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


  1. No, it's Jovian. He used to be the star of Zaboomafoo, a children's animal show on PBS hosted by the Krat brothers.