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Ruffed lemurs are a keystone species whose survival is critical to the health and continuation of Madagascar's eastern rainforest

Fate of Madagascar’s rainforest habitat on the line

Image credit: Rabe Franck

A new study has found that the combined effects of deforestation and human-induced climate change could decimate Madagascar’s entire eastern rainforest habitat by 2070, if left unchecked.

A report in the journal Nature Climate Change said that such devastation will have a significant impact on thousands of plants, mammals, reptiles and amphibians that are endemic to the island nation.

However, the study’s authors also found that protected areas will help to mitigate the issue while environmentalists work towards long-term solutions for ending runaway greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change.

The island of Madagascar – a biodiversity hotspot where 80 to 90 per cent of its animal and plant species are exclusive to the area – has been desecrated by decades of deforestation and overharvesting. Such activities have destroyed much of the land cover that provides habitat for a variety of unique animals, including currently endangered varieties of lemurs.

As part of the study, the researchers employed a case study of two critically endangered ruffed lemurs using three decades of research throughout Madagascar to analyse the threats to the country’s eastern tropical rainforest. These two particular species of lemurs play a crucial role in dispersing the seeds of a number of plant species that provide food and shelter for other animals across the rainforest.

Red ruffed lemur close up Varecia rubra, Andasibe reserve, Madagascar

Ruffed lemurs are a keystone species whose survival is critical to the health and continuation of Madagascar’s eastern rainforest. Formerly considered to be a monotypic genus, two species of lemur are now recognised: the black-and-white ruffed lemur, with its three subspecies, and the red ruffed lemur.

Image credit: Luca Nichetti - Dreamstime

“Because of their essential role as seed dispersers and their sensitivity to habitat degradation, ruffed lemurs serve as a critical indicator of the health of Madagascar's entire eastern rainforest,” said Andrea Baden, a professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Hunter College, both in New York City.

“When we projected the impact of deforestation and climate change, we found that deforestation alone and climate change alone could reduce ruffed lemur habitat by over 50 per cent,” she added. “Even more alarming, these two factors together are projected to essentially decimate suitable rainforest habitat by the end of the century.”

The researchers’ data suggests that the speed and intensity of destruction to Madagascar’s eastern rainforest will be greatly determined by whether the country institutes strict protections against deforestation or a more relaxed set of policies.

It also suggests that by protecting forested areas that provide shelter for ruffed lemurs, which also serve as corridor links to their strongholds, this will increase their chances of survival. The researchers stress that their survival is important due to their role as a keystone species that enables the survival of a large number of animal and plant species in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.

“The results from our study will be useful to non-profit organisations, park management and the broader conservation community,” Baden said. “Our results indicate potential conservation opportunities for ruffed lemurs and any of the rainforest-dwellers that rely on forest cover and connectivity. Protected areas are vital to species persistence.”

In 2018, E&T investigated the roles of conservation technology and data analytics in protecting endangered species.

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