Madagascar lemurs descended from single primate ancestor, finds study

/ Yale News

Yale biologists have managed to extract and analyze DNA from giant, extinct lemurs, according to a Yale study published in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Evolutionary analysis of the DNA obtained from the extinct giants reveals that they, like the living lemurs, are descended from a single primate ancestor that colonized Madagascar more than 60 million years ago.

Madagascar lemurs descended from single primate ancestor, finds study

Madagascar lemurs descended from single primate ancestor, finds study

YALE News Release

July 11, 2005

Yale biologists have managed to extract and analyze DNA from giant, extinct lemurs, according to a Yale study published in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lemurs of Madagascar

Madagascar is world famous for its lemurs — primates that look something like a cat crossed with a squirrel and a dog. Lemurs belong to a group of primates known as prosimians that were once distributed worldwide but today have been largely replaced by monkeys. It is only because of Madagascar’s isolation that lemurs have managed to survive and flourish. Currently about 60 kinds of lemurs are recognized by scientists, a number that has grown in recent years with the discovery of several new species including two this year. Despite these findings, Madagascar’s lemur diversity is considerably poorer than when humans first set foot on the island about 2000 years ago. Since then, the island’s largest lemurs species have been hunted to extinction and suffered from habitat loss induced by climate change and human activities (especially land-clearing with fire).

Even with these losses, Madagascar’s lemurs display a range of interesting behaviors from singing like a whale (the indri) to extracting insects from tree bark using a long twig-shaped finger (the aye-aye).

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Ring-tailed lemur


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Radiocarbon dating of the bones and teeth from which the DNA was obtained reveal that each of the individuals analyzed died well over 1,000 years ago, according to the senior author, Anne Yoder, associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Living lemurs comprise more than 50 species, all of which are unique to the island of Madagascar, which is the world’s fourth largest island and east of Africa. Evolutionary analysis of the DNA obtained from the extinct giants reveals that they, like the living lemurs, are descended from a single primate ancestor that colonized Madagascar more than 60 million years ago, Yoder said.

The biologists extracted DNA from nine subfossil individuals in two of the more bizarre extinct species, Palaeopropithecus and Megaladapis. The first has been likened to tree sloths and the second compared to koala bears. Both ranged in body weights from 100 to 150 pounds, as compared to the largest living lemur, Indri indri, which weighs in at fewer than 15 to 17 pounds.

“The most important conclusion to be drawn from our study is that the phylogenetic placement of subfossil lemurs adds additional support to the hypothesis that non–human primates colonized Madagascar only once,” Yoder said. “However, the limited taxonomic success of our study leaves open the possibility that data from additional taxa will overturn this increasingly robust hypothesis.”

Yoder said the researchers’ results support the close relationship of sloth lemurs (Palaeopropithecus) to living indriids, but Megaladapis does not show a sister–group relationship with the living genus Lepilemur. “The classification of the latter in the family Megaladapidae is misleading,” she said.

Yoder said that damaging effects of moisture, ultraviolet irradiation, and tropical heat on DNA survival likely contributed to the inability to obtain DNA from some species. The only samples to yield DNA from tropical localities were the two individuals that were used as positive controls, Yoder said.

“The results of our study contribute to the mountain evidence that suggests that prospects for ancient DNA studies from the tropics are less promising than those from higher latitudes, but when the results are potentially of such compelling interest, it’s always worth a try,” she said.

YALE News Release

CONTACT: Jacqueline Weaver, 203-432-8555 or jacqueline.weaver -AT-

Ancient DNA Confirms Single Origin of Malagasy Primates

Citation: PNAS 10: 5090–5095 (April 2005)

This release originally appeared at on June 7th, 2005

Lemur species:

Common name Scientific name Local name Active

Cheirogaleidae Mouse and Dwarf lemurs Nocturnal
Hairy-eared Dwarf Mouse-lemur Allocebus trichotis Nocturnal
Southern Fat-tailed Dwarf Lemur Cheirogaleus adipicaudatus Matavirambo Nocturnal
Furry-eared Dwarf Lemur Cheirogaleus crossleyi Matavirambo Nocturnal
Greater Dwarf Lemur Cheirogaleus major Matavirambo Nocturnal
Western Fat-tailed Dwarf Lemur Cheirogaleus medius Matavirambo, Kely Be-ohy, Tsidy, Tsidihy Nocturnal
Lesser Iron Gray Dwarf Lemur Cheirogaleus minusculus Matavirambo Nocturnal
Greater Iron Gray Dwarf Lemur Cheirogaleus ravus Matavirambo Nocturnal
Sibree’s Dwarf Lemur Cheirogaleus sibreei Matavirambo Nocturnal
Gray Mouse-lemur Microcebus murinus Tsidy, Koitsiky, Titilivaha, Vakiandri, Pondiky
Pygmy Mouse-lemur Microcebus myoxinus Tsidy Nocturnal
Golden Mouse-lemur Microcebus ravelobensis Tsidy Nocturnal
Red Mouse-lemur Microcebus rufus Anakatsidina, Tsidy, Tsitsidy, Tistsihy Nocturnal
Giant Mouse-lemur or Coquerel’s Mouse-lemur Mirza coquereli Tsiba, Tilitilivaha, Siba, Setohy, Fitily
Amber Mountain Fork-crowned Lemur Phaner electromontis Tanta, Tantaraolana Nocturnal
Masoala Fork-crowned Lemur Phaner furcifer Tanta, Tantaraolana Nocturnal
Western Fork-crowned Lemur Phaner pallescens Tanta, Tantaraolana, Vakivoho Nocturnal
Sambirano Fork-crowned Lemur Phaner parienti Tanta, Tantaraolana Nocturnal

