Grasses and savannas of Madagascar

Using knowledge of endemic grasses to understand the history of open canopy areas for land management and conservation planning.

Grasses and savannas of Madagascar

Old growth grasslands in Madagascar

The origin of tropical fire-maintained open canopy areas has often been assumed to be anthropogenic even though increasing evidence points to their common natural origin. Old growth grasslands can be distinguished by their endemic grass floras restricted to these environments. Which of Madagascar’s savannas and grasslands are products of environmental destruction, and are there native open canopy areas reminiscent of African or Australian ecosystems? How can we distinguish between the natural and anthropogenic open canopy areas? Can we use knowledge of the endemic grasses to make this distinction?

Kew and grass taxonomy in Madagascar

Kew has a long tradition of herbarium-based tropical grass species taxonomy at the species level, and, global and paleotropical classification of grasses has largely been established at Kew. Maria Vorontsova (project leader) is using this globally unique herbarium collection to study freshly collected Madagascar grasses, as well as the collection held in Paris, to establish which of Madagascar’s grass species are endemic.

A programme of field exploration that started in 2011 has been building grasses knowledge across Madagascar. The project has produced 12 peer review publications, 60 species have been revised, five new species have been described, and plot data has been gathered in 60 locations across Madagascar. New research has also been carried out with various collaborators: molecular research on Poaceae evolution has been conducted in collaboration with Guillaume Besnard (CNRS-Toulouse), endemicity and phylogenetic diversity studies have been carried out with Peter Linder (University of Zurich), and, Nanjarisoa Olinirina Prisca defended her MSc thesis on the grasses of the Itremo Protected Area in 2015, co-supervised by Vololaniaina Jeannoda (University of Antananarivo).

Grassland ecology and classification

The project will continue taxonomic documentation of Madagascar’s grasses whilst implementing this knowledge to understand savanna dynamics. Lova Cédrique Solofondranohatra is carrying out her doctoral research on the effects of fire and grazing on central plateau savanna in collaboration with Caroline Lehmann (University of Edinburgh), and, Nanjarisoa Olinirina Prisca is carrying out doctoral research on the evolution and ecology of Malagasy Eragrostis. Additional plot data is also being gathered in order to understand the full diversity of grassy ecosystems across the island.


  • Document all grasses found in Madagascar and their distributions.
  • Understand the history, ecology, and interaction with burning and grazing for open canopy vegetation types in Madagascar.
  • Provide a scientific basis for land management strategies and conservation planning.
Project Leader

Bat Vorontsova

  • Taxonomic treatments of Madagascar Poaceae.
  • Genera of Grasses in Madagascar: an Identification Guide, which will be produced by Kew Publishing (in prep.)
  • Map of grasslands and savanna types of Madagascar.
  • Conservation recommendations and local education on the management of pastures, grasslands, and savannas.


  • Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre
  • Vololaniaina Jeannoda (University of Antananarivo)
  • Guillaume Besnard (CNRS-Toulouse)
  • Peter Linder (University of Zurich)


  • Caroline Lehmann (University of Edinburgh)
  • SynTax (awarded 2012)
  • Herbarium Field Work Fund (2014)
  • Pilot study fund (2015)

Rabarivola, L., Razanajatovo, H., Razafiniary, V., Rasolohery, A., Ralimanana, H. & Vorontsova, M. (2019).

Vorontsova, M. S., Besnard, G., Forest, F., Malakasi, P., Moat, J., Clayton, W. D., Ficinski, P., Savva, G. M.,Nanjarisoa, O. P., Razanatsoa, J., Randriatsara, F. O., Kimeu, J. M., Luke, W. R. Q., Kayombo, C. & Linder, H. P. (2016)

Madagascar’s grasses and grasslands: anthropogenic or natural? 

Proceedings of the Royal Society B 283 20152262; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2015.2262

Vorontsova, M. S., Haevermans, T., Haevermans, A., Razanatsoa, J., Lundgren, M. R., & Besnard, G. (2015)

The genus Sartidia (Poaceae: Aristidoideae) in Madagascar

Systematic Botany 40(2), 448-453

Needham, I., Vorontsova, M. S., Banks, H. & Rudall, P.J. (2015)

Pollen of Malagasy grasses as a potential tool for interpreting grassland palaeohistory

Grana 54(4) doi: 10.1080/00173134.2015.1057220

Vorontsova, M. S. & Rakotoarisoa, S. E. (2014)

Endemic non-bambusoid genera of grasses (Poaceae) in Madagascar: review of current knowledge

Malagasy Nature 8: 14-34

Vorontsova, M.S., Ratovonirina, G. & Randriamboavonjy, T. (2013) 

Revision of Andropogon and Diectomis (Poaceae: Sacchareae) in Madagascar and the new Andropogon itremoensis from the Itremo Massif

Kew Bulletin 68: 1-15