Falling in love with the world's most endangered primates

Science Sushi
By Christie Wilcox
Oct 31, 2012 6:00 PMNov 20, 2019 2:36 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Sixteen hours of traveling is exhausting. My trip out to North Carolina for Science Writers 2012 was broken into three flights, none of which was long enough for any sustained sleep. There was only one thing that could bring me out of that near-comatose state: lemurs.

I have been to Raleigh thrice before, and each and every time I have tried desperately to go to the Duke Lemur Center. Each and every time, I have failed. Friends and colleagues would regale me with furry tales (we all know what you did, Ed Yong) while I jealously listened, trying and failing to imagine what they experienced. No photo or video was enough—I knew that, like with most good things in life, I simply had to be there. So when I hopped on the tour bus on a cold, wet Friday morning, it didn't matter that it had been more than 30 hours since I'd slept in a bed. I was ready for lemurs. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, the Duke Lemur Center is the world's largest sanctuary for lemurs, rare and endangered primates endemic to the island of Madagascar. It covers a massive 85 acres of Duke Forest in Durham, NC, and is home to around 250 animals, including 15 species of lemurs and some of their prosimian relatives, the lorises and bushbabies. Many of the lemurs are "free range," as they are given access to acres of forest to call their own. As Education Specialist for the center and my tour guide of the day Chris Smith explained, it is the second most incredible place on Earth, falling just short of the lemur's native habitat.

Chris' passion for these quirky relatives of ours is instantly evident. The tall, lanky blonde with just enough of a southern accent to hint at his Tennesseean roots couldn't help but spend the entire bus ride gushing over the animals he's been helping the Center take care of for the past three years. "Lemurs are entrancing. They have these big, expressive eyes that pull you in." But to Chris, what makes lemurs even more bewitching is that they have so many human features, too. "They have this sort of basal mammal quality that makes them absolutely adorable... [but] they have hands, feet, fingerprints, and complex social behaviors just like we do." He's not alone in being captivated by lemurs; all of the staff I met at the center seem to be fueled by their love for the furry little creatures. "Having had several roles at the DLC—work-study, volunteer tech, full-time paid tech, and educator—I honestly have to say that the best thing at the Center is the people," explained Chris. The small staff of around 30 people pour their hearts and souls into caring for the animals, he says. It's no wonder the center is known worldwide for its excellence. The Duke Lemur Center has been caring for lemurs for over half a century. More than 85% of the animals were born on site, as a part of ongoing breeding efforts to support conservation. The center was the first in the world to reintroduce lemurs back into the wild through their breeding program, and has collaborations with scientists and communities in Madagascar to promote lemur conservation half a world away. Lemurs need all the help they can get; as a report just this year revealed, lemurs are the world's most endangered primates, with over 91% of species listed as vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN Red List, including twenty-three listed as critically endangered. Without the efforts of dedicated organizations like the Duke Lemur Center, most lemur species don't stand a chance. As soon as we neared the animal enclosures, I could feel my heart beat faster. I'd never seen a lemur in person before. I mean, sure, I've seen pictures and Discovery Channel specials, but never had I laid eyes upon a living, breathing lemur. Before we could see them, we could hear them, and they were all around us. The forests were filled with alarm calls, responding to the sight of large vultures in the sky. Though these birds pose no real threat to the animals, the lemurs weren't taking any chances, and their eerie, echoing calls set the stage for the sights to come.

Once inside, I found myself face to face with more lemurs than I could count. There were Coquerel sifakas, blue-eyed black lemurs, red ruffed lemurs, ring tailed lemurs, black and white ruffed lemurs, mongoose lemurs, bamboo lemurs - the list goes on and on! I was introduced to many lemurs, and yet they were only a small portion of the animals on site, as many were free ranging in the forests around us. As we walked though, Chris explained little details about their unique biology, like how blue-eyed black lemurs are one of a very small number of primates (including us) to possess blue eyes, or how Coquerel sifakas can jump 30 feet in a single leap, though they seem to prefer a strange sidewards shuffle when moving around on the ground.

As a highlight of our tour, we not only got to see the lemurs—we got to take a glimpse at the kind of research they are involved with. The Duke Lemur Center is proud to be the best place in the world other than Madagascar to study lemurs. In truth, they may be the best place period, for even in Madagascar, it would be impossible to do the kind of up close behavioral research that scientists do at the Center. Scientists can come to the Center to study all aspects of lemur biology. Undergraduate students from Duke University showed us how they test the cognitive abilities of lemurs by seeing if they realize to take advantage of food placed behind a researcher's back, while some grad students showed us how they test lemurs' amazing sense of smell using sticks.

As much as lemurs need us, we need them, too. Lemurs represent one of the earliest lineages of primates, splitting from our ancestors some 60 million years ago. They are a unique glimpse at our own evolutionary history, and provide insights into how we developed into the super-smart primates we are today. Not only are they our relatives, they represent one of the most impressive adaptive radiations on Earth. Some twenty million years ago, a handful of lemur ancestors arrived on the shored of Madagascar by hitching a ride on floating debris. They then diversified to fill just about every niche the island had to offer. From the finger-sized mouse lemurs to the dog-sized Aye-Aye, lemurs dominated the forests of Madagascar for millions of years, until their bigger-brained relatives arrived on more well-constructed rafts and began clear cutting the only home the lemurs had ever known. As cool as the science was, my favorite part of the tour by far was when Chris took us outside into one of the free-ranging enclosures. As I crossed the little bridge to the outer area, I stopped dead when out of nowhere came a ring-tailed lemur. He hopped up on the railing only inches from me. Suddenly, lured by the sound of a keeper shaking a food box, we were surrounded by lemurs. As incredible as any part of the tour had been up to that point, nothing prepared me to be in the midst of so many lemurs, scampering and jumping around as if I wasn't even there. I was frozen, overwhelmed by a mix of fear, fascination and joy. When I saw the smug look on Chris' face, I knew he gets this reaction from people all the time. "I get to share these incredibly amazing and endangered animals with people," he explained later. "When people leave the Center totally stoked about lemurs, that makes my day. I was on cloud nine after the tours Friday because the positive response we received from everyone was so huge." I would say 'huge' is a gross understatement.

As we boarded the bus to go home, black and white ruffed lemurs swung from the branches to send us off. I watched for a moment as they effortlessly lept from tree to tree, still amazed, even after everything I had experienced, that I was just standing by a road staring at lemurs. The Duke Lemur Center is a magical place, where even a seasoned biologist like me can be star struck by such rare and beautiful animals. Chris was right. Lemurs are entrancing—so foreign and mysterious, yet so undeniably familiar. If you're ever in the Raleigh/Durham area, I strongly suggest you make the time stop by the Duke Lemur Center and see for yourself. You can bet that I will be back again whenever I can.

For more information on the lemurs, head over to the Duke Lemur Center website, or keep tabs on them on Twitter and Facebook. Like what you see? Donate to help the lemurs!

All photos of lemurs taken by me using my iPhone, with the exception of the photo of Chris Smith painting with a lemur, which was provided by Chris himself (he also provided the LOL caption for the blue-eyed black lemur photo)

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.