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 nameScientific nameLocal nameActive

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

Daubentoniidae Aye-aye Nocturnal
Aye-aye Daubentonia madagascariensisAye-aye, Ahay, Itay-hay, AiayNocturnal

Indridae Woolly lemurs and allies Diurnal
Eastern Avahi Avahi laniger Avahina, Avahy, Ampongy, FotsifakaNocturnal
Western Avahi Avahi occidentalis Fotsife, TsarafangitraNocturnal
Indri lemur Indri indri indri Babakoto, AmboanalaDiurnal
Indri lemur Indri indri variegatus Babakoto, AmboanalaDiurnal
Coquerel's Sifaka Propithecus coquereli Ankomba malandy, Sifaka, Tsibahaka
Crowned Sifaka Propithecus deckenii coronatus Tsibahaka, SifakaDiurnal
Decken's Sifaka Propithecus deckenii dekenii Tsibahaka, SifakaDiurnal
Silky Sifaka Propithecus diadema candidus Simpona, SimponyDiurnal
Diademed Sifaka Propithecus diadema diadema Simpona, SimponyDiurnal
Milne-Edwards's Sifaka Propithecus edwardsi Simpona, SimponyDiurnal
Perrier's Sifaka Propithecus perrieri Radjako, Ankomba JobDiurnal
Tattersall's Sifaka Propithecus tattersalli Ankomba malandy, SimponaDiurnal
Verreaux's Sifaka Propithecus verreauxi SifakaDiurnal

Lemuridae True lemursDiurnal
White-fronted Lemur Eulemur albifrons VarikaDiurnal
White-collared Lemur Eulemur albocollaris VarikaDiurnal
Red-collared Lemur Eulemur collaris VarikaDiurnal
Crowned Lemur Eulemur coronatus VarikaDiurnal
Brown Lemur Eulemur fulvus Varikamavo, KombaDiurnal
Black Lemur Eulemur macaco Ankomba, KombaDiurnal
Blue-eyed Black Lemur Eulemur macaco flavifronsAnkomba, KombaDiurnal
Mongoose Lemur Eulemur mongoz KombaDiurnal
Red-bellied Lemur Eulemur rubriventer VarikamenaDiurnal
Red-fronted Lemur Eulemur rufus Varika, VarikamavoDiurnal
Sanford's Lemur Eulemur sanfordi Ankomba, BeharavoakaDiurnal
Alaotran Gentle Lemur Hapalemur alaotrensis BandroDiurnal
Golden Gentle Lemur Hapalemur aureus Varibolomena, BokombolomenaDiurnal
Gray Gentle Lemur Hapalemur griseus VaribolomadinikaDiurnal
Sambriano Gentle Lemur Hapalemur occidentalis Bekola, Kofi, Ankomba valihaDiurnal
Ring-tailed Lemur Lemur catta Maki, HiraDiurnal
Broad-nosed Gentle Lemur Prolemur simus Varibolomavo, Vari, VarikandraDiurnal
Red Ruffed Lemur Varecia rubra VarimenaDiurnal
Black-and-White Ruffed Lemur Varecia variegata VarijatsyDiurnal

Megaladapidae Sportive lemurs Nocturnal
Back-striped Sportive Lemur Lepilemur dorsalis ApongyNocturnal
Milne-Edwards's Sportive Lemur Lepilemur edwardsi Boenga, Boengy, RepahakaNocturnal
White-footed Sportive Lemur Lepilemur leucopus SongikyNocturnal
Small-toothed Sportive Lemur Lepilemur microdon Trangalavaka, Kotrika or Kotreka, Fitiliky, Itataka, VarikosyNocturnal
Mitsinjo Sportive Lemur Lepilemur mitsinjonensisKotrika, VarikosyNocturnal
Weasel Lemur Lepilemur mustelinus Trangalavaka, Kotrika, Fitiliky, Itataka, VarikosyNocturnal
Red-tailed Sportive Lemur Lepilemur ruficaudatus Boenga, BoengyNocturnal
Ankarana Sportive Lemur Lepilemur septentrionalis ankaranensis Mahiabeala, SongikyNocturnal
Seal's Sportive Lemur Lepilemur sealiSongikyNocturnal
Northern Sportive Lemur Lepilemur septentrionalis septentrionalis Mahiabeala, SongikyNocturnal

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