Island of Marvels

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Episode 1 of 3

Duration: 59 minutes

Madagascar, the world's oldest island, broke off from Africa and India and has been on its own for more than 70 million years. In splendid isolation, it has evolved its very own wildlife - more than 80 per cent of it is found nowhere else. And that wildlife is quite extraordinary. In this episode, we reveal the island's most bizarre and dramatic places, and the unique wildlife that has made its home in each, thanks to the geology and isolation of this Alice-in-Wonderland world.

The stars are the lemurs, Madagascar's own primates. A family of indris leaps like gymnasts among rainforest trees; and crowned lemurs scamper around Madagascar's weirdest landscape, the razor-sharp limestone tsingy, which looks like something from another planet. And sifakas, ghostly white lemurs, move like ballerinas across the forest floor.

Madagascar's wildlife is famously strange. Bright red giraffe-necked weevils use their necks to build leaf nests with the complexity of origami. Chameleons stalk the forests, none more intriguing than the pygmy chameleon, the world's smallest reptile, delicately courting a female in its giant world. The fearsome fossa, Madagascar's only big mammal predator, looks for a mate - 15 metres up a tree. And in the southern 'spiny desert', a spider hauls an empty snail shell, 30 times its own weight, up into a bush as a shelter; something never before filmed, and possibly never observed in the wild before.

At the end of the episode, we go 'behind the camera', to reveal the challenges of capturing the behaviour of the little-known wildlife of this island. How do you go about filming a rare, secretive lemur that lives in the middle of Madagascar's biggest lake?

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Music Played

5 items
  • Panther chameleon

    Panther chameleon

    Panther chameleons are one of the biggest and most brightly coloured chameleons – like most of Madagascar's wildlife, they are found only here.

    Wildlife Finder: chameleons
  • Won by a Neck

    Won by a Neck

    Article by Mary Summerill (Series Producer)

    Most of Madagascar's wildlife is unusual, but its invertebrates are especially strange. There is a rainforest beetle called the giraffe-necked weevil - for obvious reasons. This insect has a bright red, ladybird-sized body and a hugely elongated neck, most prominent in the male. It was once thought that he used it for rolling up leaves in which the female would lay her eggs.

    We looked for these weevils and discovered a patch of leaves in which nest-building was happening. We started filming, and realised that it was in fact the female that made the leaf-roll nests, an exquisite, complicated structure made from a single leaf and then crimped and pleated into a neat cigar shape with the precision of origami.

    The female has a much stouter neck and beefy thighs, both used to fold the leaf. The males are weedier-looking, but actually use their necks as weapons, barging each other as they fight for the attention of the female. The male with the best neck action clearly gets the girl – something that may never have been filmed before.

    More about the giraffe weevil
  • The Tale of the Snail Shell Spider

    The Tale of the Snail Shell Spider

    Article by Mary Summerill (Series Producer)

    A French naturalist visiting Madagascar in the 1700s wrote, 'at every step one encounters the most strange and wondrous forms'. The astonishing thing is that more than two centuries later, you can still encounter strange animals there that are barely known to science.

    We'd heard about a curious spider that somehow managed to drag empty snail shells into bushes, to use for shelter. It had been studied in captivity in the 1930s, but apparently no-one had ever watched it in the wild. We wanted to try to film it and finally found a location, way down south, so we began some field observations.

    This intriguing little nocturnal spider did indeed hoist shells, many times its own weight, by attaching silk threads, each one shorter than the last, gradually hauling the shells off the ground and securing them in bushes. Its technique was fascinating, but it was extremely sensitive to light, and stopped work if so much as a torch beam was turned on it. The only way we could film was with infrared lights. As far as we know, no-one has ever done this before, so this may actually be the first time it has ever been seen in the wild, let alone filmed.

    Read more about the amazing snail shell spider
  • David Attenborough's Madagascar

    David Attenborough's Madagascar

    Fifty years ago, Sir David went to Madagascar to film early wildlife TV series Zoo Quest. With several return visits over the intervening years, the country and its wildlife has continued to capture his imagination.

    Watch the best moments from Sir David's Madagascar films


David Attenborough
Executive Producer
Michael Gunton
Series Producer
Mary Summerill
Mary Summerill


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