A lemur, a primate cousin that evolved separately on the island of Madagascar, leaps above me through the rainforest canopy. Ninety percent of the lemurs on this island off the east coast of Africa are in danger of extinction. I am studying the Milne Edward’s sifaka, an endangered species of lemur in Ranomafana National Park. I am following these lemurs around to better understand their diet and behavior, research which hasn't been updated in over a decade but is very important for this species' conservation.
I’m a senior student at Rice University collecting data for my honor’s thesis. I received a grant from my school to go to Madagascar to conduct this research.
I run through the forest after the lemurs, taking observations of their behavior every three minutes, following the protocol for past studies. During my time here I am following six different groups of lemurs, three in degraded forests and three in pristine forests. The group I'm following today, which occupies the disturbed forest, consists of two adults females and two juveniles. They run out of sight down a steep ravine. One false step, and I slide down the muddy slope on my butt. Desperate for every piece of data, I pick myself up and keep running to maintain pace with the lemur I’m focused on. She’s a mother, and a green-eyed baby pokes her head out below mom's belly. She nibbles on some young leaves, a common food item in this degraded forest.
As compared to the pristine forest, there are less vines and more tall trees with fruits and seeds. So far, my observations mirror the finding of previous research that lemurs eat more fruits and seeds in degraded forests because these foods are relatively more available. This research shows the importance of having these food items available for the sifaka lemurs to eat and reinforces the approach taken by reforestation efforts elsewhere on the island: tree species that yield abundant seeds and fruits should be prioritized.
I will return to the US after my time with the lemurs and publish these results. Hopefully, this will aid conservation managers in informing reforestation efforts to provide food for the endangered Milne Edwards’s sifaka lemurs.