Factors affecting golden-crowned sifaka (Propithecus tattersalli) densities and strategies for their conservation
Semel, Brandon Pierce
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Habitat degradation and hunting pose the most proximate threats to many primate species, while climate change is expected to exacerbate these threats (habitat and climate change combined henceforth as "global change") and present new challenges. Madagascar's lemurs are earth's most endangered primates, placing added urgency to their conservation in the face of global change. My dissertation focused on the critically endangered golden-crowned sifaka (Propithecus tattersalli; hereafter, "sifaka") which is endemic to fragmented forests across a gradient of dry, moderate, and wet forest types in northeastern Madagascar. I surveyed sifakas across their global range and investigated factors affecting their densities. I explored sifaka diets across different forest types and evaluated if nutritional factors influenced sifaka densities. Lastly, I investigated sifaka range-wide genetic diversity and conducted a connectivity analysis to prioritize corridor-restoration and other potential conservation efforts. Sifaka densities varied widely across forest fragments (6.8 (SE = 2.0-22.8) to 78.1 (SE = 53.1-114.8) sifakas/km2) and populations have declined by as much as 30-43% in 10 years, from ~18,000 to 10,222-12,631 individuals (95% CI: 8,230-15,966). Tree cutting, normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) during the wet season, and Simpson's diversity index (1-D) predicted sifaka densities range-wide. Sifakas consumed over 101 plant species and spent 27.1% of their active time feeding on buds, flowers, fruits, seeds, and young and mature leaves. Feeding effort and plant part consumption varied by season, forest type, and sex. Minerals in sifaka food items (Mg (β = 0.62, SE = 0.19) and K (β = 0.58, SE = 0.20)) and wet season NDVI (β = 0.43, SE = 0.20) predicted sifaka densities. Genetic measures across forest fragments indicated that sifaka populations are becoming more isolated (moderate FIS values: mean = 0.27, range = 0.11-0.60; high M-ratios: mean = 0.59, range = 0.49-0.82; low overall effective population size: Ne = 139.8-144 sifakas). FST comparisons between fragments (mean = 0.12, range = 0.01-0.30) supported previous findings that sifakas still moved across the fragmented landscape. Further validation of these genetic results is needed. I identified critical corridors that conservation managers could protect and/or expand via active reforestation to ensure the continued existence of this critically-endangered lemur.
General Audience Abstract
Worldwide, many species of primates are threatened with extinction due to habitat degradation, hunting, and climate change (habitat and climate combined threats, henceforth, "global change"). These threats work at different time scales, with hunting being the most immediate and climate change likely to have its fullest impact experienced from the present to a longer time frame. Lemurs are a type of primate found only on Madagascar, an island experiencing rapid global change, which puts lemurs at a heighted risk of extinction. My dissertation research focused on the critically endangered golden-crowned sifaka (Propithecus tattersalli; hereafter, "sifaka"), a species of lemur found only in a few isolated forests across a dry to wet gradient in northeastern Madagascar. To better understand their extinction risk, I conducted surveys to estimate the number of sifakas remaining and investigated several factors that might determine how many sifakas can live in one place. I then explored how sifaka diets varied depending on the forest type that they inhabit and tested whether nutrients in their food might determine sifaka numbers. Lastly, I calculated sifaka genetic diversity to assess their ability to adapt to new environmental conditions and to determine whether sifakas can move across the landscape to find new mates and to potentially colonize new areas of habitat. Sifaka densities varied widely across their range (6.8-78.1 sifakas/km2 ). Only 10,222-12,631 sifakas remain, which is 30-43% less than the range of estimates obtained 10 years ago (~18,000 sifakas). Tree cutting, normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI; a measure of plant health or "greenness" obtained from satellite data), and a tree species diversity index were useful measures to predict sifaka densities. Sifakas ate different plant parts (buds, flowers, fruits, seeds, and leaves) from over 101 plant species. The amount of time they spent eating each day varied by the time of year, forest type, and sex. On average, they spent a quarter of their day eating. Magnesium and potassium concentrations in sifaka food items also were useful nutrition-related measures to predict sifaka densities. Genetic analyses suggested that sifaka populations are becoming more isolated and inbred, meaning sifakas are breeding with other sifakas to which they are closely related. However, it appears that sifakas still can move between forest patches to find new mates and to potentially colonize new areas, if such areas are created. Further validation of these genetic results is needed. I also identified critical areas that will be important to protect and reforest to ensure that movements between populations can continue.
- Doctoral Dissertations