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Thousands of years ago the island of Madagascar was a forest-covered paradise filled with lemurs. This Eden was a world apart. And then humans arrived.
When humans first arrived on Madagascar, there were at least 50 lemur species living on the island, the largest of which rivaled the body mass of a male gorilla or orangutan
Not one of the 33 lemur species that still survive on the island is as large as the smallest of the lemurs that disappeared from Madagascar during the past several millennia. Along with the giant lemurs, Madagascar was populated by other megafauna that have also since vanished. There were huge tortoises, giant predatory raptors, and pygmy hippopotamuses. There were gigantic flightless birds called elephant birds. These birds were larger than any other birds - living or extinct. They were heavier than the famous 10-foot-tall moas of New Zealand. The eggs of elephant birds could hold the fluid contents of about 180 chicken eggs! There were no cats or dogs on Madagascar; rather there were strange primitive carnivores (mongooses, civets, and cryptoprocts), including one that weighed more than 10 kilograms.
Over the past 2000 years, all of Madagascar's large endemic animals became extinct, and it is estimated that less than 3% of what was once a huge expanse of western deciduous forest exists today...
Lemurs are prosimian primates belonging to the suborder (along with tarsiers and lorises) Strepsirrhini, as opposed to the Anthropoidea (monkeys, apes, and hominins). They have been living on Madagascar for a long, long time, and are found nowhere else in the world. Chris Beard's The Hunt For The Dawn Monkey explains what is known about the evolutionary trajectory of the lemurs.
The fossil record sheds only the dimmest light on the early colonization of Madagascar by primitive lemurs, because sites of appropriate antiquity remain unknown on the island. However, analyses fo the DNA of living and recently extinct lemurs have shown that they all evolved from a single ancestor that invaded Madagascar during the early part of the Cenozoic, about 54 million years ago.
These early lemurs encountered a depauperate island fauna that offered few competitive obstacles to their evolutionary success. They radiated into a rich array of shapes and sizes, filling much fo the ecological vacuum that Madagascar presented. Evenutally, the descendents fo the first lemur colonists of Madagascar would include species as small as living mouse lemurs and others—such as the recently extinct Palaeopropithecus and Archaeoindris—that approached the size of large apes. Certain lemurs acquired specializations for eating insects, leaves, bamboo, seeds, fruits, sap and gum. Various species evolved into slothlike (Palaeopropithecus), monkeylike (Hadropithecus), and even vaguely woodpeckerlike (Daubentonia) forms. In constrast, the nearest relatives of the lemurs—African bushbabies and African and Asian lorises—span a much smaller range of body sizes and ecological roles...
The remaining species of lemurs form a unique heritage beyond price. Needless to say then, I was quite angry when I read Madagascar's Lemurs [are the] most threatened mammals in the world.
Leading conservationists have gathered at a workshop of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission this week to review the conservation status of the world’s 103 lemur species — the most endangered primate group in the world...
The conservation status of 91 per cent of the world’s lemur species have now been upgraded to either ‘Critically Endangered’, ‘Endangered’ or ‘Vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species – an indicator of rampant forest loss which additionally endangers vital ecosystem services that support Madagascar’s people.
Of the world’s 103 different species of lemurs, 23 are now considered ‘Critically Endangered’, 52 are ‘Endangered, 19 are ‘Vulnerable’ and three are ‘Near Threatened’. Just three lemur species are listed as ‘Least Concern’.
A previous assessment carried out in 2005 as part of a Global Mammal Assessment identified 10 species as ‘Critically Endangered’, 21 as ‘Endangered’, and 17 as ‘Vulnerable’, already a very high number.
However, given the recent increases in the number of new species and the fact that the level of threat has increased over the past three years, the experts decided to carry out a reassessment of Madagascar’s lemur fauna.
[My note: ignore discrepancies in the number of lemur species counted in these articles.]
Lemurs are in danger of becoming extinct by destruction of their tropical forest habitat on their native island of Madagascar, off Africa's Indian Ocean coast, where political uncertainty has increased poverty and accelerated illegal logging. Hunting of these animals has also emerged as a more serious threat than previously imagined...
Among the most spectacular species of lemurs assessed as ‘Critically Endangered’ this week is the indri [image top left], the largest of the living lemurs and a species of symbolic value comparable to that of China’s giant panda, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, at 30 grams the world’s smallest primate, and the blue-eyed black lemur, the only primate species other than humans that has blue eyes. Probably the rarest lemur is the northern sportive lemur (Lepilemur septentrionalis), of which there are only 18 known individuals left.
So there you have it. These lemurs first occupied Madagascar about 54 million years ago in the very early Eocene. There they radiated undisturbed for all that time up until about 2000 years ago, when humans first arrived. After these humans killed off some number of species, there was a tenuous "truce" for a while until fairly recently, historically speaking, when human pressures on lemur populations intensified. And now 97 of the 103 species listed are critically endangered (23), endangered (52), vulnerable (19) or near threatened (3).
I don't know why it is, but of all the outrageous things that humans perpetrate, it bothers me the most when we exterminate our near or distant cousins among the primates. I become apoplectic when I see reports about these abominations. The fact that lemurs are prosimians and not anthropoids has no bearing on the matter as far as I'm concerned.
More importantly, the fact that human beings are irremediable fuck-ups has serious consequences. If you've been reading DOTE for any length of time, that should be clear to you now. When I see reports like the one I cited, I don't give a damn whether Homo sapiens survives its own depredations or not. It is completely clear which outcome would be best for the lemurs ... if we don't take them down with us.
Thus I have little else to say. I will show part 1 of an episode of In The Wild. This great documentary about the lemurs of Madagascar first aired on PBS in 1999, and is hosted by John Cleese.