ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar, April 15 (UPI) -- Scientists have found three new species of mouse lemur in the forests of Madagascar, a large island nation off Africa's southeastern coast.
The newly named creatures, described in the journal Molecular Ecology, bring the total number of mouse lemur species to 24. Mouse lemurs are only found in Madagascar.
Though rodent-like in appearance, lemurs are nocturnal primates -- more closely related to orangutans than field mice. Being omnivorous, they eat everything from insects and grubs to fruit and flowers.
Many species of mouse lemurs look nearly identical. Genetic analysis is the only reliable way to distinguish one species from another. Biologists continue to differ over what amount of genetic difference constitutes a new group or species.
But a new technique offers a more precise measurement of genetic difference. The team of a researchers say their more objective genetic analysis warrants the naming of three new species -- Microcebus boraha, Microcebus ganzhorni and Microcebus manitatra.
"By using new, objective methods to assess genetic differences between individuals, we were able to find independent evidence that these three mouse lemurs represent new species," Peter Kappeler, a behavioral ecologist with the German Primate Center, said in a news release. "The genetic techniques we used could facilitate species identification, thus also contributing to further new descriptions in other animal groups."
Improved genetic analysis and a better understanding of species distribution could help Kappeler and his colleagues better understand how biodiversity on the island developed over time.
Such work could also improve conservation efforts. Many of the mouse lemur species are threatened by hunting and deforestation.