As if rampant deforestation and poaching weren’t bad enough, climate change will have a devastating effect on the majority of Madagascar’s lemur species, most of them already imperiled, according to a paper published this week in Ecology and Evolution.

The threat will vary by species but the paper—by researchers Jason Brown and Anne Yoder from Duke University—found that lemurs will lose an average of 59.6 percent of their current habitats due to climate change alone over the next 70 years, independent of other factors.

Take the Wright’s sportive lemur (Lepilemur wrightae), for example. This endangered species, which lives in southeastern Madagascar, had 489 square kilometers of habitat in the year 2000. By 2080, according to the paper, climate change will shrink that to just 128 square kilometers, a loss of more than 73 percent.

Another species, the endangered Coquerel’s sifaka (Propithecus coquereli), will fare much better. Its range of more than 5,300 square kilometers is only expected to shrink by about 4 percent by 2080.

The worst news is that climate change will completely wipe out the habitats of three species. The Hubbard's sportive lemur (L. hubbardorum), small-toothed sportive lemur (L. microdon) and Danfoss’s mouse lemur (Microcebus danfossi) will all go extinct by 2080 because their habitat will vanish.

A few other species may not be far behind. The eastern avahi (Avahi laniger) will barely hang on with eight square kilometers of habitat in 2080. Today the eastern avahi is only considered “vulnerable” to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The news isn’t all bad. A few species will actually benefit in the coming decades. The critically endangered indri (also known as the babakoto, Indri indri) could see a 39.5 percent increase in habitat as climate change expands the lowland forests they inhabit in eastern Madagascar. The researchers found that eight other lemur species will experience similar range increases.

Brown and Yoder only examined 57 of the 103 known lemur species, focusing on those that are known to exist in six or more locations. The others, which mostly have incredibly limited distributions, will undoubtedly face similar habitat shrinkage as the century progresses. As the authors wrote, “species with small distributions typically possess narrower ecological tolerances,” so even minor environmental changes could have dramatic impacts.

The researchers caution that their work looks strictly at climate models. Other factors could also affect habitat, of course. Perhaps most importantly, climate change could cause humans to move their homes or fields, putting yet more pressure on lemurs and other wildlife.

Photo: Lepilemur hubbardorum, one of the three species predicted to go extinct by 2080, by Jason L. Brown. Used under Creative Commons license

Previously in Extinction Countdown: