Image credit: Mitchell Irwin
The tiny Sibree's Ddwarf lemur was first discovered in 1896 but was not studied throughout the 20th century. When the lemur's only known habitat was destroyed, researchers assumed that the species was extinct. However, a new population has been discovered, giving scientists an opportunity to learn more about this elusive species.The discovery was made by Mitchell Irwin, a research associate at McGill University, who first noticed the lemurs in 2001. He explains:
Even then we knew something was unusual about them...instead of the rainforest species we expected to see, our lemur resembled the species known from dry western forests, only it was much larger.
It took years of collaborative research, however, to determine that the unusual species was in fact the mysterious Sibree's dwarf lemur. Genetic analysis found that the new population—numbering several thousand—is actually comprised of two morphologically distinct but genetically similar species. Research conducted by Linn Groeneveld, of the German Primate Center, determined that both the common Crossley's dwarf lemur and Sibree's dwarf lemur were present.
"On one hand, you want to get the taxonomy right, just to determine how many dwarf lemur species are out there," Irwin commented, then added:
Without the recognition provided by this study, this species probably would have gone extinct in the near future. Protecting its only known population and determining how many individuals are left are now top priorities, especially since much of this region's forests have already disappeared.
While the rediscovery of a species that had been lost for over 100 years is encouraging, it is also a reminder of the dire conservation situation in Madagascar.