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

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

DaubentoniidaeAye-aye Nocturnal
Aye-ayeDaubentonia madagascariensisAye-aye, Ahay, Itay-hay, AiayNocturnal

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

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

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

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