Ancient DNA Confirms Single Origin of Malagasy Primates

May 27, 2005

Yale biologists have managed to extract and analyze DNA from giant, extinct lemurs, according to a Yale study published in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Radiocarbon dating of the bones and teeth from which the DNA was obtained reveal that each of the individuals analyzed died well over 1,000 years ago, according to the senior author, Anne Yoder, associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Living lemurs comprise more than 50 species, all of which are unique to the island of Madagascar, which is the world’s fourth largest island and east of Africa. Evolutionary analysis of the DNA obtained from the extinct giants reveals that they, like the living lemurs, are descended from a single primate ancestor that colonized Madagascar more than 60 million years ago, Yoder said.

The biologists extracted DNA from nine subfossil individuals in two of the more bizarre extinct species, Palaeopropithecus and Megaladapis. The first has been likened to tree sloths and the second compared to koala bears. Both ranged in body weights from 100 to 150 pounds, as compared to the largest living lemur, Indri indri, which weighs in at fewer than 15 to 17 pounds.

“The most important conclusion to be drawn from our study is that the phylogenetic placement of subfossil lemurs adds additional support to the hypothesis that non–human primates colonized Madagascar only once,” Yoder said. “However, the limited taxonomic success of our study leaves open the possibility that data from additional taxa will overturn this increasingly robust hypothesis.”

Yoder said the researchers’ results support the close relationship of sloth lemurs (Palaeopropithecus) to living indriids, but Megaladapis does not show a sister–group relationship with the living genus Lepilemur. “The classification of the latter in the family Megaladapidae is misleading,” she said.

Yoder said that damaging effects of moisture, ultraviolet irradiation, and tropical heat on DNA survival likely contributed to the inability to obtain DNA from some species. The only samples to yield DNA from tropical localities were the two individuals that were used as positive controls, Yoder said.

“The results of our study contribute to the mountain evidence that suggests that prospects for ancient DNA studies from the tropics are less promising than those from higher latitudes, but when the results are potentially of such compelling interest, it’s always worth a try,” she said.

Source: Yale University

Explore further: Lemur poop could pinpoint poaching hotspots

Related Stories

Lemur poop could pinpoint poaching hotspots

September 23, 2016

When Tara Clarke went to Madagascar this summer, she packed what you might expect for a trip to the tropics: sunscreen, bug spray. But when she returned seven weeks later, her carry-on luggage contained an unusual item: ten ...

DNA sheds light on why largest lemurs disappeared

December 16, 2014

Ancient DNA extracted from the bones and teeth of giant lemurs that lived thousands of years ago in Madagascar may help explain why the giant lemurs went extinct. It also explains what factors make some surviving species ...

Ridiculously cute mouse lemurs hold key to Madagascar's past

July 18, 2016

Today, Madagascar is home to a mosaic of different habitats—a lush rainforest in the east and a dry deciduous forest in the west, separated by largely open highlands. But the island off the southeast coast of Africa hasn't ...

Lemur's evolutionary history may shed light on our own

February 25, 2008

After swabbing the cheeks of more than 200 lemurs and related primates to collect their DNA, researchers at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy (IGSP) and Duke Lemur Center now have a much clearer picture of their ...

Recommended for you

Atlas of the RNA universe takes shape

December 7, 2016

As the floor plan of the living world, DNA guides the composition of animals ranging from unicellular organisms to humans. DNA not only helps shepherd every organism from birth through death, it also plays an essential role ...

Giant radio flare of Cygnus X-3 detected by astronomers

December 7, 2016

(Phys.org)—Russian astronomers have recently observed a giant radio flare from a strong X-ray binary source known as Cygnus X-3 (Cyg X-3 for short). The flare occurred after more than five years of quiescence of this source. ...

Dark matter may be smoother than expected

December 7, 2016

Analysis of a giant new galaxy survey, made with ESO's VLT Survey Telescope in Chile, suggests that dark matter may be less dense and more smoothly distributed throughout space than previously thought. An international team ...

Uncovering the secrets of water and ice as materials

December 7, 2016

Water is vital to life on Earth and its importance simply can't be overstated—it's also deeply rooted within our conscience that there's something extremely special about it. Yet, from a scientific point of view, much remains ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.