Living with lemurs: UND anthropologist observes rare primate behavior in Madagascar cave dwellers

By Kate Menzies, University & Public Affairs student writer

When it comes to lemurs, Dr. Frank Cuozzo of the University of North Dakota Anthropology Department, doesn’t monkey around.

As part of recent research efforts, Cuozzo and his U.S., Malagasy and Canadian colleagues have recently documented wild ring-tailed lemurs using caves as sleeping sites in southwestern Madagascar.

Their new article, published in Madagascar Conservation and Development, is based on seven years of fieldwork, and reports the first habitual and continuous use of a single cave site for sleeping among wild primates.

Studying the lemur population offers particularly valuable information for researchers, as their environment in Madagascar represents some of the last areas of the world to be impacted by human settlement.

Ring-tailed lemurs are one of the few primate species to live in seasonal, temperate (nontropical) habitats. In this way they provide a comparative model for understanding some aspects of human and other primate ecology and behavior. Early humans were also subject to nontropical environments and were forced to live with extreme temperature swings across the different seasons.

Previous cave use by anthropoid primates (monkeys and apes), it was often argued, was to help regulate temperature. But this new lemur information suggests that these primates are using caves as sleeping sites to avoid native and introduced predators. This new data provides a framework for interpreting possible cave use by early human ancestors and other extinct primates, indicating their potential use of caves for protection from predators, similar to the ring-tailed lemurs described by Cuozzo and colleagues.

Since more people are populating Madagascar, new predators such as dogs and cats have emerged. This has posed a new threat to the lemur species. Cuozzo described that caves found along the ground could be considered traps for lemurs if being chased by predators, and as shown in this research, only caves found high on cliff faces, where predators can’t climb, are chosen by these lemurs as sleeping sites

Research efforts are ongoing for the study of this ring-tailed primate. Rest assured Cuozzo is among those searching for answers for this recent change in primate behavior.

This work was funded by the University of North Dakota (SSAC; Faculty Seed Grant; Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences program), ND EPSCoR, The University of Colorado-Boulder, Colorado College, The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, The National Geographic Society and the U.S. National Science Foundation (BCS 0922465).

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