can be saved if people are able to choose lives that are less closely linked to the earth. This runs contrary to some romantic kinds of environmentalism, but it's not just his peculiar notion. In The Natural History of Madagascar Karen Schoonmaker Freudenberger of Landscape Development Intervention describes a rickety 70-year-old railroad that runs for 100 miles over the mountains, through forest remnants, and down to the east coast. The French built the railroad to encourage coffee exports, and it does encourage farmers to clear land near the tracks for crops that can then go to market by train. But Freudenberger points out that the alternative would have been worse. If there'd been no railroad these same families would almost certainly have adopted the slash-and-burn agriculture practiced by families in other regions. "The deforestation impact of the same number of people would have been significantly higher," she writes. "The train line alone will not save the corridor, but it can have a significant effect on slowing the rate of destruction."

Goodman also has doubts about the popular panacea of ecotourism, because most of the places ecotourists want to see are inaccessible--a five hours' to ten days' walk from the nearest road--and the jobs at the few accessible places are already controlled by a few families. He thinks Madagascar would be better off pursuing larger numbers of garden-variety tourists, who could provide new jobs for a lot more people. And he's optimistic that whatever new money flows into Madagascar's new administration will be put where it's needed and not where it will enrich a kleptocracy. "It's a democracy now," he says. "There's more reason to be hopeful."

If political change seems like a thin reed to grasp, one can also find hope in the island's conservation-friendly culture. "Every Malagasy I have ever met is interested in the past," writes David Burney of Fordham University in The Natural History of Madagascar. "Respect for the razana (ancestors) essentially focuses Malagasy culture to look, like the chameleon in the Malagasy proverb, with one eye on the past and one on the future." Goodman adds that the culture is nonviolent to the point that "to raise your voice is the same as pulling out a gun would be in Chicago"--but that's another story.

President Ravalomanana's promise to protect more land has, if possible, given added urgency to Goodman's neo-Victorian inventory work. "We've been called upon by the government to investigate zones that we think may be priorities for preservation but don't know much about yet," he says. "The new people in the ministry of environment [and related agencies] aren't biologists, but they are very serious about using data."

Goodman is doing what he can to show the world everything that's worth preserving. "Harald [Schutz] has images of the vast majority of the mammals," he says. "We're actively working on a new book, The Mammals of Madagascar. We just had a new species of bat ten days ago."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Harald Schutz, courtesy Field Museum.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Add a comment