Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In Memory of Didi - who helped us understand Madagascar

by Charlie Welch, Duke Lemur Center's Conservation Coordinator

Recently, I received some very bad news from Madagascar. My friend and colleague Didi RAKOTONDRATSIMA passed away. At 34 years of age, and seemingly excellent health, Didi had his whole life before him. All of us who knew Didi are shocked and saddened beyond words.

Didi worked for Cortez Expeditions, based in Antananarivo. He accompanied tour groups acting as guide and all-around logistics technician. He was Cortez’s best, and most requested guide. His understanding of Malagasy history and culture was comprehensive, as was his knowledge of Madagascar’s natural history. He was expert at imparting information in a humble fashion, and would still become excited at sighting a bird or lemur species that he must have seen a hundred times before. Most notably, Didi was simply charming – I never knew a tour group member that did not absolutely love Didi by the end of their time with him.

I have worked other tours with Didi, but Andrea and I both first worked with him on the Duke Alumni Travel tour in 2007. At the end of the tour, we were so impressed with his all around abilities that we presented Didi with the challenge of leading an ecotourism workshop at Ivoloina. He of course jumped at the opportunity because he cared so much about tourism done properly, and about Madagascar. He even offered to do it on his own vacation time – that is the kind of guy Didi was (Cortez saw to it that he was on work time!). When the idea was presented to our tour participants, they were so enthusiastic about Didi that they all chipped in and completely funded the workshop. The workshop, led by Didi, took place at Ivoloina in 2008 and was a great success. MFG Program Manager at the time, Karen Freeman had this to say about Didi at the workshop “As you say, always so charming and he really cared about Madagascar and its people. I was so impressed with his training session on how to cherish the Malagasy culture and share little bits of it as a gift to the tourists. He really was one of the best ambassadors for Madagascar that I ever came across.”

So, to you Didi, on behalf of all the people who now have a better understanding of Madagascar and its people, thank you for sharing yourself. You have touched our lives immeasurably, and we will never forget you. You were the best possible ambassador.

Our deepest most heart felt condolences to Didi’s family.

Didi collapsed and died on 17 May, 2009 while snorkeling with a tourist group near Nosy Be, off the NW coast of Madagascar.

If you would like to honor Didi's memory, you can make a gift to Duke Lemur Center by going to the Lemur Center website.. When making your on-line gift, be sure to designate the gift for the Duke Lemur Center in memory of Didi. This site will also explain how and where to send a check, if you prefer.

To honor Didi's life and extraordinary excellence as an Eco-tour guide, the funds will be used to continue to develop eco-tourism in Madagascar.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pyxis – An Insider’s View
By David Haring
Our absolutely amazing 14 year old red ruffed female, Pyxis, gave birth to triplets on April 29th, bringing to ten the number of infants she has delivered at the Lemur Center (8 surviving). Four lucky people who happened to be here late one evening were given the extraordinary privilege of witnessing all three births (which occurred at 5:35pm, 6pm and 6:10 pm ) from only a few feet away, due to Pyxis extremely calm demeanor. I had previously seen only two lemur births in my 25 years here, but none at such close range, so this was an awesome privilege! Pyxis had no problem delivering the infants, cleaning them up and handily disposing of any afterbirth. She is an excellent mother, and there have been no problems, the infants (two females and a male) are thriving and all had doubled their birth weight at two weeks of age.

Pyxis is one of the Lemur Center’s unsung lemur heroes. She was born 1995 in a natural habitat enclosure (NHE6) to a pair of wild caught ruffs, Galaxy and Comet. Despite the fact that she was born with several deformities (short tail, imperfect eye, a right arm that was little more than a stump), Pyxis thrived in the forest and lived there in the warm seasons until she was sent on loan to Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago in the Fall of 1998 (shortly before Pyxis was shipped, her group had to be removed from the forest due to the fact that Galaxy kept escaping). I remember watching a young, two year old Pyxis travel through the forest struggling to keep up with her group as they effortlessly moved through the top of the canopy (50 or 60 feet in the air). Pyxis could jump between some of the trees the group was traveling between, but when the distance was too great to be bridged by the basically one armed lemur, she had to descend to the base of the tree, then run along the ground and climb up into the tree which the rest of her group had entered. Then do it all over again in a minute or two. The sequence might be repeated five or six times as the group traveled from one end of the enclosure to the next. A current Lemur Center locomotion project hypothesizes that “lemurs are significantly slower climbers than runners” I am not a researcher, nor do I hold a PhD, but I will go out on a limb here and predict that jumping between trees takes significantly less energy than the locomotion style that Pyxis had to adopt to move through the forest. Needless to say, this extra effort made Pyxis an extremely strong animal!

Breeding between Pyxis and her SSP arranged mate did not occur during her tenure in Chicago, and since she was one of the few offspring of a wild caught pair, and extremely valuable to the ruffed lemur breeding program, she was returned to the Center and paired with a new male, Hunter, in November, 2000. The pair was released to free range (again NHE6) in April 2001, and Pyxis sprang into the forest like she had never left, leaving Hunter (who had never been outside a traditional cage) cowering under a shelf in the barn. Pyxis only returned to him occasionally throughout the day to check on him. Finally after a week or so Hunter found the courage to venture out into the forest, and the pair settled in fine. In fact Pyxis gave birth to her first litter in May, 2001 in a nest she had constructed on the forest floor. Tragically, the infants did not survive the first night, and when the next year Pyxis again became pregnant, she was kept inside so that her infants would have a better chance of survival. And survive they did, she gave birth to Little Dipper in Spring of 2002, and in 2004 she gave birth to twins, Carina and Cassiopea. Last fall all three of these offspring were paired by the ruffed lemur SSP to make sure that Pyxis’ valuable genes get passed on.

