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Already on the edge, lemurs could become victims of climate change
Jeremy Hance
June 08, 2010

Expanding beyond well-known victims such as polar bears and coral reefs, the list is growing of species likely to be hard hit by climate change: from lizards to birds to amphibians. Now a new study has uncovered another group of species vulnerable to a warmer world: lemurs.

New research in Global Change Biology finds that warmer temperatures could interrupt lemurs' ability to successfully reproduce and rear healthy young. For a group of primates native only to Madagascar and already pressured by deforestation and hunting, the news does not bode well.

"We're starting to realize that not only are these hot spots of biodiversity facing habitat degradation and other anthropogenic effects, but they're also being affected by the same changes we feel in the temperate zones," says Amy Dunham, lead author of the study and assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Rice University.

Milne Edwards' lemur. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Studying Milne-Edwards' sifaka lemurs, Dunham found that El Niño conditions—which are expected to be enhanced by climate change—bring more rain to the sifaka's habitat disrupting their ability to feed.

"When it rains heavily, lemurs are not active. They sit there and wait for the rain to stop, huddling for warmth," Dunham explains. Heavy rains may knock fruit from trees at a time when mother lemurs need it most to feed hungry babies.

In fact, the study found clear evidence that El Niño conditions wreaked havoc on lemur reproduction and infant-rearing. According to the paper: Milne-Edwards' sifaka lemur's fecundity "was negatively affected when El Niño occurred in the period before conception, perhaps altering ovulation, or during the second six months of life, possibly reducing infant survival during weaning."

According to the IUCN Red List, Milne-Edwards' sifaka lemurs are already listed as Endangered due to habitat loss from deforestation and mining, as well as hunting for bush meat.

"Madagascar's biodiversity is an ecological treasure," Dunham says. "But its flora and fauna already face extinction from rapid deforestation and exploitation of natural resources. The additional negative effects of climate change make conservation concerns even more urgent."

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