Conservation and Natural ConditionsHuang Fellow Aneesh Karuppur reflects on the Fellows' recent visit to the Duke Lemur Center.
Having grown up in a fairly nondescript suburb, I didn’t have too many local celebrities who I could have aspired to emulate. However, my hometown is fortunate enough to have served as the childhood home of the Kratt brothers (Martin and Christopher), creators of the children’s TV show Zoboomafoo, which focused on the eponymous lemur and taught young kids about ecology in Madagascar.
After being accepted to Duke last year, I learned that Zoboomafoo, actually named Jovian, was a longtime resident of Duke’s Lemur Center, and Martin Kratt was a Duke alum as well. When I learned that the Huang program would take us on a guided tour of the center, I was excited both that I would get to bypass the difficult process of obtaining tickets and that I would be able to see the birthplace of a show with which I had enjoyed a fairly close connection.
Perhaps the clearest theme of our cohort’s visit was the dual emphasis on conservation and natural conditions. Lemurs, along with other wildlife exclusively found on Madagascar, are not only rare but severely threatened. As a result, having a research facility such as the Center provides an excellent opportunity to preserve the lemur population as a watermark of biodiversity, as well as to perform research into behavior, cognition, and ecological factors.
But, increasing the number of lemurs cannot come at the cost of their comfort and their unique behaviors. Each lemur is paired up, either to socialize or to encourage mating; but neither activity is forced upon the lemurs. Living options vary significantly—small bush babies and mouse lemurs inhabit a dark, capacious room meant to foster their natural nocturnal habits. Meanwhile, diurnal lemurs are placed into four-room cages (two indoors, two outdoors) or tall, cylindrical cages with domed roofs. That the latter evokes a castle is part of the magic of being able to visit such a unique Center: these custom quarters demonstrate how the Center strives to prevent human-made constraints from substantially altering the lemurs and their millions of years of evolution. From a scientific research perspective, the extra effort is worth it: ensuring the lemurs have the most accurate living spaces ensures that any data or observations gleaned from studying them will be as close as possible to their behavior in Madagascar.
Some lemurs have the privilege of free-ranging, inhabiting a large swath of forested land with fencing and tree trimming to prevent escape. For those not housed under the stars, the Center provides extensive “enrichment” within their cages. There are beams structured to represent tree branches, small shelves and nooks to emulate the various crannies of the forest, and dangling rope toys as well. Furthermore, these features change regularly, ranging from weekly to monthly. Center staff also integrate engaging activities into routine tasks: for example, providing food in a bag-like vessel encourages the lemurs’ natural hunting instincts. When lemurs mark their territory within their living quarters with their special scents, staff make sure to clean them semi-regularly to prevent stasis in living situation.
Again, from a research perspective, this high maintenance approach is essential to responsibly work with such valuable subjects. It would be unethical to relocate these creatures thousands of miles across the globe just to discard them once an experiment is complete; additionally, it would be highly damaging to the population.
It’s not always enough to just look at DNA sequences or cellular function–environmental conditions can drastically impact study results. Even beyond behavioral assays, which might seem to have the clearest connection to “enrichment” and living quarters, the field of epigenetics spotlights extracellular factors that change the entire makeup of an organism.
As Huang Fellows, we work with a number of different test subjects depending on the project: E. coli cells, mice, and, for policy research, fellow humans. The visit to the Lemur Center was useful in reminding us that proper treatment of research subjects is mutually beneficial: not only does it generate more accurate results for our work, but it can also drive conservation and preserve evolutionary processes.
This opportunity came at a perfect time, kicking off a new week of research with a new viewpoint on ethical and responsible practices. I suppose I’m equally excited that I get to return to New Jersey a little more knowledgeable about my hometown heroes and the deeper insights their show uncovered.
Aneesh Karuppur, Huang Fellow ’25
Aneesh is interested in how new innovations, specifically in the medical technology space, interact with societal structures like product markets, healthcare systems, regulatory bodies, and governments.