Molecular Adaptation to Folivory and the Conservation Implications for Madagascar’s Lemurs

Elaine E. Guevara, Lydia K. Greene, Marina B. Blanco, Casey Farmer, Jeannin Ranaivonasy, Joelisoa Ratsirarson, Karine L. Mahefarisoa, Tsiky Rajaonarivelo, Hajanirina H. Rakotondrainibe, Randall E. Junge, Cathy V. Williams, Elodi Rambeloson, Hoby A. Rasoanaivo, Vololonirina Rahalinarivo, Laza H. Andrianandrianina, Jonathan B. Clayton, Ryan S. Rothman, Richard R. Lawler, Brenda J. Bradley, Anne D. Yoder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The lemurs of Madagascar include numerous species characterized by folivory across several families. Many extant lemuriform folivores exist in sympatry in Madagascar’s remaining forests. These species avoid feeding competition by adopting different dietary strategies within folivory, reflected in behavioral, morphological, and microbiota diversity across species. These conditions make lemurs an ideal study system for understanding adaptation to leaf-eating. Most folivorous lemurs are also highly endangered. The significance of folivory for conservation outlook is complex. Though generalist folivores may be relatively well equipped to survive habitat disturbance, specialist folivores occupying narrow dietary niches may be less resilient. Characterizing the genetic bases of adaptation to folivory across species and lineages can provide insights into their differential physiology and potential to resist habitat change. We recently reported accelerated genetic change in RNASE1, a gene encoding an enzyme (RNase 1) involved in molecular adaptation in mammalian folivores, including various monkeys and sifakas (genus Propithecus; family Indriidae). Here, we sought to assess whether other lemurs, including phylogenetically and ecologically diverse folivores, might show parallel adaptive change in RNASE1 that could underlie a capacity for efficient folivory. We characterized RNASE1 in 21 lemur species representing all five families and members of the three extant folivorous lineages: (1) bamboo lemurs (family Lemuridae), (2) sportive lemurs (family Lepilemuridae), and (3) indriids (family Indriidae). We found pervasive sequence change in RNASE1 across all indriids, a dN/dS value > 3 in this clade, and evidence for shared change in isoelectric point, indicating altered enzymatic function. Sportive and bamboo lemurs, in contrast, showed more modest sequence change. The greater change in indriids may reflect a shared strategy emphasizing complex gut morphology and microbiota to facilitate folivory. This case study illustrates how genetic analysis may reveal differences in functional traits that could influence species’ ecology and, in turn, their resilience to habitat change. Moreover, our results support the body of work demonstrating that not all primate folivores are built the same and reiterate the need to avoid generalizations about dietary guild in considering conservation outlook, particularly in lemurs where such diversity in folivory has probably led to extensive specialization via niche partitioning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number736741
JournalFrontiers in Ecology and Evolution
StatePublished - Oct 6 2021


  • Avahi
  • Hapalemur
  • Indri
  • Lepilemur
  • Prolemur
  • Propithecus
  • dietary ecology
  • herbivory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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