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!

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