Endangered “Demon Primate” Genome Sequenced

According to local legends in Madagascar, the aye-aye lemur is a demon that can kill just by pointing a finger. That sounds mythical, but for insects inside tree trunks, there is truth to the killing part.

The nocturnal aye-aye uses its multipurpose middle finger to tap forest wood in search of its meals (see above video).

Found only on the island of Madagascar and classified as “near threatened” on the IUCN Red List, the three populations of aye-aye that exist were thought to be very similar. But a recently completed sequencing of lemur genomes by researchers found quite the opposite to be true. The results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online today, show that the northern island population is significantly different from a counterpart population in the east.

Researchers found that, when compared to the differences between human populations in present-day Africa and Europe, the northern and eastern aye-aye populations have a greater genetic distance between them. (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.)

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, according to Webb Miller, Penn State professor of biology and computer science and engineering.

Miller also said that 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.

The scientists hope their study can help in conservation efforts, perhaps targeting efforts toward the north, where loss of habitat is of particular concern. As forests become smaller, it becomes more difficult for the lemurs to maintain their populations. And the IUCN reports that some aye-aye are killed due to the aforementioned “harbinger of evil” label.

According to a news release from Penn State University, the team of scientists in this study was 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.

By the way, if you’ve lost track since the human genome was sequenced more than a decade ago, the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, provides documentation of more than 140 species of mammals that have had significant genome sequencing reported.

Miller_Female_AyeAye as Smart Object-1

Photo Caption: The aye-aye — a type of lemur — has a long, thin, and flexible middle finger to extract insect larvae from trees, filling the ecological niche of a woodpecker.

Photograph courtesy Edward Louis, Penn State


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Jeff has been a Senior Video Producer with National Geographic for over 10 years. He manages day-to-day operation of National Geographic's online video player and writes, produces and narrates videos. A video news journalist for more than 25 years, his previous experience includes Senior Producer for Discovery Science Channel, Executive Producer for a regional cable news channel, and News Director, News Anchor, Producer and Reporter for several local network affiliates in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Washington, DC and West Virginia.