Monday, April 27, 2009

For Lemurs, Spring means , "The Buffet is Open!"

At the Duke Lemur Center, our Primate Technicians work hard all winter to make life interesting, healthy, and enjoyable for the lemurs. The Techs do a great job! But nothing compares to the space and freedom of the Natural Habitat Enclosures (NHE) where many of the lemurs spend their spring, summer, and early autumn.

Watching the animals readjust to life in the forest is fascinating. The Techs take them out for short periods first and watch all the interactions to be sure disputes over food, rank, or territory are resolved without injury. There was a lot of scent marking among the Ringed-tails - especially along the fence line where two troops met. There was some "trash talk" between troops with members from each troop meeting toe to toe on the fence. But the lure of the leaves soon won out, and both groups ran off to pick their own dinner fresh from the trees.

Rank was clear when dominant females approached lower ranking females or males, who are lower ranking among many lemurs. Those of lower rank backed off of tender branches or yummy browse and turned eating rights over to those more dominant. Fortunately, Duke Forest provides plenty for all.

In the heat of the day, the lemurs slowed their activity, sought out shaded places, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy ice cubes made of diluted fruit juice that were provided by their ever vigilant Techs.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Healthy Infants hold hope for lemurs

Shown above are ring-tailed lemur, Dorieus and her twins, Hibernia and Limerick. Yes, the twins were born on St. Patrick's Day. The twins are thriving. They spend a lot of time now riding jockey-style on mom's back. Erin, their primary Primate Technician, reports that they like to ride mom's back one above the other. If you only see one infant on Dorieus's back, its probably Limerick. He's the male and has been somewhat larger from the very beginning. But don't worry, Hibernia is still there. She just likes to retreat to the safety of riding on mother's stomach at times.

The twins are fitting right in with the rest of the troop. Recently, their older sister was seen grooming them. They are fortunate. Their mother is the high ranking female in their group, and ring-tails are a species where females are dominate. While life is full of challenges - especially for an endangered species - having a high-ranking mom adds a measure of security.

Duke Lemur Center's Breeding Program is being highly successful. Duke takes part in Species Survival Plans in coordination with the American Zoological Association to see that global efforts to preserve endangered species are maximally effective.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Tiny lemurs hold clues to big mysteries

Dr. Anne Yoder, director of the Duke Lemur Center, likens Madagascar to a remarkable scientific library. She likens lemurs to irreplicable "volumes" filled with information of incredible value. According to the work of RJ Gifford and colleagues reported by Welkin E. Johnson of Harvard Medical School in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the tiny Gray mouse lemur may hold a thread that could help unravel the mystery of the evolution of the HIV and AIDS viruses.

History is written in the genetic material of this tiny lemur. According to Johnson, viruses are intracellular parasites, which cannot exist without their host. Once a virus becomes extinct, it vanishes without a trace. The one exception is the Retroviridae, and Gifford and colleagues have unearthed a retroviral fossil clearly related to modern AIDS viruses. The information lies in small sequence fragments resembling lentiviral sequences in the archives of Microcebus murinus (gray mouse lemurs.)

Don't worry. Lemurs can't give you AIDS, but within their genetic material they may hold a mirror that can help scientists figure out the events that led to the modern AIDS epidemic. One more reason to protect this small but critically important endangered species.