Bushbabies Are Cute. Is That Threatening Their Conservation?

People keep them as pets, releasing them into the wild, and gene pools mix.

Southern lesser bushbaby, Galago moholi
A Southern lesser bushbaby uses a hole in a tree for shelter. Martin Harvey / Getty Images

Bushbabies are ridiculously cute. These fuzzy primates have huge eyes and are so small they can fit in your hand.

But this cuteness is harming the preservation of the Southern lesser galagos (Galago moholi), a species of bushbaby that lives in southern Africa. Because the animals are so adorable, people often keep them as pets. And this pet trade has shifted the species’ genetics and potentially threatened their conservation, new research finds.

“Bushbabies are an understudied group of nocturnal primates, with a number of species and genera, that range from northern South Africa all the way north to the edge of the tropical forests that grade into Africa’s Sahara region,” study co-author Frank P. Cuozzo of the Lajuma Research Centre in South Africa tells Treehugger. “They are often lost in the conservation conversation due to the amount of attention given to their distant cousins in Madagascar (lemurs), and to better known, more human-like, primates on continental Africa such as chimpanzees and gorillas.”

The animals are found in a wide range of habitats. The specific species that is the focus of the new study is even found in urban areas, including Pretoria and Johannesburg in South Africa. This diversity and wide range, and the fact that bushbabies are infrequently studied, prompted researchers to delve into the genetic diversity of this tiny primate. 

The research team analyzed the DNA of bushbabies living in the regions around Pretoria and Johannesburg, as well as more remote areas to the north. They found populations that lived far from each other may share more genes in common than scientists would typically expect. That suggests that something is moving the primates around the country. And that something is likely people.

“Farmers have little to worry about the bushbabies, as they do not compete with their livestock, etc. However, it is not uncommon for people in rural areas, including farmers (and their children), to keep the lesser bushbaby as pets,” says Cuozzo.

There is some conflict between farm dogs and larger bushbaby species, but not the tiny primates studied in this research.

The most surprising result of the study was that more urban populations of the animals had more genetic diversity than the more remote populations, the researchers found.

“Specifically, of the five populations sampled, the population furthest from the major urban area of Pretoria had the least genetic variability,” Andries Phukuntsi, lead author and a graduate student at the South African National Biodiversity Institute and the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, tells Treehugger. “We would expect the inverse – given urbanization and human barriers thus prohibiting natural gene flow, we’d expect urban populations to be more genetically isolated, and therefore less diverse.” 

This is a problem because genetically different populations start mixing with each other and that dilutes the local gene pool. Then animals become unable to adapt to their habitats.

The findings were published in the journal Primates.

Why the Pet Trade Plays a Part

Southern lesser galago
Southern lesser galago. Michelle Sauther / Frank Cuozzo

Researchers believe that this broad diversity is likely because so many of the animals are being kept as pets, transferring them across regions, and then later releasing them into the wild.

“The fact that greater genetic diversity is seen in the urban center of Pretoria, which includes samples from several locations, suggests that some type of artificial ‘gene flow' is occurring in this species,” Cuozzo says. 

“Upon maturity, despite their small size, this species becomes hard to handle, aggressive, difficult to feed, and of course, is ‘hard-wired’ to search for mates. Therefore, when this species reaches maturity, despite their ‘cuteness’ they are often released into areas, likely far from their origin, thus artificially transferring genes (i.e., molecular traits).”

As part of the team’s more encompassing project studying the health, ecology, and biology of the animals, they spoke with people across South Africa, even in areas such as the Western Cape Province where the species doesn’t naturally exist. They spoke to one person who remembered having a bushbaby as a pet when they were young.

“This was not reported in the current article but provides part of the background for our hypothesis that the pet trade may be an artificial cause of genetic transfer in this species,” Cuozzo says. “A recent article published by Svensson et al., (2021), provides data on the illegal trade of bushbabies across sub-Saharan Africa, sometimes as pets, but often as part of the illegal bushmeat trade.”

Understanding Bushbabies

Bushbabies are fascinating creatures, researchers say. They have large eyes to help them see at night. They have elongated tarsal bones in their feet which allows them to leap between branches in the forest. It also helps them catch prey. From a seated position, they can jump three feet (one meter) into the air, grab a flying insect, and bring it back down to the ground.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about the animals is what they sound like.

“The Southern Lesser Bushbaby has a call that can best be described as ‘eerie’ and has sometimes been viewed by local people(s) as a sign of danger,” study coauthor and primatologist Michelle Sauther at the University of Colorado Boulder tells Treehugger. “The name bushbaby comes from the similarity of the call of some species to that of a human baby crying. At night, that sound can be a bit scary, or at least ‘haunting’ as it sounds like a human baby crying in the night forest.”

This bushbaby species is small. Adults typically weigh between 150 to 250 grams, with males usually larger than females.

“They have large ears, as they depend on their auditory system to feed, especially to hear insects,” says Sauther. “But, their use of sound is also central for communicating with other members of their species. Vocalization has been identified by others as central to their intra-species interaction.” 

Sauther points out that bushbabies are one of the least studied of all non-human primates and are not well understood. Most published research on their biology and behavior is very general, they say, with few long-term studies of single populations. Many studies date back to the 1970s and 1980s.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List lists the Southern lesser galago as a species of “least concern.” The researchers suggest this rating is based on old observations and instead the species should be labeled as “data deficient.”

“The research we report in this new article are the first suggesting a human role in creating unexpected genetic patterns, and therefore suggest that this and other bushbaby species require more conservation attention,” Sauther says.

“As conservation support often goes to better known animals, including among other non-human primates such as many of Madagascar’s lemurs, and continental Africa’s apes (e.g., chimpanzees and gorillas), the data we present in our new paper support the need for a wider dispersion of conservation efforts and potentially conservation funds.”

View Article Sources
  1. Phukuntsi, Metlholo A., et al. "Population and Genetic Structure of a Male-Dispersing Strepsirrhine, Galago Moholi (Primates, Galagidae), from Northern South Africa, Inferred from Mitochondrial DNA." Primates, 2021, doi:10.1007/s10329-021-00912-y

  2. Hall, Katie, et al. "Onset of Morning Activity in Bumblebee Foragers Under Natural Low Light Conditions." Ecology and Evolution, 2021, doi:10.1002/ece3.7506

  3. Svensson, Magdalena S., et al. "Shedding Light on the Trade in Nocturnal Galagos." Primate Conservation, 2021.

  4. Bearder, S., et al. "Souther Lesser Galago." IUCN Red List, 2016, doi:10.2305/iucn.uk.2019-3.rlts.t8788a17963285.en