Pyxis and her group returned to free range in July, 2005 (she had not become pregnant that breeding season), and as soon as the group was released to free range, Pyxis made a bee line across the entire length of NHE 6 to visit the nest site where she had given birth to her first infants four years earlier (still marked with flagging tape)! Once she arrived at the nest site, she sniffed the ground intently for five minutes, then lay down to rest until the rest of her group caught up with her. What exactly she was searching for we will never know, but no one here had ever seen anything like it. Later in that month for reasons unknown, Pyxis began to regularly escape from her enclosure and technicians arriving early in the morning would often find her in the parking lot. One morning someone witnessed one of her escapes: she had climbed to the top of a tall pine tree located close to the NHE 6 fenceline. Upon reaching the treetop, she ran full speed along a horizontal branch, launched herself into the air, and, crossing the fence far below, landed with a crash onto a branch 20 feet below where she launched, yet still 40 feet above the ground, somehow holding on with her one very strong hand and feet. After the offending tree was removed, Pyxis settled down and remained inside the enclosure with her group for the summers of 2005, 2006 and part of 2007 when she gave birth to another set of twins. Currently her free range home in NHE 6 is closed for construction, but she and her newly expanded family will most likely return in 2010!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

reflections on weighing lemurs

Tech Laura here. I wouldn't have thought that the simple task of weighing animals would get me thinking so much.....This week I weighed a baby sifaka. I've been working with her mother to trade the infant for a nut, so I can monitor the baby's health and growth. It probably doesn't do much for your self worth as a child to know that your mother will trade you for a nut, but I digress....sifaka are family oriented and other members often carry the infant for awhile or play with them so I guess I just fit in for her mother to do a little baby sitting. I was looking at this wonderful baby. So healthy and growing and I thought how special to hold in my hands the future of an endangered species. All lemurs are from Madagascar and all lemurs are in danger of disappearing forever. This little girl will have kids of her own and help us help them. Wow, how special that little moment was.

The next day I weighed the rest of her family. Her dad is fat. He is also the most cautious about climbing aboard the scale. But, nuts are magic sometimes and he did get on for quite a few nuts (dad's price for compliance was much higher than moms.....hummm). The little infant has a brother 1 year old, and a sister 2 years old, who will soon go off to the Sacramento zoo and meet her dream mate (we hope he is dreamy...). It is the picture of a vibrant young family. How nice.

Well, we also have old animals here, and they need to be weighed too. Now instead of the joy of the future, I dread the inevitable. None of us can live forever and lemurs are no exception. I went out to weigh the 19 year old bamboo lemur in my area. I am always full of trepidation. Will he be OK? He acts like life is still worth living and as I put down the scale for him, I hope his weight will show me that he is living it well. He climbs aboard before I can even turn it on. He does this often, and he wants his treat. Bamboo lemurs have well earned reputations for being feisty. Some people call it "big dog" syndrome because they are the smallest day active lemur. But not this old guy. He knows the drill and he knows I help him.

We are always afraid to anthropomorphize animals (make them like people) but he is a primate and he is a social animal who can read body language. I think he knows the drill. He got tired of waiting on the scale and jumped to my knee. I set the scale and pointed to it and he jumped back on it. WHEEHO, his weight is good. He is still keeping himself up (with a little help from me!). He is supposed to get a raisin for sitting on the scale. He looks at me. OH, I pull the bag out of my pocket and try to open the zip lock on it. I struggle. He jumps back to my knee and holds one side of the zip lock and together we manage to get it open. Funny, you would think he would just take his raisin but he didn't. He jumped back to the scale and looked at me like well, I helped you open it now give me my reward. He gets a few more raisins for that.

So, weighing brings me full circle from the young to the old, from the future of lemurs to the past of lemurs. It was a good week.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Taking care of lemurs

The risk of Swine Flu has brought extra precautions to the Duke Lemur Center. The lemurs do not pose any extra risk to people, and we want to assure that people don't pose any extra risk to the lemurs. So masks and gloves are the order of the day. When caring for an endangered species, it's always better safe than sorry!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Triplets at Duke Lemur Center

Just minutes old in this picture, three new Red-ruffed lemurs take in the sights at the Duke Lemur Center. Lemurs occur naturally only in Madagascar, which is an island off the coast of Africa. This island has been surrounded by deep ocean water for millions of years, making it a fantastic scientific lab for how life adapts to circumstance and change.

The folks at the Duke Lemur Center do three things: study these unique animals that came from Madagascar (and a number of other prosimian primates from Africa and Asia), teach others what they learn about lemurs and how to learn more about these fascinating animals and their habitat, and work with the Malagasy people and other interested groups to protect lemurs and their habitat. Part of this involves serving as a genetic safety net for the lemurs in Madagascar.

So if Pyxis, the Red-ruffed lemur above, looks proud, it's justified. She doesn't know it, but she is part of a well-planned breeding program designed to help secure the lemur's future. Her triplets help. And both mom and infants are doing well.