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Good Reads  Natural History  Regional Natural History  Natural History of Africa

The Sloth Lemur's Song Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present

By: Alison Richard(Author)
358 pages, 16 plates with colour photos and colour illustrations; b/w photos, b/w illustrations
An ode to Madagascar, this is a natural history of this island in the widest sense of the word, taking in botany, zoology, geology, climatology and many more topics besides.
The Sloth Lemur's Song
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  • The Sloth Lemur's Song ISBN: 9780008435981 Paperback Mar 2023 In stock
  • The Sloth Lemur's Song ISBN: 9780008435943 Hardback Mar 2022 In stock
Selected version: £10.99
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About this book

A moving account of Madagascar told by a researcher who has spent over fifty years investigating the mysteries of this remarkable island.

Madagascar is a place of change. A biodiversity hotspot and the fourth largest island on the planet, it has been home to a spectacular parade of animals, from giant flightless birds and giant tortoises on the ground to agile lemurs leaping through the treetops. Some species live on; many have vanished in the distant or recent past. Over vast stretches of time, Madagascar's forests have expanded and contracted in response to shifting climates, and the hand of people is clear in changes during the last thousand years or so. Today, Madagascar is a microcosm of global trends. What happens there in the decades ahead can, perhaps, suggest ways to help turn the tide on the environmental crisis now sweeping the world.

The Sloth Lemur's Song is a far-reaching account of Madagascar's past and present, led by an expert guide who has immersed herself in research and conservation activities with village communities on the island for nearly fifty years. Alison Richard accompanies the reader on a journey through space and time – from Madagascar's ancient origins as a landlocked region of Gondwana and its emergence as an island to the modern-day developments that make the survival of its array of plants and animals increasingly uncertain. Weaving together scientific evidence with Richard's own experiences and exploring the power of stories to shape our understanding of events, The Sloth Lemur’s Song captures the magic as well as the tensions that swirl around this island nation.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A revelatory book
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 24 May 2022 Written for Hardback

    Before reading this book, I admit that my knowledge of Madagascar was shamefully rudimentary: I knew its location on the world map, the name of its capital city, and that lemurs are part of its endemic fauna. Fortunately for me, anthropologist Alison Richard, backed by her five decades of research experience, has written a natural history book in the broadest sense of the word, encompassing geology, (palaeo)climatology, botany, zoology, conservation, and much else besides. She skillfully dismantles simplistic dichotomies and is particularly passionate about challenging the dominant conservation narrative that Madagascar was a forested paradise until humans arrived. The Sloth Lemur's Song is revelatory in more than one way and I came away with a much deeper understanding of this remarkable island.

    The book follows Madagascar's story chronologically, starting in deep time. Embedded in the supercontinents of Gondwana and Pangaea for hundreds of millions of years, it did not become an island until some 88-80 million years ago (mya). Right off the bat, the plate tectonics story holds all sorts of surprises. At this point, the island would move northwards across 15 degrees of latitude to reach its current position, which took it through the arid belt that latitudinally encircles the globe centred on 30° S. Starting as a lush and green place, this slow-motion transit drastically changed the island's flora and fauna for tens of millions of years. Tropical greenery only returned when the island emerged from the arid belt around 30 mya, starting with the northern tip of the island. Today, only Madagascar's southern tip is still governed by a more arid climate. A second consequence was that the westward-flowing Equatorial Surface Current initially bounced off Africa's coast and was deflected back eastwards, "acting as a sort of watery umbilical cord connecting Madagascar to Africa" (p. 33). Richard loops back to this point in a later chapter when discussing how this enabled flora and fauna to raft across the Mozambique Channel. Once Madagascar moved in the path of this current by 23 mya, local oceanic currents changed, reducing the probability of successful rafting.

    The story of Madagascar's fauna is similarly full of surprises. Back in deep time, we find herbivorous crocodilians, the carnivorous frog Beelzebufo ampinga, and early avian ancestors. The K-Pg extinction seems to have wiped the slate clean, with the abovementioned rafting proposed as one mechanism by which the island was repopulated. Frustratingly, rocks laid down after 66 mya "are heavily weathered and virtually empty of fossils" (p. 66), with the subfossil record only resuming some 150,000 years ago. In this gap, animals arrived and evolved to become the recent fauna. Richard discusses some of the exceptional endemics such as tenrecs, aye-ayes, fossas, and the tiny chameleons that spend most of their short lives as an egg. And then there is the recently extinct megafauna such as hippos, giant lemurs, and flightless elephant birds.

    The lack of fossils means scientists have had to use other methods to reconstruct Madagascar's changing flora, fauna, and climate. Richard skillfully explains these, whether it is pollen records, sediment cores, or isotope signals in stalagmites or soil. She is especially keen to stress the caveats and limitations. "Our notions of time and rates of change are captives of the methods available to us for their study" (p. 114) and "island-wide events were rare, and so evidence must be painstakingly collected and analysed region by region" (p. 177). Here speaks the welcome voice of a scientist who chooses rigour and careful interpretation over sweeping statements and neat narratives.

