Lemurs’ long-buried secrets revealed

The mystery of the Madagascar dwarf lemur's winter disappearance has been revealed: it burrows deep into the soil, curled up for a months-long sleep, scientists were astonished to find.

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PARIS: The mystery of the Madagascar dwarf lemur’s winter disappearance has been revealed: it burrows deep into the soil, curled up for a months-long sleep, scientists were astonished to find.

The discovery, announced in a study published in Nature Scientific Reports, makes the island country’s eastern dwarf lemurs the only primates in the world known to hibernate underground.

The fat-tailed lemur, a cousin from the slightly warmer, drier forests of western Madagascar, was already known to hibernate in tree holes for about seven months of the year.

“They had to go somewhere…”

Researchers long suspected the eastern lemurs may be doing the same, but could never find them.

“You don’t see them, trap them or find them during the dry season (winter time) while walking the forests at night,” study co-author Marina Blanco of Germany’s Hamburg University said.

“They had to go somewhere…”

And so the team fitted radio-transmitter collars on 12 lemurs from two eastern species in summer, and waited.

The species – Sibree’s dwarf lemur and Crossley’s dwarf lemur – live in the forest of Tsinjoarivo.

Setting out in winter with signal trackers, the team fully expected to find the lemurs sleeping in tree holes.

“We started to dig … and found a furry ball”

“We were tracking the collar’s signal and pointing our antenna up in the air, towards the tip of a tree. But the signal was coming from the ground, so we thought the animal had lost the collar,” said Blanco.

“We looked around and didn’t see anything so we started to dig up the area and found a furry ball, the dwarf lemur was curled up and cold to the touch, still wearing its collar.”

The tiny bundles weighed about 250 gram (nine ounces) to 350 gram (12 ounces) depending on which species they belonged to.

They hibernated for anything from three to six months buried 10 to 40 centimetres (4 – 16 inches) under a spongy layer of tree roots, soil and decaying plant matter.

Crossley’s dwarf lemur from Tsinjoarivo, Madagascar, near its winter hibernation spot.

Rare primates hibernation

It is uncommon for primates to hibernate – in fact the western fat-tailed lemur was previously the only primate known to do so.

It is also rare behaviour for animals in tropical regions – residents of colder climes like polar bears, hedgehogs or squirrels are usually the ones who find it necessary to hide out from winter.

During hibernation, the metabolism slows down and the core body temperature reaches ambient levels – meaning the body has to work less hard to stay alive.

During the Madagascar winter, lemurs are exposed to drastic daily temperature fluctuations of as much as 30 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit).

In the highland rainforests, ambient temperatures can drop to between zero and five degrees C in winter – cold for animals used to summer averages in the 30s.

In retrospect, the team wrote, underground hibernation in the tropics made sense as it provides better insulation than tree holes or nests.

Click here to see the Sibree’s dwarf lemur retrieved from its underground hibernaculum in the Tsinjoarivo forest.

  1. http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/130502/srep01768/full/srep01768.html
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXsoXtxKCe4
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