Climate change might drive one of Madagascar’s panda-like lemurs to extinction

A few months after a prediction was made that Madagascar’s lemurs would be gone within the next 20 years (click here to read that story and a rather extensive commentary on it), the first victim might already be in sight… but not for the reasons many had predicted.

The greater bamboo lemur, Prolemur simus, was once widespread over much of eastern Madagascar. Deforestation however has led to the fragmentation of its rainforest home, and it is now dancing on the brink of extinction. With an estimated population of between 60 and 150 individuals, P. simus is one of the rarest primates on the planet.

Generality is not a theme in Madagascar. Many species are highly specialised and microendemic, and as a result are highly sensitive to changes in their environments. The greater bamboo lemur is no exception - these tabby-sized primates exist exclusively on a diet of bamboo, in the form of shoots, leaves, and stems.

The growth of the bamboo that sustains these lemurs is highly dependent upon rainfall. With lower than usual levels of rainfall, the lemurs are forced to eat harder woody stems, and the consequence is increased stress to the teeth and jaws. When a bamboo lemur loses too many teeth, it can no longer feed and will inevitably die.

In addition to changes in food availability, parasite load may also be increasing as a result of increased temperatures, leading to higher mortality. Furthermore, it seems that changes in climate are directly and indirectly affecting adult breeding success and infant mortality in other ways.

The combination of poor food-growth, increased parasite load, and overall decreased reproduction and survival may prove too much for this tiny remnant population of lemurs.

Ultimately though, the biggest concern is that this might be the first of a whole cascade of animals from the tropics to disappear as a direct consequence of both deforestation and climate change. As Erin Conway-Smith of NPR.org put it:

"Madagascar’s unique wildlife… might be the canary in the world’s climatic coalmine."

A poignant and painful truth.

Read the NPR.org feature here.

Photo by Inaki Relanzon.

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