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Could You Repeat That, Pink Face?

A researcher hopes a rare lemur can shed light on human speech development. But time may be running out for the silky sifaka.

January 29, 2006|Scott Calvert | The Baltimore Sun

MAROJEJY NATIONAL PARK, Madagascar — Since daybreak he has been scanning the treetops for the creatures that move as if by pogo stick and look as if they wear white fur coats and face masks.

It is after 2 p.m. and the dense, hilly rain forest has yet to give primatologist Erik Patel a glimpse of Propithecus candidus, the rare monkey-like lemur known as the silky sifaka. It is one of the world's 25 most endangered primates. Fewer than 1,000 silky sifakas are thought to exist, all of them in this rugged patch of Madagascar.

Finally, a guide working with him spots a flash of white deep in a ravine. Within minutes Patel skitters and slides down the root-covered slope, where he hears a familiar sound: the sneeze-like "zzuss" call the animals emit when alarmed.

"It's Pink Face," he says, wiping sweat from his forehead. "I know it's him."

Patel, 35, is a scientific pioneer, the planet's foremost expert on the silky sifaka. Until 2001, when he began work on a doctorate at Cornell University, the sum of knowledge about these animals was as fleeting as their ghost-like visage. He chose this path precisely because he would have to blaze it.

Patel and Africa's dozens of other animal researchers represent the newest chapter in scientific discovery. Using a wide variety of methods and approaches, they are continuing a tradition made famous by chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall and the late Dian Fossey, who studied and lived among mountain gorillas for nearly 20 years.

The work can be lonely and tedious. During his months in the forest, Patel favored his work over his health and his personal life. But he is on a mission, not unlike earlier explorers who, having mapped the coastline of an unknown shore, ventured into the interior without being certain of what they would find.

Over the last four years, Patel has spent 14 1/2 months camping in this forest. He is back for a few weeks to observe Pink Face and the others in this community of six lemurs. He hopes new data will shed more light on how the animals communicate, information that may one day yield clues about how speech evolved in humans, the lemur's distant cousins.

He feels a sense of urgency. Despite an increase in conservation efforts, including Patel's, no one knows how much longer the silky sifakas can survive persistent hunting and deforestation. They may need him as much as he needs them.

No one can mistake these animals for any other kind of lemur. Only the silky sifakas have fluffy white fur covering their body, everything but the face, which is slate-gray or pinkish. Their eyes are reddish-orange.

They have been dubbed flying angels for the way they soar from tree to tree. In reality, they use their powerful legs and fingerlike toes to grasp a tree trunk or branch and quickly push off to the next one, as much as 10 feet away.

They've had lots of practice: Lemurs may have been eating tree leaves and exploring the forest canopy for 50 million years.

How they got here remains a mystery. Madagascar, along with India, split off from Africa about 125 million years ago, and parted from India 88 million years ago -- before lemurs existed -- to take its place as the planet's fourth-largest island.

One theory holds that a storm washed some lemurs off the coast of Africa and that some of the animals floated on vegetation before chancing on Madagascar.

The island's long isolation meant that most of its plants and animals evolved separately from the wider world. Biologists estimate that eight in 10 of its species -- plants as well as animals, including birds, reptiles and frogs -- are found nowhere else, an astonishing rate of uniqueness. People arrived 2,000 years ago, probably from Indonesia, making this one of the last-settled major land masses on Earth.

The most striking example of the island's species diversity may be the lemurs.

Taxonomists group them into 70 species and subspecies (humans are known to have driven 17 species to extinction), and all occur naturally only in this country. The rise of faster, stronger monkeys on mainland Africa may have killed off the ancestors of lemurs there, but monkeys never reached this island.

Scientists generally consider lemurs, which have the smallest brains among primates, to be less intelligent than relatives such as baboons, chimpanzees, apes and various monkeys. Yet their parallel evolution has made lemurs different in key ways and therefore interesting to scientists looking for broad-based models to explain the evolution of primates.

For instance, males reign across all nonhuman primate species except, apparently, in some lemur species that show evidence of female dominance.

The study of lemurs is relatively young, particularly when it comes to species found in forbidding terrain, and few live in tougher territory for researchers than the mountain-dwelling silky sifaka.

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