    This attitude becomes even more important as the book moves into its second half where Richard discusses how Madagascar changed with the arrival of humans. The dominant narrative, repeated in conservation reports and tourist guides, is that it resulted in extinction and deforestation, with 90% forest loss an oft-repeated figure. She traces this figure to its French colonial source, showing that it was nothing more than a guess, and declares how "the colonists' story about Madagascar is pernicious [...] and doing battle with it has become increasingly important to me over the years" (p. 18).

    Throughout the book, but especially in later chapters, she discusses the many strands of evidence that show e.g. how grasslands have long been part of Madagascar's ecosystems. How endemic, fire-resistant grasses evolved millions of years ago, long before humans burned landscapes. How vegetation did not change until millennia after humans arrived. How erosion and the formation of large gullies in the red upland soil have a deep history and seem to be linked to earth tremors, only recently abetted by human activities. How megafauna coexisted with humans for some 6000 years before declining. How cut and chop marks on bones of e.g. elephant birds are surprisingly rare, in contrast to comparable records for extinct flightless birds in New Zealand.

    None of this is intended to downplay that the island is facing very serious environmental problems today and that its biodiversity is threatened by human activities. Richard provides many examples of this: the logging of rosewood trees, the overfishing of lakes, the poaching for bushmeat, the exotic pet trade, and climate change impacting all of this. But, she stresses, "just as there was no single moment of human settlement in Madagascar, there was no single moment of environmental disaster. As a demonstration of instant catastrophe triggered by people, the record is a distinct failure" (p. 192). Without diminishing her concerns for the many threats the island does face, this criticism of current conservation narratives is refreshing, thought-provoking, and a welcome acknowledgement of real-world complexities.

    Richard adds the occasional personal anecdote of her many years living and working in Madagascar. As opposed to some other books, however, she avoids making this a book about her. These stories are here to illustrate first-hand observations, but never at the expense of the fascinating science. The Sloth Lemur's Song thus ends up being a book of remarkable balance that mixes a broad picture of Madagascar's natural history with the story of past and present human impacts.

    How does this book compare to The Gardens of Mars, the other recent book about Malagasy history from a trade publisher? Having perused it, this is a well-illustrated book about the recent human history, replete with details on culture and politics. For a broader view of Madagascar, the two thus complement each other nicely, though I would recommend The Sloth Lemur's Song for those wanting to understand its natural history.
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Alison Richard is the Crosby Professor of the Human Environment emerita and senior research scientist at Yale University. She previously served as Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and in 2010, she was awarded a DBE (Dame Commander of the British Empire) for her services to higher education.

By: Alison Richard(Author)
358 pages, 16 plates with colour photos and colour illustrations; b/w photos, b/w illustrations
An ode to Madagascar, this is a natural history of this island in the widest sense of the word, taking in botany, zoology, geology, climatology and many more topics besides.
Media reviews

"Full of wonder and forensic intelligence, The Sloth Lemur's Song is a love song to the astonishing evolution of Madagascar. It is a fascinating journey from the island's origins to the complex tensions of the present day, with Alison Richard the most considerate and engaging of guides."
– Isabella Tree, author of Wilding

"Richard shares her long experience, deep knowledge, and sincere and uncompromising passion for Madagascar, its people, and the history of its biodiversity. The Sloth Lemur's Song is essential reading for anyone who is passionate about Madagascar's people and nature, curious about its past and interested in its future."
– Olivier Langrand, executive director, Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund

"This book is an encyclopedia of wonders, but it's also a riveting story of evolution through time in a land utterly unique. Madagascar is arguably the most amazing place on Earth. Richard knows it as few outsiders ever will, and its praises have never been better sung."
– David Quammen, author of Spillover

"This remarkable new book is a captivating and absorbing account. Richard shows the importance of partnerships between all stakeholders, from the local to the international level, for sustainable biodiversity conservation."
– Jonah H. Ratsimbazafy, president, Groupe d'Etude et de Recherche sur les Primates de Madagascar (GERP)

"With deep reflections about a culture immersed in bountiful nature, Richard guides the reader through Madagascar's transformations over millions of years. Through her research and experience on the island, Richard reminds us what was lost, what remains, and what is under threat – unless we act."
– Yolanda Kakabadse, former president, World Wildlife Fund International

"Richard's book can best be summarised as a love story; an ode to Madagascar. Throughout, the author interweaves first-person accounts of her extensive experience as a field biologist, detailed and accurate accounts of the natural history of the island, up-to-the-minute summaries of the latest scientific studies spanning everything from botany to geology to climatology, with the binding 'through line' of the Malagasy people and their relationship to the landscape"
– Anne Yoder, Duke University

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