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Southern Africa: Islands about half-way between southern Madagascar and southern Mozambique

Ile Europa and Bassas da India are located in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and the East Coast of Africa. Both are atolls, formed by coral growing on the ring-shaped calderas of extinct volcanoes. Bassas da India, potentially still in the process of formation, barely qualifies as an island because only a tiny portion of it remains above the surface of the ocean at high tide. However, nearby Europa Island, despite its small area, presents a diverse flora and fauna, including several native vegetation types, a large seabird population, and a few endemic subspecies of birds and reptiles. Europa also supports one of the world’s last stable populations of nesting green turtle (Chelonia mydas) that has not been seriously exploited. Unfortunately, Europa has shared a similar fate with many of the world’s isolated islands, having suffered significant environmental damage from direct human alteration as well as from degradation by introduced species. This is most apparent when considering the large population of now feral goats inhabiting Europa.

  • Scientific Code
    (AT1308)
  • Ecoregion Category
    Afrotropical
  • Size
    50 square miles
  • Status
    Critical/Endangered
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
The islands of Europa and Bassas da India lie in the Mozambique Channel near the southern end of Madagascar. Both are coralline islands, or atolls, and Europa (22°20’S 40°20’E) is about 100 km southeast of Bassas da India (21°49' S 40°00' E). Europa, with 30 km2 of land area, is 6-7 km in diameter with a maximum altitude of 6 m. Its shallow lagoon (generally 1 m deep) is open to the sea at one side, and covers about 900 ha, including some 700 ha of mangrove swamp that is particularly extensive to the south (IFRECOR n.d.). The lagoon is almost entirely exposed at low tide, and supports sparse seagrass beds at its outflow. These are dominated by Thalassodendron and Halodule species. Another smaller lagoon supports a mixed vegetation. The rim of the atoll is a karst structure; there is also a quantity of exposed coral rock and extensive sand dunes and rubble to the southwest (UNEP/IUCN 1988). Europa is estimated to have formed about 90,000 years ago (SEOR 1999). It is surrounded by an abraded coral platform 200 to 600 m in width, which emerges at low tide carpeted with algae.

Bassas da India atoll is an almost perfectly circular atoll with less than 1 km2 of permanently dry land area. The reef is 12-13 km in diameter, though it is almost entirely submerged at high tide, and therefore, does not support any vegetation (UNEP/IUCN 1988). At low tide, the reef rim emerges 1.20 m, however, several rocks to the north are exposed at all times to a height of 2-3 m (IFRECOR n.d.). Bassas da India's coral structure is still forming (UNEP/IUCN 1988).

These islands are subject to the Agulhas Current and experience occasional cyclones. Water temperatures are usually above 30°C, and southeast trade winds dominate during the austral winter. Annual rainfall averages at about 600 mm (UNEP/IUCN 1988).

Four vegetation types are identified on the island of Europa. These include a dry forest of silver thicket (Euphorbia stenoclada), a dry herbaceous formation dominated by a grass, Sclerodactylon macrostachyum, mangrove swamps of Rhizophora mucronata, and a coastal shrub formation that includes bay cedar (Suriana maritima) (SEOR 1999). An abandoned plantation of introduced sisal (Agave sisalana) growing with Mauritius hemp (Furcraea foetida) is found on the northern end of the island. Sisal was planted by colonists who attempted to settle the island at the beginning of the 20th century. While the human settlement failed, the sisal persisted. It appears that the sisal is spreading; it now occurs in small islands within the Euphorbia thicket. The presence of this plantation cuts down the region of Euphorbia stenoclada by about 10% (SEOR 1999). About fifteen other plant species were introduced intentionally or accidently on Europa Island; four species have an unspecified origin but are most likely introduced. There are no endemic plant species on the island.

