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Scientists Discover New Lemur Species


Chimpanzees and gorillas may be our best-known primate cousins. You might be less familiar with mouse lemurs, the world's smallest primates.


They are tiny and adorable with big googly eyes and furry tails, but they can be tough to spot in the forests of Madagascar and even tougher for scientists to identify.

MARINA BLANCO: When you go to the forest and you see a mouse lemur, it's very hard to actually tell what a species belongs to.

SHAPIRO: Marina Blanco is a research scientist at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina. And for years, her team surveyed the lowland forests of Northeastern Madagascar, capturing and measuring the tiny nocturnal creatures. They took genetic samples, too.

VANEK SMITH: Now all that work has paid off because they say one of the mouse lemurs they sampled, often found clinging to cardamom bushes, is a new species. It's only about 10 inches long, and half of that is its tail, and it weighs just 2 ounces. The scientists named it Microcebus jonahi, or Jonah's mouse lemur.

SHAPIRO: In this case, Jonah is Jonah Ratsimbazafy, a lemur researcher in Madagascar. And his reaction to the news...

JONAH RATSIMBAZAFY: Good news in a bad time.

SHAPIRO: Ratsimbazafy says lemurs, including this new species, are surrounded by threats.

RATSIMBAZAFY: One-third of them are critically endangered, on the brink of extinction; 98% of them are threatened. So that means that there is a big risk for the next generation not to see any more of the lemurs.

VANEK SMITH: Mining, poaching and illegal hunting all threaten lemurs. But the biggest problem, he says, is deforestation.

RATSIMBAZAFY: There is no discussion when the forest is gone. Lemurs are like fish. Fish cannot survive outside of the water. Lemurs cannot survive outside of the forest.

VANEK SMITH: Ratsimbazafy says conserving forests is crucial to the future of lemurs.

SHAPIRO: And he says he hopes this new, tiny primate will illustrate just how much we have to lose.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID BAZAN SONG, "HARD TO BE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.