Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Secrets of a Strange Lemur

With their wide-set yellow eyes, big ears, continuously growing incisors and long, skeletal fingers, aye-ayes aren’t the cuddliest looking of the lemurs. But like many lemurs, aye-ayes are in danger of becoming extinct. Using tracking collars and genetic sequencing, researchers are trying to better understand them in the hopes of protecting them. 

Because of these lemurs’ appearance, some Malagasy people associate them with harbingers of evil. They are also considered a nuisance because they ruin crops. But their solitary, nocturnal nature keeps them out of site. “To be perfectly honest people don’t see aye-aye all that much,” said Ed Louis, an aye-aye researcher and director general of the Malagasy nongovernmental organization the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership.

Madagascar is home to many unique plants and animals including lemurs. However, many are threatened. Over the years, much of the island country’s forests have been destroyed, and the situation has worsened since 2009. Lemurs are also increasingly hunted for meat.

Aye-ayes have continuously growing incisors, they use to gnaw through deadwood or bamboo to get to wood-boring insect larvae or through the shells of seeds.

 Aye-ayes use a long, slender middle finger to extract food from a hole they have gnawed. They have been compared to woodpeckers.

To better understand aye-ayes’ habits, researchers put tracking collars on them and collect samples for analysis. In the process, Ed Louis, of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership, gives the animals a veterinary examination. 

Ed Louis keeps a young male aye-aye, named Sesson, warm in his jacket. Sesson’s tracking collar had just been changed, since the aye-aye is growing Louis and colleagues checked it every three months to make sure it didn’t get too tight. 

Researchers have sequenced genomes from 12 aye-ayes and three regions in Madagascar and found that one population, in the north, appears genetically distinct. Researchers hope information like this can be used to protect the species.

 Researchers have found that individual aye-ayes have large ranges, occupying as much as 1,500 acres (600 hectares). They are intelligent, which makes them difficult to follow and trap.

Work on the aye-aye genome found evidence that they are at the low end for genetic diversity among primates. Genetic diversity is important to the long-term health of a population. 

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