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Meet The Rare Species Helping Madagascar’s Jungles

<p><a class="checked-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/tambako/13662196145/sizes/m/" style="text-decoration: none;">Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr/CC BY 2.0</a></p>

Madagascar's furry lemurs have thumbs that aren't quite as flexible as ours - but when it comes to tending to the rainforest, theirs can be just as green. Here's why they're important:

IT'S ALL IN THE SEEDS

A red-bellied lemur. (Francesco Veronesi/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Scientists from Rice University in Texas spent three years studying fruit-loving lemurs in Madagascar, and found that the little primates played key roles in the spread of the island's tropical trees. By eating and then excreting seeds, lemurs ensure that seeds move throughout the ecosystem, allowing saplings to take root out of the parent trees' shadows.

The Rice University researchers followed three species of lemur: red-bellied lemurs, red-fronted brown lemurs and southern black-and-white ruffed lemurs.

THEY'RE GARDENERS OF THE JUNGLE

(YouTube/Rice University)

"Lemurs fill an important role as the gardeners for these trees," said Amy Dunham, a Rice University biologist, in a statement. "By ensuring that some seeds land in spots suitable for germination and survival, they increase the ability of these trees to replace themselves."

Dunham and her colleagues were able to track 24 groups of lemurs over a year as they went about their fruit-munching ways, relying on local eyewitnesses rather than radio collars. Seeds spread by lemurs had a higher chance of growing into saplings than if they simply fell from trees, the scientists report in the journal Ecology. There's less competition with other seeds beneath a tree, and scattering seeds increases the odds a particular seedling will escape being eaten or succumb to pathogens in the dirt.

LEMURS COMMUNICATE BY SCENTS

(Rachel Kramer/Wikimedia/CC BY 3.0)

Although many lemur species rely on their eyes while foraging food, these animals also rely on scent glands and a keen sense of smell to communicate.

THEY'RE MARRIAGE MATERIAL

A red-fronted brown lemur. (Gail Hampshire/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Lemurs are a distinct group of primates, who evolved over millions of years isolated on the Madagascar island. But that doesn't mean they're a cranky lot. As actor John Cleese once put it, lemurs are "gentle, well mannered, and pretty and yet great fun ... I should have married one."

LEMURS ARE A DIVERSE BUNCH

(Frank Vassen/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Left alone on Madagascar, lemurs branched out to over 100 species; one ancient lemur grew to the size of gorillas, but was hunted to extinction about 2,000 years ago (the current largest lemur maxes out at about 20 pounds).

TIME'S RUNNING OUT

A southern black-and-white ruffed lemur. (Frank Vassen/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Across Madagascar, however, lemur populations are on the decline. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists red-bellied lemurs as vulnerable, red-fronted brown lemurs as near threatened and black-and-white ruffed lemurs as critically endangered. Habitat loss stemming from illegal logging, as well as hunting for food, are sending these photogenic primates to the brink.