Giant mouse lemur
|Giant mouse lemurs|
|Northern giant mouse lemur (M. zaza)|
A. Grandidier, 1867
Giant mouse lemurs were first described by French naturalist Alfred Grandidier in 1867 based on seven individuals he had collected near Morondava in southwestern Madagascar. (Of these seven specimens, the lectotype was selected in 1939 as MNHN 1867–603, an adult skull and skin.) He placed Coquerel's giant mouse lemur (M. coquereli) with the dwarf lemurs in the genus Cheirogaleus (which he spelled Cheirogalus) as C. coquereli. He selected this generic assignment based on similarities with the fork-marked lemur (Phaner), which he considered to also be a member of Cheirogaleus. The following year, the German naturalist Hermann Schlegel and Dutch naturalist François Pollen independently described the same species and coincidentally gave it the same specific name, coquereli, basing theirs on an individual from around the Bay of Ampasindava in northern Madagascar. Unlike Grandidier, they placed Coquerel's giant mouse lemur in the genus Microcebus (mouse lemurs); however, these authors also listed all Cheirogaleus under Microcebus and based the classification of their species on similarities with the greater dwarf lemur (M. typicus, now C. major).
In 1870, British zoologist John Edward Gray placed Coquerel's giant mouse lemur into its own genus, Mirza. This classification that was primarily ignored and later rejected in the early 1930s by zoologists Ernst Schwarz, Guillaume Grandidier, and others, who felt that its longer fur and bushy tail did not merit a separate genus and instead placed it Microcebus. British anatomist William Charles Osman Hill also favored this view in 1953, noting that despite its larger size (comparable to Cheirogaleus), its first upper premolar was proportionally small as in Microcebus. In 1977, French zoologist Jean-Jacques Petter also favored the Microcebus classification, despite the threefold size difference Coquerel's giant mouse lemur and the other members of the genus.
The genus Mirza was resurrected in 1982 by American paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall to represent an intermediate branch between Microcebus and Cheirogaleus, citing the Coquerel's giant mouse lemur's significantly larger size than the largest Microcebus and locomotor behavior more closely aligned with Cheirogaleus. Adoption of Mirza was slow, though in 1994 it was used in the first edition of Lemurs of Madagascar by Conservation International. In 1993, primatologist Colin Groves initially favored the Microcebus classification in the second edition of Mammal Species of the World, but began supporting the resurrection of Mirza in 2001. In 1991, prior to adopting Mirza, Groves was the first to use the common name "giant mouse lemur". Prior to that, they were popularly referred to as "Coquerel's mouse lemur".
In 2005, Peter M. Kappeler and Christian Roos described a new species of giant mouse lemur, the northern giant mouse lemur (M. zaza). (At the same time, they also described Microcebus lehilahytsara, a new species of mouse lemur.) Their studies compared the morphology, behavioral ecology, and mitochondrial cytochrome b sequences of specimens from both Kirindy Mitea National Park in central-western Madagascar and around Ambato in northern Madagascar, part of the Sambirano region. Their study demonstrated distinct differences in size, sociality, and breeding, as well as sufficient genetic distance to merit specific distinction between the northern and central-western populations. Because Grandidier's description was based off a southern specimen, they named the northern population as a new species. Further research is also needed for intermediate populations in the Tsingy de Bemaraha, Tsingy de Namoroka, Befotaka region (area around Befotaka), and Sahamalaza region.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced in 2010 that a biodiversity study from 2009 in the gallery forest of Ranobe near Toliara in southwestern Madagascar revealed a population of giant mouse lemur previously unknown to science, and possibly a new species. Not only was it was found in a part of the spiny forest ecoregion in which Coquerel's giant mouse lemur had not been seen, there was significant difference in coloration based on the specimen they observed. However, testing needed to be down to confirm the discovery.
|Mirza, Microcebus, and Allocebus form a clade and are nested deeply in Cheirogaleidae, regardless of whether Phaner is a sister group of the family (top) or more closely related to Lepilemur (bottom).|
The etymology of the genus Mirza puzzled researchers for many years. Gray often created mysterious and unexplained taxonomic names—a trend not only continued with his description of Mirza in 1870, but also with the genera Phaner (fork-marked lemurs) and Azema (for M. rufus, now a synonym for Microcebus), both of which were described in same publication. In 1904, American zoologist Theodore Sherman Palmer attempted to document the etymologies of all mammalian taxa, but could not definitively explain these three genera. For Mirza, Palmer only noted that it derived from the Persian title mîrzâ ("prince"), a view tentatively supported by Alex Dunkel, Jelle Zijlstra, and Groves in 2012. However, because the reference to Persian princes might have come from Arabian Nights, a popular piece of literature at the time, Dunkel et al. also searched the general literature published around 1870. The answer to all three names was found in a British comedy The Palace of Truth by W. S. Gilbert, which premiered in London on 19 November 1870, nearly one and a half weeks prior the date written on the preface of Gray's manuscript (also published in London). The comedy featured characters bearing all three names: King Phanor (sic), Mirza, and Azema. The authors concluded that Gray had seen the comedy and then based the names of three lemur genera on its characters.
