Sex in the Moonlight, How Do Lemurs Tell Each Other Apart?
Image from Belgianchocolate

Lemurs, the small, fuzzy primates that inhabit the forests of Madagascar, have a love life that even the most daring of swingers might be surprised by.

The Lemur’s natural call is a squeak. However, without being able to carefully moderate their squeaks, they would be in a virtual crapshoot-come-mating-season, unable to tell each other apart. The interesting thing about Lemurs is that although there are several different species, some are so called “cryptic” species: they’re different at a genetic level, but not visually distinct. So how do the males and females, in this case of the Malagasy Mouse Lemur tell each other apart in the heat of nighttime passion? After all there are three species.

The answer is in the call. Lemurs are unresponsive to the calls of species that aren’t their own. Grey mouse lemurs only respond to grey mouse lemurs, and completely ignore the brown mouse lemurs, with whom they share many similarities and habitats. So what happens in the event that their curiosity is aroused by a species that they haven’t heard before? The grey mouse lemurs investigated calls from a Goodman’s lemur, which they would never encounter in the wild, but refused to show any interest in mating with them–and vice versa.

This is the first recorded use of a call to defeat the difficulties posed by cryptic species in primates: a major breakthrough towards understanding the behaviors and lifestyles of a primate. Obviously this is important to understanding our own family tree, but it will also greatly aid conservation efforts in Madagascar, which recently adopted a comprehensive roadmap to save their indigenous species.

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