Thursday, December 16, 2010

Scientists investigate potential new lemur species

Scientists believe they have discovered a new species of lemur in the forests of Madagascar.

The animal's unique, feathery structure under its tongue – that may be used to gather nectar – distinguishes it as a new species, researchers say. They are waiting for the results of a genetic analysis to confirm the claim.

Primatologist Russ Mittermeier, who is now the president ofConservation International, first glimpsed the lemur in 1995 in Daraina, a forest in north-east Madagascar. It had a black stripe on its back that forked on its face, suggesting to Mittermeier that it was a fork-marked lemur belonging to the genus phaner.

Forked-marked lemurs belong to the genus, or group of species, called Phaner. If confirmed as a new species, this would be only the fifth member of that group.

The shape of the lemur's markings, the size of its limbs and its long, nectar-slurping tongue are familiar facets of all Phaner lemurs. But this one has a slightly different color pattern. It also displayed an unusual head-bobbing behavior that the scientists had not seen in other fork-marked lemurs. This unique head-bobbing move showed up in the flashlight beam as discoverers searched the treetops for a glimpse of the animal.

"I was surprised to see a fork-marked lemur there, since this animal had not yet been recorded from the region," he said. "I immediately knew that it was likely a new species to science."

It was not until October this year, however, that Mittermeier returned to Daraina, along with a film crew from the BBC's Natural History Unit, to investigate. After hearing the distinctive calls of a fork-marked lemur, the team tracked it through the forest and shot it with a tranquillizer gun. They took blood samples from the lemur for genetic analysis and returned it to the wild when it regained consciousness.

Although the results from the genetic analysis have not yet been revealed, Mittermeier is
convinced that the creature is a new species of fork-marked lemur that is uniquely adapted to the forests of Dairana. Sandwiched between its tooth-comb and tongue is a "strange structure" (left) that has never been seen before in species belonging to the phaner genus, according to Mittermeier. White and feathery, the structure flicks upwards when the lemur's tongue is extended. He believes that it helps the lemur to capture nectar.

Apart from the strange structure in its mouth, the lemur is otherwise
very similar in appearance to other species of fork-crowned lemur. It has a "tooth-comb" – a mesh of incisors that it uses to scrape tree sap off bark – and a long, spindly tongue that it uses to eat nectar and tree sap. It also sounds a loud, high-pitched call just after sunset and leaps between branches without pausing.

There are four known species of phaner – or fork-marked – lemur: the Amber (left), the eastern fork-marked dwarf lemur, the western fork-crowned dwarf lemur and the Sambirano fork-crowned dwarf lemur. Although 42 species of lemur have been discovered in Madagascar since 2000, not a single new species belonging to the phaner genus has been found. "This would be the first, and that's very exciting," Mittermeier said.

If confirmed as a new species, Dr Louis and Dr Mittermeier (left with discovered
lemur) would like the animal to be named after Fanamby, the conservation organization that has been instrumental in protecting the forest of Daraina.

"This is yet another remarkable discovery from the island of Madagascar, the world's highest priority biodiversity hotspot and one of the most extraordinary places in our planet," Mittermeier (left) said.
"It is particularly remarkable that we continue to find new species of lemurs and many other plants and animals in this heavily impacted country, which has already lost 90% or more of its original vegetation."

And because of its very restricted range, it is likely that this lemur will turn out to be an endangered or critically endangered species.

The Guardian
, "Scientists investigate potential new lemur species", accessed December 14, 2010
BBC, "New species of lemur discovered in Madagascar", accessed December 13, 2010
MSNBC, "New head-bobbing lemur discovered", accessed December 13, 2010
Discovery News, "New lemur has big feet, large tongue", accessed December 13, 2010

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