Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New Years at the Duke Lemur Center

A mirza and a galago prepare to eat their way into a New Year.

Charlie Welch, Duke Lemur Center's Conservation Manager, who spent many years representing Duke in Madagascar, writes:
See below for the link to the most recent Eighth Continent Quarterly. Less animal news in this issue, but reports on many other exciting Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG) activities, which your Lemur Center is a part of. Be sure to catch the striking Parodura photo at the bottom of the last page.
As you check out this link, notice Fidi Rasambainarivo. He is is the first Wildlife Veterinarian in Madagascar. He did a part of his work at the Duke Lemur Center. LH

I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all the very best for the new year. I send you all (in Malagasy tradition) three cheek kisses for new years best wishes. Sorry guys, but that includes you too -- so all the better to do that electronically!
Best to all,
A pair of Pygmy Slow lorises patiently await 2009.
All photos by David Haring, DLC photographer
Make it one of your New Year's resolutions to visit the Duke Lemur Center. Call 919.489.3364 to schedule a tour. If you would like to help promote the 3-part mission of the DLC: Conservation, research, and education, Click here to Donate or Adopt. Lots of lemurs will benefit!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Lemurs at Duke Lemur Center enjoy a bit of mid-winter outdoor ranging

Sifaka in Winter at Duke Lemur Center
Photos by David Haring

This week is freezing cold in Durham, with lows in the teens and highs only reaching in upper 30s. But last week was unseasonably warm, with temperatures as high as the mid 70s, and several groups of lemurs were released from their barns into the freedom of the Natural Habitat Enclosures (NHE). One of them was the NHE 3 Coquerel’s sifaka group, which, at six members, is one of the largest sifaka groups we have ever had here. Not that they will be this large for much longer, the adult male, Jovian, showed some aggressive impatience with his two juvenile sons, Theodosius (5 years old) and Marcus (4 years old) last summer, and although the group is now back together, mom (Drusilla) is pregnant again, and after she gives birth, Jovian might very well give both his boys the boot.

Nonetheless last week, all tensions were forgotten, and the whole group was foraging and traveling together through the forest when I went out to visit with them. But something about the whole scene was out of whack, the group just didn’t look as at home as they usually do in the forest, and then I realized what was missing from the scene: leaves! Sifakas are highly folivorous primates, and a group in a winter bare NC forest look odd and lost and out of context, sort of like a polar bear on a sandy NC beach might, or a lion on an iceberg. Steve Coombs was watching the group the next day, and was also struck by the oddness of the sifakas in the winter forest, but his comment was that they looked very small amidst the winter trees, much more so than they would in a forest in mid summer.

Airborn sifaka
Photo by David Haring
However, it is great to see free ranging lemurs of any type, especially sifakas, leaping through the forest on a December’s day. I don’t think sifakas have ever free ranged as late as December. When we first released sifakas into the free range enclosures, in the mid 90s, they were not locked into their barns several times a week, as they are now in order to train them for the times they need to be caught. Instead the sifakas were fed at stations scattered throughout the forest, and they might not be caught, or enter a barn, for the entire summer.

When it was deemed too cold for the animals to be free ranging (late October or early November), a technician would go out into the forest with a tempting food tray, and when an animal buried hid head inside the bowl to feast, the technician would hand grab it, and then carry it to a kennel for later transport into the building. This tended to be a fairly stressful maneuver, both for the technicians and the animals, as a missed grab meant that the animal would free range another day, and might have to stay outside in uncomfortably cool weather. Luckily in those days the free ranging groups consisted mostly of pairs with only an occasional juvenile offspring. We have certainly come a long way since in the management of free ranging groups of animals!

