"Nature seems to have retreated into a private sanctuary, where she could work on different models from any she used elsewhere. There, you meet bizarre and marvelous forms."
--Philibert de Commerson, 1771
Sometimes called the "island at the end of the earth," Madagascar is worth the journey, for isolation becomes her. Separated from mainland Africa about 160 million years ago, and from the Indian subcontinent 80 million years after that, Madagascar features a wild array of plant and animal species; some three-quarters are found nowhere else. Otherworldly Coquerel's sifaka lemurs, with lemon-colored eyes shining from their black heart-shaped faces, cohabit the island with most of the world's species of chameleons, which blend in among vibrant flora or impersonate mobile leaves as they crawl atop brick-red lateritic soil common to the tropics.
Upon visiting the Andohahela National Park in the semiarid southeast, however, much is eerily familiar to anyone who has trekked North America's deserts. Roughly twice the size of Arizona, Madagascar shares with the state some fantastical look-alike plants. It's a process called convergent evolution, in which organisms that are not closely related independently evolve similar traits as they adapt to separate yet comparable ecosystems. In Madagascar, what appears to be a thicker and greener version of North America's spindly ocotillo is actually an Alluaudia procera--not an ocotillo relative at all--which can grow 50 feet tall, even when it doesn't rain for seven months at a time. Among the inhabitants of the 17,000-square-mile spiny forest ecoregion are the Antandroy, whose name means "people of the thornbush." They use the wood of the Alluaudia to fashion huts.
Visitors to this spiky forest often look for shells but not the seashore kind (and not for the taking). Until its extinction in the mid-17th century, the flightless elephant bird roamed amid the baobabs and Alluaudia. At half a ton, the bird was so massive that its eggs were larger than those of dinosaurs; the shells could hold two gallons of liquid. --Marilyn Berlin Snell