Based on studies using morphology, immunology, repetitive DNA, SINE analysis, multilocus phylogenetic tests, and mitochondrial genes (mtDNA), giant mouse lemurs are deeply nested within family Cheirogaleidae, forming a clade with the mouse lemurs, both of which sharing close relations to the hairy-eared dwarf lemur (Allocebus). Both dwarf lemurs and fork-marked lemurs are more distantly related, with fork-marked lemurs being either a sister group of all cheirogaleids, or more closely related to sportive lemurs (Lepilemur).
Although Mirza, Microcebus, and Allocebus form a clade within Cheirogaleidae, the three lineages are thought to have diverged during a narrow window of time, so the relationships within this clade may change with further research. All three are thought to have diverged approximately 20 mya (million years ago).
Giant mouse lemurs are relatively small cheirogaleids, though more than three times larger than the smallest members of the family, the mouse lemurs. Their body weight averages 300 g (11 oz). Their tail is bushy and long, measuring around 300 mm (12 in), which is longer than their head-body length, which averages 233 mm (9.2 in). Their fur is typically grayish-brown on the dorsal (back) side and more gray in color on the ventral (front) side. The tail is typically black-tipped. The new population found by WWF in 2010 has an overall lighter color, along with reddish or rusty patches near the hands and feet on the dorsal side of the arms and legs. This population also has a red tail, which darkens at the end.
Ear size is one differentiating factor between the northern giant mouse lemur and Coquerel's giant mouse lemur, with the former having shorter, rounded ears, while the latter has relatively large ears. The northern giant mouse lemur also has a shorter tail and shorter canine teeth and is generally larger.
Distribution and habitat
Coquerel's giant mouse lemur has a spotty distribution across western Madagascar's dry deciduous forests due to forest fragmentation throughout the region. The dry forests in this lowland region range from sea level to 700 m (2,300 ft). The range of this species is divided into northern and southern subpopulations, which are separated by several hundred kilometers. Both historical and current populations between these ranges are uncertain. The southern regions is bound by the Onilahy River in the south and the Tsiribinha River in the north, while the the northern population is found in the northwestern corner of the island at Tsingy de Namoroka National Park. The northern giant mouse lemur is found in the northeast in the Sambirano region, including the Ampasindava Peninsula.
Giant mouse lemurs were first studied in the wild by French primatologist Jean-Jacques Petter in 1971. His observations were secondary to his primary research interest, the fork-marked lemurs north of Morondava. Both northern and southern populations were studied intermittently between 1978 and 1981, and in 1993, long-term social and genetic studies began in Kirindy Forest. Behavioral studies of captive individuals have also been performed at the Duke Lemur Center during the 1990s.
Both species are omnivorous, eating fruit, flowers, buds, insect excretions, tree gums, large insects, spiders, frogs, chameleons, snakes, and small birds. Coquerel's giant mouse lemur is thought to opportunistically prey on mouse lemurs after an individual was found with a half-eaten gray mouse lemur (M. murinus) in a trap. During June and July, at the peak of the dry season, this species relies on sugary excretions from the larvae of hemipteran and cochineal insects as well as tree gums. In contrast, the northern giant mouse lemur relies on cashew fruits during the dry season.
Documented predators of giant mouse lemurs include the Madagascar buzzard (Buteo brachypterus), Madagascar owl (Asio madagascariensis), fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), and the narrow-striped mongoose (Mungotictis decemlineata). As with all small, nocturnal lemurs, owls are their most significant predator.
In 2012, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assessed both Coquerel's giant mouse lemur and the northern giant mouse lemur as endangered. Prior to that, both species had been listed as vulnerable. Populations of both species are in decline due to habitat destruction, primarily for slash-and-burn agriculture and charcoal production. Also, they are both hunted for bushmeat. The population announced by the WWF in 2010 was found outside the limits of a nearby protected area, PK32-Ranobe, which was granted temporary protection status in December 2008 and is co-managed by the WWF. Its forests were not included in the protected area due to existing concessions for mining activities.
As with all lemurs, giant mouse lemurs were first protected in 1969 when they were listed as "Class A" of the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. This prohibited hunting and capture without authorization, which would only be given for scientific purposes or the national interest. They were also protected under CITES Appendix I as of 1973. This strictly regulates their trade and forbids commercial trade. Although enforcement is patchy, they are also protected under Malagasy law.
Giant mouse lemurs are rarely kept in captivity, though they breed easily. In 1989, the Duke Lemur Center (DLC) held more than 70% of the captive population (45 of 62 individuals). At the time, the DLC was coordinating a captive breeding program for Coquerel's giant mouse lemur, and all individuals kept at American facilities were descended from six individuals imported by the DLC in 1982 from the region around Ambanja. As of 2009, the International Species Information System (ISIS) recorded only six remaining individuals registered in the United States and Europe, all reclassified as northern giant mouse lemurs and considered a non-breeding population.
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- Original description of Mirza by J.E. Gray, 1870 – Biodiversity Heritage Library
- Original description of C. coquereli by A. Grandidier, 1867 – Biodiversity Heritage Library (French)
- Description of M. coquereli by Schlegel and Pollen, 1868 – Biodiversity Heritage Library (French)