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How climate change is driving monkeys and lemurs from trees to the ground

According to a study published Monday, the stresses of warming temperatures and forest losses are driving dozens of species of monkeys and lemurs that normally shelter and feed high in the canopy of trees to spend more time foraging on the forest floor.

The findings show how human-induced climate change is forcing animals to adapt and disrupt the ecological web in which they live.

More than 100 scientists who spent some 151,000 hours observing animals in Madagascar and Central and South America found that the primates are at risk of being exposed to new predators in order to escape the heat and find food, although they still spend the majority of their time in trees.

The species most likely to adapt to their time on the ground – whether they have a more varied diet, live in the relative safety of large groups, or are more physiologically able to amble on the forest floor – are most likely to descend from the trees, and so are more likely to survive in the future, said Tim Eppley, a postdoctoral associate at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. Eppley is the lead author of the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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As global warming accelerates and deforestation and wildfires proliferate, the primates less favored for such a transition will be increasingly at risk.

“They won’t be able to live long,” Eppley said. That could increase ecological challenges in vulnerable forest habitats, as animals such as lemurs play an important role in dispersing tree seeds. “Once you get rid of the lemurs, there’s this whole cascade effect.”

Scientists said the study shows signs of hope for the resilience of vulnerable creatures and ecological systems, while also highlighting the need to slow or prevent warming and habitat loss.

“Primates in Madagascar are already the most endangered in the world, but studies like this show that they may be able to find refuge from the worst climate changes by adapting flexibly to spending more time in areas with lower temperatures,” he said. Andrew Bernard, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Michigan whose research focuses on primate behavior, wrote in an email. “But the study also highlights the importance of maintaining healthy forest habitats so that primates can use the limited options they have to manage global warming.”

Helen Slater, a research associate at the University of Newcastle in the United Kingdom, said the study suggests “quite a daunting task” to predict how different primate species will respond to climate change and determine how best to promote their conservation.

Madagascar’s lemurs face a grim future due to human activity. A solution? Planting trees.

“There won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, and we’ll probably have to develop strategies that are site- and species-specific,” she said in an email.

The investigation began with Eppley’s own observations. For a year, he observed southern bamboo lemurs in southeastern Madagascar and collected data on their diets. He was surprised to find that the animals in degraded forest habitats were willing to risk their lives to get to the forest floor, where they gathered more nutritious food and sometimes even slept. In a healthy, continuous rainforest, the lemurs would “almost always” be found in trees or bamboo stands, Eppley said.

Then a discussion at a 2016 conference about his observations and questions, which other researchers shared, sparked the investigation. Eppley began reaching out to everyone he could find who had spent time tracking primates, eventually meeting 118 co-authors at 124 different institutions. The study is based entirely on rough observations of monkeys and lemurs, as opposed to an analysis of a sample taken in 1985.

The study came to several conclusions about what causes primates to leave their natural habitat in the trees earlier. Those who live in large groups can descend to the ground more often because there is safety in numbers, as well as those who are willing and able to eat more than just fruit. The warmer the climate and the scarcer the tree cover in a given place, the greater the chance that the animals would descend to the ground.

But in areas close to roads and other human infrastructure, the primates spent less time on the forest floor, perhaps because that often means proximity to wild dogs, the study found.

Researchers not involved in the study said it supports literature that has shown the effects of climate change on primates, including that primates will increasingly depend on the availability of shade in forests as global temperatures rise, according to Amanda Korstjens. professor of behavioral ecology at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom.

Researchers said more research is needed to analyze in detail what causes the changes in the primates’ habits. For example, comparing temperatures on the ground versus in the canopy at observation sites could better show the role warming temperatures play, Slater said.

It is not clear how important the variation in the primates’ ability to adapt to a habitat on the ground will be in the long run. The study found that of the 15 lemur species and 32 monkey species observed, they spent an average of less than 5 percent of their time on the ground, a low enough level that made Korstjens wonder how important the habit might be to the survival of a bird. primate.

And, Bernard added, it’s not safe to assume that some species will thrive just because they may be better adapted to spend time on the ground.

“Many primates spend a lot of time in low-quality habitats that cannot support viable populations on their own,” he said.

But the study still highlights the effects of global warming on animals and the adaptations it requires of them.

The study focused on primates in Madagascar and the Americas, as similar species in Africa and Asia underwent similar transitions millions of years ago, moving from living primarily in trees to spending time on the ground. It’s a relatively common evolutionary transition in primates, although what the researchers observed looks different.

“What we’re seeing now is largely anthropogenically induced,” Eppley said. “This is going so fast.”

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