Biodiversity Features
Europa Island functions as an important nesting ground for sea turtles and seabirds, and also claims an endemic subspecies of land bird as well as two endemic subspecies of lizard. While Bassas da India is of scientific and biogeographical interest due to its relatively undisturbed reef system, the limited area of permanently dry land is not sufficient to support significant terrestrial life. Europa Island is considered one of the most important nesting sites for green turtle (Chelonia mydas) in the world. Chelonia mydas, the largest of the hard-shelled sea turtles, was classified as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List in 1996 (Hilton-Taylor 2000). Between 8,000 and 15,000 females nest on the island’s beaches each year, and 0.7 to 2.4 million juvenile turtles hatch annually (Lagarde et al. 2001; IFRECOR n.d.). Only about a dozen large populations of nesting females are known to persist worldwide, and only Europa and Raine Island (Australia) appear to have stable populations that are not heavily exploited (UNEP/WCMC 2001). In a good year, over 10,000 females may nest on Europa. The hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is also fairly common on the island (IFRECOR n.d.).

Europa Island is used as a stopover point for numerous bird species migrating between Africa and Madagascar. Many species breed here as well. The resident seabird population includesincludesi: red-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon rubricauda) (nests on sand under bushes), white-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus), greater frigatebird (Fregata minor), lesser frigatebird (Fregata ariel), red-footed booby (Sula sula), brown booby (Sula leucogaster), Caspian tern (Sterna caspia), sooty tern (Sterna fuscata) and Audubon’s shearwater (Puffinus lherminieri) (IFRECOR n.d.; SEOR 1999).

A few of Europa’s seabird populations appear to be genetically isolated from other populations of the Indian ocean. White-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus) occurs as a distinctive morph on Europa Island. Its size is smaller than those of other populations within the Indian Ocean, more closely resembling the subspecies P. l. ascensionis from the central and eastern Atlantic Ocean and P. l. dorotheae from the Pacific Ocean (Le Corre and Jouventin 1999). The Europa Island population also has a high frequency of golden morphs, a feature that is not present elsewhere in the western Indian Ocean (Le Corre and Jouventin 1999). These differences lead scientists to believe that the Europa population of white-tailed tropicbird is isolated from other nearby colonies in the Indian Ocean; it has been proposed as a distinct subspecies, Phaethon lepturus europae, by Le Corre and Jouventin (1999). The pantropical red-footed booby (Sula sula) is another example of an isolated population. One of the most polymorphic seabirds, most extant colonies of the Indian Ocean have white morph adults. On Europa, however, adults are almost entirely of a white-tailed brown morph, differing significantly even from nearby colonies. Le Corre (1999) suggests that the occurrence of the white-tailed brown morph at Europa may act as a defensive camouflage against kleptoparasitism (a behavior of stealing another bird’s catch) by great frigatebirds (Fregata minor) and brown skuas (Catharacta antarctica) (Le Corre 1999). A third example of the geographic isolation of Europa’s seabirds is seen in the island’s population of Audubon's Shearwater (Puffinus lherminieri), recently evidenced to belong to the subspecies P. l. bailloni (Le Corre 2000). This subspecies was previously thought to be endemic to the Mascarenes Islands off the eastern shore of Madagascar. P. l. bailloni is distinct from the three subspecies of the Comoro, Aldabra, and Seychelles group to the north of Madagascar, suggesting that little exchange occurs north along the corridor of the Mozambique Channel (Le Corre 2000).

Europa supports at least five species of land birds, including the endemic subspecies of Madagascar white-eye (Zosterops maderaspatana voeltzkowi). This bird has managed to colonize all islands of the western Indian Ocean and to then diversify into numerous endemic subspecies or species (SEOR 1999). Other land birds include the dimorphic egret (Egretta dimorpha) (native to Europa, also present on Madagascar), Madagascar pond heron (Ardeola idea) (native to Europa), barn owl (Tyto alba) (possibly indigenous, though dependant on the introduced Rattus rattus), and pied crow (Corvus albus) (probably introduced and dependant on the presence of humans) (SEOR 1999).

Other species of interest on Europa Island are two endemic subspecies of lizard, Mabuya comorensis infralineata and Cryptoblepharus boutonii bitaeniatus (SEOR 1999). Over 55 species of insect make their home on these islands, including an endemic Chalcidoid wasp species that is a specialized parasite of the red wood ant.

