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By the evidence again. Review of the primates of Madagascar by Ian Tattersall

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American Journal of Primatology 5:89-90 (1983)
By the Evidence Again
Review of The Primates of Madagascar, by Ian Tattersall. New York, Columbia University
Press, 1982, 382 pp, $40.
The lemurs of Madagascar are a n insular, diverse group within the order
Primates and are often isolated from one another in space and time. We who study
lemurs tend to resemble our subjects: We are a n insular, diverse group within the
discipline of primatology and are often isolated from one another in space and time.
Ian Tattersall has produced the first major English-language synthesis of the history, biology, anatomy, ecology, behavior, evolution, and systematics of Malagasy
The book is organized into eight clearly worded chapters. The first provides a
review of the history of study of these lovely primates. The second contains a
thorough description of the history, climate, and vegetation of the island habitat.
These chapters form a sound basis for discussion of living forms which follows i n the
next section. Included in his review of living forms are a large number of photographs which are still worth a thousand words each. Morphological and adaptive
variety a r e examined i n Chapter 4.Information contained in these chapters is spotty
only where supporting data are also spotty.
The subfossil lemurs are summarized in the following section. Tattersall has
written a very digestible precis of this material. Humans, our farming practices, and
domesticated animals are directly responsible for the disappearance of what must
have been some of the most wonderful and unusual primates t h a t ever existed.
The discussion of phylogeny and classification (Chapter 6) is bound to be the
most controversial aspect of the book. Tattersall bases all his arguments on painfully
detailed craniodental data because “comparative morphology remains for the moment our best avenue toward understanding the evolutionary relationships among
lemurs” (p 250). Potentially contradictory molecular and chromosomal evidence is
summarily dismissed. The omission of these data may constitute the major flaw of
the otherwise exhaustive synthesis.
Tattersall is a cladist and explains this theoretical adaptation clearly. He offers
what he considers to be the best reconstructions of the origins and distribution of
Malagasy fauna based on the cladist approach. Unfortunately, only anatomical data
appear to constrain his cladograms. The constraints of time scale and geography are
cited as having no absolute link with the rise and distribution of a taxa. Failure to
account for such minor details as stratigraphy or continental drift dates i n his
reconstructions have weakened them considerably.
In this section we are asked to accept that there were three phylogenetically
distinct forms that colonized the island of Madagascar and which eventually gave
0 1983 Alan R. Liss, Inc.
rise to current primate fauna, and that these forms reached the island in multiple
events rather than in a single contact. Both of these assertions run contrary to views
currently held by most paleontologists and primatologists. However, Tattersall states
that his reconstructions are not to be taken as the last word on the subject. He is
almost too obsequious and apologetic as he reorders the entire origin and distribution of lemurs.
Established systematists will undoubtedly leap into the academic fray over this
section. Opportunists, on the other hand, will find this section a gold mine of testable
hypotheses. Traditionally primatologists state how they arrived at their conclusions
by clearly outlining methods and results. The same data used to construct Tattersall’s classification schemes are available to any who care to formulate a counterproposal.
In the seventh section the ecology and behavior of living forms are reviewed.
Unfortunately any compendious work will become dated as new information is
published. However, the clear organization and presentation of this section will
make it a valuable reference framework into which new data will fit, in marked
contrast to the preceding section. Tattersall conducts behavioral a s well a s anatomical research on lemurs. His expertise shows.
The last chapter is a brief overview of history of Malagasy fauna and prognostications concerning its future. Deforestation is most likely responsible for the incredible adaptive array of lemurs in niches occupied by prosimians only on Madagascar.
However, the very forces that brought about initial deforestation and spread of
grasslands are those that are bringing about extinction. The only positive aspect to
this familiar and sad story is that humans are also capable of preserving these
unique primates through captive breeding and maintenance of predator-free forest
Tattersall has produced a book worthy of Kent Flannery’s “Great Synthesizer.”
He has incorporated his data with published and unpublished data from his colleagues. There are only a few printing errors. The list of place name synonyms is a
valuable resource as is the extensive bibliography. At 382 pages in length, the book
is neither too brief nor overly useful for pressing flowers. The language and tone of
the prose are straightforward and easy to understand. Dogma and jargon are conspicuous by their absence.
The volume is realistically priced and a bargain reference text a t $40. Unlike
other scholarly works of similar scope Tattersall’s book has no soporific side effects
and can be safely read in bed. This reviewer enthusiastically recommends Tattersall’s book to all who have cause to read this review.
Linda Taylor
Duke University Primate Center
Durham, North Carolina
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