Daubentoniidae Aye-aye Nocturnal
Aye-aye Daubentonia madagascariensis Aye-aye, Ahay, Itay-hay, Aiay Nocturnal

Indridae Woolly lemurs and allies Diurnal
Eastern Avahi Avahi laniger Avahina, Avahy, Ampongy, Fotsifaka Nocturnal
Western Avahi Avahi occidentalis Fotsife, Tsarafangitra Nocturnal
Indri lemur Indri indri indri Babakoto, Amboanala Diurnal
Indri lemur Indri indri variegatus Babakoto, Amboanala Diurnal
Coquerel’s Sifaka Propithecus coquereli Ankomba malandy, Sifaka, Tsibahaka
Crowned Sifaka Propithecus deckenii coronatus Tsibahaka, Sifaka Diurnal
Decken’s Sifaka Propithecus deckenii dekenii Tsibahaka, Sifaka Diurnal
Silky Sifaka Propithecus diadema candidus Simpona, Simpony Diurnal
Diademed Sifaka Propithecus diadema diadema Simpona, Simpony Diurnal
Milne-Edwards’s Sifaka Propithecus edwardsi Simpona, Simpony Diurnal
Perrier’s Sifaka Propithecus perrieri Radjako, Ankomba Job Diurnal
Tattersall’s Sifaka Propithecus tattersalli Ankomba malandy, Simpona Diurnal
Verreaux’s Sifaka Propithecus verreauxi Sifaka Diurnal

Lemuridae True lemurs Diurnal
White-fronted Lemur Eulemur albifrons Varika Diurnal
White-collared Lemur Eulemur albocollaris Varika Diurnal
Red-collared Lemur Eulemur collaris Varika Diurnal
Crowned Lemur Eulemur coronatus Varika Diurnal
Brown Lemur Eulemur fulvus Varikamavo, Komba Diurnal
Black Lemur Eulemur macaco Ankomba, Komba Diurnal
Blue-eyed Black Lemur Eulemur macaco flavifrons Ankomba, Komba Diurnal
Mongoose Lemur Eulemur mongoz Komba Diurnal
Red-bellied Lemur Eulemur rubriventer Varikamena Diurnal
Red-fronted Lemur Eulemur rufus Varika, Varikamavo Diurnal
Sanford’s Lemur Eulemur sanfordi Ankomba, Beharavoaka Diurnal
Alaotran Gentle Lemur Hapalemur alaotrensis Bandro Diurnal
Golden Gentle Lemur Hapalemur aureus Varibolomena, Bokombolomena Diurnal
Gray Gentle Lemur Hapalemur griseus Varibolomadinika Diurnal
Sambriano Gentle Lemur Hapalemur occidentalis Bekola, Kofi, Ankomba valiha Diurnal
Ring-tailed Lemur Lemur catta Maki, Hira Diurnal
Broad-nosed Gentle Lemur Prolemur simus Varibolomavo, Vari, Varikandra Diurnal
Red Ruffed Lemur Varecia rubra Varimena Diurnal
Black-and-White Ruffed Lemur Varecia variegata Varijatsy Diurnal

Megaladapidae Sportive lemurs Nocturnal
Back-striped Sportive Lemur Lepilemur dorsalis Apongy Nocturnal
Milne-Edwards’s Sportive Lemur Lepilemur edwardsi Boenga, Boengy, Repahaka Nocturnal
White-footed Sportive Lemur Lepilemur leucopus Songiky Nocturnal
Small-toothed Sportive Lemur Lepilemur microdon Trangalavaka, Kotrika or Kotreka, Fitiliky, Itataka, Varikosy Nocturnal
Mitsinjo Sportive Lemur Lepilemur mitsinjonensis Kotrika, Varikosy Nocturnal
Weasel Lemur Lepilemur mustelinus Trangalavaka, Kotrika, Fitiliky, Itataka, Varikosy Nocturnal
Red-tailed Sportive Lemur Lepilemur ruficaudatus Boenga, Boengy Nocturnal
Ankarana Sportive Lemur Lepilemur septentrionalis ankaranensis Mahiabeala, Songiky Nocturnal
Seal’s Sportive Lemur Lepilemur seali Songiky Nocturnal
Northern Sportive Lemur Lepilemur septentrionalis septentrionalis Mahiabeala, Songiky Nocturnal

For more on Madagascar, take a look at

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