The hairy-eared dwarf lemur of Madagascar is one of the smallest primates known. It was first described by scientists in 1875 and was not seen after that except by local Madagascan people who live in and near the rainforest. It was presumed to be extinct.
However, a zoologist was interviewing villagers in the northeastern part of the island in 1989 when a local man described to him what clearly seemed to be the hairy-eared dwarf lemur. He called the creature tsidi ala in Malagasy , which roughly means "mouse lemur of the woods."
The zoologist and his Madagascan guides went to a remote spot in the jungle as directed by the local man and struggled to find one of the rare lemurs. The search was particularly difficult because this species of lemur is nocturnal, meaning they are only active at night. After two weeks search, there was no evidence that the lemur had survived.
It was only after the zoologist had given up and started for home that a live hairy-eared dwarf lemur appeared. It stayed in the spotlight just long enough to be identified, but not long enough to be captured or photographed. Still, it must have been very exciting to confirm that the local man was correct and that the tiny primate was not extinct.
In a follow-up expedition, two adults and a juvenile were located and photographed, and later several more adults were found.
The hairy-eared dwarf lemur is now protected by CITES. Its story shows how difficult it can be to document extinctions accurately.
Questions for Thought
Indigenous people often have detailed and accurate information about the natural environment in which they live. Yet this information frequently is overlooked by scientists.
Without the help of a local consultant, the zoologist would never have known to look for proof that the hairy-eared dwarf lemur was not extinct. Do you think the local man should get some of the credit for the discovery?
If the zoologist's career is greatly enhanced by this incident, should the local man be compensated for his part? How might the decisions the zoologist makes on this issue affect the survival of the hairy-eared dwarf lemur and other species?
What procedures should be followed to ensure that species are not declared extinct prematurely?
Activities: [CS2-8,C3-1, C3-2, General]
Words in bold italics can be found in the glossary.