for National Geographic News
In the animated movie Madagascar, a zebra, a hippo, a giraffe, and a lion escape from New York City's Central Park Zoo, only to find themselves stranded on the African island of Madagascar.
There, the friends, who have all been raised in captivity, learn what life can be like in the wild.
But what would happen if these large animalsnone of which are found today in real-life Madagascarwere actually brought there?
No doubt they would struggle. Lacking survival skills needed in the wild, zoo animals are dependent on humans. Lions born in captivity, for example, would not know how to hunt for prey.
However, before humans arrived in Madagascar, around 2,000 years ago, the island had many large animals, including thousand-pound (450-kilogram) elephant birds, mongooses the size of mountain lions, the largest tortoises anywhere, and three or more species of hippo.
As for the movie scenario, what if several zebras, hippos, giraffes, and lions were introduced to the island? Assuming they were able to survive and breed, the animals would put Madagascar's already fragile ecosystem under further pressure, competing with native animals for limited resources.
"It's not necessarily true that these animals wouldn't survive in this place," said Andy Blue, animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park in California. "If they did survive, they could have a devastating impact on the flora and fauna that's already there."
Located off Africa's east coast, Madagascar is the world's fourth largest island, almost the size of Texas.
After breaking away from the African mainland 165 million years ago, Madagascar developed its own unique ecosystem. According to some estimates, about 80 percent of the plants and animals on the island are found nowhere else on Earth.
"Madagascar is regarded by most conservationists as the number one hot spot for biodiversity in the world," said David Burney, a paleoecologist at Fordham University in New York. Burney is a long-time recipient of National Geographic Society funding for his research in Madagascar.
The most famous of the island's animals are lemurs, large-eyed primates that leap through the trees. Their sizes vary widelyfrom the mouse lemur, which measures only 5 inches (13 centimeters) long, excluding its tail; to the indiri, which grows to more than 2 feet (60 centimeters) long.
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