WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Leaping lemurs and crawling ants are part of a massive plan to save Madagascar's wildlife, using a new method that could be applied to other "hot spots" of biodiversity, researchers said on Thursday.
Drawing on decades of field research about 2,315 species found only on the island nation off Africa's east coast, conservation scientists have mapped out a way to protect all these animals and plants, instead of concentrating on only a few and hoping that saves many of the others, too.
Earlier efforts have focused on one so-called umbrella species -- such as China's giant pandas or photogenic big-eyed lemurs in Madagascar -- on the theory that saving the habitat of these high-profile creatures will also save nearby species.
That is not necessarily so, said Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-lead researcher on the project, whose results were published on Thursday in the journal Science.
"That's one of the very clear findings of our study: if you develop a plan to protect all the lemur species, you're not going to get all the frog species ... You're going to miss a lot," Kremen said by telephone.
Dozens of scientists and other workers collected data on the exact locations of wildlife across Madagascar, from lemurs to ants, butterflies, frogs, geckos and plants, then used this information to estimate the range of each species and determine which regions were most vital to saving the greatest number of species.
Species that have already lost habitat because of deforestation were given higher priority in the plan because of their greater risk of extinction.
The world's biologists have long flocked to Madagascar, where about 90 percent of species are unique to the island. Part of the reason for its profuse biodiversity is its varied terrain -- including rainforest, dry forest, lowlands and mountains -- and part is its geologic history.
Once part of the African mainland, Madagascar drifted away some 100 to 200 million years ago. It eventually attracted colonist species, including lemurs, whose ancestors probably rafted over on floating vegetation, Kremen said.
Lemurs and others then evolved and diversified to fill environmental niches on the island, she said.
Kremen stressed that the plan for Madagascar is at this point simply a map of biodiversity priorities, one of many factors to be considered when the country decides what places to protect. Others include human habitat and cost.
She said the Madagascar model could be used for other biodiversity "hot spots" around the globe.
Helen Crowley of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society agreed.
"We're going to have to make these decisions all over the world about which areas need to be looked after and conserved," said Crowley, who was not involved in the study.
This model could eventually be used to help scientists predict where species might go for refuge when habitats are endangered by climate change, Crowley said in a telephone interview.
(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)
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