Despite the rather odd appearance of the free ranging sifaka group, however, I have no doubt that they were delighted to be away from their stuffy barn and into the open forest where they could leap between trees and climb up to the top of a 60 foot pine, and do all sorts of things that you just cant do when you are in a cage. Except eat leaves. In fact, the only leaves in sight for the animals to munch on were a few pitiful looking honeysuckle leaves, and the sifakas were gobbling them as quickly as they could. However when the technicians came in late in the afternoon carrying the group’s ration of sumac leaves (thawed from one of the six chest freezers packed to the hilt with prime sumac this past summer by David Brewer), there was no question that they would trade their bare forest freedom for the taste of a succulent leaf, and into the barns they went!
Post by David Haring

Monday, December 22, 2008

Greetings from the DLC Research Department

The force with which it's limbs strike the ground are measured as an aye-aye runs across a pressure plate. (Photo by David Haring)

It seems that we in the research department are a bit behind the times in blog world, as I see that the education and conservation departments are already up and running, illuminating their forks of our trifocal mission at the Duke Lemur Center. We will not be left behind, I say! And so, I would like to introduce Research at the Duke Lemur Center. I am often asked why we do research on these animals and what types of research we do. First things first, which means addressing the first question of why we do research on lemurs. How will that help their plight in the wild and their survival in captivity.

The use of captive animals for scientific research ultimately helps conservation efforts of wild populations in a number of ways. It stands to reason that the more we can learn about endangered species, the better our chances of conserving them. By studying the biology of these animals in areas such as behavior, reproduction, morphology, physiology, ontogeny, and genetics in a controlled environment, we can better define species and subspecies status, better quantify their ecological requirements, better understand their interactions with other species, and better determine a conservation plan given the animals and environment we have to work with. In addition, we do a number of research projects that focus on animal husbandry and care so that we can keep our animals happy and healthy here in Durham.

A thermographic image of an aye-aye eating an egg shows temperature variation. Look at his hot ears! (Photo by Andrew Cunningham.)

The Duke Lemur Center houses the largest and most diverse captive prosimian colony in the world, and these animals are used by investigators both at Duke and other national and international academic institutions for both species-specific and comparative research. Only non-invasive research is allowed at our facility, and all projects must be approved by both the DLC Research Committee and the Duke University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), both of which contain veterinary oversight, before any research can begin. By maintaining these animals at the Duke Lemur Center and allowing experts in the US and international scientific communities to carry out studies of the animals in our colony, we take an important step toward the long-term goal of lemur conservation. Stay tuned for descriptions of the projects we are working on here at the DLC!

A researcher observes a ring-tailed lemur. A ring-tailed lemur observes a researcher. (Photo by David Haring)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Students Mark the Passing of Titus, the last Golden-crowned sifaka in captivity

Mr. Michael Jeffreys, Ms. Bekah O'Connor and and the second grade class at Snipes Academy of Arts and Design in Wilmington, NC turned the passing of Titus, the final golden-crowned sifaka in captivity into an opportunity to learn about lemurs, Madagascar, endangered species, and about kindness and compassion.
Every morning, Mr. Jeffreys gets up and reads the News and Observer online for articles to share with his students. When he saw the article about Titus dying of cancer at age 25 (quite elderly for a lemur,) he decided to project the article for his class to view. Mr. Jeffreys said, "They were all quite interested. We turned the passing of Titus into a learning experience. They will forever put Madagascar and Titus together. - - - We are all more educated now because of Titus."
The second grade class at Snipes Academy learned that lemurs only natural habitat is Madagascar, an island off the coast of Africa. They learned that golden-crowned sifaka's habitat is even smaller, and that the tiny habitat and the precious lemurs that live there are in grave danger.

They also learned that there are lots of people who care - people in Madagascar and people at the Duke Lemur Center and people like them - second graders in Wilmington, NC, who care about each species and each individual animal.

They learned an equally important lesson: what they do matters. They recognized that the people, who cared for Titus for 15 of his 25 years, were deeply saddened by his passing. They recognized that the staff at the Duke Lemur Center was sad because the last golden-crowned sifaka in captivity was gone, but also because an animal they knew well and had cared for daily had passed away. So these seven and eight year olds took action. They designed beautiful hand-made cards for the staff and sent them to comfort the people who had cared for Titus. The students' thoughtfulness brightened the day for the Duke Lemur Center staff.

