If you have never much believed in natural selection, a trip to Madagascar would likely change your mind. The flora and fauna here, having developed for some 80 million years in virtual isolation from the rest of the world, have taken some curious evolutionary turns. The nocturnal aye-aye, for instance, has a long, skeletal middle finger that enables it to retrieve grubs from inside trees; the hook-billed vanga evolved a curved bill for a similar reason, while the horned-leaf chameleon can change color to match the dead leaves on the floor of western Madagascar's dry deciduous forest.
But the most obviously adaptive evolutionary gifts are probably borne by the lemur, the family of small primates found only on Madagascar. The largest lemur, the indri, has humanlike hands and feet that enable it to scamper up the dense tree branches in Madagascar's few remaining intact forests. The graceful brown lemur bounds effortlessly across openings in the canopy and hangs by its knees to graze on leaves. The dextrous and stealthy white and black sifaka has springlike legs that propel it through the forest like a cat, in quiet, arcing leaps. Watching them move is a mesmerizing experience; it's easy to see how well lemurs have adapted to their native forest, and how helpless they must be when that habitat is lost.
And that is perhaps where the lemur's most adaptive, if accidental, characteristic comes into play: cuteness. Adorability certainly won't keep a lemur from getting eaten by its predator, the fossa, but it could get the species noticed by at least a few of the six and a half billion humans who relentlessly press their dominance on every corner of the natural world. Indeed, much of modern wildlife conservation has been built around the idea, pushed by the naturalist George Schaller, of promoting "charismatic megafauna" awe-inspiring star animals, like the Siberian tiger or the African rhino, the species that draw crowds to zoos. The thinking is that by getting the public to support the protection of these animals, the wildlife that exists beneath them the sort of animals most of us would pass on the way to see the elephants would gain protection as well.
The lovable lemur could be for Madagascar what the panda the original adaptively cute animal is for China, a charismatic minor species, a symbol of the nation and conservation. Having a species recognized by the world can motivate locals also to support conservation. "It's good for people to know that they have a species around them that the world cares about," says Mittermeier. Already lemurs are attracting growing numbers of tourists to Madagascar, as evidenced by the full camping grounds at the lodge where our group stayed in the Ankarafantsika Park, where sifakas all but drop in on the breakfast table.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly why these animals are so darn cute; maybe it's their small size relative to their fellow primates. Maybe it's their flirty, innocent playfulness. A snow white sifaka putting on a show before a crowd of onlookers, swinging back and forth it's so toe-curlingly kawaii, as our Japanese traveling companions put it, you could die. Though cuteness alone isn't likely to save the lemurs from the forces that threaten them hunting, deforestation and habitat destruction it certainly puts them in a better position than their homelier endangered peers.
Jokes aside, a look around Madagascar's landscape shows that evolution still knows how to craft a good old-fashioned survival technique. While at Ankarafantsika, we were sternly warned not to stray too close to the beautiful lake just a few minutes walk from our bungalows, because crocodiles had snapped up and devoured several people over the last several months. When we took a boat trip on the lake late one afternoon, we got to see crocodiles sunning themselves on the shore, including one specimen more than 12 ft. long most of it jaws. Cuteness is a nice evolutionary trait, but when it comes to long-term survival, you can't beat fear.
Click here for photos of Madagascar.