By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News
Nov. 1, 2005 — The first humans that settled Madagascar around 2,000 years ago likely hunted to extinction giant lemurs and other unusual animals from the Indian Ocean island, such as eleven-foot-tall birds, suggests an upcoming study.
While the report does not rule out disease, fire and other factors that could have contributed to the giant lemurs' demise, it adds to the growing body of evidence that modern humans adversely affected the populations of prehistoric animals.
The study is part of ongoing research on the life and death of giant lemurs. Today's lemurs are the last living link to ancient primates that have a common link to the lineage that evolved into humans.
Their huge ancestors apparently were easy, meaty targets for early Madagascans, since researchers have just identified "definitive evidence of butchery" on the extinct lemurs' bones.
"The characteristics of the tool-induced extinct-lemur bone alterations — sharp cuts and chop marks near joints, oblique cuts along the shafts, spiral fractures, and percussion striae (skin stretch marks from pounding) — suggest skinning, disarticulation, and filleting," says Ventura Perez, lead author of the paper, which will be published in the November Journal of Human Evolution.
Perez, an anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, adds that "careful scrutiny of the characteristics of the cut marks has allowed us to document butchery beyond any reasonable doubt."
Previously, evidence for butchery was found on extinct pygmy hippo and elephant bird bones, along with on an extinct aye-aye species tooth. Elephant birds, Aepyornis maximus, were particularly unusual creatures. Standing 10-11 feet tall, they weighed around 1,100 pounds and had dinosaur-like feathered bodies. Their 13-inch eggs were bigger than any dino egg, and represented the largest single-celled objects ever to have existed on Earth.
The giant lemurs, which began to die out 2,000 years ago, also were "remarkable" animals, according to Gary Schwartz, one of the leaders of the ongoing giant lemur research project.
Schwartz, assistant professor of physical anthropology at Arizona State University, tells Discovery News, "Some had long, narrow faces, long forelimbs and huge feet, such as an animal called Megaladapis — at 194 pounds, about the size of a female gorilla. The biggest lemur living today weighs only around 15 1/2 pounds."
He says giant lemur babies had gestation periods longer than nine months and were born with full sets of teeth. Some also possessed "dog-like" noses and lapped water like a dog. Several species were omnivores that ate just about everything.
William Jungers, professor of anatomical sciences at Stony Brook University, agrees with the findings.
"The evidence is unequivocal that the early [Madagascar] colonizers butchered and ate giant lemurs, as well as other large extinct species like the pygmy hippo and elephant birds," says Jungers. "Giant lemurs had few, if any, natural predators on Madagascar, so they would have been naive and relatively easy prey items."
He adds, "The lessons from lemur extinctions have profound implications for conservation biology and the fragile nature of living ecosystems. The role of people in extinctions around the world in undeniable, and Madagascar provides us with a detailed look at one of the world's last (and perhaps ongoing) megafaunal extinctions."