Ancient DNA Reveals Why Gorilla-sized Lemurs Became Extinct on Madagascar

First Posted: Dec 17, 2014 10:45 AM EST

Ancient DNA may explain why giant lemurs became extinct. Scientists have taken a closer look at the bones and teeth of giant lemurs that lived thousands of years ago and have found a bit more about these now-extinct animals.

Madagascar hosts many unusual animals and in the past, massive lemurs once roamed the island. In fact, one particular species tipped the scales at 350 pounds, which is as large as a male gorilla.

Most researchers believe that humans played a role in the extinction of giant lemurs by hunting them for food and forcing them out of habitats. Yet their DNA may provide another explanation. It's possible that giant lemurs were more prone to extinction than smaller-bodied species due to their smaller population sizes.

The scientists examined genetic material that they extracted from lemur bones and teeth that dated back from 550 to 5,600 years ago. These specimens represented five extinct lemur species that all died after human arrival; these included the giant ruffed lemur, a baboon lemur, a koala lemur and two sloth lemurs. In addition, the scientists included genetic data from eight extant species, including the three largest lemur species still alive today.

In the end, the researchers found that the species that died out had lower genetic diversity that the ones that survived. This means that population numbers were probably smaller.

"Larger-bodied species often need larger territories and are fewer in number than smaller-bodied species," said George Perry, one of the researchers, in a news release. This means that the larger lemurs would have been more susceptible to extinction as human activities took their toll.

That said, the researchers found no link between body size and genetic diversity in lemur species living today. This indicates that body size is less useful for establishing conservation priorities. However, the lemur DNA will enhance understanding of actual population sizes of lemurs before they succumbed to extinction, which may help the scientists develop "extinction alerts" for living lemurs.

The findings are published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

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