Here is a sampling of quotes from the second graders at Snipes Academy:
Dear Lemur Center Staff, Sorry Titus passed away, but you can keep taking care of the other animals. We know you tried to take care of him. We will pray for him. - - -

I am so sorry that your lemur passed away. It was really cute, and you did a good job trying to help him. He was a nice little lemur. I would have cried too. - -

I know you loved him for 15 years. We went to the website and read it, and it was sad. We know they live in Madagascar. I know he didn't eat all his food because he was sick. I hope the other lemurs are healthy. And I know Titus loved getting his arm scratched.
No signature

I am so sorry about Titus. I will pray. I might adopt one. Please write us.
(We did write and the Red-ruffed lemurs sent an original work of art!)

Sazoria summed up all our feelings with these words:
I love you, Titus. I miss you, Titus. I am so sorry that you passed away.

The staff at the Duke Lemur Center was deeply moved by the caring and compassion of the students in Mr. Jeffreys' class. Thank you, Mr. Jeffreys, Ms. O'Connor, and all you wise and wonderful students in the second grade at Snipes Academy!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Holiday Presents You Just Can't Beat

Cilantro, a Mouse lemur hoping he'll be adopted
Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center Registrar and Photographer

If you're looking for a fun, informative present for the holiday season, consider adopting a lemur from Duke Lemur Center. My husband and I sent adoptions to all our friends, and the feedback has been great. Our son wanted to know if he was the only one with adoption rights to Cilantro, and the answer was, "No!" The more people who adopt an animal the better.

The adoption donation is used to care for the animals, who, of course, stay here at the Duke Lemur Center. But our son and anyone else who receives an adoption will get a picture, species facts, and some personal information about their animal. You will have helped an endangered species. Win/win!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lemur Learning: Training Enriches Exam Time at Duke

Life is fairly quiet at the Duke Lemur Center at this time of year. The Duke students, who would normally be conducting observations or doing non-invasive research, are preparing for or taking exams. The more than 30 Duke affiliated researchers (All our research is non-invasive) are preparing or grading exams. So from the lemurs' point of view, there are not only fewer people, there is less activity than usual.

Now, lemurs and their fellow prosimian primates, lorises and galagos, are intelligent. In fact, research being done here is showing that they are more intelligent and more socially oriented than was previously understood. That means they can get bored. So, 365 days of the year our dedicated Primate Technicians make certain that their lemurs' lives are interesting.

One way the technicians enrich the lemurs' lives is through a training program. First, all the techs completed a course by Meg Dye in animal training based on the science of operant conditioning . They use positive reinforcement to train the lemurs to allow themselves to be touched by the trainer, to sit on a scale, to enter a kennel, to move to a certain certain spot - a set of behaviors that just seem like play to the lemurs, but can serve a purpose when needed.

For instance, Pia, a Coquerel's sifaka, is very pregnant. So her technician, Sam, is training Pia to allow Sam to touch her belly. That way Pia will be less stressed and more comfortable after her infant has arrived and Sam needs to approach Pia and lift the infant from her stomach to be weighed. Sam will give a familiar command and Pia will know that it is safe for Sam to touch her belly and that she will receive a tasty treat.

Each appropriate response from the lemurs merits a treat, like a raisin or a nut - depending on what is a treat to that animal. The techs wear a special belt that has a treat pouch attached. When the animal responds appropriately, the techs click a clicker. That sound tells the lemurs that a treat is coming. That way if there needs to be a brief wait between the behavior and the reward, the lemur still knows it's coming. I think of it as that space between the timer dinging on my stove at home and a warm cookie making into its way into my mouth.

The techs also make sure that they end each session with behaviors that are sure to get a positive response from the animal. That always brings the Jackpot - a small handful of treats.

As I watched the training, it certainly looked like both trainers and lemurs were happily engaged. I know as Sarah and David were training sifaka in one cage, the ringed-tails in the next cage were getting as close to the sifaka cage as they could, jumping excitedly and making a sound that Sarah described as a whine. It was easy to picture a young child watching another play with a special adult and calling, "My turn! My turn!"

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Lemur Lessons : Learning to Forage

A young aye-aye learns to forage by watching it's elder eat.
Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center Photographer and Registrar

Duke Lemur Center has three foci: conservation, research, and education, and humans aren't the only ones learning here. Ichabod, (See the earlier post about Ichabod) the young aye-aye born at the Duke Lemur Center this past summer, is still nursing, but he is watching Ardrey, his mother, eat. That is how he will learn both what to eat and how to eat it.

