April 15, 2016

Scientists discover three new species of mouse lemurs on Madagascar

Thanks to state-of-the-art genetic methods and expeditions to remote areas, researcher have just described three new mouse lemur species living in the South and East of Madagascar in a report published by the journal Molecular Ecology.

Mouse lemurs are tiny, nocturnal primates, which are only seen in Madagascar, and they all of them appear to be very similar, with their brown coat and large eyes. Various species can be individually identified by genetic techniques. However, determining the real differences between two populations is still a source of contention.

“By using new, objective methods to assess genetic differences between individuals, we were able to find independent evidence that these three mouse lemurs represent new species," study author Peter Kappeler, an expert from the German Primate Center, said in a news release.

Affirming exiting species

The study team, using the same genetic methods, was also able to affirm the status of 21 previously described species.

"The genetic techniques we used could facilitate species identification, thus also contributing to further new descriptions in other animal groups," Kappeler said.

Just three years ago, the same researchers had identified two new mouse lemur species. Less than 20 years ago, only two types of mouse lemurs were known.

Besides enhanced analytical techniques, expeditions to distant and hard to reach forests allowed for the better understanding of the diversity of these remote relatives of humans.

"To know the exact distribution area of individual species is necessary to identify functioning protected areas," Kappeler said. "Furthermore, this new information is an important element towards better understanding how biodiversity on Madagascar arose."

One of the new species, Ganzhorn's mouse lemur (Microcebus ganzhorni), was named after the ecologist Jörg Ganzhorn from Hamburg University, who has been involved in the study and protection of lemurs for decades. It was Ganzhorn who established the field study of the German Primate Center in Madagascar in the 1990s.

Microcebus manitatra, also identified in the study, has a name that symbolizes the expansion of the range of a subgroup from western Madagascar. The third species, Microcebus boraha, is named after its location on the Island of Sainte Marie (in Malagasy Nosy Boraha).

According to the "Red List" of the IUCN greater than 100 known species of lemurs are endangered by extinction and symbolize the world's most endangered group of mammals. Deforestation and hunting are the primary reasons for the threat to lemurs in one of the poorest countries of the planet.


Image credit: G. Donati