As we rolled through a lush forest, down an unpaved road, towards the world-renowned Duke Lemur Center, we passed many signs encouraging us to admire the tree-dwelling primates from afar. We exited the car into the cool morning of the third Monday of our Huang Fellows summer experience and were surprised to see several yellow-eyed Coquerel’s Sifaka jumping through the trees. As we approached the tall, chain-link fence separating us from the open habitat, I smiled at one of the lemurs which had taken a break from the canopy to lounge in the sun on the grass with its legs spread out in front of it.
I remembered the first time I visited the Lemur Center as a wide-eyed eight year old who swore she would grow up to be a zoologist. My brothers and I were astonished when, on our tour, we saw King Julian from Madagascar in real life! Today, I saw the lemurs as old friends I had not visited in more than a decade.
After the rest of the Huang Fellows arrived at the Lemur Center, we posed for a photo under the sign on the visitor’s center and set out on our tour. Our tour guide brings us first to a mother-daughter pair of fluffy black and white lemurs. “Their fur acts as a makeshift raincoat in the wild,” our guide explains. As we proceed, she identifies each lemur by name and describes their unique personality. We pass a pair of red lemurs who love playing tag, a thirty year old female who has adopted a younger male as her companion, and a photogenic lemur with striking blue eyes.
Later, she tells us about the lemur breeding process, exchanges with other zoos, and how hard it is to get lemurs out of Madagascar and into dedicated facilities. I realize that not only is the Duke Lemur Center home to the largest and most diverse collection of the primates outside of Madagascar, but it also houses a cohort of employees who are incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the animals they work with. Joining us on our tour was a young woman who had just recently started working at the Lemur Center; ours was the first tour she had ever helped give. Still, she was able to provide detailed information about the lemurs and a testimony of how much she was enjoying her time at her new job. It was her who let us know that the mouse lemur, the tiniest of them all, is actually the most aggressive.
For the final section of our tour, we were ushered towards a small, concrete building. A sign near the door informed us that we were about to view the nocturnal collection containing an aye-aye, fat-tailed dwarf lemurs, and of course, the mouse lemur protectively stowed behind a glass door. Inside, our eyes adjusted to the bright red light as they peeked through the doors into each habitat. I remembered learning about aye-ayes on Animal Planet, my favorite channel as a child. Their characteristic long middle fingers complete with a ball-and-socket joint allows them to carefully extract tasty grubs from rotten wood. But, what Animal Planet had neglected to teach me is that aye-ayes are not cuddly, squirrel-sized creatures; the large, black, and fluffy creature in front of me was the size of a dog!
As we exited, we thanked both of our tour guides for not only taking us on an exciting and informative journey into the jungles of Madagascar, but also for their dedication to treating these animals with the love, respect, and curiosity they deserve. I left the Duke Lemur Center feeling just as fascinated by the primates as I was when I visited them for the first time as a child. The only difference is, now, I have the privilege of actually being a scientist, though now I’m more interested in flies than primates. Even when experienced in small, carefully curated doses, the biosphere is wild, fragile, and eager to share its best gifts with those willing to love and be touched.
Tyler is a member of the class of 2022 from Apex, North Carolina. She plans to major in biology with a certificate from Science and Society. She also has academic interests in journalism and documentary studies.