The next step will be stealing mom's food, and that is okay among aye-aye. In fact, even unrelated aye-aye will allow young to take food from them. This leniency continues into the young aye-aye's teen-aged years.

So Ichabod has plenty of time to learn the intricacies of tap foraging - the process by which aye-aye tap branches listening for hollow spots that may contain tasty insects. When those large ears pick up the hollow sound, an aye-aye can use it's incisors to pierce the wood and reach in with its specially designed digit to scoop out bugs or other taste treats.

If you would like to learn more about Duke Lemur Center's efforts in conservation, research, and education or you would like to support this work, click here.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Duke Lemur Center Remembers: How Titus Came to the Lemur Center

Duke Lemur Center's Charlie Welch and some of his co-workers and friends in Madagascar

In 1987 my wife, Andrea, and I first went to Madagascar together to do a month long feasibility study to explore the potential of the Forestry Station site of Ivoloina as a conservation and captive breeding center. Before we left Madagascar that year, we accompanied Dr. Elwyn Simons on the first capture mission of the golden-crowned sifaka. The passing of Titus, hence the passing of that species as a whole in captivity, has brought to memory some of the details of that capture mission.

We first flew to Diego Saurez at the northern tip of Madagascar, as it was virtually impossible to get there over land in those days. After several days of mission preparations in Diego, we started southward with a four-wheel-drive vehicle and driver which we had rented (negotiated.) At Ambilobe, we left the paved road and went eastward on a dirt road - the main road to the coast. As we hurtled along at manic speed, the rust-colored road dust rooster-tailed over the back of the pick-up truck and settled onto our guide and me. We traveled for hours nestled in amongst our gear with heads tucked in and cloth over our faces. Andrea and Elwyn were squeezed into the cab with the driver.

Finally, after dark we arrived at the village of Daraina, which was near forests where the golden-crowned sifaka had been sighted. The appropriate village authorities were apprised of our mission, and as is the custom in rural Madagascar, we were kindly given a hut (which even has foam mattresses!)to sleep in. The next morning after arranging for a local guide, who turned out to be the village president, we were off on foot across the hills of knee high grass and eventually arrived at broken patches of forest. The forest in this part of Madagascar is deciduous dry, such that when we were there the leaves were off most of the trees. That fact, combined with the low canopy and gently hilly terrain made for ideal lemur capture conditions. The golden-crowned sifaka were easy to spot as per Andrea's description that from a distance they appeared as large white flowers scattered among the branches of the leafless trees. As our additional good luck would have it, they were quite tame, as the locals did not hunt, trap, or bother them at all. We had soon captured the two pair that we were hoping for.

As the previous blog entry mentioned, we originally thought that the lemurs which we were seeking were of the species Propithecus diadema candidus. We were surprised at how different they looked fro the photos that we had seen of P.d.candidus, and from the beginning Elwyn suspected that they were indeed a new and different species.

Our fortune was not all good as the rains came early starting that day of capture and fell steadily for that entire day. The poor village president, who had accompanied us, was shivering violently after hours of being soaked but insisted on staying with us till the end. As we walked back to the village with the lemurs in crates lashed to poles and carried on our shoulders, we suddenly realized that the tiny streams that we had stepped over on the way out had turned into raging torrents that at times came up to our waists, as we carefully crossed! The walk back to the village took hours longer than getting in.

Our next concern was getting back over what had been dusty road but was now knee deep mud in places. We could see other trucks stuck up and down the road near the village. As we waited a day for the road to dry, Elwyn spent much of the time surrounding the bizarrely calm wild-caught lemurs with every sort of food choice available. The lemurs picked and ate at selected items. We were able to leave the following day, and though the roads were very bad in places and often required maneuvering around mired vehicles, we eventually made it back to Ambilobe and Diego. From Diego, we flew back with the lemurs to Tana and a day later back to the US and the (then ) Duke Primate Center (now called the Duke Lemur Center.)