Current Status
The fragile ecosystems of these small islands face threats common to most isolated islands. In addition to the physical alteration of the Euphorbia vegetation by humans, introduced species of plants and animals have had a significant effect on the island’s ecology. Sisal is an invasive species in many localities globally, having the ability to outcompete native vegetation. Goats (Capra hircus) were introduced from Madagascar in 1860, by 1976 there were approximately 200, and their numbers have grown since (UNEP/IUCN 1988). Particularly well-adapted to difficult environmental conditions, such as a lack of fresh water, goats are capable of dramatically altering vegetation, thereby destroying habitat vital to the island’s native bird population. Their presence is particularly damaging to the native Euphorbe arborescente thickets as well as to the rare portia tree (Thespesia populnea) that grows in association with mangroves (SEOR 1999). Black rats (Rattus rattus) have been on the island since the 16th century and are efficient predators of the eggs and young of many seabirds. Donkeys, cats, and rabbits were also introduced to the island, but are now extinct.

A meteorological station was built on Europa Island in 1950, along with an airstrip (UNEP/IUCN 1988). The station has been intermittently manned by French meteorologists or military personnel, with researchers visiting periodically. This human presence affects the native xeric scrub habitat, though the extent of the damage is unclear. Installation of the military airstrip undoubtedly had some effect, as does the continued presence of people on this small, fragile island. Both Europa and Bassas da India are classified as Nature Reserves, a type of low-level protection by order of the Prefect in 1975 and 1981. Fishing in territorial waters around the islands is banned, and anyone visiting the islands is expected to observe certain regulations. This type of reserve classification is not thought to provide maximum environmental protection, and proposals have been made for more effective protection measures (IFRECOR n.d.).

Types and Severity of Threats
Introduced species both present and possible non native species continue to threaten this ecoregion. The lack of formal protection for the islands and continued visitation by humans increase the risk of introductions as well as problems associated with the use of resources. Furthermore, the Mozambique Channel is becoming polluted from heavy vessel traffic, and egg collection on these remote islands is also problematic.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
Bassas da India and Europa Island are atolls in the Mozambique Channel. Despite its small area, Europa Island’s isolation has contributed to a unique flora and fauna, including a few endemic subspecies of birds and reptiles.

References
Hilton-Taylor, C., compiler. 2000. 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. xviii + 61pp. Retrieved (2001) from: <http://www.redlist.org>.

IFRECOR. n.d. ReefBase: A Global Information System on Coral Reefs. Retrieved (2001) from: <http://www.reefbase.org>.

Lagarde, Frederic, Le Corre, Matthieu, and Lormee, Herve. 2001. Species and sex-biased predation on hatchling green turtles by frigatebirds on Europa Island, western Indian Ocean. Condor 103:405-408.

Le Corre, Matthieu. 1999. Plumage polymorphism of red-footed boobies (Sula sula) in the western Indian Ocean: an indicator of biogeographic isolation. Journal of Zoology (London) 249: 411-415.

Le Corre, Matthieu. 2000. Taxonomic affinities of Audubon's shearwater from Europa Island. Condor 102:187-190.

Le Corre, Matthieu and Jouventin, Pierre. 1999. Geographical variation in the white-tailed tropicbird Phaethon lepturus, with the description of a new subspecies endemic to Europa Island, southern Mozambique Channel. Ibis 141:233-239.

SEOR. 1999. Etude du Comportement Parental chez le paille en queue a brins rouges à Europa (Canal du Mozambique). Retrieved (2001) from: <http://perso.wanadoo.fr/coracina/Articles/Europa/Art_europa.html>.

UNEP/IUCN. 1988. Coral Reefs of the World. Volume 2: Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Gulf. UNEP Regional Seas Directories and Bibliographies. IUCN/UNEP, Gland, Switzerland, Cambridge, UK, and Nairobi, Kenya.

UNEP/WCMC. 2001. Green Turtle - Chelonia mydas. Retrieved (2001) from: <http://www.unep-wcmc.org/index.html?http://www.unep-wcmc.org/species/data/species_sheets/greentur.htm~main>.

Prepared by: Leann Trowbridge
Reviewed by: In process

 

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