Looking Out for Lemurs in Madagascar

A group of ring-tailed lemurs foraging for food and basking in the sunlight at the Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve.

Sifaka lemurs sit in a tree in Madagascar's Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve. (Photo/Jenna Pyle).


By Jenna Pyle

On a sunny but cool July morning in 2010, anthropologist Michelle Sauther is holding a sleeping lemur in her gloved hands as she examines it for parasites. Her colleague, Frank Cuozzo is peering into another ring-tailed lemur’s mouth as he prepares to make an impression of its teeth with blue dentist’s clay.

Sauther and Cuozzo are co-founders of the Lemur Biology Project in southwestern Madagascar and professors of biological anthropology. Sauther is based at the University of Colorado Boulder and Cuozzo is at the University of North Dakota. Since forest use by humans is a widespread reality in Madagascar, the major goal of the project is to assess how lemurs do in the face of the destruction of their habitat. While Sauther and Cuozzo’s research focuses on evaluating the health of ring-tailed lemurs at the Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve, as their graduate student I hope to add to the project’s goals by studying the condition of sifaka, another lemur species at the reserve.

Michelle Sauther and Frank Cuozzo perform a "check-up" on a ring-tailed lemur at the reserve’s campsite. (Photo/Krista Fish).

I step out of the 4×4 and thank my friend and driver Rakotomalala Randrianirina (who’s known as Andrina for short) for a morning of great work. We have just returned to camp from another part of the reserve, where I had been observing wild sifaka for the morning.  The reserve is separated into two parcels of land: I and II. Parcel I is a fenced-in dry deciduous forest with the Sakamena River next to it to the east. In this section of the reserve large Tamarind trees tower over lush green forest in the wet season. To the southwest of Parcel I lies the larger and drier Parcel II, where many drought-tolerant native Malagasy plants are common. The habitats that make up the reserve are so diverse that the drive from Parcel II, where my research took place, to the campsite, literally took us from one biome to another in a mere three miles.

The arid Parcel II is home to some of Madagascar’s most unique plants, which are known to have been on the island long before the arrival of humans about 2,300 years ago. One of the most striking of these is the Malagasy Ocotillo, a spiky plant the locals call “Fantiolotse.” Each plant consists of a hodgepodge of spike-adorned trunks and water-filled round leaves, adaptations that allow it to thrive during droughts, which are common, and ward off most curious herbivores. Sifakas, however, are not deterred. I’ve seen the graceful leapers hurl themselves onto the spikes and munch on some leaves without blinking an eye.  After their snack, the sifakas might jump to the ground and sit on ancient limestone while basking in the morning sunlight. The fossils of extinct lemurs larger than gorillas have been discovered in these limestone deposits, less than a mile away from where these sifakas are resting.

Each year since 2003, Sauther and Cuozzo have left their homes in June to travel across the world to study ring-tailed lemurs at the special reserve. They load up equipment, travel for three days on an airplane, cross their fingers that their research permits arrive on time, purchase thirty pounds of dry rice and beans, and brave an eight hour drive on roads worse than any American can imagine. Only exceptionally experienced drivers, like Andrina, are able to anticipate where miles of concrete road break, revealing deep potholes where vehicles must be quickly, but methodically, slowed and maneuvered through the rocky divots. The professors overcome these obstacles in order to work for a project that is fueled by their passions for knowledge, conservation, and philanthropy.

A group of ring-tailed lemurs forage for food and bask in the sunlight at the Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve. (Photo/Michelle Sauther).

The Lemur Biology Project brings together a diverse team of people, from different countries, all of whom are committed to conserving Malagasy lemurs, enhancing knowledge of the ecology and skeletal make-up of living and extinct primates, and considering the well-being of people who live at the reserve and share the lemurs’ habitat. While some conservation organizations practice what might be called “fortress conservation” by fencing local people out of wildlife preservation areas, the Lemur Biology Project encourages people living in tandem with endangered lemur species to work for and with the project to better the lives of humans and non-humans alike. The project brings invaluable resources to the reserve, without which lemur populations would struggle or perish, forests would be destroyed, and many local people would be without jobs.

As Sauther explains, “I think it’s a really good example of an approach to conservation biology that actually works… this project has been successful because there is this understanding that you have the support of local people; they’re the ones that are going to decide whether it works or not.”

A curious chameleon at the reserve. (Photo/Michelle Sauther).

Back at camp I rest in the shade of a tall Tamarind tree and watch my advisors as they finish the ring-tailed lemurs’ check-ups, until my attention is drawn to a large chameleon on a near-by trunk. The camp resides in Parcel I of the reserve, which is closer to the life-sustaining Sakamena River. Here the forest is seasonally lush and green and, like Parcel II, is filled with a great diversity of life, from lemurs, lizards, and birds, to hissing cockroaches, frogs, and lemur-eating fossa (a vicious cat-like relative of the mongoose).

