As reported in New Scientist magazine’s 16th April issue, Madagascar’s remaining ‘critically endangered’ Lemurs play a vital role in spreading seeds from trees. Without them, the country’s famously beautiful and unique forests are under serious threat.
Five hundred years ago the Madagascan forests were home to a collection of mega-beasts, giant mammals including the Koala Lemur, which was the size of a gorilla. These huge creatures were responsible for spreading large tree seeds far and wide via their droppings, and ensured the long term health of the forest.
These days the mega-beasts are all gone, killed off by humans in the same way as countless mega-fauna across the planet have been decimated by the human race. And the tree species left behind are struggling to reproduce, a situation made even worse by the fact that smaller Lemurs and other forest-dwellers are also under threat. Without large animals to disperse these big seeds in their droppings, ‘swathes of Madagascar’s unique flora are living on borrowed time’.
A team at Yale University have officially linked Lemur extinction with threats to the island’s large-seeded plants. Apparently seventeen types of fruit eating Lemurs have gone extinct in the past few hundred years, reducing the ability of the remaining animals to seed trees and plants by at least a third as plants lose their natural means of propagation.
The scientists examined ancient Lemur jawbones to find out what the extinct animals ate. It turns out they loved eating large fruit with big seeds, which they spread around the entire island in their droppings. Now all the big Lemurs are long gone, many unique plants are in serious trouble simply because the remaining animals find the seeds too big to eat.
There are still two large-ish types of Lemur on the island, and they are ‘irreplaceable’. But they’re also critically endangered. 33 different types of hardwood tree are in danger, and they’ll disappear unless the island’s remaining Lemur population is properly protected.