for National Geographic News
Pristine forests on the African island nation of Madagascar offer the Milne-Edwards' sifaka a rich diet of fruits, seeds, and leaves, an anthropologist has found.
Logged-over habitat, in contrast, produces mostly leaves for the rare primate to eat.
The Milne-Edwards sifaka is a lemur, a type of primate found only on Madagascar.
There are more than 70 lemur species, and almost all are endangered due to habitat destruction from logging and agricultural slash-and-burn fires. (Related story: "Three New Lemurs Discovered, Add to Madagascar's Diversity" [June 26, 2006].)
Scientists are racing to learn as much as they can about basic lemur ecology so that the Malagasy government can use the data to make informed conservation management decisions before human activity wipes out entire species.
"Are they going to let logging occur in national parks or are they not? Are they going to allow access for firewood collection or not?" said Summer Arrigo-Nelson, a visiting professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.
"Those kinds of questions need scientific data to help us understand what the primate response is."
Arrigo-Nelson's research shows that animals living in unspoiled forest are eating a more nutritious diet than those in disturbed forest, since fruits and their seeds are a potent source of sugars and fats.
"That can potentially have a great impact on their nutritional state, body weight and, in the long term, their survival," she said.
For example, a diet rich in sugars and fats helps females get pregnant, maintain their pregnancies, and produce high-quality milk for their offspring, she added.
Charles Welch is a research scientist at the Duke University Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina. He lived and worked in Madagascar for 15 years before returning to the U.S. in 2004.
He said that despite a lot of important conservation work on the island, the situation for lemurs remains urgent.
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