While the Lemur Biology Project officially began in 2003, the reserve has been in existence since much earlier. In the late 1970s, a team of American and Malagasy conservation biologists explored western and southern Madagascar in search of a region with diverse flora and fauna that local people would be willing to protect. In 1978, the Popular Counsul of the government of the Commune of Beavoha, southwestern Madagascar, agreed to cede two patches of unique dry forest habitat to organizations associated with the project, and soon after the Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve was established.

From its nascent period the special reserve benefited the lemurs and local people alike through a plethora of research projects, educational programs, and development initiatives, including the construction of wells for drinking water. While research projects have been more prevalent in the 197-acre Parcel I, the entire 1483 acres of reserve is available to students and local researchers.

Sauther had been studying the ecology and behavior of ring-tailed lemurs at the special reserve since 1987, but as time passed she noticed that people living in the villages surrounding the area were struggling to feed their families. This struggle has brought forest destruction to lemurs’ habitat because local people attempt to generate income with the extraction of trees to be sold for lumber. A common threat to lemur survival throughout Madagascar, humans have destroyed an estimated 90 percent of the island’s original forests.

In response to threats to lemur habitat at Beza, Sauther decided to create a project focusing on how lemurs respond to human-caused alterations to the environments they inhabit. The aim of the Lemur Biology Project is to understand the needs of the people and lemurs of the Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve and to create conservation strategies that fulfill the requirements of both groups.

Concerning the lemurs, Sauther decided to research how deforestation affects the behavior, ecology, and health of the animals.

“We sought to try to put together a team of veterinarians and other people who might be interested in the same sort of question,” she says.

Since the special reserve’s creation, international student researchers have been hiring Malagasy people from adjacent villages as invaluable research assistants, botanists and cooks. With the Lemur Biology Project’s inception Sauther decided to increase the benefits of the reserve for the local people by providing villages with schools and educational supplies for their children. This tradition continues each summer with trips to local schools and presentations of donations.

In addition to exploring strategies that could meet the needs of the reserve’s lemurs and people alike, the project reveals information about the distant past, with the use of a technique called comparative morphology. This involves using known relationships between characteristics of the skeleton and associated patterns of movement to determine how extinct animals moved throughout their environment. This is possible because certain characteristics of the skeleton observed among living creatures may be used as models for how their extinct relatives lived. For example, a long tarsus, or heel bone, can be found in many mammals that leap, like rabbits and many lemur species, because it serves as a stability platform. Therefore, if an extinct primate demonstrates a long heel bone, scientists assume that the species was most likely a leaper.

As a part of the Lemur Biology Project, scientists document the anatomy of lemurs including the ring-tailed lemur. Because many anatomical features of this species resemble those of adapids– primates that lived throughout North America and Europe 55 million years ago–results from the project’s research expand what we know about how these ancient primates lived.

In Cuozzo’s view, “It’s not just about contemporary issues, conservation biology, and primate information on behavior and ecology. It’s about going back into the fossil record and using this population in the context of evolutionary biology.” This means comparing the skeletons of lemurs with primates from the Eocene (the epoch from about 56 to 34 million years ago) in order to better understand how ancient primates lived. “So now we’re going back 55 million years to use some of these patterns to understand ecology,” says Cuozzo.

This summer another CU-Boulder graduate student, Jim Millette, will venture to the reserve for his dissertation research. While he will be peering into the mouths of ring-tailed lemurs alongside Frank Cuozzo, the benefits of his presence and research will extend beyond the collection of data he needs for his project. It will mean more food on the tables of a few Malagasy families and possibly less illegal extraction of the forest on which the lemurs so desperately depend.

While Jim is most excited about what the data he collects will tell him about the dental problems of ring-tailed lemurs and ancient primates, he knows that his research would not be possible without collaboration between the project and local people.

“Without having a local community that is strong and well-educated, they’re not going to engage in any conservation… because there will be nothing left,” he says.

With any luck, I will follow in Jim’s footsteps and travel to Beza for my dissertation research in the summer of 2013.  I look forward to participating in a project that supports lemur conservation, the livelihoods of Malagasy people, and paleoanthropology.

Jenna is a second-year PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at CU-Boulder. Her research focuses on Verreauxi’s sifaka response to human-caused forest destruction.  She is also very interested in the traditions, beliefs, and livelihoods of Malagasy people.

One comment

  • Lee Rendon

    This article is wonderful! I am fasinated by all your research and really enjoy reading what is happening in the world of research and conservation. It enables me to be all that more knowledgable about the message I am giving to visitors here at the SD Zoo, most of them completely unaware of the perils of so many animals we strive to help. Fabulous writing! Congratulations! They should publish this article in the Zoo news!

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