A primal screech rings across the tree canopy. A symphony of birds chirp and chitter around us. The leaves of the tall, looming trees dapple the ground in sunlight and rustle with the wind. No longer were we in the modern world of stone and glass at Duke; instead, we were in the leafy confines of the Madagascar rainforest, away from civilization.
Though it seemed like a lush, green jungle, this grove of trees was actually in Durham, NC at Duke University’s Lemur Center. A one-of-a-kind facility devoted to the conservation and study of lemurs and other prosimians – the only family of primates with wet noses-, the Lemur Center contains the largest population of prosimians outside of Madagascar with up to fifteen different species, from lorises to lemurs to aye-ayes, each with its own unique characteristics.
Our first stop was a darkened room filled with red light to better suit the lemurs’ nocturnal schedules, part of the center’s objective to keep all of its prosimians happy and healthy. Craning our necks over each other, we strained to see a flash of movement, or even just a hanging tail in the red light. Then there! A small figure jumped lithely onto a branch, flaunting its thick cushiony tail, which aside from looking like a fluffy marshmallow also stores energy and fat for hibernation. The fat tailed dwarf lemur! In another cubicle, the elusive lorises, being one of the smaller and only poisonous prosimians, evaded our sight. In the next room, a shadow lifted a skinny finger and tapped away at a log in typical aye-aye fashion. Though the aye-aye isn’t known for its looks, it is among the most unique prosimians, using its large ears combined with tapping to locate insects in logs – a living sonar system -and then fishing its prey out with a skinny middle finger. Our eyes filled with delight, in awe at these creatures only seen in an island thousands of miles away.
Our next stop took us to the outside cubicles where we were exposed to even more wonders. Our eyes ached as they adjusted to the sunlight; however, we couldn’t help but peer at species of lemurs that we learned could jump up to 30 feet horizontally, living up to the catch phrase of King Julian, the ring tailed lemur in the movie Madagascar: “I like to move it, move it.” In the neighboring holding area, we saw a family of lemurs lounging on branches. A pair of baby lemurs chased after their mother and later pestered their father before retiring in a nearby food bowl, their large eyes staring into our own.
Though these lemurs seemed to be simply fooling around, they were involved in serious research, much like the other lemurs at the center. Through close observation of lemur behavior and post mortem tissue analysis, researchers can not only add to our knowledge of lemur behavior but also build an improved understanding of human evolution and disease. Research projects include studying the fat tailed dwarf lemur, which can go from 220 heart beats per minute to 5 beats per minute during hibernation, an advantageous characteristic that could be used for space travel. Some of the largest allocations of research go to studying gray mouse lemurs, a species of prosimian that exhibits gray matter plaques and buildups – a sign of neurological disorders in humans. Even though researchers aren’t studying these disorders in humans, because many biological processes are conserved across mammals, learning about them in other mammals like lemurs can give us insight into how such problems affect us. Many labs at Duke, including my own, similarly use other animals such as mice as model systems, attesting to the importance of conserving such a rare group of primates.
Yet on their home island, these animals are in danger. Due to habitat destruction and deforestation, many prosimians are losing the forests they call home. Many of these issues stem from cultural norms like a type of slash and burn agriculture called tavi, in which farmers tear down forests and burn the remainder to use as fertilizer, and the local reliance on charcoal and wood. As a result, much of the forests in northern, central, and southern Madagascar are gone with less than 10% of the original forest remaining.
There are over 80 different species of lemur on the island of Madagascar, with many more left undiscovered, and yet almost 94% of all species are critically endangered. The pet trade has demolished the loris population, despite their poisonous secretions. Aye-ayes are dropping in number due to persecution over their less than friendly appearance. Up to 90% of all species on Madagascar are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world.
Thus, if habitat loss and hunting continue to chip away at lemur populations at the same rate they have been, there will be no lemurs left in the wild, in the world.
How can we stop what seems to be the mass extinction of lemurs?
Conservationists and researchers at Duke’s Lemur Center are already diligently implementing projects to educate locals on Madagascar about the biodiversity around them and on new ways to conserve the environment. By bringing awareness to locals about animals like the lemurs, conservationists can help prevent the persecution of aye-ayes and accidental shootings of such animals. Locals are also being educated on new, more sustainable agricultural methods that can replace the destructive use of tavi. In order to combat the use of charcoal and wood, Duke representatives are introducing alternatives for food preparation such as solar power, natural gas, and charcoal stoves. Such alternatives are now in high demand, a hopeful sign of change.
Though progress is being made for the prosimians, more needs to be done to combat the ever increasing effects that humans have on the environment, with human populations on the rise and no visible end to urbanization. Any help possible is a step forward. Even students can get involved by donating to the cause or by working at the Lemur Center itself. Even visiting the Duke Lemur Center can help spread knowledge of these fascinating primates. So instead of lazing around, it’s time that we get up and move it, move it.
Lydia is studying Neuroscience and Computer Science. She is an aspiring physician and researcher.