Bamboo lemurs are destined to a slow starvation as climate change causes the dry season to last longer, new research warns.
The critically endangered cat-sized primate almost exclusively eat a single species of bamboo, including the woody trunk, known as culm.
They prefer the more nutritious and tender bamboo shoots and use their specialised teeth to gnaw on culm only when necessary, during the dry season.
While the biggest threat is a dwindling habitat and hunting for bushmeat, scientists warn even if these are protected climate modelling suggested they are doomed.
Bamboo lemurs are destined to a slow starvation as climate change causes the dry season to last longer, new research warns
Scientists warn climate change will force the bamboo lemurs which live solely in Madagascar will gradually be forced to eat culm for longer periods.
Ultimately based on an analysis of anatomical, behavioural, paleontological, and climate data, the lemurs could slowly starve.
Professor Patricia Wright, of Stony Brook University in New York, said: ‘A characteristic of bamboo-feeding mammals is that most, if not all, of them are considered threatened by extinction.
‘In Asia, both giant (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) and red (Ailurus fulgens) pandas have much diminished geographical ranges when compared with their historical and paleontological records.
‘Similarly, in Madagascar, the two larger bamboo lemurs, the greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus) and the golden bamboo lemur (Hapalemur aureus), have highly restricted distributions within the island and are listed as critically endangered.
‘Both the endangerment and the dietary specialisations of bamboo-feeding taxa suggest that they may be especially sensitive to changes in climate.
‘For extreme feeding specialists like the greater bamboo lemur, climate change can be a stealthy killer.
‘Making the lemurs rely on a suboptimal part of their food for just a bit longer may be enough to tip the balance from existence to extinction.’
The greater bamboo lemurs are equipped with highly complex and specialised teeth, just like giant pandas making it possible for them to consume and survive on woody culm for parts of the year.
Scientists warn climate change will force the bamboo lemurs which live solely in Madagascar will gradually be forced to eat culm for longer periods
Their feeding habits were observed in their natural habitat in Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park over a period of 18 months.
More than 2,000 feeding observations were collected and it showed they spent 95 per cent of their feeding time eating a single species of woody bamboo..
But they only eat the culm from August to November, when dry conditions make tender shoots unavailable.
An analysis of the greater bamboo lemur’s current distribution on the island compared to its distribution in the past, as inferred from fossils, suggested they used to live over a broader range.
Yet they remain only in parts of the island where the dry season is relatively short which suggested this has been crucial to the survival of greater bamboo lemurs in the past.
However climate change models predict their current habitat will experience longer and longer dry seasons in the future.
As the lemurs are left with only culm to eat for longer periods, it could put their survival at risk.
Professor Wright said: ‘Overall, the projected lengthening of the dry-season feeding period would cause prolonged usage of bamboo culm and other mechanically demanding and drier plants, which in addition to nutritional challenges can be predicted to increase the rate of tooth wear, leading to loss in dental function and premature dental senescence.
Ultimately based on an analysis of anatomical, behavioural, paleontological, and climate data, the lemurs could slowly starve
‘In wild giant pandas, which are obligate bamboo specialists, tooth wear is prevalent, and poor dental condition has been found in dead animals.
‘Protecting the existing habitats might not be enough to guarantee the continued existence at the face of ongoing climate change.’
She said the findings have implications for pandas too, adding: ‘Considering bamboo lemurs and other bamboo specialists, the price of their specialisation to an abundant but demanding food source appears to be their undoing in a changing climate.’
Professor Jukka Jernvall, of the University of Helsinki in Finland, said: ‘By studying specialists like the greater bamboo lemur, we can identify the different ways that climate change can cause extinction.
‘And if we do not study these endangered species now, they may go extinct before we know all the reasons why, and we’ll be less able to protect what remains.’
They hope their findings will lead to the creation of bamboo corridors to connect isolated lemur populations and expand their habitats to at least give the creatures a fighting chance.