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Image: KATE WONG

Madagascar houses many unique plants and animals, the most famous of which are almost certainly its lemurs. Although researchers have long studied this group of primitive primates, their evolutionary past has remained largely mysterious, owing to the absence of known fossil representatives. It seemed likely that lemurs originated in continental Africa and later migrated eastward to the island nation. But new data suggests that the charismatic creatures could have Asian, not African, roots. According to a report published today in the journal Science, researchers have unearthed the oldest lemur remains knowntiny teeth some 30 million years oldin Pakistan.

French paleontologist Laurent Marivaux of the Universit Montpellier II and colleagues have assigned the fossil teeth to a new genus and species, Bugtilemur mathesoni. Discovered in the Bugti Hills of Balochistan, Pakistan, Bugtilemur exhibits a specialized dental pattern similar to that of the modern dwarf lemur, Cheirogaleus. This, the researchers report, suggests one of two things. Either the common ancestors of Bugtilemur and Cheirogaleus inhabited the Indo-Malagasy land mass prior to its breakup some 88 million years ago, or a migration of lemurs took place between Madagascar and Greater India after they split. The authors favor the latter, but remain unsure of the direction of the dispersal. If lemurs originated in Africa, they may have colonized Madagascar and later made their way northward to Asia. Alternatively, they may have arisen in Asia and later migrated to Madagascar, perhaps drifting over on rafts of vegetation. Fossilized remains of trees, pollen and fruit from the site suggest that Bugtilemur inhabited a lush environment similar to today's tropical forests.

The Bugti Hills site has yielded several other primate speciesincluding members of the group that gave rise to monkeys and apesand other fossil localities in Asia have produced early primate remains as well. "The time has come for the Asian scenario to receive more serious attention, but I think that the paleontological solution to this enigma is still in the future," Marivaux remarks. Plans for further work at Bugti Hills, however, are on hold in light of the recent terrorist attacks on the U.S. "At the moment we are totally dependent on the effects of current events, but we continue to work with our Pakistani colleagues on these exciting discoveries."