Lemurs: Ecology and Adaptation

Lisa Gould and Michelle Sauther (eds.), Springer, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-387-34585-7 (Hardback) £92.50


‘May I announce to you that Madagascar is the naturalist’s promised land?’ wrote the botanist Philibert de Commerson in 1771. ‘Nature seems to have retreated there into a private sanctuary, where she could work on different models from any she has used elsewhere. There you meet bizarre and wondrous forms at every step… what an admirable country, this Madagascar.’ And what an admirable account of the island’s primates this is. Gould and Sauther (eds.) add lemur ecology and adaptation to the broad spectrum of topics in the extensive series Developments in Primatology: Progress and Prospects (Series Editor: Russell H. Tuttle).

Lemurs: Ecology and Adaptation sets out to provide a single source of information from a wealth of lemur research collected during the last fifteen years. Anyone familiar with lemur studies will recognise the names of the many contributors; the heavyweights of lemur research take turns to step up and discuss their areas of expertise.

The book opens with a preface that introduces the reader to the editors and Madagascar, and gives an extremely helpful chapter-by-chapter guided tour of the book. The reader is walked through the variety of topics each author contributes as they are placed into context.

The main body of the book is then divided into four sections, the first of which introduces the reader to lemur origins, the history of lemur studies and subfossil lemurs. Ian Tattersall starts the story 160 million years ago when Madagascar was a part of Gondwana, with a compelling introduction to lemurs and their origins. Alison Jolly and Robert Sussman’s fascinating and lively whistle-stop tour of lemur study history is interwoven with the political history of Madagascar. Godfrey, Jungers and Schwartz then bring the subfossil lemurs to life, addressing questions about their ecology, biology and life histories using skeletal evidence.

Section two takes us through a broad range of topics, with the evolution of lemur traits as its central theme. Some unusual behaviours such as polyspecific interactions (unusual for lemurs) and hibernation are explored, as well as more common characteristics such as cathemerality. Cuozzo and Yamashita review lemur dentition, looking at adaptation, function and life history. Current understanding of aye-aye adaptations is given an update, providing a good overview of this most unusual of lemurs.  

The third section of the book intends to connect ecology with adaptation, with a series of summaries as well as some new studies. A variety of topics and species are covered, exploring how ecological pressures can influence evolution. Steig Johnson summarises the growing body of recent brown lemur research, providing much needed clarification on the recent taxonomic changes in this large and diverse group; genetic and ecological differences between species and subspecies are discussed. Co-editor Lisa Gould provides a position statement on Lemur catta understanding, and suggests research in non-gallery forests is needed to gain a more complete picture of the species. Mitch Irwin sheds some light on the ‘ecologically enigmatic’ eastern sifakas in an engaging summary of recent research.

 The fourth and final section explores lemurs’ adaptability and responses to change – both natural and anthropogenic. Wright, Ratsimbazafy, Junge and Sauther take a look at how lemurs have responded to a variety of changes from food scarcity, cyclones and introduced pathogens, and consider the possible implications for conservation.

Serious lemur researchers will find this book to be a useful and informative resource, whilst students will find it to be a good introduction to – and overview of – lemur studies.

However, its merit may also be its downfall. Lemurs… covers a broad range of topics. But as many primatologists focus on specific areas of research and/or species, it is possible that large sections of this book will be of little use to the ‘average’ researcher. Which raises the question of whether it is worth the not-so-pocket-friendly cover price of £92.50. The answer is that yes it is, if you can afford it, on the grounds that almost every chapter is as informative and in depth as a book in itself. To purchase this book then, is to purchase a veritable ‘lemur library’ in one tidy volume. Students may prefer to borrow a library copy however, perhaps waiting until their career path is more defined before investing.
Published in Primate Eye No. 97, February 2009