Madagascar's Lemurs: Cryptic diversity or taxonomic inflation?


  • Ian Tattersall

    1. Ian Tattersall is a curator in the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History, New York City
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    • He is most recently the author, with Rob DeSalle, of Human Origins: What Bones and Genomes Tell Us About Ourselves.


We live in inflationary times. A quarter of a century ago, cigarettes were about $1 a pack in New York City, a bottle of Château Beaucastel set you back $15, and there were 36 different species of lemur alive in Madagascar1 (Table 1). Today the equivalent figures are $7.40, $95, and 83 lemur species2 (Table 1). The increase in dollar prices has a lot to do with the economics of growth, something that obviously cannot be sustained indefinitely on a finite planet. Is the recent inflation in lemur taxonomy any more secure? The question is all the more worth asking because this is no isolated phenomenon: Madagascar's primates have not been alone in multiplying. The same burgeoning of species names has occurred throughout the order Primates3, 4 and beyond,5 provoking both concern and energetic debate.6–9 Interestingly, this debate has largely unfolded among ecologists, conservationists, and other “consumers” of taxonomy; many “producers” seem to be content to generate new taxonomies with a remarkable lack of introspection, as if they were no more than passive consequences of more lofty concerns. And because the same causes underlie taxonomic inflation in Madagascar as elsewhere, this extraordinary island once again presents us with a microcosm of the larger world.