A Story of a White Ring-tailed Lemur "Sapphire" by Adrian Warren.....Page 4 of 4
JEWEL IN THE CROWD
and Photographed by ADRIAN WARREN
Made in Madagascar
Found nowhere else in the world; lemurs are an evolutionary one-off Lemurs are primates, members of the group that includes monkeys, apes and ourselves. Compared to other primates, they are less clever with their hands, rely more on the sense of smell and have relatively small brains. Today, there are 32 species in 14 genera, all surviving in Madagascar, Where they evolved in isolation.
Fifty million years ago, the lemurs' 'prosimian' ancestors -probably much like todays's tiny mouse lemurs -were very successful animals in the vast tropical and subtropical forests all the way from America to eastern Asia. Their small size meant that they had to avoid the harsh temperature ranges of the daytime and also made them slaves to an easily digested, high-energy diet of insects and fruit.
Gradually larger lemurs evolved -and new doors began to open. Large size enabled these new forms to lose or absorb heat more slowly than their tiny forbears and meant they could operate with a slower metabolism. That allowed them to switch to a diet of leaves, which are more difficult to digest and yield less energy than fruit or insects. Because leaves are abundant, there was less competition for food, and so they were able to become more social -which is exactly what the ancestors of today's ring-tails did. That trend demanded greater intelligence to cope with more complex communication and recognition of other members of the troop.
Madagascar provided the early lemurs with a tremendous evolutionary opportunity. Though the fossil record is thin, it seems possible that the many kinds of lemurs that have existed on the island arose from a single ancestor species, which may have arrived by accident from the mainland of Africa, perhaps on a floating mat of vegetation broken off in a flash flood and swept out to sea, before being deposited on a lonely beach somewhere on Madagascar's west coast.
Whatever the exact details, the lemurs encountered little competition in their new home and went on to become extraordinarily diverse, producing more than 40 species. They held their own until the arrival of humans in the last 2,000 years. Since then, there have been many extinctions. Just a few tiny corners of pristine Madagascar survive, and the forest of Berenty, with its ring-tailed lemurs, is one of them.
When Alison Jolly, the world authority on lemurs, first decided to study ring-tails, she scoured Madagascar for a suitable study site. She found what she was looking for in the forest at Berenty, in the south of the island, where the lemur troops were large and could be followed through the dappled glades and giant tamarind trees for hours at a time.
Subsequently, many other scientists followed her to this wonderful oasis of forest surrounded by farmland. The Berenty forest is protected by its owners, the de Heaulme family.