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Lemurs, a (very adorable) subset of primates that live only on the island of Madagascar, are the most endangered group of vertebrates on Earth, according to LiveScience. Ninety-four of 103 known lemur species are threatened, with 23 deemed “critically endangered,” an uptick from 10 species given that status when a similar report was produced seven years ago.
To find out why, we turned to Dr. Summer Arrigo-Nelson, California University of Pennsylvania’s resident lemur researcher.
Since 2001, Arrigo-Nelson has conducted a long-term study of the effects of habitat disturbance on the Milne-Edwards sifaka at two research sites within the Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar. This project includes work on forest quality assessments and forest regeneration, examining lemur densities, ranging patterns and habitat use using GIS technology, documenting animal feeding ecology, socioecology and social behavior, demography and reproduction, parasitism and predator-prey relationships.
Arrigo-Nelson also leads Cal U’s Madagascar Field School, where students live alongside scientists and scholars in Ranomafana National Park as they explore the unique ecology and biodiversity of a tropical rainforest and gain hands-on experience in the research techniques used by professional field biologists and natural resource managers.
We asked Arrigo-Nelson to tell us more about her research, the field school, and lemurs:
Can you tell us a little about your research?
I study the impact of habitat disturbance on lemur behavior and ecology.
What sparked your interest in lemurs, and in Madagascar in general?
Madagascar is a fascinating place to work because it is a large island, and contains a wide variety of different habitat types. Animals and plants have evolved to live in each of these habitats, and are found nowhere else in the world! Lemurs are especially interesting because they possess some traits inherited from their early primate ancestors and other traits that are unique to their Malagasy environments.
What are some of those traits?
"Primitive" traits that lemurs have retained from their early primate/mammal ancestors include their "wet" nose (like dogs and cats have; monkeys and apes have a fur-covered nose), their grooming claw (monkeys and apes have only fingernails), and the presence of a reflective layer in their eye (again, like dogs and cats; monkeys and apes have lost it).
Unique traits that lemurs evolved after they reached Madagascar vary, depending on the habitat in which the species lives. Some have evolved the ability to eat cyanide-containing bamboo (the bamboo lemurs); other have evolved long flexible fingers for fishing grubs out of trees (the aye-aye); and others have evolved specific behavioral patterns, like female dominance and hibernation, to help them survive, given Madagascar's unpredictable resources and weather patterns.
How do your students typically respond when you take them to Madagascar?
For most students, this is the first time that they have been in a tropical rainforest. The opportunity to see and work with animals and plants so different from those they are familiar with is eye opening for them!
There are so many types of lemurs. What distinguishes them?
Their adaptations to the specific habitats in which they live! Some are adapted to eat bamboo, others to eat seeds, dig grubs, etc. When you have 12 or 13 species of lemurs all living in the same forest, they have to partition the resources narrowly in order to survive.
I read that one of the reasons for their near extinction is the exotic-pet trade. What is the market for lemurs as pets?
Unfortunately, anytime an animal is cute and fuzzy-looking, it seems like someone wants to turn it into a pet. However, lemurs make poor pets because they are smelly and have very special diets. They are also very unhappy in captivity because they are used to living in groups and having lots of room to move in the forest.
What are some other reasons that lemurs are bordering on extinction, and what can we do to help save them?
Almost all species of lemurs are threatened with extinction, because of a combination of habitat loss and hunting. Madagascar is a very poor country and, because of the current political problems there, little money or attention is being spent on protecting its national parks.
Supporting small conservation organizations, such as the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments and Madagascar Fauna Group, is a great way to help save the lemurs! Organizations like these are able to make small donations go a long way by working closely with their Malagasy partners to implement conservation and education programs on the ground.
Have you seen the “Madagascar” movies? How accurate is the portrayal of the lemur (“Julien”) in the movies?
Actually, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the New York premiere of the first film. It was great fun to see Madagascar get some time on the big screen, even if not everything was biologically accurate. For example, ring-tailed lemurs, like Julien, are actually extremely female dominant, so "King Julien" should really have been "Queen Julia"!