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Current Research:

How, when, and from where Madagascar's spectacular modern vertebrate fauna arrived on the island remains “one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of natural history" (Krause et al., 1997, p. 3). Lying approximately 400 kilometers off the eastern coast of southern Africa and fully isolated for over 80 million years, the modern fauna of Madagascar is mainly comprised of animals found nowhere else in the world.  This mystery results largely from the fact that Madagascar has been fully isolated in the Indian Ocean for more than 80 million years, with most of its animals thought to have arrived on the island post-isolation. Unfortunately, as Madagascar's fossil record is constrained to only two major time periods: the Jurassic to Late Cretaceous (~ 200 to 80 million years ago), and the very recent Late Pleistocene/Holocene (extending back a mere 26,000 years), this leaves a critical "gap" during the Cenozoic, the time when most of the ancestors of today's species are thought to have colonized the island. If most of Madagascar’s animals weren’t stranded on the island when it became isolated, how and when did Madagascar get such a unique collection of animals and plants, especially ones with close relatives in other parts of the world?

 

Karen Samonds

Karen Samonds at Ampazony, Madagascar

To help shed light on this mystery, my recent field research (2001-2014) has focused on filling in this “gap” in the fossil record by searching unexplored areas of Madagascar for fossils deposited within this time period. This fieldwork located three new regions in northwestern Madagascar that are providing our first glimpse into this unknown period of Madagascar's past history. These localities contain rocks deposited during the Eocene and Miocene (~30-50 million years old) and are yielding fossils of sharks, rays, fish, turtles, crocodiles, and mammals. (Click here for photos from the 2014 field season).

Past Research:

2001-2005: PhD Research, conducted while at Stony Brook University.

My dissertation research focused on the evolutionary and biogeographic history of the island’s bats, the least-studied of Madagascar’s modern mammals.  This research marked the first attempt to reconstruct the biogeographic histories of Malagasy bats, and used both cladistic and distribution-based biogeographic methods.

I also prepared and analyzed newly discovered bat fossils from Anjohibe Cave, more than three times as old as the oldest described Cenozoic fossils.  These fossils have yielded two new species of bats, and suggest that Madagascar’s bats suffered extinctions, as did many of the island’s other groups.

bat skull

Subfossil bat from Anjohibe Cave, Northwestern Madagascar

cave interior

Anjohibe cave

 

 

2000-present: Lemur Research at Tsinjoarivo, Madagascar

I have participated in my husband Mitchell Irwin’s research at Tsinjoarivo, Madagascar since our first visit there in 2000.  This includes the collection of behavioral data on the critically endangered diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema), and participation in the reforestation initiatives.

sifakas

Propithecus diadema from Tsinjoarivo, Madagascar
In 2004, we collaborated with the Madagascar Ankizy Fund and private donors to build a new public school building in one of the research sites (Mahatsinjo), the R.A.H. King school. 

kids

New RAH King School in Mahatsinjo
Sadabe

In 2007, in collaboration with Mitchell Irwin and Jean-Luc Raharison, I co-founded the NGO Sadabe Madagascar. Our organization works at Tsinjoarivo and has three goals: (1) Promote research into Madagascar's unique biodiversity, (2) Promote activities which conserve that biodiversity, and (3) Improve the human condition at Tsinjoarivo through local development and humanitarian assistance. Visit our website to learn more

Krause, D. W., J. H. Hartman, and N. A. Wells. 1997. Late Cretaceous vertebrates from Madagascar: Implications for biotic change in deep time; pp. 3-43 in S. M. Goodman and B. D. Patterson (eds.), Natural change and human impact in Madagascar. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D. C.