Humans ate giant lemurs to extinction
November 14, 2005
Madagascar’s first inhabitants probably hunted the island’s largest animals to extinction according to research published in the November issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.
Madagascar, an island a little larger than California, has long been known for its unusual creatures and staggering biodiversity. The island is home to such evolutionary oddities as lemurs, a group of primates endemic to the island; brilliantly colored lizards including geckos and chameleons; tenrecs, spiny hedgehog-like creatures; and the fossa, a carnivorous animal that looks like a cross between a puma and a dog but is closely related to the mongoose.
Despite its current biological wealth, Madagascar is relatively impoverished when compared to flora and fauna that existed on the island before the arrival of humans 2000 years ago. Roaming the island were gorilla-sized lemurs, monstrous tortoises, pygmy hippos, and the enormous Elephant bird (Aephornis maximus) that stood ten feet (3m) tall, weighed over 1100 pounds (500 kg), and laid an egg large enough to make an omelette to feed 150 people. All these species went extinct after man reached the island.
Scientists have long expected a human role in the extinction of Madagascar’s megafauna but now researchers have identified “definitive evidence of butchery” on bones of extinct lemurs.
Ventura Perez, an anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts and lead author of the paper, told Discovery News that her team found sharp cuts and chop marks characteristic of skinning, disarticulation, and filleting.
Size comparison of bird eggs. Left to right: chicken egg, ostrich egg, extinction Elephant bird egg.
The eggs of the extinct giant Elephant bird were the largest single-cells that ever existed on Earth — as big as any dinosaur egg. Scientists believe the last of the Elephant birds went extinct fairly recently — around 1700.
“Careful scrutiny of the characteristics of the cut marks has allowed us to document butchery beyond any reasonable doubt,” said Perez.
Hunting of lemurs continues today. While it has been illegal to kill or keep lemurs as pets since 1964, lemurs are routinely hunted where they are not protected by local taboos. Many lemurs are particularly easy targets for hunting because evolution has rendered them ecologically naive in that without natural predators over the majority of their existence, they are less fearful than they should be.
Hunting, combined with significant habitat loss across much of Madagascar, means that many lemurs are at risk of following their ancestors’ path towards extinction.
This article used information from Discovery News and the Journal of Human Evolution.