In 1658 a French admiral, Etienne de Flacourt, documented reports from Madagascar, the large island off the east coast of Africa, of an extraordinary creature as big as a two-year-old calf, with a round head, human face and ears, ape-like feet, short tail and frizzy fur.
Madagascar is famous for its lemurs – a diverse family of primitive primates occupying the ecological niches filled elsewhere in the world of monkeys and apes. But de Flacourt’s description did not match with that of any lemur known at the time, and so the tratratratra, as the creature was named, was dismissed as an imaginary beast of native folklore.
But later paleontological studies uncovered the fossils of several species of extinct giant lemur, among which was a massive form called Megaladapis. The likely appearance in life of this lemur, reconstructed from its remains, closely matched that of the supposedly mythical tratratratra.
The Megaladapis lemur was originally believed to have died out several thousands of years ago. But mindful of the native reports about the tratratratra and the discovery of Megaladapis bones little more than a thousand years old, zoologists now believe that it lived at the same time as humans, who had reached Madagascar by the sixth century before being hunted into extinction.