Scientists in Madagascar, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Vienna Natural History Museum and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst now have a nearly complete skeleton of a rare species of extinct lemur to study thanks to a century-long discovery and reconstruction effort. Laurie R. Godfrey, professor of anthropology at UMass Amherst and lemur expert, played a key role in the process in which contemporary researchers were able to match newly found bones with those discovered in a cave in Madagascar in 1899 to construct much of the skeleton of a rare species of extinct lemur.

“It’s remarkable that we were able to reunite bits of the original skeleton,” Godfrey says. “This is a very big gift to science from many people.”

Collecting and casting of the lemur bones and assembling them into a near complete skeleton capped off a process that began in 1899 in the Andrahomana Cave in southeastern Madagascar. It began with a little known explorer named Franz Sikora who unearthed an incomplete skull of the subadult lemur, along with specimens belonging to an infant, juvenile and adult in that cave. Sikora sent the specimens to Vienna where they were described by Lorenz von Liburnau, who named the species “Hadropithecus stenognathus.”

This illustration shows the original "Hadropithecus" skull discovered in 1899 in a cave on Madagascar and new bone fragments, including parts of the eye sockets, found in 2003 by a team that included Laurie R. Godfrey of UMass Amherst.  Photo courtesy of Timothy Ryan, Penn State University

“Hadropithecus” was a large male baboon-sized lemur with a flat face and a long tail. It would have spent a lot of time on the ground, and it lived several thousand years ago along the southern and western shores of Madagascar, as well as at some interior sites. 

In 2003, a team of scientists, including Godfrey, revisited the Andrahomana Cave and found bones and bone fragments from the same animal found in the 1899 expedition, Godfrey says. Among them were pieces of frontal bone (parts of the eye sockets), teeth and many other bones that belong to Sikora’s subadult “Hadropithecus.” Alan Walker at Pennsylvania State University noticed that association and launched an effort to reconstruct the whole skull digitally, using the pieces found in 1899 and the other pieces found in 2003. This reconstruction was recently published in the Aug. 5 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

In August 2008, Godfrey and Natalie Vasey, an anthropology professor at Portland State University in Oregon, visited the Vienna Natural History Museum with the express purpose of reuniting the parts of the subadult lemur skeleton. Godfrey had organized an effort to have casts made of all of the bones, to unite the original cranial and postcranial elements in Vienna, and distribute complete sets of casts of the skeleton to Madagascar, UMass Amherst and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. 

That laborious casting effort, being conducted at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and at the Vienna Natural History Museum, is now almost complete, and visitors will soon be able to see the skeleton in the Godfrey laboratory in Machmer Hall at UMass Amherst. 

The 2003 team of paleoecologists, paleontologists, archaeologists and primatologists that explored the cave was led by David Burney, director of Conservation at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kalaheo, Hawaii. They settled on a remote corner of the cave for careful, systematic excavation – a site they called Ramily’s house, named for the Malagasy archaeologist and team member, Ramilisonina, who directed excavation there. The team found parts of the skeleton of “Hadropithecus” that were previously unknown, including the first hand-bones, vertebrae, and ribs, along with some hind limb elements that confirmed some of Godfrey’s earlier hunches about the animal.