Researcher Sheds Light on Elusive Lemurs

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A native of Florida (and a former cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins), Mayor says she was passionate about animals as a child. Later, an undergraduate course in anthropology piqued her interest in primates.

When she discovered there were several critically endangered species that had never been studied, she was eager to help close that gap. While still at university, although she had never camped in the wild or even traveled outside the United States, she received a small grant to study sakis, a small primate that lives in little-explored areas of Guyana.

Since then she has obtained funding from various foundations and conservation groups, including a Fulbright scholarship, to study lemurs in Madagascar and other rare primates in several remote corners of the world. Her research findings have been published in a number of scientific journals.

Mayor became intrigued with sifakas while perusing a guidebook on lemurs published by Conservation International. When she came upon a description of the two sub-groups that included only drawings—no photos—she was curious and wanted to know more.

"I came to learn that no one had been able to study them, and nobody even knew if there were any populations left. Finding out became a personal challenge," she says.

After patching together modest funding, she set off for Madagascar. "I went there determined not only to find [sifakas] and study them, but to set up long-term research and preservation at that site," she says.

Today she is one of many biologists, ecologists, and conservationists who are working in a race against time to halt the extinction of lemurs in Madagascar.

The large island off the east coast of Africa is the only place where lemurs still live in the wild. But their forest habitat has shrunk to only 10 percent of what it was before people came to the island 2,000 years ago. Half of all the forests have disappeared in just the past 50 years.

The government has worked closely with scientific and conservation groups from around the world to establish national parks on Madagascar in an effort to preserve much of the remaining forest and its wildlife. Reforestation projects are also underway.

Because local people are heavily dependent on timber harvesting and the clearing of forest land for slash-and-burn agriculture, some of the measures include providing villagers with alternative sources of income, such as paying them for the value of corn or other crops that otherwise would have been grown on forested land.

Unique Wildlife

One of the world's most diverse primates, lemurs range in size from a mouse to a medium-size dog. They have a lot of popular appeal outside their own country because of their cuddly looks—lantern-bright eyes gazing out from a colored ball of soft fur with a long tail.

Mayor and other researchers have a strong interest in lemurs because of their ecological importance. Madagascar is considered one of 25 "biodiversity hotspots" around the world where the endemic wildlife is so rich and unique that these places have been deemed priority areas for conservation. The country has over 30 species of lemurs, according to Mayor.

All the large animals that once inhabited Madagascar have become extinct. Some scientists believe that of all the remaining wildlife, lemurs are perhaps the most critical species needed to ensure the long-term health and survival of the island's natural ecosystem.

Several studies have shown, for example, that different kinds of lemurs play a major role in dispersing the seeds of certain trees and other vegetation, and if these primates disappeared for good, there would be no other animals that could perform that function.

Mayor says sifakas are at risk not only because their habitat is disappearing, but also because the remaining patches of forest are so fragmented. "They live separately from each other in different forests. They exist in low numbers and are isolated from one another," says Mayor.

That makes it hard to maintain viable populations of different species, and also exposes the small primates more directly to physical risk because they lack the full protection of dense foliage. "A sifaka would have to come down to the ground and cross the savanna to get to another patch of forest, which makes them more vulnerable to hunters."

Various studies are looking at how sifakas and other lemurs are affected by this forest fragmentation and whether they would benefit from the creation of "corridors" connecting isolated patches of habitat.

Mayor's early work focused on population surveys and social and behavioral aspects of sifakas. Today she is also collecting DNA samples and conducting genetic analyses in an attempt to better understand their genetic diversity and genetic health. How are the remaining sifakas related to each other? Are they exchanging genes across different areas, or are there land or water barriers that impede this? Were they more closely related in the past?

"Diversity is essential for survival—otherwise, they become open to disease and inbreeding," she explains. "So we're looking to see, in the north, are there enough lemurs for a viable population to survive? If there are, how do we maintain it, and if not, what can we do to intervene" in hopes of halting eventual extinction?

The answers to these kinds of scientific questions are needed to develop conservation plans. Mayor believes strongly that local education must be a part of such measures.

"One thing I've learned is how vital education and awareness is in local communities," she says. "There's obviously a need for hunting, a long tradition. But I really believe that conveying to villagers how endangered and special these animals are can change hundreds of years of tradition, to preserve for thousands of years what has been there."

When Mayor returned to Madagascar two years after her initial field project, she was touched to learn that the old man who had first led her to sifakas had begun keeping a log documenting their presence—how many he observed, when and where they were sighted, what they were eating, even who they were mating with.

"All of this," she says, "he compiled while I was gone."

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