Monday, January 26, 2009

Tiny lemurs - Big Purpose

Tiny grey mouse lemurs offer an opportunity to help grow the lemur population.

It's official! The permit applications have been submitted for 10 young grey mouse lemurs to move from a research center in Brunoy, France to the Duke Lemur Center. These tiny primates, smaller than your hand, have a big purpose. They will help renew and re-vitalize our breeding efforts for this species, and they will help secure the gene pool for mouse lemurs (Microcebus murinus.) In the endangered world of lemurs and their fellow prosimian primates, the grey mouse lemur is identified as the most viable species among the nocturnal lemurs for long-term conservation management in captivity.

The goal is offspring to build a safer margin for these small primates, to study their behavior and biology in ways that do no harm, and to share with other institutions involved in Species Survival Plans for collaborative breeding and educational exhibit.

These are big goals for creatures who could hide in your hat, and big goals need support. The Duke Lemur Center needs an additional $15,000 to cover the costs of quarantine for imported animals, for appropriate new housing with vines, branches, and cozy nest boxes for these time primates. Click here, if you would like to help.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Duke Lemur Center and an Arctic Front

Medusa - safe and warm inside the Duke Lemur Center
We've talked about how our lemurs spend the winter - safe and warm inside. We talked about how our Primate Technicians, who spend their days making certain the lemurs are healthy, well-fed, and housed in clean and safe environments, spend extra time making sure the winter enclosures are interesting and enriched.

But what about when it is really cold, like the last few days in North Carolina, when an Arctic Front has pushed through - what happens then? First, whenever the temperature drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, there are techs here day and night. The techs take turns being on call, so no one has to be on call more than one night. That way the people here are always awake and alert. In addition, the maintenance personnel adds an extra second and third shift to be on call in case of mechanical problems. Security also adds extra patrols to be sure both the techs and the animals are safe.

In addition to the regular heating system, portable kerosene furnaces are checked and ready to swing into action if needed, and Duke has created a state-of-the-art heating and cooling system that can move seamlessly between natural gas and propane, so the Lemur Center can switch to whichever is needed. The Lemur Center also has a back-up generator in case the power goes out.

Like school children, the lemurs stay inside until the daytime temperature reaches a certain level. For lemurs that is 41 degrees Fahrenheit. At 41 degrees, the animals can go into their yards for a good romp in the outdoors.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lemurs - the Next Generation

Less than a month old, Pia's infant, Conrad, has a face that already hints at the handsome sifaka he will become.
Photos by David Haring

Duke Lemur Center is happy to present the tiny Coquerel's sifaka above. He is Pia's third offspring and Trajan's 40th grandchild.(See previous blog post.) This fine, young male was just named Conrad for Conrad II, Holy Roman Emperor and descendant of Charlemagne. The name presages the magnificent creature Conrad will become.
Pia, Conrad's mom
When it comes to parenting, Pia is one of the best. That has been a boon to this wee one, who was born with a low birth weight. Added to the low birth weight, mom had trouble producing milk for her baby, so the Primate Technicians stepped in to help - feeding Conrad six times per day to supplement mom's milk. Pia is being given medication to stimulate milk production and to assure her health and recovery from giving birth. While the Lemur Center prefers to allow the mom to care for her offspring naturally, we step in when needed to assure the best situation for the lemurs.

Pia has been very attentive to her new son. She grooms him, helps with his toileting, keeps him warm, and protects and cuddles him. The Primate Technicians and the Lemur Center veterinary staff have been very attentive to both Pia and Conrad - helping Pia recover from the rigors of birthing, helping her stimulate milk production, and making sure both mom and son could thrive.

It is paying off! Pia is regaining her vigor and now producing milk, and her son is gaining weight, eating hungrily, and beginning to jump and play like the healthy young sifaka he is becoming. Soon Pia and Conrad will rejoin their sifaka social group, and the new young male will be able to play with his two siblings.

