Photos: Treasure Island: New species in Madagascar

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  1. Marvels of Madagascar

    Between 1999 and 2010, the World Wildlife Fund (now better known as WWF) discovered 615 new species in Madagascar, one of the planet's richest tropical habitats. Many of those species, however, are endangered due to deforestation, illegal wildlife trade and other factors. One of the species on the WWF's list is Berthe's mouse lemur (Microcebus berthae), which was discovered in 2000. Its average body length of 3.6 inches makes this lemur the world's tiniest primate. (Harald Schuetz / WWF Madagascar) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Hotspot for species

    The area of Madagascar known as PK32-Ranobe, seen in this wide-angle photo, is a hotspot of biodiversity that is almost completely surrounded by mining concessions. WWF is currently applying for the extension of the protected area to include more key habitats. Negotiations with mining companies remain challenging: Every year, large areas of Ranobe forests are felled by charcoal sellers, and in the past, much of the region was granted for mining concessions for the various minerals deposited in its rich sand soils. (Xavier Vincke / WWF Madagascar) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Chameleon goes 'glam'

    This colorful chameleon species, Furcifer timoni, was found in the isolated rainforests of northern Madagascar and described scientifically in 2009. Both the males and the females of the species seem to sport vibrant "glam rock" makeup. Scientists say the discovery of this distinctive new species was surprising, because this area had been repeatedly and intensively surveyed for reptiles over many years. (Patrick Schönecker / WWF Madagascar) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Frog of a different color

    Boophis bottae is one of 69 amphibians discovered over the last 11 years. The global importance of Madagascar's amphibian species is paramount, especially because of the group's extreme diversity on the island. Amphibians are in decline worldwide, and on Madagascar, a recent DNA survey suggested that habitat destruction may be affecting more species than previously thought. (Axel Strauss / WWF Madagascar) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Lots and lots of lemurs

    In 1992, there were only two known species of mouse lemurs. Since then, the number has jumped to 15 species, including the Berthe's mouse lemur seen here. Great diversity can be found even within species. Scientists examined 70 mouse lemurs with varying coat colors, from different types of forest locations on Madagascar, and found that the lemurs were in fact all of the same species. (Louise Jasper / WWF Madagascar) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A riot of color

    This female specimen of the chameleon known as Furcifer timoni exhibits the "glam rock" coloring that the species is known for. Eleven new chameleon species have been described since 1999. (Frank Glaw / WWF Madagascar) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Frogs pair up

    A male frog (Boophis lilianae) grips a female in his mating embrace amid the greenery of Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar. This species was first described scientifically in 2008. (Axel Strauss / WWF Madagascar) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. King of the chameleons?

    This species of chameleon, known as Calumma tarzan, was first described in 2010 and is found in central and eastern Madagascar. The species name refers to Tarzanville, a village close to the creature's habitat, as well as to the "ape man" of Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels. "We dedicated the new species to the fictional forest man 'Tarzan' in the hope that this famous name will promote awareness and conservation activities for this apparently highly threatened new species and its habitats," researcher Sebastian Gehring said. (Mark Creeten / WWF Madagascar) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A splash of red

    The chameleon known as Furcifer timoni sports a red splotch and psychedelic spots of blue in this photograph, snapped in the isolated rainforests of the Montagne d'Abre massif in northern Madagascar. (Jörn Köhler / WWF Madagascar) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Rainforest frog

    The frog known as Gephyromantis tschenki was first described as a new species in 2001. It's found in Madagascar's nature preserves, including the Ranomafana region and Befotaka-Midongy National Park. (Axel Strauss / WWF Madagascar) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Gecko in disguise

    It's easy to see why this species eluded scientists until recently. The cork bark leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus pietschmanni) was discovered in 2003 by scientists in the eastern coastal rainforest of Madagascar. The 5-inch-long species likes to climb thick branches, corkbark, and sturdy broadleafed plants, and thus has the perfect camouflage. (Ben Smith / WWF Madagascar) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Colors of the reef

    Madagascar's true barrier reef of Toliara is 17 miles long and 2 miles wide. Overall, the reef system from Toliara to Morombe creates 250 miles of almost continuous shallow water reef. It is one of the most extensive reef systems in the Western Indian Ocean region. Though these systems are extensive, they are under enormous pressure from human and natural factors such as overfishing and sedimentation. (Xavier Vincke / WWF Madagascar) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Underwater rainbow

    The spotted Madagascar rainbowfish, also known as Bedotia marojejy, is native to the island's rivers and was first described as a new species in the year 2000. The species is threatened by habitat loss. WWF scientists discovered 17 fish species between 1999 and 2010. (Aleksei Saunders / WWF Madagascar) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 6/6/2011 10:09:35 PM ET 2011-06-07T02:09:35

Madagascar, the fourth-largest island in the world, has proved to be a taxonomist's dream in recent years. Since 1999, on a nearly weekly basis, scientists have uncovered a parade of 615 new species — from the colorful and cuddly to the downright bizarre.

The world's smallest primate, Berthe’s mouse lemur, a creature teeny enough to perch inside a shot glass at 3.5 inches tall and weighing in at just an ounce, and a lizard that wears a tree-bark disguise are among the standouts of the hundreds of species to debut, all compiled in a new report from the conservation organization WWF.

And although some new species are more charismatic than others (a yam isn't quite as photogenic as a lemur), Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana, WWF Madagascar's conservation director, said it's hard to pick a favorite.

"All the species are so special, and many are unique to Madagascar," Ratsifandrihamanana told OurAmazingPlanet. "They don't exist anywhere else in the world."

Treasure trove of species
The island's treasure trove of unique species stems from its relative isolation. Madagascar has been separated from Africa and the Indian subcontinent for the last 80 million to 100 million years, allowing its plant and animal residents to evolve into fantastical forms. About 70 percent of its species are unseen anywhere else on the planet.

In total over the last 12 years, researchers have identified 17 fish, 41 mammals, 61 reptiles, 69 amphibians, 42 invertebrates and 385 plants new to science since 1999. And the pace of discovery shows no signs of slowing.

In fact, because of growing scientific interest in Madagascar's denizens, and thanks to technological advances that allow for faster identification, such as DNA coding, Ratsifandrihamanana said the onslaught of new species described could continue or even increase.

But the news isn't all good.

"The sad part is that there could be many species that will disappear before they are discovered," she said.

Many of the creatures discovered are already endangered and are losing habitat quickly.

Disappearing forests
Madagascar's forests, home to many of its unique species, were cleared at a rate of about 2 percent a year from 1950 to 1990. According to WWF, the island has lost 90 percent of its original forest cover.

That's because humans depend on the island's forests, too. About 80 percent of the Malagasy population uses wood as its main source of energy.

In addition, large swaths of forest are cleared for subsistence farming.

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Although Ratsifandrihamanana said the rate of deforestation was cut in half from 1990 to 2005, the last year for which figures are available, she said it remains a serious problem.

"We're really trying to empower local communities so they are better managers of the resources, because they are the ones who make the daily decisions for how they will use the forest," Ratsifandrihamanana said, adding that one major piece of the puzzle is improving the population's economic situation.

The country is one of the poorest on the planet, and a 2009 coup further complicated the nation's already bleak financial situation. Since the political upheaval, international funding for the country's environmental program was cut off, and there's been an increase in trafficking in exotic animals and prized, rare trees.

However, despite its troubles, Ratsifandrihamanana said WWF and other international organizations continue conservation efforts on a local level in Madagascar.

"It's an extraordinary place," Ratsifandrihamanana said. "We need a lot of support now for the environment."

Reach Andrea Mustain at Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustain.

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