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Born in the USA: a nature preserve in North Carolina cares for a variety of lemurs normally found only in Africa.


The ring-tailed lemur, with its distinctive black-and-white striped tail, perches in the crook of a tree, snacking on a leaf. But this tree is not in Madagascar-the only place where lemurs are found in the wild. Instead, it is hanging out in the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina which is home to the largest population of lemurs outside Madagascar.

Since 1966, the Duke Lemur Center has been caring for these primates (see Nuts & Bolts, p. 15). The Center is home to more than 220 lemurs, which together represent 20 of the more than 70 species found in the wild. Lemurs range in size from the tiny mouse lemur, which can fit in the palm of your hand, to the Indri lemur, which is larger than a house cat and can weigh up to 9 kilograms (20 pounds). The staff at the Duke Lemur Center is busy learning all they can about this diverse group of animals and raising awareness to help protect these unique creatures that are in danger of extinction.

"There are many zoos, research institutions, or sanctuaries that have lemurs, but usually not in very large numbers. So there are things we can learn here simply because we have lots of lemurs," says Cathy Williams, the center's head veterinarian.


The island nation of Madagascar is the world's fourth-largest island. It sits in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa (see map, left). Madagascar is long and narrow and has a rain forest that runs up and down its eastern coast, while the west coast is covered with dry deciduous forests (forests of trees that shed their leaves each winter). A desertlike region rings the southern tip of the island, and a grassland plateau runs up the center. This diversity of habitat leads to a large number of niches, or roles for organisms in a given ecosystem, that the various species of lemurs have filled. "The lemurs really take advantage of these niches, depending on where on the island they live and what food resources are most readily available," says Williams.


For example, sifaka (SHIF-auk) lemurs living in the northwestern deciduous forests mostly eat leaves. On the opposite coast, rain forest dwelling aye-ayes (EYE-EYES) have special adaptations that allow them to locate insect larvae in rotting wood; pierce the wood with their hard, continuously growing teeth; and extract the bugs with their long, skinny middle finger before chowing down.


With such a vast range of sizes, shapes, and diets, lemurs pose an interesting challenge for Williams and her staff. How can they keep such dramatically different animals healthy? Veterinary schools focus on teaching their students about domesticated animals like cats, dogs, homes, and cows--not lemurs! To fill the information gap, the Duke Lemur Center has been working on collecting as much information on lemur husbandry (the care, cultivation, and breeding of animals) as possible.


But sometimes it's hard to diagnose and treat the center's patients. Because almost all lemurs are prey species, they have learned to hide their illnesses. A lemur that is obviously sick would appear weak to a predator, practically advertising that it is an easy target. "So they hide it very, very well," says Williams. This means that Williams may not know that a lemur is having problems until it is extremely ill, which makes her job harder--but not impossible. The center has been doing such a good job caring for its lemurs that the animals are reaching old age. That's good but it also means that now the center has to deal with an aging population as well as figure out how to treat illnesses it hasn't encountered before. It also has to help raise all of the baby lemurs that are born every year to the center's healthy adults.



While Williams works to keep the lemurs healthy, other researchers-including students from nearby Duke University--are looking into everything from lemur genetics to lemur behavior. They also make time to teach visitors and local schoolchildren about lemurs and the problems wild lemurs in Madagascar face. "To be a lemur is to be endangered," says Anne Yoder, the center's director. The primary reasons that most lemur species are threatened and endangered can be chalked up to habitat destruction and to human hunters who are killing the primates for their meat.

For more than 40 years, the Duke Lemur Center has been collaborating with organizations in Madagascar to help the struggling lemur populations there. They have already had some success. Ten years ago, they released several of the center's black-and-white-ruffed lemurs in Betampona, a 5,500-acre natural reserve and one of the last patches of undisturbed lowland rain forest in the country. Some of the lemurs have survived and have even reproduced. "There are now grandbabies of the reintroduced lemurs in the forest," says Yoder.


In addition to helping rebuild the lemur population, the Duke Lemur Center participates in programs to teach Madagascar's villagers about farming practices that could help preserve the forests in which lemurs live. One program, at Ivoloina Park and Zoo, involves a group of international zoos called the Madagascar Fauna Group. It has several successful ongoing projects. The group is teaching locals about natural resource management and about the importance of saving Madagascar's unique regions that are home to wild lemurs. "We've had a lot of success, but we still have a lot of work to do if we want to keep lemurs around with us on the planet," says Yoder.


nuts & bolts

Primate family tree

Scientists use cladistics to rank and group organisms according to characteristics shared with a common ancestor. The family tree, or cladogram, below shows the branches of primates, the order of mammals that includes humans, monkeys, apes, and lemurs.

Lemurs, along with lorises, belong to the Strepsirrhini branch and are also known as "wet-nosed" primates. Humans, monkeys, and apes are "drynosed" primates; they are on the Haplorrhini branch.


Learn more about lemurs and the Duke Lemur Center at:
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Title Annotation:LIFE: PRIMATES
Author:Hamalainen, Karina
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 6, 2010
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