We had high hopes that the two pair would form that start-up nucleus of a future reproducing population of golden-crowned sifaka in captivity, as has been the beginning of many of the other lemur species at the Duke Lemur Center. Unfortunately, despite massive efforts on the part of the Lemur Center staff over the years, it was not meant to be. They simply proved to be a very delicate and difficult species in captivity.

The good news is that the discovery that the golden-crowned sifaka was indeed a new and separate species of Propithecus immediately focused the attention of conservation organizations on the species and its plight in the Daraina area. As it turned out, the range of the species is extremely small, making it one of the most endangered on the island. The result of the focus has been the creation of a protected area, with the conservation NGO Fanamby working at the site. This development has probably been critical to the survival of the golden-crowns, as the region of Daraina has in recent years drawn more people and activity due to gold deposits in the area. And of course, when as area is designated as protected, that benefits the full array of flora and fauna that exists there - not just one lemur species. In this case, the golden-crowned sifaka can be considered a true flagship species.

Conservation can work in circuitous ways, and I think that the golden-crowned sifaka is a classic example. In the end, it is important to keep the large picture in our field of view. The golden-crowns may not have worked out as a species suitable to captivity, but we can rest assured now that the species will continue to exist in its native forests. That is important. Thanks, Titus.

Post by Charlie Welch, Duke Lemur Center's Conservation Manager
If you would like to support the work done at the Duke Lemur Center, click here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Titus - His Story

Photo and post by David Haring, DLC Registrar and Photographer
The Duke Lemur Center is saddened to announce the death of Titus, an approximately 25-year-old, wild-caught male golden-crowned sifaka (Propithecus tattersalli) from cancer. At the time of his death, Titus was the only reported golden-crowned sifaka in captivity anywhere in the world, and he was the last of the ten golden-crowned sifakas imported from Madagascar by the Lemur Center in the 1980s and 90s (two pairs were imported in November 1987, two pairs were imported in July, 1988, and one pair (including Titus) was imported in July 1993.

The golden-crowned sifaka was first discovered by western scientists in 1974 when Ian Tattersall photographed and described it in Northern Madagascar, thinking at the time that it was a subspecies of Propithecus diadema. When the Lemur Center first imported two pairs in 1987, they were still thought to be a subspecies of P. diadema, but Duke Lemur Center Director Elwyn Simons made the astonishing discovery that the golden-crowned sifaka was an entirely new species, and he named it after Ian Tattersal in a paper introducing it to the scientific world in 1988.

Of the ten wild-caughts imported, six died after less than one year in captivity. The four animals which survived longer than one year lived for five, six, fifteen (Titus) and eighteen (Agrippa) years. One of the wild-caught females was pregnant when imported and her infant, who had to be hand-raised, lived for three years. Three infants were born from the captive conceptions, two of these survived less than a year, but one (Valens) survived for nine years.

At one point, the golden-crowned sifaka was classified as one of the top twenty five most endangered primates in the world and considered to be one of the most endangered of all the lemurs, due to the animals' very small home range and the fact that this range was totally unprotected and highly vulnerable to slash and burn by local villagers and gold miners. The current conservation status of the golden-crowned sifaka is much more secure thanks to the establishment of a 20,000 ha reserve through the efforts of Conservation International and a Malagasy non-governmental organization, Association Fanamby. Ten percent of this area is protected.

In a sad twist of fate, it was thought that the female that Titus had been imported into the country with, Mesillina, might be closely related to him, so she (the only female in captivity) was taken from Titus and paired with another male, Agrippa. Poor Titus was left to live by himself. Although we originally had permits to import two more pairs of golden-crowned sifakas from Madagascar, this never happened, so Titus never had a prayer of being paired with a female golden-crowned sifaka.

However, he did have a few blissful months living with a Coquerel's sifaka female, Drusilla and a Diademed sifaka male, Romeo. He was successfully introduced to this odd couple in January 1995, and this spectacular mixed species group (representing all three of the recognized species of sifaka) lived together until August 1996, when Drusilla became unexpectedly aggressive towards Romeo. After Drusilla was removed, Romeo and Titus continued to live as a mixed species bachelor pair until January 2002, when they started squabbling. Fearing escalating aggression between the two males, they were separated, and Titus (and Romeo) lived the rest of their days alone.

