Scientists have sequenced the “demon primate” genome.
The “demon primate” is the local name for the aye-aye lemur, which according to legend, can kill by pointing its spindly middle finger.
And the recent sequencing of the aye-aye’s genome reveals that the three populations on the lemur’s home island of Madagascar, formerly believed to be genetically very similar, are in fact two significantly different populations. When compared to the difference between human populations in Europe and Africa, aye-aye populations in northern and eastern Madagascar are considerably different on a genetic level.
This is remarkable considering that only about 160 miles separates the two lemur populations. How could two populations so close be so genetically distinct?
While the distance between the homes of the two populations is small as the crow flies, significant geographic barriers separate the two types of lemurs. The northern and eastern populations are separated by major rivers and high plateaus that must have made interbreeding between the populations highly unlikely, according to Penn State professor of biology, computer science and engineering Webb Miller.
The results of the genetic sequencing are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday. The data from the research suggests that the two populations have been separate for more than 2,300 years, reports National Geographic.
“The aye-aye is one of the world’s most unusual and fascinating animals,” said George H. Perry in a Penn State press statement. “Aye-ayes use continuously growing incisors to gnaw through the bark of dead trees and then a long, thin and flexible middle finger to extract insect larvae, filling the ecological niche of a woodpecker. Aye-ayes are nocturnal, solitary and have very low population densities, making them difficult to study and sample in the wild.” Perry is an assistant professor of anthropology and biology at Penn State.
There is also a third population of aye-aye in the western part of the island, but it’s more closely related to the northern group.
The study was led by Webb, Perry and Edward Louis, director of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership NGO and director of Conservation Genetics at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.