Extinct lemurs left behind plant ‘orphans’


The extinction of several species of large lemurs in Madagascar has created isolated “orphaned” plant species that once depended upon the animals to eat and disperse their large seeds.

These large-seeded plant species now face an uncertain future, says Sarah Federman, a PhD candidate in the ecology and evolutionary biology department at Yale University. “We need to understand the impacts of past extinction events or we cannot adequately design conservation plans for the future.”

An estimated 17 species of large lemur have gone extinct in the last few thousand years, and many of them are thought to have been important seed dispersers.

For the new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists examined characteristics of extinct and living lemur species to estimate the dispersal ability lost with these extinctions and to predict the impact on the island’s flora. In the absence of now-extinct lemurs, plant species with large seeds have become reliant upon poor dispersal substitutes such as wind, gravity, and rodents.

Researchers also identified contemporary examples of a precarious balance between lemurs and plants in Madagascar. For instance, the critically endangered black-and-white ruffed lemur is the last remaining species large enough to eat and disperse seeds of Canarium species. These plant species might also eventually be lost if this lemur species goes extinct.

Researchers from Duke University, Hunter College, the New York Botanical Garden, and North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences contributed to the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Source: Yale University

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