A tale of two forests could reveal path forward for saving endangered lemurs

Newswise – A forest in Madagascar is teeming with lemurs. In another forest only 150 miles away, the last of a small local population could soon be lost.

To find out how best to support these two endangered species – black and white ruffled lemurs and diademed sifakas – scientists from Washington University in St. Louis are working with researchers from the Saint Louis Zoo, the Missouri Botanical Garden and partners from Madagascar together for an innovative research work within the Living Earth Collaborative. Andy Newman, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Washington University, through the Eric P. & Evelyn E. Newman Foundation, founded the Newman Madagascar Research Fund, which will be critical to the success of the project.

The work began with intensive field observations focusing on the daily activities, living requirements and genetic diversity of lemurs in the Betampona nature reserve near the northeast coast of the island country. Next up is a similar inventory in the Vohibe Forest in eastern Madagascar.

“No two locations are alike,” said Emily Wroblewski, who heads the project together with colleague Krista Milich, both assistant professors of anthropology in the arts and sciences at Washington University. “And when you are dealing with an endangered species, every individual and every location counts.”

For the black and white ruffled lemur Varecia variegata, the key number to be counted is 45. So few individual lemurs of this species could remain in the more isolated forest location Betampona. According to recent estimates, the diademed Sifaka Propithecus diadema could only comprise 19 people in this place.

“At Betampona, we’re trying to get the numbers really good,” said Elizabeth Kelley, executive director of the Saint Louis Zoo Wildcare Institute. “We need to find out if the population is really as small as we think we are and really comb and run the quantitative census to get a good population estimate.”

The Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group, a non-governmental organization founded by a consortium of zoos and other institutions such as the Saint Louis Zoo and the Missouri Botanical Garden, identified Betampona as a priority location more than 30 years ago.

“Having a team based in Madagascar is critical to the project,” said Fidy Rasambainarivo, associate scientist at the Saint Louis Zoo Wildcare Institute and its center for conservation in Madagascar. Local focus was important even before the COVID-19 pandemic closed borders and made travel difficult. With contributions and a project plan drawn up by the researchers at the Living Earth Collaborative, members of the Rasambainarivo team are already following the lemurs in the field: taking behavioral notes, mapping areas and collecting samples.

Lemurs are endemic to Madagascar and are particularly vulnerable to the effects of forest loss. At least 26 of the lemur species in Madagascar are classified as critically endangered or endangered.

“We decided to focus on two species that have the most extreme conservation status,” said Milich. “They especially have problems with the more isolated location [Betampona]. ”

Milich and Wroblewski noted that the new project in Madagascar is closely tied to the historical work of the late Robert Sussman, a leading scholar on human and primate behavior at Washington University who helped train many of today’s leading primatologists . Sussman, a worldwide authority on lemur behavior and ecology from Madagascar, was Kelley’s advisor during her training.

Life in different circumstances

The Betampona nature reserve comprises around 12 km² of trees surrounded by fields that have been cleared for agriculture.

The second site included in this study is the Vohibe Forest. It’s larger (about 12 square miles) and much better connected to an adjacent forest corridor called the Ankeniheny Zahamena Forest Corridor.

Lemurs that live in the Vohibe Forest enjoy a larger, healthier forest to roam, as well as more natural ways to meet potential mates from various groups of lemurs traveling along the forest corridor. That’s a big part of the reason scientists want to compare lemurs in Vohibe to those in Betampona.

“We are trying to understand genetic diversity goals and what is viable and what is optimal by looking at a population in the best circumstances we can currently find in the wild,” said Wroblewski.

The researchers plan to document which plants the lemurs regularly eat and use in the Vohibe Forest, where the Missouri Botanical Garden has been working to restore previously disturbed or destroyed forest areas.

“Since 2005, the Missouri Botanical Garden has worked with people in the Ambalabe community to conserve the biodiversity of the Vohibe Forest,” said Armand Randrianasolo, curator of the Madagascar program for the Missouri Botanical Garden. “As the head of the team charged with carrying out activities to protect plant diversity at this location, I was looking for partners to expand the scientific knowledge of all the animals found at the Vohibe location.

“In order to achieve our conservation goal for the biodiversity of the Vohibe Forest, it is important to work with people who study lemurs,” he added. “Lemurs are an important part of the Vohibe Forest ecosystem.”

First steps on the ground

Over the next two years, the project will train four Malagasy graduate students and four Malagasy leaders, as well as fund the efforts of a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Washington who has done significant fieldwork in Madagascar, Giovanna Bonadonna.

Bonadonna began his work in January 2021, organizing future fieldwork and research permits from St. Louis. Bonadonna is a specialist in behavioral and spatial ecology and has worked on another long-term study on lemur species in central eastern Madagascar.

“This experience gives me a good perspective on the challenges they are facing,” said Bonadonna.

“Both are very charismatic types,” she added. “Propithecus [the diademed sifaka] and Varecia [the black-and-white ruffed lemur] can make very interesting vocalizations. You will definitely notice them in the forest. “

“I’m very excited about this project,” said Rasambainarivo. “Animals need genetic diversity in order to adapt to changes in the environment – from climate change to the imminent threat of habitat destruction. And what Emily and Krista are doing to understand these two species and how they function in multiple locations will be very helpful in the management of these species and their long-term conservation. “

A new kind of flagship

As of 2018, the Living Earth Collaborative has funded 23 projects involving 62 investigators from nine local institutions in St. Louis. Most of the time, these efforts have been small infusions of seed capital (generally $ 10,000 to $ 40,000) to help St. Louis researchers connect and start new projects (see Funded Projects here, here, and here) .

In Madagascar, the project partners of the Saint Louis Zoo and the Missouri Botanical Garden have already made significant commitments to preserve and protect biodiversity.

The new Lemur project builds on more than 30 years of research and commitment in St. Louis, motivated by the understanding and conservation of the unique and globally important biodiversity of Madagascar.

According to Jonathan Losos, director of the Living Earth Collaborative and professor at the William H. Danforth Distinguished University in the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, this experience distinguishes this project as a kind of flagship of the Living Earth Collaborative.

The cooperation in Madagascar is intended to help bridge research in separately managed forest locations and promote common protection goals. This is good news for black and white ruffled lemurs and diademed sifakas – and possibly other species of lemurs as well.

“The two species were prioritized based on their priority [endangered species] Status. But these are not animals that live in isolation, ”said Wroblewski. “Our long-term goal is to get a perspective of the entire ecosystem in order to preserve and understand how the lemurs interact with each other and with their environment as a whole.”

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