Is This the Smallest Primate on Earth?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic Ultimate Explorer
June 27, 2003

A Fulbright scholar and former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, Mireya Mayor received her first grant to study the rare brown-bearded saki and white- faced saki in the unexplored areas of Guyana in South America when she was 23. She's also one of a handful of scientists to perform critical work on the highly endangered silky sifaka and Perrier's sifaka, whose habits remain a mystery to biologists. Recently, Mayor and fellow researcher Ed Louis discovered a new species of mouse lemur that may be the smallest primate in the world.

Premiering Sunday, June 29, 2003, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on MSNBC, Ultimate Explorer's "King Kong in my Pocket" takes viewers along on Mayor's arduous journey deep into the Madagascar jungle during the monsoon season to document the find and help promote protection for the new species.

Mayor and Ed Louis from Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo first discovered the little primate last year huddled inside one of their many specially configured lemur traps. DNA testing proved that the find was in fact a new species of microcebus, or mouse lemur, but more evidence was needed. Mayor later ventured back to the remote island off Africa's coast with an Ultimate Explorer team and a National Geographic photographer to locate more specimens in order to document the discovery.

"The primary goal of our mission was to photograph and properly describe this as a new species and I'm thrilled we obtained enough evidence to do just that," said Mayor. "I had to get that documentation because only then was I able to lobby to have its habitat fully protected."

For the first time ever, Ultimate Explorer's cameras capture this tiny lemur on film.

Mayor spoke with National Geographic News about the discovery, her fieldwork with lemurs, and her efforts to seek protection for these fascinating primates.

How did you first become involved with primatology and with lemurs?

I began studying primates because I found out how little was known about them and that even in the 21st century there are still species that have never before been studied. We still have a lot to learn—that's what intrigued me. You might think that everything has been studied, that all the exciting areas have been traveled, and that anything worth discovering has been found. To learn that there are still areas that Westerners at least haven't explored, and animals that haven't been studied, and discoveries still to be made is pretty wild I think.

It was a personal challenge, and the most compelling reason was that the first lemur species, the Perrier's lemur, that I went to study was so endangered and really in need of study and of help. I was motivated by the constant loss of habitat and wanted to do what I could while there was still time. We still don't know some of the most basic stuff: How many of these animals are in the wild? What's their geographic range? What's their diet? These are very simple questions that we don't have answers to—and they're all critical to promoting their survival.

Tell us a bit about lemurs and why they are so special.

There are two main branches in the primate tree. Anthropoids include monkeys, humans, apes, and others. The other branch is the Prosimians and that's where lemurs fall. Currently there are over 60 recognized species, and more than half of those are endangered. They are endemic to Madagascar and found really only on Madagascar, though one population was introduced elsewhere.

The largest of the lemurs are the first to go extinct and 15 species have become extinct since humans arrived on the island. One of them we know from the fossil record was the size of a gorilla. They've been gone for a long time…but those early explorers—what a sight.

Continued on Next Page >>


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