A giant lemur in Ampasambazimba, Madagascar, with elephant birds
  • Velizar Simeonovski
  • A giant lemur in Ampasambazimba, Madagascar, approximately 2,000 years ago, with elephant birds

One terrible day about 3,700 years ago, a herd of dwarf hippos stopped to drink at the Betsiboka River in northern Madagascar. They got swept up in the current and pulled into the Anjohibe cave. The Anjohibe is underground and is very, very dark. The hippos panicked. In their rush to escape, they ran into stalactites and stalagmites and trampled each other and also the bats that were living inside the cave. The scene must have been mayhem. The hippos never found their way out. Now, thousands of years later, their bones remain on the cave floor. In the meantime, the dwarf hippos became extinct.

The chaotic scene inside Anjohibe is one of several that have been re-created by artist Velizar Simeonovski, Field Museum scientist Steve Goodman, and SUNY Stony Brook professor Bill Jungers in the Field’s new exhibit, “Extinct Madagascar: Picturing the Island’s Past,” and an accompanying book.

Goodman, who lives most of the year in Madagascar (it’s a 24-hour flight, or seven movies, away), and Jungers, an anatomist, collected the bones of species that have become extinct, not just the dwarf hippo, but also the ten-foot-tall elephant bird and the gorilla-size giant lemur. Simeonovski, who studied anatomy as well as art, examined the bone structure, determined what the overlay of muscles would have looked like, and then imagined what the skin and feathers would have looked like, with help from pictures of the animals’ existing relatives. Then he re-created scenes of life in Madagascar thousands of years ago based on the locations of bones and fossils the scientists found in their fieldwork. In the process, he helped the scientists solve some long-standing puzzles, most notably the appearance of the giant lemur’s nose.

“We were mesmerized by the ability of Velizar,” says Goodman.

“The [giant lemur’s] skull had been likened to everything from a cow to a koala,” adds Jungers. “Velizar’s rendition was the most convincing and compelling head I’ve ever seen.”

“We went from thinking it was like an elephant,” says Goodman.

“Now we think it’s a small nose, like a pig,” Jungers concludes. “It takes a lot of skill to imagine how it moved and what it ate, to put together science and art like this for the first time.”

The lemur was found on a pile of bones in Anjohibe after a 40-foot drop, which led scientists to believe that many animals fell to their death in this particular location.
  • Velizar Simeonovski
  • The lemur was found on a pile of bones in Anjohibe after a 40-foot drop, which led scientists to believe that many animals fell to their death in this particular location.

Simeonovski took some dramatic license with a few of his re-creations, particularly the one of a lemur that has fallen into the Anjohibe cave reaching desperately toward the light, but they do have a foundation in fact, says Jungers, who once spent part of a morning lost in the cave. “The darkness is profound,” he says. “At first we turned off our lights to conserve energy, but after a few minutes, we thought, to hell with that. I started having odd thoughts, like things I should have said to my family. And then, I may have to eat the guy next to me.”

Some of the animals in “Rediscovered Madagascar” overlap with human habitation of the island. The elephant bird, which was ten feet fall, laid eggs that were about 70 times the size of those that come from a chicken. The shells were thick. (There’s one on display at the museum that visitors can touch.) Humans used them to haul water and also rum. “It would have given it an extra special taste,” Jungers cracks.

“At one site,” says Goodman, “the density of eggshells is like Roman pottery.”

The scientists have taken samples from the eggs’ DNA and discovered that the elephant bird’s closest living relative is the tiny kiwi bird of New Zealand. Evolution indeed works in strange ways. The Sifaka lemur makes the same sort of alarm noise the giant lemur did. It’s been reproduced in the soundtrack of the exhibit. It sounds like the clatter of a sorter on a copy machine.

Madagascar today looks much different from the way it looked even as recently as 500 years ago. That, Goodman notes, is only about a millisecond in geographical time. Back then, the island, which is 1,000 miles from top to bottom, a little larger than California, was covered by a thick canopy of trees. The giant lemur seldom had to visit the forest floor, which was a fortunate thing since it was completely unequipped to walk or even stand upright. Its fingers and toes had evolved to be longer and more curved, which allowed it to get a better grip on tree branches. (There’s a beautifully preserved and mounted lemur skeleton on display.)

Now Madagascar is mostly rice paddies and grass; only 9 percent of the original forest remains. Part of the transformation—and the animal extinctions—began before humans arrived, but a lot of the changes have been due to human interference, including climate change. But Madagascar is an extremely poor country, and the government has been unable to intervene.

“It’s more than biodiversity,” says Goodman. “It’s also socioeconomic.”

“The extinction process is still going on,” Jungers adds. “I don’t know what kind of book we’ll be capable of writing in a couple of decades.”

Goodman and Jungers will be discussing “Extinct Madagascar” tomorrow at 3 PM at the Field Museum. You can also ask them questions by tweeting to @AskALemur with the hashtag #ThinkExtinct.