Pia - with Conrad's older brother

Pia - with Conrad's older sister
You can schedule a tour to visit the lemurs by calling 919.489.3364. Come see us!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Trajan - last of the wild-caughts

Trajan, a much loved Coquerel's sifaka
The Duke Lemur Center lost another venerable founder last week, when Trajan, a Coquerel's sifaka imported from Madagascar in 1984 and estimated to be 29 years old (quite elderly for a sifaka,) passed away. Trajan was the last surviving wild-caught Coquerel's sifaka from a group of 11 (5 males and 6 females) imported from Madagascar on three dates: 1982, 1984, and 1986. The Coquerel's sifaka importation was a great success story, and the contribution these wild-caught animals have made to the captive gene pool (along with Nigel, a captive-born animal) account for the total of today's captive population of 44 animals residing at the Lemur Center and at six American zoos.
Trajan and Cornelia
Trajan made more than his fair contribution to the captive gene pool, siring 18 offspring (8 of which are still living) with three different mates (Cornelia, Marcella, and Paulina,) 40 grandchildren (20 of which are still living) and two great grand offspring. Hence, 28 of the 44 living Coquerel's sifaka in captivity are closely related to Trajan! On the day that Trajan died, his daughter, Pia, gave birth to grandchild number 40.
Along with being one of the most prolific lemurs in Lemur Center history, Trajan led one of the most interesting lives. He and his mate Cornelia, were the first sifakas introduced into a Natural Habitat Enclosure (NHE) when they were released into NHE1 in July 1986. The pair lived in NHE 1 & 3 for much of the following nine years and produced nine offspring before Cornelia's death in May 1995.

In July 1991, Trajan became desperately ill and nearly died. The veterinary staff worked tirelessly to save him, and when he recovered the vets wrote, "Trajan has recovered from his illness, but blood work shows his liver to be in terrible shape. Because of his weak nature (probably due to old age,) he will be kept inside and not returned to a natural habitat enclosure." But Trajan did recover fully, and his obvious health convinced the vets to change their minds. He had returned to the forest of NHE3 within a year, continuing to spend most summers free ranging for the next thirteen years!
After Cornelia's death in the spring of 1995, Trajan was introduced to a new mate, Marcella and her young son, Nero, in NHE 6 in August of 1995. Marcella and Trajan had four offspring and spent their summers in NHE 6 until he was removed from Marcella's group in 1999 and introduced to Paulina and her offspring (Antonia, Phillip, and Zeno) in September of 2000. Paulina and Trajan had five offspring and lived together (spending summers in NHE 3) until August of 2004, when Paulina was sent to the Sacramento Zoo. It was during this period that Trajan demonstrated that he was not only capable of siring offspring, but that he was good at caring for them too, a somewhat unusual trait for a sifaka male.

Coquerel's sifaka infants are born in mid winter, and by the time Paulina/Trajan's group was moved from their winter cages to the forests of the natural habitat enclosure, the youngsters would be anywhere from four to six months old, well on their way towards weaning and independence. However, a largely independent five-month-old infant, when introduced to a new environment (such as a forested enclosure) generally becomes somewhat anxious and wants to return to the security of his/her mother. So suddenly, the juveniles will jump on Mom's back and want to be transported everywhere, when they are actually capable of getting around under their own power (sort of like teenagers.)

Trajan and offspring
Hence, when Trajan and Paulina's group were introduced into the forest in the springtime, there inevitably would be a youngster who suddenly wanted to start riding his/her mom's back again. But Paulina, not the most patient of mothers, would have none of it, and would nip at the juvenile until he/she jumped off. The juvenile would then, of course, be terrified, clinging petrified and stranded on a tree in this unknown forest, while the group, led by Paulina, moved off. Every year, however, the gentle Trajan would come to the stranded juvenile's rescue and allow him/her to ride his back for the entire day until the group was back inside for the night. The whole scenario was repeated the next day and the next for a week or two. I will never forget the sight of the 20-something Trajan patiently carrying a juvenile at least half his weight, making jumps and climbing trees as the group moved through the woods.

Trajan was wonderful with his own offspring and with females and very young male offspring of other males, but once unrelated offspring in his group got to be a certain age, Trajan would not so gently "encourage" them to seek new territory. During his life, he forcibly ejected Nero and Zeno from his new family groups at a much younger age than they would normally be ejected. After all, he was no saint, and this is standard male sifaka protocol.

