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A FAMILY AFFAIR


It may only be the size of a tennis ball, but, as Jason Gilchrist discovers, Madagascar’s grey mouse lemur knows the value of good family ties


Why would a Scotsman be standing


on one leg in the pouring rain in the middle of a forest in Madagascar at 6am? And why would he have a jacket over his head and be balancing a laptop on one knee while trying not to drop it in a puddle – a feat not aided by the painful attentions of swirling, buzzing swarms of ‘tsilk-tsilk’, local horsefl ies that specialise in biting the skin between the fi ngers? The cause of this seemingly eccentric


behaviour is the grey mouse lemur – almost, but not quite, the world’s smallest primate. Weighing just 60-100g (130-220lb), it may be tiny, but what it lacks in size it makes up for with eye- catching agility and fascinating ecology. It also has large round eyes, big ears and a soft blonde-brown coat. It’s a creature a researcher could become very fond of. I’m in Kirindy Forest, midwestern


Madagascar. Dominated by massive and uniquely shaped baobab trees, and with a dramatic seasonal swing in climate from wet to dry, Kirindy is home to eight species of lemur. The grey mouse lemur stands out – for me at least – thanks to its social behaviour. The lemurs forage alone at night. In the morning they congregate to sleep away the heat of the Madagascan day. Up to six males or four females squeeze into separate tree holes, though females are generally more sociable, and the sexes rarely rest together. While individuals of other primate


species compete to produce the most offspring, grey mouse lemurs actually co-operate in rearing each other’s young. After mating, the male plays no further part in parenting. The female must seek help elsewhere, and usually turns to other females – most mums-to-be rear their pups in shared nests alongside helpful fellow mothers.


6 EARTH JUL/AUG 2010


The grey mouse lemur is one of the planet’s smallest, and least threatened, primates


To explore the benefi ts and costs of


such behaviour, we set up nestboxes around Kirindy’s forest trails. I monitor, trap, weigh and mark the resident mothers and pups, record temperatures within the nestboxes and fi lm our lodgers using miniature infra-red cameras positioned inside their dwellings. When they leave their nests after a couple of months, we continue to observe both mothers and pups to monitor their survival rates. While male pups disperse, females remain in their mother’s territory and share sleeping-holes with female relatives.


Keep it in the family So why raise the pups together? It could be they’re able to defend their young from predators attempting to enter the nest. Sharing a nest with other females may also mean that the pups are left alone for shorter periods, making them less vulnerable. Additionally, large communal litters may help to keep the youngsters warmer for longer by sharing body heat. Moreover, while mothers concentrate on their own pups, they also groom and suckle the other young in the nest.


Grey mouse lemurs sleep together during the day but split up at night to fi nd food


It appears that breeding groups almost


invariably comprise sisters, mothers and daughters. The fact that all the lemurs are related, with care shared between family members, appears to drive co-operation. If a female dies while rearing offspring, the other females in the breeding group adopt them. Crèching your pups with your relatives really seems to pay off. The grey mouse lemur may be among


the tiniest of the many and diverse creatures that reside in Kirindy Forest, but it demonstrates incredibly impressive teamwork – if only among related females. When I fi nally hang up my video cameras, I will look back and feel privileged to have had such an intimate insight into the private life of this charismatic animal. The experiences I’ve had in Kirindy are almost worth the sacrifi ce of an expensive laptop to a rainforest puddle.


Jason Gilchrist lectures on animal biology at the School of Life Sciences at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland


 TUNE IN Watch BBC Earth’s Wild Chance: Lemur on 18 July on BBC America


ALAMY, H. SCHMIDBAUER/STILL PICTURES, MANFRED EBERLE


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