Animals with dietary specializations can be used to link climate to specific ecological drivers of endangerment. Only two mammals, the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) in Asia and the greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus) in Madagascar, consume the nutritionally poor and mechanically challenging culm or trunk of woody bamboos. Even though the greater bamboo lemur is critically endangered, paleontological evidence shows that it was once broadly distributed. Here, integrating morphological, paleontological, and ecological evidence, we project the effects of climate change on greater bamboo lemurs. Both the giant panda and the greater bamboo lemur are shown to share diagnostic dental features indicative of a bamboo diet, thereby providing an ecometric indicator of diet preserved in the fossil record. Analyses of bamboo feeding in living populations show that bamboo culm is consumed only during the dry season and that the greater bamboo lemur is currently found in regions with the shortest dry season. In contrast, paleontological localities of the greater bamboo lemurs have the longest dry seasons. Future projections show that many present-day greater bamboo lemur populations will experience prolonged dry seasons similar to those of the localities where only fossils of the greater bamboo lemur are found. Whereas abundant foods such as bamboo allow feeding specialists to thrive, even a moderate change in seasonality may outstrip the capacity of greater bamboo lemurs to persist on their mechanically demanding food source. Coupling known changes in species distribution with high-resolution ecological and historical data helps to identify extinction risks. Eronen et al. show that whereas the greater bamboo lemur has feeding ecology and dental morphology indicative of specialized bamboo diet, mechanically demanding and nutritionally poor bamboo culm is eaten only during the dry season. Climate change is projected to threaten many greater bamboo lemur populations by prolonging dry-season feeding.
- dental complexity