By analyzing DNA of the mouse lemur species, researchers have painted the picture of Madagascar's landscapes in the past.
Madagascar is a huge island located at the southeast coast of Africa. The island is a unique mosaic of different landscapes with lush rainforest in the east and a dry forest that undergoes leaf shedding on annual basis in the west and both these regions are separated by a large mountainous land, but Madagascar has not always been like that. Its outlook was very different from what we see today. To investigate the history of Madagascar’s landscape, researchers have decided to sequence the DNA of the adorable mouse lemur – a large-eyed animal found in abundance on the island.
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"For a long time, scientists weren't sure how or why Madagascar's biogeography changed in very recent geological time, specifically at the key period around when humans arrived on the island a few thousand years ago. It has been proposed they heavily impacted the Central Highland forests,” said co-author Steve Goodman from The Field Museum in Chicago. “This study shows the landscape was changing thousands of years before humans arrived.”
So why does researchers have selected the cute little mouse lemur to peek into the past of Madagascar? Mouse lemurs are small primates that are elusive to the island and are totally dependent on the forests, meaning changes in the forests bring changes in mouse lemur as well.
“By studying how mouse lemurs evolved in different areas of the island, we're able to glimpse how the island itself changed, and learn whether those changes were caused by humans.” Goodman explained.
Researchers have analyzed the DNA of five different mouse lemur species and draw a kind of lemur family tree and determined when the species diverged from each other and what were the ecological factors that forced them apart.
By analyzing DNA, researchers were able to identify many changes in the genomes of mouse but there were many similarities too.
“When we analyzed the mouse lemurs' DNA, we were able to see genetic similarities between lemur species that are closely related but today live far apart from each other. That suggests that their ancestors were able to disperse across forested habitat that no longer exists - portions of the Central Highlands that formed the bridge between the eastern and western parts of the island today.” Goodman said.
The findings reflect that two ecologically different portions of the island were once connected by a patchwork of forest. But once that patchwork disappeared, the two portions became totally segregated from each other, leading to isolate mouse lemur populations too. And all that happened thousands of years before humans arrived on the island suggesting humans were not responsible for the changes. The changes were likely driven by natural ecological forces.
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“We’ve learned that it’s probably incorrect to talk about Madagascar's humid east and dry west like they are two completely separate habitats,” said Goodman. “The eastern and western parts of the island are just different extremes on the continuum.”