Dangerously Cute: Bushbabies Threatened by Pet Trade

Bushbabies, or southern lesser galagos (Galago moholi), a species of primate that lives in southern Africa and are cousins to lemurs, boast big, round eyes and are so small they can fit in your hand.  They are nocturnal and live high in the branches of acacia trees. But you may still hear their eerie calls at night (they sound like a baby crying, which is how they got their nickname) in the savannas and forests of South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and other neighboring nations. They are cute as a button and some people keep them as pets, which has put these little creatures at risk from the underground pet trade industry.

What’s more, the results of a new study from an international team of scientists suggests that bushbabies may have shifted the genetics within their wild populations over the span of decades. And those changes could undercut the ability of the critters to adapt as human farms and cities grow throughout the region.

Study overview

Researchers wanted to find out if bushbabies (southern lesser galagos) really are in trouble. To do that, they worked closely with veterinarians to safely collect blood samples from primates living in several different habitats in Limpopo and Gauteng provinces. They then analyzed those samples, plus others kept in biological archives, to take a close look at their mitochondrial DNA — small clusters of genes that mothers pass to their offspring. The researchers then analyzed the DNA of bushbabies living in the regions around Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa, and more remote areas to the north.

Research findings overview

The team found that populations located far away from each other may share more genes in common than scientists would normally expect — suggesting that something, and probably people, is secretly shuttling the primates around the country.  Normally, scientists expect that animals that live closer to each other should have more in common genetically than those that live far apart — when wild populations are separated by large distances or barriers like mountains, fewer individuals can travel between them to breed.

But what the team discovered in its samples from roughly 40 bushbabies was almost the opposite: Individuals from areas separated by dozens or even more than 200 miles shared a lot of gene mutations. Individuals dwelling within the same populations, in contrast, displayed a surprising amount of genetic divergence.

“Something weird is going on…”

Something, in other words, seems to be putting the species through the genetic equivalent of a cocktail shaker. And all signs point to the trade in wild animals.

“We think that maybe people are catching them and bringing them to a different area. But then they become difficult to maintain as pets, so people release them back into the wild.”

Wild animals have spent thousands of years adapting to the challenges of their particular habitats. If you mix genes up too much, you risk washing away all of those helpful adaptations.

“You’ve got populations that are genetically different mixing with each other.  When that happens, you can dilute the local gene pool, and these animals lose their ability to adapt to their habitats…You can really tell whether a population is healthy or not by looking at its genetic diversity.”

-Metlholo Andries Phukuntsi, lead author of the new study and a graduate student at the South African National Biodiversity Institute and the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria

And they are losing their homes

Researchers suspect that expansion could be pushing bushbabies out of many areas — and all without anyone knowing.  The country’s Limpopo and Gauteng provinces have experienced rapid urbanization in recent decades. In 1980, for example, the Pretoria metropolitan area had an estimated population of about 700,000 people. Today, more than 2.5 million people call the city home.

“What’s is worrying is that we talk to farmers, and they’re saying, ‘We used to see bushbabies back in that orchard, but we don’t anymore.'” That’s true even in places like national parks. Some bad things may be happening to them, and it’s flying under the radar.”

-Dr. Michelle Sauther, researchers and primatologist, University of Colorado Boulder

The Takeaway

The findings of the recent study suggest that researchers may want to take a closer look at the conservation of these miniature primates. And if you’re thinking about keeping a bushbaby in your home, the researchers warn: don’t. They may be cute, but like all wild primates, they’re not well-behaved and don’t make good pets.

Journal Reference:  Metlholo A. Phukuntsi, Morne Du Plessis, Desiré L. Dalton, Raymond Jansen, Michelle L. Sauther, Frank P. Cuozzo, Antoinette Kotze. Population and genetic structure of a male-dispersing strepsirrhine, Galago moholi (Primates, Galagidae), from northern South Africa, inferred from mitochondrial DNA. Primates, 2021; DOI: 10.1007/s10329-021-00912-y