Mittermeier, the longtime chair of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group, is an expert on Madagascar and its lemurs, the distinctive primates found nowhere else on Earth. He is the lead author of "Lemurs of Madagascar," a comprehensive field guide on the country's flagship species.
His efforts inspired researcher Mireya Mayor to shift her scientific focus to Madagascar, and she was part of the team that discovered the three new mouse lemurs that were officially named in a paper published in June by the International Journal of Primatology. One of the new species is named Microcebus mittermeieri, or Mittermeier's Mouse Lemur.
The other two named in the paper are Microcebus jollyae (Jolly's Mouse Lemur), for Alison Jolly, a pioneering lemur researcher from Princeton University, and Microcebus simmonsi (Simmons' Mouse Lemur), for Dr. Lee Simmons, director of the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska.
Mayor's first research grant came from Mittermeier, and the discoveries by Mayor, Dr. Edward Louis and their Malagasy team occurred shortly before Madagascar President Marc Ravalomanana declared his visionary conservation policy in 2003 to triple Madagascar's protected areas - including vital lemur habitat.
"I consider it a great honor to have a primate species named after me, and, given my life-long interest in Madagascar, I am especially pleased that it is a lemur. Other scientific discoveries come and go, but a new species becomes a permanent part of the scientific record, and will be with us forever," Mittermeier said. "I am also delighted that this species is found in one of the highest priority areas for conservation in Madagascar, and that its discovery provides yet another justification for protecting the important Anjanaharibe-Sud Reserve."
Mayor, a Fulbright scholar, National Geographic correspondent and former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, went to Madagascar after reading an article in a magazine about Mittermeier and his work with lemurs. The lemur that now bears Mittermeier's name was discovered by Mayor and her colleagues on an expedition to study another lemur, the Critically Endangered silky sifaka.
Mouse lemurs are the smallest primates in the world, and the newest discoveries join the family of primates that represent Madagascar internationally.
"Finding an entirely new species of lemur living in the wild in the 21st Century shows how little we know about our natural world, and how important it is to protect it," Mayor said. "This tiny creature has become a huge ambassador for all things wild in Madagascar, and that is truly remarkable."
Both Mittermeier and Mayor are attending the CI Global Symposium from June 20-24 in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. More than 300 participants at the conference are examining how Africa's unmatched biodiversity can help alleviate poverty and promote sustainable development to benefit hundreds of millions of people across the continent.