Universitas Helsingiensis

Discoverer of the golden bamboo lemur

Discoverer of the golden bamboo lemurIn the depths of the rainforest, two primates found each other. This chance encounter saved the life of one of them and made both of them world famous.

Patricia Wright and her research team had had enough. For months on end, they had been trekking around the Madagascar rainforest looking for the greater bamboo lemur, and now they wanted a bath. They decided to check into one of the few hotels on the island.

“I noticed that around the hotel, in the Ranomafana area, there was an unusually impressive forest,” says anthropologist Professor Patricia Wright.

“However, to get into this forest, you had to cross a rickety bridge that spanned a fast-flowing river. And I’ve always been afraid of heights.”

But into the forest they went, and they immediately came across some promising clues. They saw bamboo that had been chewed into thin, spaghetti-like strips. And on the ground below, there were smelly lumps, what became of the bamboo after passing through the digestive tract of a lemur.

“I will never forget the moment when I first saw the golden bamboo lemur. I spotted movement off to my right. As I turned to look, I saw an animal that glowed golden in the sunlight. It began to screech and growl like an engine revving, switched its tail and stared fiercely at me,” Wright says.

“I realised that here before me was something I had never seen or heard before. And that I was surrounded by bamboo, what lemurs eat. I thought, this can’t be true. This had to be the animal I’d been looking for, at last. Imagine what the shock would have been like if I had realised at the time that there in front of my eyes was a hitherto unknown species.”

A lemur unknown to science

Six months later, researchers managed to hit the animal with a sedative dart so it could be caught and examined. It was only then, through morphological and genetic comparison, that it became clear that this was not, in fact, the greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus), but a species hitherto unknown to science. It was named the golden bamboo lemur (Hapalemur aureus).

“It was incredible to find a new, large primate that was active during the day,” Wright says.

The find immediately grabbed the attention of the world. It turned out that the species was unique. The golden bamboo lemur is almost half the size of the greater bamboo lemur, its glands are in different places, and it has a different social structure and reproductive season. Greater bamboo lemurs were also found in the Ranomafana area, something that was also a happy surprise, since there had been concern that they might have become extinct.

Madagascar, wonderfully isolated

Patricia Wright specialises in primatology, and that was why she originally headed for the island of Madagascar. It is the only place in the world that has lemurs.

When she reached Madagascar she was dazzled by the island’s unique flora and fauna. Close to 90 per cent of the organisms in Madagascar are endemic, that is, they do not exist anywhere else.

Madagascar is the fourth biggest island in the world. It is also the last of the great islands that man reached, bringing fire, steel and rice paddies – and the ensuing damage to the environment. This took place only 1500–2000 years ago.

“Madagascar broke off from Africa some 160 million years ago. From then on, until the arrival of man, it was wonderfully isolated from the rest of the world,” Wright says.

From researcher to conservationist

No sooner had the golden bamboo lemur been discovered than its habitat was threatened. The local people are among the poorest in the world. They cut timber in the forest and burn it to make way for fields, to earn at least something.

Wright talked about this to the leaders of Madagascar. They said that if she would raise the money to set up a national park, they would certainly support the initiative. The researcher became a conservationist and Ranomafana National Park was founded in 1991.

Study anything!

Some years later, Patricia Wright encountered another interesting primate, “a tall, thin Finn”, researcher Jukka Jernvall.

“When he proposed to me, I suggested that we should test how he would cope with a hot September in Madagascar and how I would cope with a freezing January in Finland. We survived and got married,” Wright says, smiling. “We united our lives, our research and, at the same time, our universities.”

Lively research cooperation between the University of Helsinki and the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, of which Professor Wright is Executive Director started in 1991. So far, 50 Finnish students and researchers have visited Madagascar. They include Ilkka Hanski and his research team, who studied the beetles on the island, while Olli Mustonen and Jukka T. Lehtonen studied its small mammals.

The University of Helsinki has participated in building a research laboratory in the Ranomafana area. It is one of the few university research stations in the tropics.

In May, Ms Wright was appointed visiting professor at the University of Helsinki. She appreciates Finnish researchers.

“Finns are practical, hard-working and productive. Their work produces visible results. As a result, they have a good reputation among the people of Madagascar, too”.

The Ranomafana area offers research opportunities for biologists, but also palaeontologists and researchers in the humanities, as the island has some unique village communities.

“Come here to study just about anything. So far, almost nothing is known. And the things we can learn about the tropics will help us understand the eco-system of the entire world,” says Wright.

Last year, 30,000 tourists visited Ranomafana National Park, and numbers are rapidly increasing. Half of the entrance fees are given directly to the nearby villages. In addition to cooperation projects with the University of Helsinki, other projects on Madagascar include a development cooperation project run by Dodo ry. Moreover, there are already plans for expanding the Centre ValBio research station.

Siina Vasama