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Scientists Sequence Genome of Threatened Lemur

Update Date: Mar 25, 2013 11:07 PM EDT

Scientists have sequenced the genome of Aye-aye lemur, a protected species of lemur found only in Madagascar, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported Monday.

The project was a joint venture led by George H. Perry, an assistant professor of anthropology and biology at Penn State University; Penn State’s Webb Miller; and Edward Louis, director of conservation genetics at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and director of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership NGO

The genome sequencing revealed that contrary to the prevailing belief in the scientific community, the three populations of aye-aye are quite different. The northern island population is significantly different from a counterpart population in the east.

In fact, their genetic structure is far more distinct than humans from present day Africa and Europe are different. While a western island population is also distinct from the eastern group, it was not found to have nearly as much of a genetic difference as exists between the northern and eastern populations.

It’s easy to understand this genetic distance if one takes into account that though the aye-aye populations in the north and east are separated by a distance of only about 160 miles (257 kilometers), major rivers and high and extensive plateaus made interbreeding less likely.

“The data suggests the population separation stretches back much further than 2,300 years, which is when it’s believed humans first arrived in Madagascar, burning the forest habitat and hunting the lemurs,” Webb Miller, Penn State professor of biology and computer science and engineering, said in an interview to National Geographic.

Classified as a “near-threatened” on the IUCN Red List, the primate is a figure shrouded in myth of demons in its native Madagascar.

Local legends hold that the aye-aye lemur is a demon capable of killing just by pointing a finger.

Scientists expect that their research can contribute towards conservation efforts, special toward the north, where loss of habitat is of particular concern. While the fear associated with the aye-aye myths which permeates the island doesn’t necessarily help the conservation efforts, there’s also a growing concern among scientists about the deforestation, which has impacted the growth of those primates’ populations.

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