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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

On species delimitation: Yet another lemur species or just genetic variation?

Matthias Markolf1*, Markus Brameier2 and Peter M Kappeler13

Author Affiliations

1 Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology Unit, German Primate Center, Kellnerweg 4, 37077 Göttingen, Germany

2 Department of Primate Genetics, German Primate Center, Kellnerweg 4, 37077 Göttingen, Germany

3 Department of Sociobiology/Anthropology, University of Göttingen, Kellnerweg 6, 37077 Göttingen, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:216  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-216

Published: 21 July 2011



Although most taxonomists agree that species are independently evolving metapopulation lineages that should be delimited with several kinds of data, the taxonomic practice in Malagasy primates (Lemuriformes) looks quite different. Several recently described lemur species are based solely on evidence of genetic distance and diagnostic characters of mitochondrial DNA sequences sampled from a few individuals per location. Here we explore the validity of this procedure for species delimitation in lemurs using published sequence data.


We show that genetic distance estimates and Population Aggregation Analysis (PAA) are inappropriate for species delimitation in this group of primates. Intra- and interspecific genetic distances overlapped in 14 of 17 cases independent of the genetic marker used. A simulation of a fictive taxonomic study indicated that for the mitochondrial D-loop the minimum required number of individuals sampled per location is 10 in order to avoid false positives via PAA.


Genetic distances estimates and PAA alone should not be used for species delimitation in lemurs. Instead, several nuclear and sex-specific loci should be considered and combined with other data sets from morphology, ecology or behavior. Independent of the data source, sampling should be done in a way to ensure a quantitative comparison of intra- and interspecific variation of the taxa in question. The results of our study also indicate that several of the recently described lemur species should be reevaluated with additional data and that the number of good species among the currently known taxa is probably lower than currently assumed.