In an effort to help guide conservation efforts the complete genomes of three separate populations of aye-ayes -- a type of lemur -- have been sequenced and analyzed for the first time. The results of the genome-sequence analyses will be published in an early edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online during the week of 25 March 2013. The team of scientists is led by George H. Perry, an assistant professor of anthropology and biology at Penn State University; Webb Miller, a professor of biology and of computer science and engineering at Penn State; and Edward Louis, Director of Conservation Genetics at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium and Director of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership, NGO.
The aye-aye -- a lemur that is found only on the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean -- recently was re-classified as "Endangered" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. "The aye-aye is one of the world's most unusual and fascinating animals," said Perry. "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 added that he and other scientists are concerned about the long-term viability of aye-ayes as a species, given the loss and fragmentation of natural forest habitats in Madagascar. "Aye-aye population densities are very low, and individual aye-ayes have huge home-range requirements," said Perry. "As forest patches become smaller, there is a particular risk that there won't be sufficient numbers of individual aye-ayes in a given area to maintain a population over multiple generations. We were looking to make use of new genomic-sequencing technologies to characterize patterns of genetic diversity among some of the surviving aye-aye populations, with an eye towards the prioritization of conservation efforts."