New Primates Discovered in Madagascar and Brazil

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 26, 2001 (ENS) - Nine new lemur and two marmoset species have been discovered in the forests of Madagascar and Brazil, scientists announced earlier this month. But the news is not all good - some of the newly named species may already be endangered, joining the dozens of other primate species that may face extinction this century.

The scientists detailed the primate discoveries at the 18th biennial congress of the International Primatological Society held in Adelaide, Australia from January 7-12.

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One of the newly discovered mouse lemurs from Madagascar, Microcebus berthae (Photo Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International)
Lemurs are unique to Madagascar, an island nation the size of Texas, off the east African coast. The marmosets, types of squirrel sized monkeys, were found in the Rio Madeira Basin in South Central Amazonia, Brazil.

"What is so remarkable is that this is the largest number of primate discoveries that have occurred in the past century at the same time. This is an indicator of just how little we know about Earth's diversity of life," said Russell Mittermeier, Conservation International's president and chair of the Primate Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union Species Survival Commission (IUCN/SSC).

"Even among our closest relatives, the primates, which have been closely studied, there is much to be learned," Mittermeier noted.

In last month's issue of IPS's "International Journal of Primatology," scientists announced a new species of woolly lemur (Avahi unicolor), and three more species of mouse lemurs (Microcebus tavaratra, Microcebus sambiranensis, Microcebus berthae), the world's smallest known primates.

Five new dwarf lemur species (Cheirogaleus adipicaudatus, Cheirogaleus crossleyi, Cheirogaleus sibreei, Cheirogaleus ravus, and Cheirogaleus minusculus), were also discovered, all differing by size and by features of fur covering, ears, ear size, tail length, skull shape and teeth.

Urs Thalman, Thomas Geissmann, Colin Groves, Rodin Rasoloarison, Steven Goodman, and Joerg Ganzhorn conducted the studies and published their findings in the December 2000 issue of the journal.

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Fire in Madagascar forest (Photo courtesy Conservation International)
With these latest discoveries, the number of known lemur species total 61. This brings Madagascar into second place globally in primate species diversity, with Brazil claiming the most species at 79.

Primates, including these new species, face many threats, including habitat destruction, bushmeat hunting, and live capture. The most recent assessment of primate conservation status carried out by the IUCN/SSC indicates that 150 species, or one in four, are in the endangered and critically endangered categories of IUCN and that 55, or one in 10, are critically endangered.

Lemurs are among the most endangered primates in the world. In Madagascar, more than 90 percent of all original natural habitats have been destroyed.

The International Primatological Society congress outlined an action plan to maintain the full range of primate diversity. The plan recommends focusing conservation efforts on the 150 most critically endangered and endangered species by determining the areas that need protection, identifying the projects that need to be instituted, and establishing cost.

"As we enter the new millennium, we risk losing our closest living relatives in the Animal Kingdom," Mittermeier said. "But while they are under tremendous threats, there is still hope if we take action now. These findings provide a compelling reason to take immediate action to protect the Earth's tropical forests, which are being destroyed at an accelerated pace wiping out untold numbers of valuable plant and animal species, some of which we don't even know exist."

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Roads like this one through the Amazon rainforest fragment habitat nad give hunters easier access to wildlife (Photo courtesyRain-Tree Pharmaceuticals)
In addition to the two new marmosets, Callithrix manicorensis and Callithrix acariensis, found in 1996, 10 new monkey species have been discovered in Brazil since 1990. With 25 percent of all known species, Brazil has the greatest diversity of primates in the world.

Descriptions of these marmosets by primatologists Marc van Roosmalen, Tomas van Roosmalen, Russell Mittermeier and Anthony Rylands, appear in the latest edition of the journal "Neotropical Primates."

"The significance of these newly named lemurs goes well beyond increasing Madagascar's lemur fauna by almost a whopping 20 percent," said Bill Konstant, deputy chair of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group, who was also at the meeting. "There's a very good chance that some of these species are already endangered and have been discovered in the proverbial eleventh hour."