Critically endangered lemurs may be able to survive habitat loss thanks to a flexible diet, according to a new study from Duke University.
While lemurs are accustomed to eating mainly leaves, the researchers discovered that some species have the anatomy and digestive genes necessary to adapt to eating fruit, flowers, or even pine needles.
The experts analyzed the genomes of four sifaka species found in different habitats in Madagascar, ranging from arid deciduous forests to rainforests.
The researchers identified genetic adaptations shared by the sifakas that eliminate toxic compounds in leaves, optimize the absorption of nutrients, and detect bitter tastes. The genome shows patterns of evolution similar to those found in other distantly related herbivores, such as colobus monkeys in Central Africa.
“Sifakas can take advantage of foods that are higher energy and are more nutrient dense, and can fall back and subsist on leaves in times of scarcity,” said study lead author Professor Elaine Guevara.
In the face of habitat loss and human disturbance, dietary flexibility may give sifakas an advantage over their relatives that strictly eat leaves or fruit.
The analysis also revealed that sifakas are genetically more diverse than what is typically seen in a critically endangered species. “These animals do seem to have very healthy levels of genetic diversity, which is very surprising,” said Professor Guevara.
Sifakas were found to have high heterozygosity, which is a measure of genetic diversity and an indicator of population size. This finding suggests that they are more resilient to threats such as climate change, habitat loss, and new pathogens.
“Sifakas are still critically endangered, their population numbers are decreasing, and habitat loss is accelerating drastically,” said Professor Guevara.
However, these lemurs have a good chance of survival with the help of conservation. “Our results are all the more reason to do everything we can to help them.”
The study is published in the journal Science Advances.
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer