Scientists Discover New Species of Adorable Dwarf Lemur in Madagascar

First Posted: Jul 31, 2013 09:15 AM EDT

Madagascar harbors plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world. Now, researchers have discovered a new species of lemur on the island, revealing that there are still new creatures that have yet to be discovered.

Lemurs are a subgroup of primates and are among the most prominent representatives of Madagascar's unique fauna. In fact, they are found almost exclusively on the island, with only two known exceptions found on the Comoros Islands. It's thought that these two exceptions were probably introduced by humans.

So how did this new primate manage to escape the notice of researchers? It's a dwarf lemur, which means it's relatively small. In addition, dwarf lemurs as a whole have received relatively little attention to date and the diversity within this genus still isn't well known. Their lifestyle makes them extremely difficult to study; not only are they nocturnal, but they also remain in the upper parts of the forest canopy. In addition, they hibernate for several months during the winter, which makes them even harder to pin down. Perhaps the most glaring reason why it escaped notice for so long, though, was the fact that researchers classified it as another species; only with the help of genetic evidence were they able to classify it as its own, distinct species.

"Together with Malagasy scientists, we have bene studying the diversity of lemurs for several years now," said Andreas Hapke of the Johannes Gutenburg University Mainz in a news release. "It is only now that we were able to determine that some of the animals examined represent a previously unknown species."

In order to actually examine these lemurs, the researchers employed live traps. They were able to capture 51 dwarf lemurs during this method, taking minute tissue samples before releasing the animals back into the wild. The samples were then subjected to molecular-genetic analysis and compared with other data to test the diversity of the species.

So what is the new species like? Called the Lavasoa Dwarf Lemur, Cheirogaleus lavasoensis, the primate inhabits three forest fragments in the extreme south of Madagascar. With its small ears and mouse-like face, it's nocturnal like other dwarf lemurs. Despite the fact that it was recently discovered, though, this species may soon disappear. Scientists estimate that there are probably less than 50 individuals remaining, making it extremely endangered.

Currently, researchers are working to examine other lemurs in the area, finding out that there are far more species than they once thought.

A study describing the new lemur is published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

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