Nature’s Fabric and Forgotten Worlds

Jean Chung describes their visit to the Duke Lemur Center, observing various lemur species, learning about their evolutionary adaptations, nocturnal behavior, ecological roles, and the threats they face due to deforestation.

When taking a look at the upcoming events for the Huang Fellows, I knew that my favorite
would be the trip to the Duke Lemur Center. Having just taken an evolutionary biology course
that featured lectures on lemur evolution and history, I was excited to see firsthand the rapid
diversification of lemurs across Madagascar at play. The lemur center features over 230 lemurs
from 12 different species, hosting the largest collection of lemurs outside of Madagascar!

As we walked through the trail to the lemur exhibit, the sun blasted down our backs, cutting
through the lush greenery that one could almost imagine was a tropical rainforest. We
approached the first lemur enclosure, which was a tall cage full of branches and mini shelter
boxes. Two crown lemurs with caramel colored fur sat nestled on the branches, scampering
across the enclosure and chomping on juicy fruits. The tour guide explained that the differences
in the furry patterns between the two lemurs distinguished them as male and female, otherwise
known as “sexual dichromatism”.

“…the trip has made me feel more cognizant of the intricate connection between
humans and other animals.”

Next up, we saw the iconic ring-tailed lemur, often the target of accusation from local North
Carolina residents that a lemur has escaped when it is often just a stray raccoon. It was
interesting to hear from the tour guide how the different regions of Madagascar, which range
from tropical rainforests to savannahs to deserts, influence the diets and evolutionary adaptations
of the various lemur species. For example, most of the lemurs snack on fruits, nectars, and
pollen, but lemurs raised in more arid regions have a more diverse diet of insects and leaves as
well – said to be opportunistic omnivores.

After viewing the enclosures, we visited the Nocturnal Building, a quiet, dark room with dim red
lighting to simulate night time, as some lemurs are cathemeral, or active during the day or night
depending on the season. We milled about the glass doors showing adorable mouse-sized bush
babies with bulbous eyes that zipped across our line of vision at the speed of light.
Many of the researchers visit the Nocturnal Building to conduct research on how lemurs undergo
torpor- a sort of hibernation that lasts 7-8 months where the lemurs stock up on body fat and
drastically slow their metabolism, digestion, and breathing. There are also projects that study
how lemurs serve as vehicles for seed dispersal – as they go from flower to flower, they are pretty
good spreaders of pollen – as well as the seeds they poop out from the digested fruit. The tour
guide joked that when they serve the lemurs cherry tomatoes, they sometimes see cherry
tomatoes growing around the enclosures.

Although the lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center are well fed and taken care of, I was surprised to
learn that they are actually the most endangered species on the planet. According to the tour
guide, because of the destructive farming practices and deforestation in Madagascar, only 10% of
their native habitat remains, placing hundreds of species at the risk of extinction. Researchers at
the lemur center are currently collaborating with the native Malagasy people in Madagascar to
design and implement more sustainable farming practices and reforestation efforts. From the
small lab that I do research in Durham to the dense forests of Madagascar, seeing the lemurs
roam around has made me aware of a lost world that still exists outside of the fast pace of human
society, albeit its existence growing ever more threatened by deforestation and destruction.

Additionally, the trip has made me feel more cognizant of the intricate connection between
humans and other animals. To be honest, I had previously viewed lemurs as simply objects of
research to be studied, exotic animals in a faraway land disconnected from human society.
However, when seeing them in the flesh, the thought of them as “objects of study” never crossed
my mind. They were simply there. And we were there, watching them scamper across the
branches, nuzzle each other’s fur, and chomp on fruit. From a researcher’s perspective, of course,
it’s also fun to think of them as genetic treasure troves of evolutionary history and behavioral
adaptations that make us who we are today. If anything, doing research has enriched my
perspective of it all. We can choose to examine the mystery of life, unlock its secrets, or simply
stop to appreciate and observe. There’s a comfort in being deeply rooted within the fabric of
nature and its hidden complexity, wrapping rings around humans, lemurs, and the microscopic
organisms lurking deep beneath the soil. Today’s visit reminded me that the seemingly disparate
worlds between us and lemurs can exist as one, from one planet bound animal to another, going
about our ways in the shade and the sun.

Jean Chung, Huang Fellow ’26

Vivian Apple Jean is a first-year student from Long Island, New York pursuing a double major in Biology and Environmental Science in the hopes of obtaining an MD-PhD.