Ecological flexibility in a disturbed landscape: An assessment of the behavioural and health ecology of ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) in relation to forest fragmentation




Gabriel, Denise Nicole

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Habitat fragmentation potentiates biodiversity loss worldwide. Species preservation requires an integrated understanding of wildlife-habitat relationships; however, responses to habitat fragmentation may vary considerably as a function of the species ecological flexibility and the unique attributes of each fragment habitat. In this dissertation, I explore the behavioural and health ecology of an ecologically flexible primate, the ringtailed lemur (Lemur catta), occupying forest fragments in south-central Madagascar that differ in isolation, degree of anthropogenic pressure, and L. catta food resource structure. Anja Special Reserve is a 34 ha rocky-outcrop forest fragment that is highly isolated from other forests containing L. catta. L. catta in this reserve have access to abundant food and water resources year-round due to the introduction of non-native fruit trees and the construction of an artificial lake adjacent the reserve, which support a population density of L. catta (6.6 lemurs/ha) that is higher than at any other site in which the species has been studied. In comparison, the Tsaranoro Valley forest is a 53 ha rocky-outcrop forest fragment that is surrounded by a matrix of grassy savannah and a few anthropogenic crops. While land clearing is pronounced in the valley, a few fragments remain within range for L. catta dispersal. L. catta in this fragment have limited access to introduced or anthropogenic resources and the population density (1.13 lemurs/ha) is one-sixth that at Anja. During the late dry season of 2010 and mid- to late-wet season of 2011, I collected continuous time focal animal data to examine behavioural patterns related to habitat use (ranging, matrix use, terrestriality), activity budgets, and feeding ecology of L. catta in each fragment. In addition, I examined two health parameters, stress and endoparasitism, through the collection of fecal samples from focal individuals. I compared these variables between and within populations to examine the potential impacts of habitat fragmentation on an ecologically adaptable primate. L. catta at Anja depended on smaller home range areas and a focused diet consisting largely of introduced food resources, and correspondingly exhibited lower energy expenditure, while spending more time engaging in rest and social acitivities when compared with the Tsaranoro lemurs. In comparison, L. catta at Tsaranoro occupied large home ranges, traveled greater distances to forage in the matrix habitat surrounding the fragment, and exhibited a more broad-based dietary strategy that contained few introduced or anthropogenic resources. From a health perspective, L. catta at Anja exhibited higher stress levels throughout the study period, while L. catta at Tsaranoro exhibited a greater prevalence of endoparasites, which may be reflective of differences in the social pressures and ranging patterns of L. catta between the two fragments, respectively. These results illustrate differences in the quality of the habitats and the potential fitness consequences that the L. catta populations must cope with, with important implications regarding the long-term suitability of these fragments for sustaining these populations. Such information is integral when assessing the viability of wildlife populations in degraded landscapes and should be a primary consideration for wildlife managers in biodiversity conservation.



habitat fragmentation, Lemur catta, Madagascar, feeding ecology, habitat use, stress, parasitism