Movie or documentary? Exotic mammals, including lemurs (pictured), could have really hitched a ride to Madagascar
The animated movie Madagascar - which featured a group of zoo animals hitching a boat ride to the African island - was not so far- fetched after all.
A new study today claims the island's exotic wild mammals are descended from sea-faring ancestors who sailed from mainland Africa on natural rafts 50 million years ago.
Scientists say the prevailing currents at the time would have made the 300 mile trip not only possible, but relatively fast too.
Madagascar is home to an extraordinary collection of animals found nowhere else in the world. They include fossas - which resemble a cross between cats and dogs, 70 types of lemurs, flying foxes and narrow striped mongooses.
But scientists have long been puzzled how the ancestors of these animals got to Madagascar.
Madagascar has been an island for more than 120 million years, while its animal population first appeared some time after 65 million years ago.
Some experts claim the island used to be connected to Africa by a land bridge and that it became isolated from the rest of the continent once mammals had arrived.
But there is no evidence of a land bridge and no evidence that large African animals - such as apes, giraffes, lions or elephants - have ever visited.
The new study, published in the science journal Nature, backs up the rival theory - that small mammals hitched a ride on floating trees or large mats of vegetation.
It was previously thought that the prevailing currents made it impossible for animals to float to Madagascar.
The team, led by Prof Matthew Huber at Purdue University, Indiana, used computer models to simulate ocean currents millions of years ago.
Extraordinary: The fauna of Madagascar includes the fossae, like the one here perched on a tree limb, which resemble a cross between cats and dogs
They found that 20 to 60 million years, currents flowed eastwards from Africa to Madagascar.
'Climate modelling showed that currents were strong enough to get the animals to the island without dying of thirst', a spokesman for Purdue University said.
'The trip appears to have been well within the realm of possibility for small animals whose naturally low metabolic rates may have been even lower if they were in torpor or hibernating.'
Mystery: Experts claimed mammals, like this narrow striped mongoose, reached Madagascar over a land bridge but the bridge hasn't been found
The creatures appeared in "occasional bursts of migration", rather than a steady trickle. Again, that suggest they drifted over the sea on natural rafts, the authors of the study say.
The mammals are likely to have been swept out to sea on trees or mats of vegetation during tropical storms. Most would have perished at sea, but some would have been washed ashore on Madagascar.
Rival theory: Climate modelling shows currents were strong enough to take small animals, like these flying foxes, to Madagascar before they died of thirst
Although the journey would have been difficult - taking many days - most of the species on the island go into hibernation when food and water is scarce. The scientists believe this ability allowed their ancestors to make the crossing safely.
Once the migrants arrived, they evolved in the distinctive and sometimes bizarre animals seen today.
Madagascar is the world's fourth largest island. It covers more than 225,000 square miles.
Science nonfiction? Characters from the 2005 computer-animated movie Madagascar which featured zoo animals hitching a boat ride to the African island
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