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Gut bacteria reveal which lemurs are most vulnerable to deforestation

By
Brooks Hays
Leaf-eating lemurs require specialized bacteria in their guts to break down the fibrous plant material. Photo by David Haring/Duke Lemur Center
Leaf-eating lemurs require specialized bacteria in their guts to break down the fibrous plant material. Photo by David Haring/Duke Lemur Center

June 14 (UPI) -- By analyzing the makeup of lemurs' gut microbiome, scientists can predict which species are most vulnerable to deforestation.

For a new study, scientists surveyed the microbes found in the guts of 12 different lemur species. The results, published this week in the journal Biology Letters, showed some lemur species have more specialized gut bacteria than others.

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On the African island nation of Madagascar, the only place lemurs are found, thousands of acres of forest are cleared each year. The loss of valuable habitat is bad news for all species, including lemurs, but the latest research suggests some lemurs are more vulnerable to deforestation than others.

Lemurs with specialized gut microbes are more reliant on niche diets. Lemur species with specialized diets are more likely to struggle to adapt to habitat fragmentation and relocation.

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"Gut microbes perform crucial functions," Lydia Greene, who conducted the research while earning her PhD at Duke University, said in a news release.

All 12 of the lemur species -- members of two lemur families, brown lemurs and sifaka lemurs -- eat a variety of tree-based plant foods. However, brown lemurs rely mostly on fruit, while sifakas eat mostly fibrous, tannin-rich leaves. Specialized intestinal bacteria help sifaka lemurs break down the hardy leaves.

When scientists analyzed the microbes in lemur stool samples, they found the microbiomes of brown lemurs featured the same makeup regardless of where on the island the species hailed from. The microbiomes of leaf-eating sifaka species, on the other hand, varied from place to place. Species living in drier pockets of habitat relied on unique combinations of microbes, while species from wetter pockets of forest utilized different types of microbes.

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"If you look at any one of these fruit-eating species and take away its forest, theoretically it could move next door," said Christine Drea, professor of evolutionary anthropology. "The leaf specialists may not be able to."

Researchers estimate the unique microbiomes of sifakas explain why fruit-eating lemurs are common in zoos but only one leaf-eating species has successfully reproduced in captivity.

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