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Lemurs crucial for the health of Madagascar's rainforests

A new study of lemurs on Madagascar suggests that these animals may hold the key to the survival of this island's unique rainforest environments.

Posted: 25 August 2011

image for news story Lemurs crucial for the health of Madagascar's rainforests

A new study of lemurs on Madagascar suggests that these animals may hold the key to the survival of this island's unique rainforest environments.

Throughout the Tropics, animals play an important role in dispersing the seeds of trees, maintaining the health of the forests in which they live. In the new study, researchers from the University of Roehampton investigated seed dispersal by black-and-white ruffed lemurs in Manombo forest, south-east Madagascar. They found evidence that for some tree species, these lemurs could in fact be the only animals spreading their seeds.

According to study leader, former MRes Primatology student Kara Moses: "The lemurs here are swallowing a great diversity of seeds and then depositing them whole in their droppings. Some of these seeds are over 4cm long, and it’s likely that no other animals are capable of swallowing seeds this big. As a result the survival of the trees in question may be completely reliant on the black-and-white ruffed lemur."

Black-and-white ruffed lemurs are one of 93 species of lemur, primates found only on the island of Madagascar. Many of the large seed-dispersing animals found in other tropical rainforests are absent from Madagascar, making lemurs particularly important for forest regeneration. Numbers of black and white ruffed lemurs are declining rapidly, and the loss of these animals could have dramatic impacts on forest structure. "Tree species with smaller seeds would increase in numbers as a result," said Moses, "and as these species tend to be smaller and shorter lived, they store less carbon throughout their lifetimes ... so there could even be implications for the global climate."

Study co-author Stuart Semple added: "This work highlights the intimate link between primates and their environment, and the delicate nature of their co-existence. Our findings suggest that black-and-white ruffed lemurs have an absolutely key role to play in forest regeneration, and that even greater efforts should be put into conserving these critically endangered animals."

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