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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.

You've spent years working in Madagascar. What makes it such a unique location?

Madagascar is considered one of the world's hotspots, places which have the highest amount of endemism and biodiversity concentrated in particular areas that are heavily threatened. Every time I go back the biodiversity still astounds me. As much time as I've spent in the jungles there I still see something new every time. There are still new species being discovered, including chameleons and primates. And with ongoing research that number is ever increasing.

Like much of Madagascar's wildlife, lemurs are under serious threats. What are the biggest threats to them right now?

What's the biggest threat to lemurs right now? Well, it's really a double threat of course—hunting and deforestation—but bigger at the moment is deforestation. Less than 10 percent of the original forest remains standing in Madagascar. It's a frightening event that's going on there. Every year when I go back, even forests that are protected seem to be shrinking. There's just not enough money or manpower to protect them. Many of the preserves and protected areas look good on paper, but the truth is that they continue to disappear.

In addition, hunting has always been a pressure—hunting for food. They don't hunt lemurs for medicinal products, or pelts, or the other reasons that many animals are hunted. Those factors don't seem to play a role; it's done for food. So, it's a hard thing as a researcher to go in and say, "stop hunting these animals" when the villagers are poor and hungry and this is the only way to get food on the table. They don't have many alternatives available to them. It's a challenging dilemma and the fact is that these animals are found only in their backyard, but they need them to survive.

We need to put a spin on the situation so that keeping these animals alive would benefit the local people, but it's hard to sell the long term to people who need food. They are thinking about their next meal. You have to provide some kind of alternative. Especially with the discovery of the new species, it may be a way of promoting ecotourism that can have a huge positive effect on the villages. It could increase revenue and provide jobs as guides, guards, conservation people, cooks, and a market for village arts and crafts.

You and Dr. Ed Louis first found this new lemur species last year almost by chance.

Well, we did set traps, so we were looking for lemurs. I always think of the great discoveries and they were often by chance. We were trying to determine the absence or presence of mouse lemurs in the area—the recognized species of mouse lemur, the only one people knew. We had no idea we would be identifying and trapping a species new to science. It's a dream come true for a scientist to make a brand new discovery.

It's a high-tech world and a lot of scientists use a lot of high-tech equipment. Yet you went back to capture and document this new species of lemur without even using a simple trap—by spotting its eye shine at night and just grabbing it by hand.

There was absolutely nothing high-tech about this expedition. Dr. Ed Louis, from Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, and I have worked with this team for years and part of their responsibility is to pack the equipment because most of it is stored in their village. When Ed and I fly into the capital we usually just meet up with the team or fly directly to the site, and we don't have a lot of time to go over the packing with them.

So at the airport, I'm looking for the most important and critical piece of equipment and it's nowhere to be found. I asked the team and they were hesitant, no one wanted to tell me that we had no traps! It was so ridiculous that we even went on the expedition knowing that we didn't have traps; but airplanes are very difficult to come by in Madagascar and we had pilots ready and waiting. We had to get on and go.

We all started brainstorming about how to build traps. It's a simple concept: you bait whatever you're using, and an animal can get in and then can't get out. We used water bottles with an end cut off. It was the same simple concept as a trap, but unfortunately they didn't work.

Fortunately, we caught one by hand. Luckily the tree he decided to perch on was low enough and not surrounded by many others, so we could isolate it on one tree and pull the surrounding small trees away. The tree was low enough that once we pulled the branches down one of my guides was able to get his hands on the lemur. Luck was on our side. The funniest thing is that Ed Louis is back in the field now and the team doesn't want to pack traps. They've developed this hand-catching as a technique and it's working really well. I don't think it will catch on though; they are a pretty unique team.

Are there enough people out doing this kind of fieldwork?

My feeling is that there are never enough people out there doing this kind of work and those people are the thing that will really make the difference. Researchers serve as ground troops. One of the things that happens when a researcher arrives in an area is that hunting and slash-and-burn activity really decrease because there's a human presence. Anytime someone's in the area the word starts to spread. And a key opportunity that researchers have is the chance to educate local people and make them aware—and those people are key to spreading the word back to their villages. If they team up with you—you've got a huge force.

Why is it so important that a new species has been discovered?

The ironic part is that suddenly this tiny little animal becomes a huge ambassador for Madagascar. It's almost like they are mascots in Madagascar, they are what most people, including the Malagasy, think of when they think of Madagascar because they are unique to the island.

You have this new discovery, this new animal, and people say, "Wow, there's so much we don't know." And people will be drawn to this particular area because of this; it can raise awareness and get the government involved because there's something new and exciting to focus on. You can say, "Look at what we just discovered."

Did you have some success in getting government officials excited about the discovery?

One of the great things about the country's new government is that they are genuinely interested in conservation.

I met with the prime minister and he became very engaged. When I walked into his office, he had pictures and books about conservation in there and I said, "This is a good sign." He was very responsive and as excited as I was about this. I raised the possibility of creating a national park in this area and his response, to my surprise, was, "We can do it." At first he said it in French and I thought, "Did I understand that correctly?" So he repeated it in English and added, "What do we need, what's the next step?" I had had that hope in mind but I wasn't expecting that response. Obviously the process of creating a national park is a lengthy one and he said, "OK we'll get that process started." But he also saw the urgency of the situation and said, "What do you need us to do tomorrow?"

It was fantastic, because often governments don't see the immediate urgency. In the span of months it may be too late, and there might not be much left to protect. If we act quickly, with the help of Madagascar's government, this tiny new primate will save the home of many endangered animals.
 

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