Approximately 180 million years ago, the southern supercontinent of Gondwana began to fragment into isolated landmasses, with dramatic consequences for the associated terrestrial and freshwater vertebrate faunas. Reconstructions of the timing and sequence of this fragmentation are based almost entirely on geophysical/paleogeographical evidence and remain poorly tested paleontologically. Madagascar is of unusually high paleobiogeographic interest and intrigue because:
- It occupied a central geographic position within Gondwana and was among the first (western margin) and last (eastern margin) landmasses to be involved in fragmentation of the supercontinent;
- It has been isolated from all other Gondwanan landmasses for over 85 million years;
- The timing of its separation from other major Gondwanan landmasses, particularly Antarctica but also the Indian subcontinent, has been controversial;
- It has a highly endemic and unbalanced modern biota whose biogeographic origins mostly remain a mystery because Madagascar's pre-Late Pleistocene Cenozoic fossil record is virtually nonexistent; and
- Its Cretaceous fossil record of vertebrates is spotty and largely confined to a single time horizon in one small field area of northwestern Madagascar (but which continues to be highly productive).
This project was initiated in 1993 by David Krause (at Stony Brook University until 2016) and is now led jointly by paleontologists/geologists from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (David Krause, Joseph Sertich), Ohio University (Patrick O’Connor), Macalester College (Kristina Curry Rogers and Raymond Rogers), and Stony Brook University (Alan Turner). It is conducted in collaboration with the Faculty of Science, University of Antananarivo, with permissions from various ministries (Higher Education, Mines, Culture) of the Republic of Madagascar and with substantial contributions from many other research colleagues and students around the world. It has served as a strong training ground for students from both Madagascar and the United States.
The project continues to have as its major broad objectives:
- To discover and collect terrestrial and freshwater vertebrates from Cretaceous strata of Madagascar, with a strong emphasis placed on sampling the entire vertebrate fauna by employing surface prospecting, quarrying, and screening methods from as many areas and horizons as logistically and temporally feasible as possible;
- To describe the vertebrate fauna from the Cretaceous of Madagascar, to conduct rigorous phylogenetic analyses of the taxa discovered and the clades they represent, and to employ those analyses in tests of competing biogeographic and plate tectonic hypotheses related to the fragmentation of Gondwana in general and the isolation of Madagascar in particular;
- To elucidate the paleobiology of those vertebrate taxa represented in the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar by relatively complete and well-preserved remains through comparative analysis and ecological/functional inferences;
- To document the litho-, bio-, and magnetostratigraphy, sedimentology, and taphonomy of Cretaceous horizons in the Mahajanga Basin in particular but also the Morondava and Ambilobe basins; and
- To expand explorations for fossil vertebrates to both older and younger horizons in the Mahajanga, Morondava, and Ambilobe basins in our quest to elucidate the biogeographic and plate tectonic history of the island of Madagascar in particular and of Gondwana in general.
Thirteen expeditions (1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015) have been conducted to date, resulting in a quintupling of the previously known species diversity of Late Cretaceous vertebrates from Madagascar. Our work has been concentrated in Upper Cretaceous strata of the Mahajanga Basin of northwestern Madagascar but has expanded to also include efforts in the Ambilobe Basin to the north and the Morondava Basin to the south.
The MPP has been funded by grants from the US National Science Foundation (DEB-9224396, EAR-9418816, EAR-9706302, EAR-0106477, EAR-0446488, EAR-0940759, DEB-1011302, EAR-1123642, EAR-1528273, 1664432), the National Geographic Society (1999–2000, 2001–2003, 2004–2005, 2009–2010, 2012–2013), the Dinosaur Society (1995), and the Simons Foundation (2007–2008).