AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts anthropologist Laurie Godfrey has spent the better part of 25 years investigating fossils in Madagascar. Yet, recent discoveries made by her team of paleontologists and climbers in a 500-foot-deep pit have excited her more than anything in the past.
"We have found bones of extinct species of lemurs that were alive as recently as 500 years ago," she says. "We are finding parts of the skeletons of giant lemurs never before seen. We are going back an instant in geologic time and seeing life forms that have vanished. It’s a window into a different world."
It is this "different world" quality that has attracted Godfrey not only to the pit, but to Madagascar in general, she says. An island off the coast of Africa which scientists believe separated from the continent millions of years ago, Madagascar is like an experiment in evolution, according to Godfrey. Because of its isolation, the animals on it have developed in a kind of parallel universe to our own. In looking at their evolution we can understand more about ours, and about the processes of evolution in general, she says.
Perhaps the most startling example of this separate and isolated evolution is the story of lemurs, species of animals whose close relatives lived throughout most of the world 50 million years ago, but which today exist only in Madagascar in the wild. Primitive primates which look like crosses between monkeys and ferrets, the lemur thrived in Madagascar long after dying out everywhere else because of the island’s lack of competitors and predators. Then, approximately 2,000 years ago, humans from Africa and Southeast Asia began to settle there. Since that time lemurs have faced greater and greater danger.
According to Godfrey, only 32 species of lemurs remain of the 48 that existed when humans arrived, and many of these are now threatened by extinction. Among those which have already perished are a lemur the size of a gorilla and another with a big toe as long as its lower leg. The main danger for those that still exist is encroachment on their habitats by humans clearing land for farming or raising cattle.
The 500-foot-deep pit - known as Ankilitelo - has yielded a treasure trove for studying many of the extinct lemur species, Godfrey says.
"They fell into this pit, which is about the size of two cars on top but descends downward for more than 500 feet," Godfrey explains. "They died on impact, leaving a pile of bone and sediment itself more than 100 feet deep. We are currently investigating this mini-mountain of sediment despite numerous hazards and risks."
Godfrey says that professional rock climbers have been enlisted to enter the pit by ropes and then bring the fossils up in their backpacks. She says she and a group of scientists from the United States and Madagascar are now investigating these materials, finding remarkably well-preserved fossils of lemurs and other animals, among them an extinct cousin of the ostrich which weighed nearly half a ton when alive.
"We’ve even found a human leg bone," Godfrey says. "We don’t know whether this was someone who fell into the pit accidentally, or as the result of something more sinister such as murder. The person could have been thrown into the pit after natural death, but really we have no way of knowing."
Perhaps most exciting in terms of Godfrey’s research are the possibilities of finding much older fossils as deeper layers of the mini-mountain of sediment are excavated. Though the group has only scratched the surface of this pile, Godfrey says plans are already under way to return late next spring and continue their research.
"I can hardly wait to get on with it," Godfrey says. "This exploration is like a puzzle which consumes most of my time. Even when I’m here, my mind is in some sense in Madagascar."