There were several more attempts to introduce Titus to other species of lemurs so he would not have to live a solitary life, including an attempt in March 2004 to introduce him to a neighboring pair of mongoose lemurs, an attempt in December 2005 to introduce him to a male red-fronted lemur, and an attempt in January 2006 to introduce him to another golden-crowned sifaka male (Valens.) Alas, all these introductions ended in failure.

However, through all his years of living alone, Titus had many human admirers. Single animals get a lot of attention here, especially if they are as needy, as friendly, and as charming toward human attention as Titus was. Technicians would drop by his cage continually during the day to offer him a head scratch or a small treat. He never lacked for company!

In January 2008, a mass was discovered in Titus's abdomen; he went into surgery 31 January, 2008 and a large mass the size of a racquetball was removed from his abdomen. He recovered nicely and lived peacefully for almost a year in a large outdoor cage visited daily by a constant stream of friends, admirers, and well wishers.

If you would like to support the work done at the Duke Lemur Center, click here.

To read about Titus in the News and Observer, click here.

Duke Lemur Center says farewell to the last Golden-crowned sifaka in captivity

Titus, the last Golden-crowned sifaka (Propithecus tattersalli) in captivity died. Titus was born in the wild in Madagascar in 1983. He came to the Duke Lemur Center in 1993, where his gentle nature made him a great favorite.

To the folks who work at Duke Lemur Center, every lemur, loris, and galogo matters. Even so, Titus stood out. Not only did he become the last of his kind in captivity at age 25, but his kind (Propithecus tattersalli) is highly endangered, occurring only in a tiny region in Madagascar - an island off the coast of Africa. This restricted distribution makes this sifaka particularly susceptible to habitat loss and local hunting pressure. The only golden-crowned sifaka in the world struggle to survive in an area about the size of Durham County.

And in Durham County, the final golden-crown in captivity lost his individual battle to survive, but only after a valiant effort by the Duke Lemur Center veterinary staff to give him a long and high quality life. He received individual attention daily for all of his 15 years at the DLC. His final days were filled with tender rubs under his arm (a favorite of his), gentle words softly spoken, and repeated attempts to tempt him to eat with special treats selected just for him by Bevan Clark, his primary Primate Technician.

Titus will be missed.

We will be posting memories from folks who knew him well and remember him with great fondness.

Duke Lemur Center - a bit more time for Titus, the last Golden-crowned sifaka

Tuesday morning it looked like Titus, Duke Lemur Center's last remaining Golden-crowned sifaka (Propithicus tattersalli) would need to be put down. Titus is 25 years old. That is aged for a sifaka, and he had undergone major surgery a little over a year ago to remove a large tumor. The tumor was back, and Titus has stopped eating. He sat hunched in his personal habitat - quiet, listless.

Titus is special to everyone at the Duke Lemur Center. He was wild-caught in 1993. The DLC has been his home the last 15 years. Like most lemurs, Golden-crowns are social. They usually live in groups - with five being the average group size. But Golden-crown sifaka are highly endangered. Titus is the last of his kind in captivity, and frighteningly few remain in the wild.

This is one thing that makes Titus important. His personality was another. As a social creature, who is the last of his kind in captivity, Titus was allowed more human contact than usual. We try to help our animals maintain their wild natures. They are not pets. But they are loved. And Titus is easy to love.

Once the decision was made that Tuesday would need to be Titus's last day, everyone trooped in one by one to say good-bye. That day it would be okay, even encouraged to scratch Titus under his arm - his favorite kind of contact. Although he was clearly ailing, he raised that little arm and seemed content as the people who had cared for him daily for 15 years said good-bye. There was not a dry eye in the house.

But this story has a happy ending - for the time being. The last Golden-crowned sifaka in captivity got a bit more time. The Duke Lemur Center vets decided it was in Titus's best interest to try removing the new tumor - despite his advanced age and frail condition. It worked. Titus survived the operation, woke from the anesthesia, and is resting comfortably. We know his time is limited. He is old. He is ill. But for today, Titus has a bit more time.