By Graeme Patterson
It has been a decade since viewers first encountered the popular penguins of the crowd-pleasing Madagascar movie franchise. In the 2005 hit, the penguins eventually find their way to the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean along with their old friends from the Central Park Zoo: a zebra, lion, giraffe, and a hippo who accidentally got dropped off there. Adventures ensue, the running joke being that these visitors are all out of place on Madagascar, as indeed they are. Or are they?
The island nation of Madagascar has for around 100 million years been separated from any major continental landmass. Its unique flora and fauna reflect this, having evolved there with little biological contact with the rest of the world. King Julien and his friends in the animated flick are lemurs, a more primitive kind of primate (the group that includes monkeys and apes) found only on Madagascar.
But what can we say about penguins in Madagascar with the celebration of Penguin Awareness Day this week? Sure enough, there really is a ‘Penguin of Madagascar.’
In January 1956, a local teacher on the island’s south coast showed a tourism officer a penguin that had been trapped on the beach. The officer took a photo of the penguin and sent it to the eminent French scientist and naturalist Renaud Paulian, who was working in Madagascar. Despite being more of an expert on beetles than birds, Paulian immediately identified it as a Southern Rockhopper Penguin and published his findings.
The fact that a penguin reached Madagascar’s coast is not all together surprising given that Southern Rockhopper Penguins breed as close as 1,500 miles further south (on the Prince Edward Islands in South Africa).
This intrepid bird was found in January, during the breeding season. Male penguins will travel long distances to get food while the females incubate the eggs. Given that there are no other records of penguins in Madagascar (not real penguins anyway!), this was a pretty gutsy individual. And for now he has the honor of being the only wild, non-animated penguin of Madagascar.
And from this record we can add penguin to the extraordinary list of Madagascar species under threat. Though Madagascar is one of the richest places on earth for biodiversity, the Malagasy people are among the poorest on the planet. This has led to very little attention being paid to the unique plants and animals found there.
At least 18 species of lemur are known to have become extinct since humans first appeared on Madagascar only a few thousand years ago. Fossil evidence shows one of the species, a giant sloth lemur, was bigger than a modern day gorilla – weighing in at more than 300 pounds. How sad we will never get to see it!
But let’s get back to those four Hollywood penguins — Skipper, Kowalski, Rico. and Private – who came from New York’s Central Park Zoo, operated by WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Even if their story is fiction, there is a real and strong link between New York and Madagascar.
WCS is one of the biggest conservation organizations in the world and has a permanent base in Madagascar working hard to conserve the unique species and habitats there. And in the sister organization to the Central Park Zoo – the Bronx Zoo – visitors can see the Madagascar! exhibit and learn what an amazing place the real island nation is and what organizations like WCS are doing there to protect its exceptional wildlife.
Graeme Patterson is Deputy Director of the Africa Program for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).