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At Risk Lemurs are the Gardeners of Madagascar (VIDEO)

First Posted: Nov 04, 2014 11:49 AM EST

The lemurs of Madagascar are crucial to the region's biodiversity. Yet a majority of the 101 species of lemurs there are now threatened with extinction. Scientists have now taken a closer look at what might happen to the region with their disappearance.

A large proportion of trees in Madagascar's rainforest have fruits that are eaten by lemurs. These primates, in turn, disperse the seeds from the fruit trees throughout the forests. This dispersal plays a huge role in terms of helping trees regenerate.

In order to examine how important this relationship between lemurs and trees is, the scientists conducted field observations, experiments and employed mathematical models. More specifically, they followed the seed-dispersal patterns of three of Madagascar's lemur species: the red-fronted brown lemur, the red-bellied lemur and the southern black-and-white ruffed lemur. They also spent three years carrying out experiments on seed sprouting and survival.

"Seeds away from the parent tree survive better because there's less competition among seedlings," said Onja Razafindratsima, a graduate student involved in the study, in a news release. "If they're close by the parent, they may also share the same natural enemies, like soil pathogens and seed predators, so there's higher mortality."

In the end, the scientists found that the seeds of a common canopy tree have a 300 percent higher chance of sprouting and becoming a sapling when dispersed by lemurs versus simply falling to the ground.

The findings reveal that lemurs are an important part of Madagascar's ecosystem. With lemur population declines, it's more important than effort to take steps to preserve these primates.

"If some species suddenly lose their dispersers, but others dispersed by birds or the wind are doing fine, it may change population trajectories and alter which tree species are dominant in a community," said Amy Dunham, one of the researchers. "To understand what happens when these species are lost, we need to understand their role in the ecosystem."

The findings are published in the journal Ecology.

Want to learn more? Check out the video below, courtesy of YouTube.

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