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Science - Education | Environment - Nature

Three new lemur species identified in Madagascar

afrol News, 28 February - Biologists have identified three new species of lemurs in Madagascar, using molecular analyses. The number of species within the family of lemurs - long-tailed primitive primates only living on the island of Madagascar - is highly controversial among scientists and a correct identification can only be established by studying the genetics of these ancestors of humans.

The description of new mammals by now in general is very seldom, and the identification of new primates indeed normally would be a major world news event. The Malagasy lemur identification however is not based on a "classic discovery" by an expedition strolling around in the rainforest stumbling over a new species. No Dr Livingstone bestseller. The three new lemur species were discovered in a laboratory!

According to a study published in the journal 'BMC Evolutionary Biology', a team of researchers from Madagascar and Europe have identified the new species of lemurs based on differences in a specific gene sequence. The ape-like mammals look too like to be identified as species out there, in their natural environment. Not even the microscope could differentiate them. It took molecular biology to study their genes.

The new species live in distinct geographical areas separated by rivers, but show no obvious morphological differences, the scientists write. They had not been identified from visible physical differences or chromosome profiles - the methods normally used to define species, 'Science Daily' reports. "The number of species within the Malagasy genus Lepilemur and their phylogenetic relationships are disputed and controversial," the scientists write.

The international team making the discovery comprised researchers from Madagascar, Germany, France and Switzerland. They classified individual lemurs on the basis of either their chromosome profile, called a 'karyotype', or the sequence of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene. The team analysed the karyotypes of 99 individuals from all currently recognised species of lemur and the cytochrome b gene was sequenced in 68 individuals.

The findings actually may have important implications, as a better knowledge of lemur species characteristics will provide the basis for better conservation programmes for these endangered animals. A large number of lemur species are considered to be endangered in Madagascar, but exact knowledge is still limited.

Lemurs are exclusively defined to the island of Madagascar. The animals are a family with the group of primates, to which also humans belong. Indeed, the lemurs are the earliest and thus most primitive group of primates, from which other primates later developed. Fossils of lemurs have been found on all continents except Australia and Antarctica.

As more sophisticated primates developed, the lemurs slowly had to give up in the battle of evolution and became extinct. Not on Madagascar, however, because the micro-continent had separated from south-east Africa before more sophisticated primates evolved and were able to live on in "splendid isolation".

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