Why some lemurs cope better with forest loss: their gut microbes

An image to illustrate lemurs, and why some are more sensitive to
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Gut microbes may give an insight into why some lemurs cope better with forest loss than others, according to scientists at Duke University.

Different species of lemurs will be affected by forest loss to varying degrees. According to a new study, the lemur’s ability to adapt to fragmented forest or habitat change will depend on their ability to digest the mix of plants that grow in that location. The new findings on the gut microbes of two species, the sifaka and the brown lemur, give an insight into why some species are better equipped to do so.

The importance of diet and the right gut microbes

Both groups of lemurs tested eat plant-based diets from hundreds of different tree species. However, brown lemurs eat mostly fruit while sifakas are able to eat leaves full of fibre and tannins. The sifakas intestines have a large amount of good bacteria which helps them to break down the tough leaves and convert plant fibre into healthy nutrients.

First author Lydia Greene, who conducted the research as part of her Ph.D. dissertation at Duke, said: “Gut microbes perform crucial functions…They have specialized diets and are completely reliant on having the right microbes” to extract nutrients and energy from the food they eat.

While the fruit-eating brown lemurs had similar gut microbes regardless of their habitat on the island, the leaf-eating sifakas had varying gut microbes dependent on where they lived on the island, which were not attributed to genetic relatedness.

Comparing how different species of lemurs cope with forest loss

Christine Drea, Professor of evolutionary anthropology, explained: “If you look at any one of these fruit-eating species and take away its forest, theoretically it could move next door. The leaf specialists may not be able to.”

Greene added that this may explain “why so many brown lemurs have adapted to captivity, but only one species of sifaka” have been successfully reared in zoos and sanctuaries.

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