Alas, this macho male sifaka attitude towards other males finally caught up with Trajan when in August of 2008, his four-year-old son, Maximus, attacked him, severing his Achilles tendon. Trajan was helpless under this assault (not only was he a frail almost 30-year-old, he had also long since lost most of his teeth.) Although the staff of the DLC quickly came to his rescue, it was the beginning of the end for Trajan. He spent his final days housed alone - but never lacking for human company and admiration.

Post and photos by David Haring

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Research at the Lemur Center - a matter of taste

Photos by David Haring
Lemurs enjoy their choice of beverages!
People often ask what kinds of research we do. We have many projects in progress at any one time, and I will periodically introduce new and ongoing studies and post updates so that folks can get a sense of what we are learning from these animals and how. Let's start with a simple yet important study that one of our Primate Technicians, Erin Nemecek, has just undertaken to identify taste preferences in our different lemur species. As you might imagine, our lemurs get sick from time to time with anything from parasites to an infected wound, and they need to take medicine in order to heal properly. Like most of us, the generally don't like medicine. And, not surprisingly, there is really no information in the literature about lemur taste preferences. So we if we can figure out a flavoring to add to the medicine so that the lemurs will take it readily, that means that they don't have to be caught to be medicated, which makes them happy. And it also means that we can ensure they consume all the proper dose so they get better - which makes us happy!

"We are supposed to drink this, right?"
What is a lemur's favorite flavor? Groovy Grape? Mandarin Orange? Peaches n' Cream? Mom's Banana Bread? Erin obtained a number of liquid flavors from the Flavor Rx Institute (which was kind enough to donate the flavors!), including both sugar and salt solutions that can be used as the foundation for any of the flavors. She is going to run tests on different animals to see which of the flavors the different species prefer so that they can be more easily medicated when necessary. We are starting with animals representing five genera: Lemur (Lemur catta, the ring-tailed lemur), Propothecus (Propithecus coquereli, Coquerel's Sifaka), Varecia (Varecia variegate rubra, the red-ruffed lemur), Daubentonia (Daubentonia madagascariensis, the aye-aye), and the Eulemur (Eulemur mongoz, the Mongoose lemur.) Each study animal will be offered 3 ml of the flavoring in a disposable Dixie cup, and the amount consumed after one minute will be measured. Each animal will be offered a single flavor each day for the three consecutive days and their preferences inferred by how much of the solution they consume.

Mongoose lemurs use their little lemur hands!

The first step is to start working out the project parameters for the study, and so we will do a few tests with non-subject animals to figure out the best way to conduct the trials. Erin and I started with Mongoose lemurs on 12/2/2008 and used two pair: Felipe and Moheli, and Pedro and Maddie. Instead of the flavors that we will use in the later trials, we just started with juice that we know they like to get an idea of how things will go. Then, once we see that our test system is working, we'll present the actual flavors to test-subject animals. David (Research Technician) made some wooden cup holders with a stable base that a Dixie cup will fit into, and the idea was to just put the solution into the cup, put the cup into the base, and set it on the floor of the cage. Of course, the mongoose lemurs like to use their little lemur hands, and Felipe managed to take the cup right out of the base. Then Moheli took it away from him and dropped it on the ground, making it impossible to measure how much was consumed. We discovered that if we cut the cups down to right below the lip of the base, they can't get them out and instead drink from the cups, so it looks like that's what we'll do.

Please, may I have some more?

Erin and I continued testing on the rest of the species, with Varecia (Galaxy and Comet) and Propithecus (Lucius and Irene) and Daubentonia (Lucrezia) and Lemur (Nemo and Agathon.) It seems that every lemur is different. Who knew? It turns out that Em, Pvc, and Dm could and did remove the cup from the holder, but interestingly - all in different ways. Mongoose lemurs use their hands, Sifaka just smash their faces so far down into the cup that when they lift their heads, the cup pops out and they then run off with it, and the aye-ayes use their teeth to remove the cup before scampering away. Trimming the cups down was effective for the mongoose lemurs, but not good enough for the props. Taping the cup to the bottom of the holder worked for the props, but was not good enough for the aye-ayes. So David is going to make a special base for the aye-ayes, and then we can start the project in earnest. The Varecia and the Lemur catta didn't mess with the equipment at all. They just smiled and said, "Ahhhh! Juice."

blog by Sarah Zehr