By Jade Boyd
Widespread logging and hunting have endangered virtually all of Madagascar’s 100-plus species of iconic lemurs, and a new study by Rice University ecologists illustrates how saving the animals may also be key to saving the island’s largest trees.
“Forest loss is a huge problem in Madagascar right now, but our study suggests that just saving the trees is not enough,” said Amy Dunham, associate professor of biosciences at Rice and co-author of a paper appearing online today in a special issue of the International Journal of Primatology. “Not only are we facing the loss of these unique, charismatic animals, we’re also losing their role in the ecosystem. Without lemurs, the rainforests themselves will change because the lemurs alone disperse the seeds of many of the forests’ largest hardwoods.”
The study builds upon nearly a decade of collaborative work by Dunham and lead author Onja Razafindratsima at the island nation’s Ranomafana National Park.
Lemurs mostly eat fruit, and for many of the largest trees in Madagascar, lemurs are the only animals large enough to ingest the seeds of their fruit. By dispersing seeds throughout the forest in their scat, lemurs serve as the unwitting gardeners of these large canopy trees.