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Image Credit: © Robert Zingg, Zoo Zurich
Image Credit: © Robert Zingg, Zoo Zurich

DNA of Tiny Lemurs Shows Big Changes in Madagascar’s Landscape

Image Credit: © Robert Zingg, Zoo Zurich
Image Credit: © Robert Zingg, Zoo Zurich

Scientists comparing the genes of five teeny lemur species found that, once upon a time, the animals’ disparate habitats were all connected. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

All 24 species of mouse lemurs (genus Microcebus) are primates descended from a common ancestor in the forests of Madagascar more than 10 million years ago. In the intervening time, the species have scattered across the island. They still look a lot alike from the outside, but each species has adapted to its own environment—changes that left a mark in the lemurs’ genes.

Adorable, hardy, fast-breeding, and unique to their environment, mouse lemurs are a geneticist’s dream subject. Female mouse lemurs reach sexual maturity when they’re just 12 months old. This means that their generations are short; or, to put it another way, they evolve much more rapidly than many other mammals.

Paper co-author Steve Goodman of The Field Museum in Chicago has spent the last 30 years studying Madagascar’s wildlife. He and his colleagues are working to piece together the natural history of the island itself by studying the animals that live there. For this study, they compared the genetic codes of five different mouse lemur species. (One of those species, Microcebus lehilahytsara has special significance for Goodman: “lehilahytsara” is Malagasy for “good man.” In English, the species is called Goodman’s mouse lemur, for the biologist’s many scientific contributions on the island.)

Goodman's mouse lemur. Image Credit: © Robert Zingg, Zoo Zurich

 
Analysis of the lemurs’ DNA showed that the species were still genetically close to one another. “That suggests that their ancestors were able to disperse across forested habitat that no longer exists,” Goodman said. He and his colleagues believe the now-separate east and west sides of the island were likely linked by a patchwork of forests.

Looking back in time through changes in the lemurs' DNA, the researchers could identify when the species split from one another and, consequently, what might have been happening on the island to make that possible.

A longstanding theory of the island's biogeography holds that it was the arrival of humans thousands of years ago that triggered the ecological shift. Yet the lemurs' DNA showed that the species had clearly diverged long before then, indicating that the landscape was already on the move by the time we arrived. It seems that natural climate change had a hand in the slow geographic shift.

“Madagascar is one of the top conservation priorities in the world,” Goodman said. “All of the native land mammals on Madagascar occur nowhere else in the world. This study is important because it sheds light upon the long-term life history of Madagascar, before human colonization. It helps us understand change.”

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Courtesy of The National Aviary
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Animals
Watch This Live Stream to See Two Rare Penguin Chicks Hatch From Their Eggs
Courtesy of The National Aviary
Courtesy of The National Aviary

Bringing an African penguin chick into the world is an involved process, with both penguin parents taking turns incubating the egg. Now, over a month since they were laid, two penguin eggs at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are ready to hatch. As Gizmodo reports, the baby birds will make their grand debut live for the world to see on the zoo's website.

The live stream follows couple Sidney and Bette in their nest, waiting for their young to emerge. The first egg was laid November 7 and is expected to hatch between December 14 and 18. The second, laid November 11, should hatch between December 18 and 22.

"We are thrilled to give the public this inside view of the arrival of these rare chicks," National Aviary executive director Cheryl Tracy said in a statement. "This is an important opportunity to raise awareness of a critically endangered species that is in rapid decline in the wild, and to learn about the work that the National Aviary is doing to care for and propagate African penguins."

African penguins are endangered, with less than 25,000 pairs left in the wild today. The National Aviary, the only independent indoor nonprofit aviary in the U.S., works to conserve threatened populations and raise awareness of them with bird breeding programs and educational campaigns.

After Sidney and Bette's new chicks are born, they will care for them in the nest for their first three weeks of life. The two penguins are parenting pros at this point: The monogamous couple has already hatched and raised three sets of chicks together.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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holidays
Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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iStock

Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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