Scientists have discovered a new, probably endangered, species of lemur in Madagascar. The big-eyed, squirrel-sized, nectar-eating (not to mention cute) primate is nocturnal and boasts a distinctive Y-shaped mark on its face.
Just after sunset the team set out in search of their quarry, following its ghostly calls through the dense forest of Daraina, a protected area in the northeast of Madagascar. The creature moved quickly through the treetops, and they had to run after it along the slippery forest floor until they eventually caught site of its glowing eyes reflecting the light from a flashlight. They waited for a clear shot of the male fork-marked lemur, then took it down—with a tranquilizer gun.
Primate expert and Conservation International president Russ Mittermeier had first spotted the squirrel-sized primate in 1995. He noticed its coloring was different from other fork-marked lemurs and suspected it might be a new species. He returned this past October, leading an expedition of scientists and a BBC film crew, to track down one of the animals, take blood samples for genetic testing to determine if it is a new species, and insert a microchip to identify and monitor it. They then released it back into the wild.
The lemur hasn’t officially been formally described as a new species yet, but it has plenty of company. Lemurs live only in Madagascar, and the island is home to some 100 species—42 of which, incredibly, have been discovered in the last decade. (Scientists believe the big-eyed primates inadvertently hitched a ride to the island on rafts of vegetation. With no natural predators, they evolved into different species.)
Because its range is restricted, it will probably be declared endangered or critically endangered, according to Conservation International.
Like the four described species of the genus Phaner, this fork-marked lemur bears a black, Y-shaped line on its head, has large hands and feet for gripping trees, and emits a loud, high-pitched call at night. It uses its long tongue to slurp up nectar, and its specialized teeth for scraping tree gum.
Wonder what it's like to track these peculiar primates through Madagascar’s steep, leech-filled rainforests? Former Audubon photo editor Kim Hubbard spent two weeks volunteering on a lemur project with Earthwatch. She wrote about her incredible experience for the magazine:
Standing there eyeball to eyeball with the lemur, I was not entirely certain what was going to happen next. He seemed to have come from nowhere, sailing over my head and landing on the tree in front of my face.
We stood transfixed. Slowly he leaned forward and gave me a few curious sniffs, our noses almost touching, before he bounced away through the trees. I was ecstatic.
Click here to continue reading “For the Love of Lemurs.”