For years, rumors persisted of greater bamboo lemurs in the Torotorofotsy region of east-central Madagascar
. Evidence included cracked and chewed bamboo stalks – the favorite food of Prolemur simus
– and claims of the occasional sighting or call.
No one would believe it, though, says Rainer Dolch of MITSINJO, the Malagasy non-government organization that manages the Torotorofotsy wetlands Ramsar site. After all, the Critically Endangered species that comprises a genus of lemurs was only known to exist 400 kilometers (240 miles) away in bamboo forest quite different from the swampy landscape of Torotorofotsy.
Now there are no doubters. Led by local tracker Jean Rafalimandimby, researchers from MITSINJO and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo have found the elusive troop of 30-40 greater bamboo lemurs in Torotorofotsy. They attached radio collars to six of the lemurs in order to better understand where and how they live, raising expectations the species numbering about 140 in the wild can be saved from extinction.
"Finding the extremely rare Prolemur simus in a place where nobody expected it was probably more exciting than discovering a new lemur species,” said Edward Louis, a conservation geneticist at Henry Doorly Zoo.
The stocky lemurs with round, wrinkled faces and white ear tufts also possess jaws and teeth strong enough to crack the hard fibers of giant bamboo. Remnants of chewed bamboo stalks helped the research effort partly supported by the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation and Conservation International (CI) find the previously unknown population in its wetland habitat.
LEARN MORE: There are many types of lemurs. Read more and hear their calls.
“We would not have found the animals without Rafaly,” said MITSINJO vice-president Jean-Noël Ndriamiary, referring to Rafalimandimby. “We would have liked to name the species Prolemur rafaliensis, but it already has a scientific name.”
The scientists will publish their 2007 discovery in the upcoming volume of Lemur News, the newsletter of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Primate Specialist Group. Updated information on Prolemur simus also will be presented at the International Primatological Society’s 2008 Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland, in August.
“The greater bamboo lemur is a unique species and the only member of an entire primate genus, making it probably the most endangered primate genus in the world, so this discovery is a real blessing for our efforts to save it from extinction," said CI President Russell A. Mittermeier, the long-time chairman of the Primate Specialist Group. “It also shows the importance for conservation of collaboration between local villagers, local organizations such as MITSINJO and international groups like the Henry Doorly Zoo.”