Dr. Jess White, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and the Co-Director of the Functional Morphology and Evolutionary Anatomy Laboratory at Western Illinois University will spearhead a multi-year research initiative focusing on studying the biodiversity of living lemurs. This information will be used not only to understand the ecology of living lemurs on Madagascar, but to also investigate the environmental adaptations of their closest fossil relatives.
What is a lemur?
The easiest answer is to think about King Julian from the Madagascar movies and cartoons. Although the depictions of their behavior are somewhat inaccurate, that movie has done wonders for exposing Americans to lemurs!
Today, lemurs are a relatively small group of primates and live only on the island of Madagascar and its satellite islands. In the not-so-distant-past, large lemurs roamed Madagascar, some as large as small bears! These large lemurs, however, have gone extinct, largely due to hunting once populations of humans reached the islands. Currently, several species of lemurs are considered critically endangered, including species of Sifakas (Propithecus sp.), Black and White Ruffed Lemurs (Varecia sp.), and Bamboo lemurs (Hapalemur sp.). For those not familiar with the common or species names, many of you will be familiar with the name Zoboomafoo, a character on a popular PBS children’s show. Zoboomafoo is a sifaka! The natural habitat of lemurs has been dramatically reduced, primarily due to the spread of agriculture and ranching.
Not only is this is a crisis for the living animals, but primatologists ‘discover’ new species of lemurs quite often. This means that each day, there is the distinct possibility that we will lose a species that we never knew existed! We don’t think about lemurs very often, however, because they don’t have the ‘sexiness,’ of gorillas or chimpanzees. Most people look at a lemur and think it is probably a striped cat or a raccoon, not a member of our own family tree.
Information collected about the skeleton and anatomy of the lemurs are put into context by pairing it with behavioral data gathered through observation of animals in captivity and the wild. Dr. White is particularly interested in taking what she and her students can learn about living lemurs and using it to compare with the remains of lemur-like primates, called adapiforms, which once leapt through the forests of North America, Europe, and Asia. She, along with Dr. Sebastien Couette, a paleontologist at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (MNHN) in Paris, France, are two of only a handful of researchers now working on these 35-million year old primates.
Along with Dr. White, the Functional Morphology and Evolutionary Anatomy laboratory is co-directed by Dr. Matthew Bonnan, Associate Professor of Biology. The FMEA laboratory is also staffed by graduate and undergraduate students in anthropology and biology. Students work independently on research projects, and their data will eventually be combined into one dataset. While some projects are dissection-based ones mapping muscles and documenting anatomical structures, others are based on a technique called “clearing and staining.” This involves taking embryonic vertebrate material and soaking it in a variety of solutions until the bones are stained and can be seen through the existing muscles and tissue. The FMEA laboratory works with a number of local and national partners to source this material, including local veterinarians and the Duke Lemur Center. One undergraduate anthropology student, Mercedes Taylor, recently received a College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) Undergraduate Research Grant to support her analysis of embryonic pelvis development in lemurs.
Both Dr. Bonnan and Dr. White are animal lovers – which is why we can understand why some people may be shocked by what we do here in the lab. The way that we look at it is that we take an unfortunate event like the death of an animal and try to learn what we can from that individual. The anatomical sciences are just that – giving “voice” to organisms that are no longer with us! For example, just last month, Dr. White and her students visited the Field Museum in Chicago and were working with the remains of two lemurs – one that died in 1895 and one in 1896. Almost one hundred and fifteen years later, those animals are providing an educational opportunity for students and critical information to primatologists.
More information about the Functional Morphology and Evolutionary Anatomy laboratory and the undergraduate minor program can be found at www.wiu.edu/users/mfb100/FMEA.php. You can also follow the activities of the FMEA faculty and students on the FMEA blog at: wiufmea.wordpress.com.