DURHAM, N.C.-- Duke University primatologists who have just returned from an expedition to capture a mate for a rare lemur "Romeo" report that the "Juliet" they captured may be a previously unknown subspecies of the acrobatic lemurs known as sifakas.
If DNA tests performed over the next months prove the genetic difference, it would be scientifically irresponsible to mate the two animals, the primatologists say.
Thus, the lemurs Romeo and Juliet may prove to be just as star-crossed as their fictional Shakespearean namesakes.
Also unfortunately, the potentially new subspecies is being actively hunted in the 600-acre island of forest, which is being eaten away by timber-cutting and slash-and-burn agriculture, said the primatologists. As a result, the scientists may have found themselves in a desperate race to save a new subspecies before it becomes extinct.
Primate Center Director Ken Glander led the October expedition to rescue the sifakas from a dwindling patch of the Mahatsinjo forest in the depths of Madagascar. The animals that he and his colleagues sought are "diademed sifakas" -- the largest living lemur and considered among the most beautiful of primates, with lush fur of yellow, orange, gray, white and black.
On Oct. 10, after days of searching for animals that were finally spotted by local villagers, Glander, using tranquilizer darts, managed to capture a young male and a young female. Also, in attempting to dart the rapidly moving animals in the thick forest, an older female was struck in the stomach with a dart and died.
"Ironically, we were aided in our search by some of the same people who are now hunting these animals using poisoned darts," Glander said. "It is clear that these animals have only a very limited amount of time before they are hunted out in this area."
The urgency of the rescue mission was intensified when Glander and his colleagues closely examined the captured animals after they had been transported to the Ivoloina Zoological Park in Madagascar, where they will be acclimatized to captivity over the next six months to a year.
"We were struck by the fact that these animals' fur was more uniformly darker than Romeo's, and without the orange that is characteristic of his species, propithecus diadema diadema," said Glander. "The newly rescued animals also have distinctive white 'eyeglasses' of fur encircling their eyes, and their faces are shaped differently."
The primatologists realized they might have discovered a new subspecies of sifaka that is between Romeo's subspecies and a subspecies known to be nearly completely black propithecus diadema edwardsi.
Such a phenomenon of an intermediate subspecies is possible, theorizes Glander, because Romeo's subspecies is found north of the Munubu River, a major river in Madagascar, while the darker propithecus diadema edwardsi subspecies is found quite far south of the river. The new animals were captured just south of the Munubu.
"If genetic testing reveals that the two animals do indeed represent a subspecies unknown to science, it would be a profound tragedy if they were lost," said Glander, who does plan another expedition to the area next year.
Romeo first came to the Primate Center in the fall of 1993 and has awaited a mate there ever since. He has now reached a weight of 14 pounds, well on his way to his adult weight of 18 to 20 pounds.
Captive breeding programs, such as the Duke Primate Center's, can rapidly replenish populations of animals. Because captured animals are well-fed, and protected from disease and natural enemies, they can produce from five to 10 times more offspring that survive to adulthood than wild animals normally can, Primate Center primatologists say.
The Ivoloina Park is a combination lemur breeding facility, zoo, education center and tourist attraction developed over the past decade by the Primate Center's husband-and-wife team, primatologists Charles Welch and Andrea Katz.
The Duke Primate Center houses the world's largest collection of endangered primates. Duke is also the only university-operated center that concentrates solely on studying and protecting prosimians, such as lemurs, lorises and galagoes. The center is supported by the National Science Foundation, private donations and Duke University.
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