Tags Posts tagged with "Centre ValBio"

Centre ValBio


By Daniel Dunaief

Patricia Wright
Photo by Sam Levitan, Sam Levitan Photography

Patricia Wright isn’t getting much sleep these days.

Distinguished Professor in Anthropology at Stony Brook University, Wright recently orchestrated the translocation of 10 critically endangered greater bamboo lemurs to Ranomafana National Park, a park in Madagascar that she helped create and which has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The conservation effort, which Wright had been working on since 2014, is designed to lower the risk that this particular lemur, which weighs about six pounds and has grey brown fur and white ear tufts, will go extinct.

Short on bamboo, which, as their name suggests, is their primary food source, greater bamboo lemurs, which are down to as few as 1,000 individuals, have been eating manioc and raiding farmer’s rice paddies. The people who farm these crops have hunted the greater bamboo lemur and used slingshots to hurl stones at them. 

The lemurs “think the rice is perfectly great,” said Wright. Some of the Malagasy people have injured or killed these lemurs. Two of the translocated lemurs have eye injuries.

Wright, who is teaching at Stony Brook this spring, applied for permits from a number of government officials to get the effort approved. 

From Stony Brook, she has been managing the care of these lemurs, often long after she might otherwise be asleep. During an acclimation period, the lemurs live, eat and interact in a large cage near the research station Centre ValBio and will be released into the wild within the next few weeks.

“I’m up every night texting,” Wright said. “When anything comes up, I give my advice.”

She said the process of watching these lemurs from afar is akin to those early days of parenting.

“You drift off, sleep for a couple of hours then you have to wake up and answer this or that problem,” said Wright, whose work with lemurs has won her numerous awards, including the Indianapolis Zoo Prize. 

Bamboo chefs

Wright has considerable help in working with and protecting the greater bamboo lemurs. While the rare lemurs are guests at Centre ValBio (CVB), about a dozen people are working with them each day, with five people going out daily to collect bamboo to feed them.

When the lemurs first arrived, they fought at night. The caretakers discovered that these primates were searching for food. By providing more bamboo, the staff at CVB ended the evening conflicts.

Johanna Mitra, a recent Stony Brook University graduate and the Communications Officer at CVB, attended the capture of these lemurs and has had the opportunity to observe them interacting in the cage.

She watched as an adult lemur sat facing two juveniles. The adult pulled up the bamboo shoot and the three of them took turns gnawing on it. After eating for about half an hour, the juveniles cuddled with the adult females.

Collaboration efforts

In addition to relying on her past experience working with primates at Duke University in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Wright collaborated with Dr. Mónica Ramírez, IUCN Species Survival Commission-Specialist, who is an expert in the relocation of woolly monkeys in Colombia.

Ramírez urged Wright to transport the monkeys in separate cages to reduce stress and overcrowding during the journey. Ramírez also wanted to ensure that the monkeys could see and hear each other. She recommended constant monitoring during transport. Stress could reduce how much food they ate.

Despite the lengthy journey, the lemurs traveled comfortably and ate along the way. Ramírez said that translocations can and often are emotionally taxing for conservationists.

“When I started working with translocations, it was so difficult for me to maintain calm because there are many factors that one cannot control, mainly after the release,” she explained.  “We do our best to guarantee the welfare of the individuals and the people involved.”

Bigger picture

In addition to the satisfaction of preventing a species on the brink of elimination from disappearing, Wright suggested that saving these lemurs could have numerous benefits. For one thing, these lemurs eat large quantities of bamboo, which contains cyanide. Such bamboo would be toxic to human systems. Learning how these animals tolerate and remove such a dangerous element could prove helpful.

Guides in Madagascar involved with the bio-tourism effort also appealed to Wright to save this species, which has unusual vocalizations that vary according to their circumstance. “It’s an important tourist attraction,” Wright said.

Questions on release

When Wright and her team release these translocated lemurs back into the wild, they recognize the enormous number of unknowns.

Predators such as fossa (pronounced “foo sah), hawks and eagles hunt lemurs. Fossa, which is a relative of the mongoose, hunt cooperatively.

