They are small, highly productive and live in the jungles of Madagascar. During the 5-month rainy season, offspring are born and a fat pad is established to survive the cool dry season when food is scarce. But what happens when the rainy season gets drier and the dry season gets warmer? Can mouse lemurs adapt to climate change thanks to their higher reproductive output?
Researchers from the German Primate Center – Leibniz Institute for Primate Research, together with colleagues from the University of Zurich, analyzed long-term data from Madagascar and found that climate change is destabilizing mouse lemur populations and increasing their risk of extinction. The fact that climate change leads to greater fluctuations in population density and thus increases the risk of extinction in a fast-paced ecological world is an alarming warning signal of potential biodiversity losses in the tropics.
The study has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The effects of climate change have mostly been studied in large, long-lived species with low reproductive output. Small mammals with high reproductive rates can adapt well to changing environmental conditions, so they have not been studied much in the context of climate change. Claudia Fichtel and Peter Kapeller of the German Primate Center – Leibniz Institute for Primate Research (DPZ) have been researching lemurs in Madagascar for many years and have therefore built a unique dataset to fill in this knowledge gap.
Identify trends with long-term data
Over the course of 26 years, from 1994 to 2020, Peter Kappeler and Claudia Fichtel studied the demographic structure of the mouse lemur population at the DPZ research station in Madagascar. Climate data from the same period show that the rainy season in this region has become drier and the dry season has become warmer. They have now analyzed this data with colleagues from the University of Zurich and found an increase in mortality was accompanied by a rise in fertility rates.
“These opposing trends prevented the collapse of mouse lemur populations, but nevertheless destabilized the population, as the animals’ already rapid life cycle was accelerated,” says Claudia Fichtel.
Extinction risk increases
Fluctuating population sizes due to climate change poses a major threat to animals, and can lead to species extinction. “Our results show that even animal species that are supposed to be able to adapt easily to changing environmental conditions thanks to their high reproduction rate are threatened in their survival by climate changes,” says Peter Cappeler. This is bad news, given that lemurs that are found only in Madagascar are the most endangered mammals in the world.
“In the future, data on the demographic stability of populations should also be included when classifying the extinction risk of an animal species. Since this requires data from long-term observations, this is not yet possible for many animal species,” Claudia Fichtel.
Arpat Ozgul et al, The Disruptive Impact of Climate Change on Short-lived Primate Survival, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2023). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2214244120
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