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These Cute Mouse Lemurs Could Solve the Mystery of Madagascar's Past

Jul 19, 2016 08:29 AM EDT
Brown Mouse Lemur, Nosy Mangabe, Madagascar
Scientists discovered that by analyzing the rapidly-changing DNA of mouse lemurs, they could pattern what the island nation's rainforest looked like in the past.
(Photo : Frank Vassen/Wikimedia Commons)

Apart from being adorably cute, mouse lemurs' DNA could hold the key in revealing the mysterious past of the island nation of Madagascar.

According to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), Madagascar has undergone drastic changes in its ecosystem through the years due to human activities, such as logging and the slash-and-burn agricultural practice.

These activities have been practiced by the people in Madagascar since the early settlers arrived approximately 2,000 years ago. However, the extent of how these activities affected Madagascar’s rainforest has not been thoroughly measured.

"For a long time, scientists weren't sure how or why Madagascar's biogeography changed in very recent geological time, specifically at the key period around when humans arrived on the island a few thousand years ago. It has been proposed (that) they heavily impacted the Central Highland forests," Steve Goodman, biologist at the Field Museum and co-author of the study, told

But this study reveals that the answer to this bugging mystery is embedded in the tiny lemurs roaming in the island nation.

Mouse lemurs have fast-changing DNAs that could mature in just a year, meaning generations of lemurs reproduce very quickly, which helps scientists observe evolution at a faster pace.

"The mouse lemurs are forest dependent--as the forest changes, they change," Goodman said. "By studying how mouse lemurs evolved in different areas of the island, we're able to glimpse how the island itself changed and learn whether those changes were caused by humans."

The scientists analyzed DNA from five lemur species and discovered thousands of genomes that originated from these mouse lemurs but have now evolved into entirely different species.

"By analyzing these DNA changes, we were able to understand when the species diverged from each other, and by inference, identify the ecological forces that might have driven them apart," said Anne Yoder, lead author of the study.

Yoder and her team also discovered genetic similarities between mouse lemurs and other species that live apart from each other. This shows that Madagascar was once enveloped in a patchwork of forests, which enabled the lemurs to disperse throughout the area.

Through time, however, the vast forest became patches of forests which isolated the animals.

The study sheds light to understanding the wildlife and history of Madagascar. The island nation plays a vital role in environment as it is one of the top conservation priorities in the world, where unique mammal species could be found.

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