Wright hopes the translocated lemurs “understand what a predator is” and take steps to stay alive.

Even before the release of these lemurs, Ranomafana National Park is home to one adult female greater bamboo lemur named Simone, who joined a social group with the golden bamboo lemur, which is half her size.

Wright doesn’t know how Simone, who grooms golden bamboo lemurs but doesn’t receive grooming from them in return, will react to her own species. “What happens when she finds out her own species are in the neighborhood?” Wright asked. “It’s going to be very exciting.”

She might encourage her new lemur family to attack or might ditch her adopted social group for the well-traveled members of her own species.

Ramirez suggested that recruiting and educating the public in conservation would increase the likelihood of its success.

“Involving the community in the project is essential to guarantee the security of both the people and the animals,” she said.

The Brown Mouse Lemur (Microcebus rufus) is recognized as a vulnerable species on Madagascar. Photo by Chien C. Lee

A new study by a team of international scientists including Liliana M. Dávalos, PhD, of Stony Brook University’s Department of Ecology and Evolution, reveals that it would take three million years to recover the number of species that went extinct from human activity on Madagascar. Published in Nature Communications, the study also projects that if currently threatened species go extinct on Madagascar, recovering them would take more than 20 million years – much longer than what has previously been found on any other island archipelago in the world.

From unique baobab species to lemurs, the island of Madagascar is one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots. Approximately 90 percent of its species of plants and animals are found nowhere else. After humans settled on the island about 2,500 years ago, Madagascar experienced many extinctions, including giant lemurs, elephant birds and dwarf hippos.

Yet unlike most islands, Madagascar’s fauna is still relatively intact. Over two hundred species of mammals still survive on the island, including unique species such as the fossa and the ring-tailed lemur. Alarmingly, over half of these species are threatened with extinction, primarily from habitat transformation for agriculture. How much has human activity perturbed Madagascar away from its past state, and what is at stake if environmental change continues?

The team of biologists and paleontologists from Europe, Madagascar and the United States set out to answer this question by building an unprecedented new dataset describing the evolutionary relationships of all species of mammals that were present on Madagascar at the time that humans colonized the island.

As a co-author of “The macroevolutionary impact of recent and imminent mammal extinctions on Madagascar,” Daválos helped design the study, interpret a previously published lemur phylogeny, and analyzed prospects for new species discovery in Madagascar.

The dataset includes species that have already gone extinct and are only known from fossils, as well as all living species of Malagasy mammals. The researchers identified 249 species in total, 30 of which already are extinct. Over 120 of the 219 species of mammals that remain on the island today are currently classified as threatened with extinction by the IUCN Red List, due to habitat destruction, climate change and hunting.

Using a computer simulation model based on island biogeography theory, the team, led by Nathan Michielsen and Luis Valente from the University of Groningen (Netherlands) and Naturalis Biodiversity Center (Netherlands) found that it would take approximately three million years to regain the number of mammal species that were lost from Madagascar in the time since humans arrived.

The research team also determined through the computer simulation that if currently threatened species go extinct, it would take much longer: about 23 million years of evolution would be needed to recover the same number of species. Just in the last decade, this figure has increased by several million years, as human impact on the island continues to grow.

The amount of  time it would take to recover this mammalian diversity surprised the international team of scientists.

“These staggering results highlight the importance of effective conservation efforts in Madagascar. Here at Stony Brook, we can have an extraordinary impact on preventing extinction because of the longstanding biological field research at Centre ValBio and the associated Ranomafana National Park, with ongoing research on conservation while enhancing local livelihoods,” said Dávalos.

“It was already known that Madagascar was a hotspot of biodiversity, but this new research puts into context just how valuable this diversity is,” says leading researcher Luis Valente, Assistant Professor at the University of Groningen. “The time it would take to recover this diversity is much longer than what previous studies have found on other islands, such as New Zealand or in the Caribbean.”

The study findings ultimately suggest that an extinction wave with deep evolutionary impact is imminent on Madagascar, unless immediate conservation actions are taken. The good news – the computer simulation model shows that with adequate conservation action, we may still preserve over 20 million years of unique evolutionary history on the island.