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A glance to the past: subfossils, stable isotopes, seed dispersal, and lemur species loss in Southern Madagascar



The Spiny Thicket Ecoregion (STE) of Southern and southwestern Madagascar was recently home to numerous giant lemurs and other “megafauna,” including pygmy hippopotamuses, giant tortoises, elephant birds, and large euplerid carnivores. Following the arrival of humans more than 2,000 years ago, dramatic extinctions occurred. Only one-third of the lemur species which earlier occupied the STE survive today; other taxa suffered even greater losses. We use stable isotope biogeochemistry to reconstruct past diets and habitat preferences of the recently extinct lemurs of the STE. We show that the extinct lemurs occupied a wide range of niches, often distinct from those filled by coeval non-primates. Many of the now-extinct lemurs regularly exploited habitats that were drier than the gallery forests in which the remaining lemurs of this ecoregion are most often protected and studied. Most fed predominantly on C3 plants and some were likely the main dispersers of the large seeds of native C3 trees; others included CAM and/or C4 plants in their diets. These new data suggest that the recent extinctions have likely had significant ecological ramifications for the communities and ecosystems of Southern and southwestern Madagascar. Am. J. Primatol. 73:25–37, 2011. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.