New York; An international team of scientists has discovered three new species of mouse lemurs – the smallest primates in the world - in Madagascar.
Mouse lemurs, like all other lemurs, are native to the island-nation of Madagascar. They are small, nocturnal primates of the genus Microcebus.
Twenty years ago, there were only two species of mouse lemurs. Today, including the newly-discovered species Microcebus ganzhorni, Microcebus manitatra and Microcebus boraha, mouse lemurs comprise 24 species, which are only found in the highly biodiverse island of Madagascar.
"We didn't go into this work looking for a new species, but there was no real way to get around the fact that there are three new species here to describe," said lead study author Scott Hotaling from University of Kentucky in the US.
"From a conservation perspective, knowing what's there is important," Hotaling said.
"These animals are facing diminishing habitats and tremendous pressures," Hotaling pointed out.
The three newly-discovered Microcebus species are named - Microcebus ganzhorni, Microcebus manitatra and Microcebus boraha.
M. ganzhorni was named after the ecologist Professor Jörg Ganzhorn from Hamburg University, who has been engaged in research and protection of lemurs for decades. While M. manitatra's name symbolizes the expansion of the range of a subgroup from western Madagascar, the third new species, M. boraha, is named after its location on the Island of Sainte Marie, also known as Nosy Boraha.
But almost as important as the species discovered is how they were discovered -- using recently developed methods that allowed researchers to statistically model the evolutionary process on University of Kentucky's supercomputer.
The researchers believed that this objective approach to assessing genetic differences between individuals could have significant potential for clarifying diversity in other species.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List, 94 percent of lemurs are threatened with extinction.
Of the 101 surviving lemur species, 22 are critically endangered, 48 are endangered and 20 are vulnerable - making them one of the most threatened groups of vertebrates on Earth.
The findings were published in the journal Molecular Ecology.
(With IANS inputs)