Locusts in Madagascar have infested about half of the island, with as much as 2/3 at risk.
PNAS and Matthias Svojtka
Ants, wasps, thrips, spiders and other organisms dating to 95 million years ago are preserved with remarkable, life-like detail in Cretaceous amber from Ethiopia, according to a new study. The amber, described in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first from Africa to contain fossils. Many of the preserved insects and plants represent the earliest African remains for certain species that either went extinct ages ago, or which were the distant ancestors of modern species.
PNAS and Matthias Svojtka
Although the Cretaceous insects, ranging in size from .02 to .2 inches long, lived when dinosaurs were still around, at first glance they look like something tiny you'd find crawling or flying in your kitchen today. "On a first approach, the fossil insects and spiders found in this amber are strikingly similar in aspect to their extant relatives," co-author Vincent Perrichot told Discovery News. "But after a thorough examination, they can be distinguished based on some morphological differences," added Perrichot, a post-doctoral associate in paleontology at the University of Kansas Paleontological Institute and a researcher at the University of Rennes. "Mostly these fossils show a combination of characters, primitive or advanced, which still exist today, but are found only in separate species."
PNAS and Vincent Perrichot
He and his colleagues used powerful microscopes to analyze the amber, which was excavated near the town of Alem Ketema in the eastern part of the northwestern Plateau of Ethiopia. A few hundred pieces of amber were found there, of which 62 have been studied so far. The "most outstanding discovery," according to the scientists, is "a complete, well-preserved although enrolled, wingless ant." It's one of the world's oldest fossilized ants, and suggests that ants may have first arose at, or near, what is now Africa. Previously it was thought ants emerged in Laurasia, a continent that later broke up to form North America, Europe and Asia. Lead author Alexander Schmidt told Discovery News that "the ant was probably foraging on the soil and on plants" when the resin blob trapped it. Angiosperms, or flowering plants, were just starting to spread.
PNAS and Erin Saupe
It's believed that angiosperms and many insects, such as ants, co-evolved. No pollinating insects were found in the amber, suggesting that flowering plants were still rare in Ethiopia at this time when cone-bearing trees and shrubs were more plentiful there. Other significant finds in the amber include a male spider from the Linyphiidae family of sheet-web weavers. It's the second oldest member of this family ever discovered. Schmidt, a professor in the Courant Geobiology Research Center at the University of Gottingen, said the dripping resin probably trapped the spider at or near its web, since its modern relatives often construct their webs close to the ground in leaf litter.
PNAS and Alexander Schmidt
Thrips and various small, parasitic wasps, such as the "false fairy wasp," were also found. Since bacteria, fungi and plant remains were additionally preserved, the amber reveals the interactions insects had with these species.
PNAS and Alexander Schmidt
"A good example for direct evidence of interactions in the amber is the occurrence of fungal remains inside insect fecal pellets that may originate from beetles," Schmidt said. "The fungi were grazed by insects on their larvae and the insect fecal pellets became enclosed in the liquid resin." Derek Briggs, director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, told Discovery News, "This is an important paper, reporting the first discovery of amber from the African continent that contains fossils."
PNAS and Alexander Schmidt
Hair of a Fern
"It provides totally new information on the plants, fungi and insect and other arthropods from a woodland setting during the Cretaceous, about 95 million years ago, in the area of Africa that is now Ethiopia,” Briggs added. The amber is presently housed at the Natural History Museum in Berlin, the Natural History Museum of Vienna, and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
For three quarters of an hour a giant swarm of locusts streams across the sky above southwest Madagascar.
Along National Route Seven, normally an artery for tourists enjoying breathtaking views of the island's vast open spaces, a 15-kilometer-long (9-mile) swarm clouds the sky.
Travelers today see little more than a natural disaster in progress -- a plague of locusts which has already destroyed half of the Indian Ocean island's crops.
Madagascar's worst locust plague in 60 years has infested about half of the island, destroying crops and raising concerns over food shortages.
"There's already little rice. Not many people have more than 10 hectares of crops, so after the locusts, there's nothing left for our women and children to eat," said local farmer Zefa Vilimana.
"The cattle have nothing left to eat either, so we're left with nothing once the locusts have been here."
In Ranohira, a village further to the south, Joseph Rakoto has lost half his rice crops since the swarms came.
"We buy pesticides against rice parasites ourselves but it doesn't work against locusts. The government doesn't give us anything," he said.
According to experts, there are currently 100 swarms across Madagascar, made up of about 500 billion ravenous locusts.
They get through around 100,000 tonnes of vegetation every single day.
"They can create a lot of damage, they eat the pastures, and then also the rice and the corn, which is about to be harvested," said Tsitohaina Andriamaroahina from the Ministry of Agriculture.
Andriamaroahina headed a joint scout mission into the plague with UN food agency FAO, ending in April.
"The facts drive me to my knees," he said, frustrated with the scale of the destruction.
Locals often eat the hoppers, which usually occur in moderate numbers in the southern and southwestern parts of the country.
Locusts in Madagascar have infested about half of the island, with as much as 2/3 at risk.UN.org
When they became more numerous, the authorities declared a state of emergency in November and tried to kill them -- but the swarms were simply too big.
Then Cyclone Hurana hit Madagascar in February, and the floods created a perfect breeding ground for the locusts.
"Not enough measures were taken, and so we had a locust invasion. In one day, we counted five swarms over a distance of 20 kilometers (12 miles). It's extremely serious," Andriamaroahina added.
Around 13 million people -- over half the island's population -- face food shortages or malnutrition because of the destroyed crops, according to the FAO.
Madagascar developed a 3-year emergency plan with the agency to spray pesticides by air over the millions of hectares of contaminated land.
But it is still waiting for around $40 million (30 million euros) in aid to finance the project and donors have not yet given the green light.
"The big problem here is that we don't have money, so we can't buy pesticides and we can't buy enough fuel all at once," said Rakotovao Hasibelo, a regional official of the National Anti-Locust Centre.
"The field officers, the managers can't do their work, and while we're not working, the farmers suffer and the locusts multiply," he said.
The Agriculture Ministry points the finger at mismanagement for the lack of funds.
"The National Anti-Locust Centre has a monthly budget of 2 billion ariary ($918 million, 700 million euro), but 1.5 billion ariary goes to salaries," said the ministry's Andriamaroahina.
Madagascar is no stranger to natural disasters. Droughts and cyclones regularly affect more than 70 percent of the population who live under the poverty line.