Giant Lemur

How Big Giants Skull
Giant Lemur—A giant lemur skull, bottom, is compared with a gorilla skull, top, giving an idea of how large this extinct Madagascan primate was. (Elwyn L. Simons)

Giant Lemur—Madagascar was once home to a number of very large lemurs. The skulls of some of these are shown in this photograph alongside two living species. Above left to right: Megaladapis (giant lemur), Archaeoindris, Paleopropithecus (sloth lemur), and Archaeolemur (all extinct). Below left to right: Hadropithecus (extinct) and the living smallest and largest lemurs, Microcebus and indri, respectively. (Alison Jolly)

Scientific name: Megaladapis edwardsi Scientific classification: Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Primates Family: Lepilemuridae When did it become extinct? The giant lemur became extinct around 500 years ago, perhaps even more recently. Where did it live? The giant lemur was found only in Madagascar.

Many, many millions of years ago, what we know today as Madagascar was part of Gondwanaland, the enormous landmass that occupied the Southern Hemisphere. Madagascar was hemmed in by Africa to the west and India to the east, but over the ages, the slow but ceaseless movements of the immense plates that make up the surface of the earth tore Gondwanaland apart, and around 165 million years ago, Madagascar drifted free of Africa, but over the next 40 million years or so, it still retained intermittent contact with India. It lost touch with India for the last time around 88 million years ago, and ever since, it has been isolated in time and space. It is this isolation that makes Madagascar such an interesting place from a biological point of view. Around 75 percent of the larger Madagascan animals are found nowhere else on earth

The ancestors of some of the animals and plants that inhabit Madagascar were marooned as the island became more and more isolated, but the lemurs, probably the most familiar of all Madagascan animals, are thought to have evolved from an ancestor that inadvertently reached the island from Africa by drifting on a raft of floating vegetation.

There were once around 50 species of lemur living on Madagascar, but tragically, 15 or more species have become extinct since humans arrived on the island. It is possible that all of these lemurs evolved from a single ancestral species that floated across from Africa.

Essentially, the lemurs are primates, albeit primitive ones, and all of their close relatives that once lived in other parts of the world have long since become extinct, probably outcompeted by the ancestors of the Old World monkeys and apes. However, the lemurs were safe from competition on Madagascar, and there they flourished, evolving into a variety of forms to exploit the various habitats on the huge island. Today, the pygmy mouse lemur (Microcebus myoxinus) is the smallest living lemur at around 30 g, whereas the largest, the indri (Indri indri), can weigh as much as 10 kg. Like any other group of animals, the lemurs were not without their giants, and up until 500 years ago, Madagascar was home to some enormous lemurs.

Lots of skeletons and individual bones of the giant lemur have been unearthed from sites on the west coast of Madagascar, and they belong to an animal with bodily proportions comparable to a koala bear. The fingers and toes of the giant lemur were very long indeed and probably enabled the living animal to get a good grip on tree trunks. Like the living koala bear, the giant lemur probably spent the majority of its time in the trees. The jaws and the teeth of this primate are very robust, and it probably used them to good effect to chew leaves. The giant lemur's canines are well developed, and it probably used these during the breeding season, when disputes over territory and mates broke out, as well as for protecting itself from predators, however, this primitive primate lacked upper incisors. Projecting from the nose of the giant lemur's skull is a bony lump, very similar to the structure that can be seen on the skull of a black rhinoceros, and like this large ungulate, the giant lemur may have had a prehensile upper lip to bring leaves to its mouth.

This extinct lemur was undoubtedly equipped to defend itself, but from what? The largest mammalian predator found in Madagascar today is the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), a very agile animal whose closest living relatives are the mongooses. However, at 10 kg, a fossa was no match for this large, powerful primate. Recent finds show that Madagascar was once home to a giant fossa (Cryptoprocta spelea), a predator that was about 1.8 m long and 17 kg in weight, and like the living fossa, this giant was nimble and at home in the trees. It is this animal that probably preyed on the giant lemur.

Apart from the giant fossa, the giant lemur had nothing to fear, that is, until the arrival of humans. The story of the colonization of Madagascar by humans is an interesting one. Sometime between a.d. 200 and 500 (about the same time as England was being colonized by the Saxons), seafarers from Borneo set off across the great expanse of the Indian Ocean without any knowledge of what was before them. After traveling counterclockwise around the Indian Ocean, a distance of almost 6,000 km, without compasses or charts, they reached Madagascar. This was a massive achievement for them but a disaster for the amazing wildlife of this island. These first human inhabitants brought animals and agriculture, and the landscape and wildlife of Madagascar was changed, irrevocably, for the worse. A 50-kg animal like the giant lemur must have been prized as food, and as the forests were cleared to make way for crops, the native animals of the island were squeezed into smaller and smaller patches of habitat. Shortly after the arrival of the Indonesians, Bantu people from the east coast of Africa also migrated to Madagascar, and they brought their own types of devastation.

The giant lemur probably clung to existence until around 500 years ago, and it was almost certainly still in existence when the Portuguese first reached this island in a.d. 1500. Interestingly, it appears that the Malagasy people were terrified of the giant lemur species and would apparently run away in fear whenever they chanced on one. After generations of persecution, the feeling was probably mutual, and the giant lemurs probably did everything they could to keep out of the way of humans, until the forests had dwindled to such an extent that there was nowhere left to hide.

♦ To say that Madagascar has been trashed is an understatement. Since humans colonized the island, around 90 percent of the original forest cover has been lost. This treasure trove of biological diversity has been reduced to a shadow of its former glory. Indeed, we only have a rough idea of how many species of unique animal and plant have disappeared since humans first arrived.

♦ The giant lemur was not the only large lemur to once live in the forests of Madagascar. Another extinct species, Archaeoindris fontoynonti, may have been the size of a gorilla, while other species, such as Palaeopropithecus sp., slightly smaller than the giant lemur, lived a more sedentary lifestyle and are known as sloth lemurs.

♦ In Malagasy folklore, there are tales of the animal known as the tretretretre. In 1661, the French explorer Etienne de Flacourt made many observations on the natural history of Madagascar, including this account of the tretretretre from his 1661 tome, L'Histoire de le Grand He de Madagascar: "The tretretretre is a large animal, like a calf of two years, with a round head and the face of a man. The forefeet are like those of an ape, as are the hindfeet. It has curly hair, a short tail, and ears like a man's. . . . It is a very solitary animal; the people of the country hold it in great fear and flee from it, as it does from them." It is highly likely that these tales relate to the sloth lemurs.

Further Reading: Fleagle, J. G. Primate Adaptation and Evolution. New York: Academic Press, 1988.

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Responses

  • agnes
    When did the giant lemur go extinct?
    6 years ago
  • kian
    Where did the great sloth lemurs live?
    6 years ago
  • Jemima
    What did cpquerels giant mouse lemur evolve from?
    6 years ago
  • shane
    Why did the large lemur sloth go extinct?
    4 years ago

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