Madagascar's Mouse Lemurs: Three New Species of World's Smallest Primate

By Tonia Sorrentino

Deep in the forests of Madagascar German scientists have discovered three new species of the world's smallest primate, the mouse lemur. But the habitat these tiny creatures call home is now being threatened by mass deforestation.

Three years have passed since three new species of mouse lemur -- mircocebus bongolavensis, microcebus danfossi and microcebus lokobensis were discovered by German scientists in the forests of Madagascar. Nevertheless, a lot of time can pass before an animal species is officially "baptized" with a scientific name. The road to obtaining an official Latin name is a long one -- filled with pitfalls and hurdles that involve a painstaking research process into the new species that ends with a peer-reviewed study published in a scientific journal. Only after other scientists review the research, corrections are made and it is successfully defended can the scientific baptism finally be completed.

Three species of mouse lemurs have now put this procedure behind them and they are officially the newest species of the primate world. Working together with colleagues in Madagascar, scientists at the Institute for Zoology at the University of Veterinary Medicine (TiHo) in Hanover, Germany discovered and classified the animals. The results of their research will be published in the forthcoming issue of the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

In an expedition that began in 2003 and ended last year, the research team went to Madagascar to study the dispersal patterns of lemurs. The group visited the island between May and October -- the dry season -- to observe the populations. But the work was by no means easy. "The forests there are shrinking and we had difficulties working out where the mouse lemurs were," TiHo's Ute Radespiel told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The smallest primates in the world

The creatures are the tiniest primates in the world, and therefore the smallest relatives in a biological order that also includes humans.

For the lay person, these newly discovered species don’t look all that different from other species. At first glance they all look the same. Because they live in the dark in the forest's think canopies, they lack the need to be visibly distinctive. This meant that the researchers had to inspect them very closely. First they discovered an animal whose tail was two centimeters longer than those of the others. But those are human problems: The mouse lemurs make it a bit easier for members of their own species: they can be recognised by their scent or cries -- at frequency levels that no person can hear.

The researchers have since been able to determine the genetic differences, says Radespiel. "In the future, the research will focus more on the lifestyle traits of the mouse lemurs: where they sleep, how their social system is organized, when they reproduce, etc."

Like all other lemurs, the mouse lemurs, which are about the same size as hamsters, have tails of between 12 and 17 centimeters and can only be found in Madagascar. During the day they sleep in nests of leaves and the hollows of trees. At night they are active -- communicating, wandering about and feeding on fruit, resin and insects. The different development of the lemurs has led the researchers to conclude that the small areas of dispersal are due to the barriers created by wide rivers.

Research in the face of deforestation

Peter Kappeler of the German Primate Center in Göttingen told SPIEGEL ONLINE that close examination of mouse lemurs is a difficult undertaking. In order to get the necessary scientific findings, they have to be captured and measured and small tissue samples have to be taken. "That is a question of the methodology and the technical possibilities," said Kappeler.

Kappeler belongs to a working group that has spent three years studying the dispersal of five specific lemur species in the rain forests of east Madagascar. He estimates that up to now only around half of all the species of lemur on the island have been discovered and named. And more new species will likely be announced in the coming year.

According to Kappeler, the research into lemurs "is more or less a competition." There is growing pressure on the natural resources of the world's fourth-biggest island and more and more natural habitats are being destroyed by slashing and burning. TiHo's Radespiel wants to set up a nature protection zone in the near future in Madagascar. For many species, she says, up to now there has been no sanctuary at all.

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