Friday, August 28, 2009

Lemurs, finger paints, and lots of mess!

By Lori Mears, Primate Technician

As primate technicians here at the Duke Lemur Center, we find ourselves charged with the mission of ensuring not only the physical health but also all other aspects of the well-being of the lemurs under our care. This is where we get to be truly creative, in the lemur world, it is called enrichment. Enrichment can be a great many things. It can be hammocks and ice treats (as Niki blogged about earlier). It can be new things to smell or taste or touch. Primate technicians have many, many options to provide enrichment opportunities for the lemurs. We simply have to be a bit creative, and use the knowledge we have about our animals to find ways to make their lives more interesting.

So, you ask “where is all this going”? Lemur art!

The process of painting with a lemur is a lot like painting with a small child. Really messy (for the lemurs and the technicians), but the product is amazing. First you need non-toxic finger paints, a big sheet (to contain the mess a bit), a canvas, a bag of lemur treats, and a willing participant. Then, the fun begins. After fifteen minutes of walking, sniffing, and scratching, we have lemur art! Painting allows us to give the lemurs a unique experience. The feeling of paint between the toes, the smells, the colors, the springiness of a canvas, all these things provide mental stimulation(and fun!) to the lemurs, keeping their minds working and ours as well. My favorite experience is painting with aye-ayes in the dark. The colors all look like shades of black in the dark and you have no idea what it will look like until after you leave. It’s always a great surprise.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, we actually have some of their art for sale in the gift shop, and you can have the opportunity to own your very own piece of lemur history. After all, how many people can say that painting on their wall was made by a lemur?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Duke Lemur Center and the Madagascar Fauna Group

by Charlie Welch, Duke Lemur Center Conservation Manager

Andrea and I are just back from the annual MFG board meeting which was hosted this year by the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. The meeting consists of progress reports from the on the ground conservation work at Ivoloina and Betampona, as well as budget and activity planning for the year to come. The good news is that in addition to great progress with all aspects of the projects, the MFG is on as firm a financial ground as it has ever been. Relatively new in-country Project Manager An Bollen is doing a terrific job of taking the projects forward (despite the current political crisis), and former Project Manager Karen Freeman has brought an exciting new facet to the MFG as Research Coordinator. Karen takes on that work from her home in Scotland.

To explain a bit about the MFG – it is a consortium of zoological parks and botanical gardens in the North America and Europe that are committed to conservation in Madagascar. By pooling resources the group can maximize conservation impact and assure long term continuity for the projects. The consortium was initially formed in 1989, and the Duke Lemur Center is a founding and managing member. There are currently 27 member institutions of the MFG, at different membership levels. More information and current newsletters are available at

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hot! Hot! Hot! How do the Lemurs Stay Cool in Duke Forest?

Imagine wearing a full length fur coat on a broiling summer day. Now imagine running through the forest, climbing trees and jumping great distances between trees while wearing said coat. That’s sort of what our forest dwelling lemurs do each and every summer day; but for relatively young, healthy lemurs heat is not a problem, as many parts of Madagascar experience temperatures greater or equal to North Carolina's and lemurs have evolved to deal with it.

If you have never visited the Lemur Center, you might be surprised to learn that none of our diurnal lemurs have access to air-conditioning in their cages. In order to cope with heat without AC, lemurs have strategies that allow them to keep cool. Lemurs housed in traditional cages around the building receive a lot of help in this regard from the Technicians who care for them, and you can read more about how these guys stay cool by viewing Nichol’s blog from June 29th.

But free ranging lemurs living in our forested enclosures are pretty much on their own in the quest to avoid the heat. So, how exactly do they do it?

Like dogs, lemurs are incapable of sweating, but unlike their canine counterparts, they cannot dissipate excess heat through a long panting tongue. So there are actually only a few simple strategies that a forest living lemur can utilize on a brutally hot day to stay cool: keep quiet and minimize activity, find a cool place to sit, lie down, or sprawl and, finally, to lick their hands.

Hand licking? Unlike humans or horses who can sweat profusely to cool down, the only way lemurs can obtain some measure of relief by way of evaporative cooling is to lick their fingers and both sides of their hands (one of the few areas of their bodies not fully furred) over and over again. Although not as effective as cranking the AC, this primitive air conditioning seems to work for the free ranging lemurs.

In the middle of a baking hot, dry forest on a 95 degree day, the options for finding a really cool spot are somewhat limited, but shady spots are available in abundance. Plus, the ground temperature will always be cooler than the ambient temperature this time of year, so it is a common sight to see a lemur laying flat out on its stomach or back, arms and legs splayed off to the side with body pressed as close as possible to the cooler ground.

Amazingly enough, large and even medium sized trees seem to offer some heat relief to our forest dwellers. According to DLC Veterinarian, Cathy Williams, the transpiration and evaporation of water which is always ongoing inside a tree keeps it a bit cooler than the outside air. Hence for lemurs in general, and sifaka especially, the hotter the day, the greater your chances of seeing these arboreal vertical clingers and leapers hugging a tree.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Lemur babies

by Tech Laura

Why have baby lemurs? Because they’re CUTE! But, seriously, why breed all these lemur babies? There’s only so much space in the center so why breed more? What other purpose (besides joy) could baby lemurs have in this world?

All lemur species are endangered. In Madagascar, some species stand closer to the brink of extinction than others; but every kind of lemur is threatened in some way. Madagascar is already about 80 percent deforested and is losing trees as we speak. Losing habitats means losing lemurs.

So, the Duke Lemur Center breeds endangered lemurs to provide a genetic safety net for the lemurs of Madagascar. But where will we put them all? Well, the DLC works with other facilities in the zoo community to not only exchange adults of breeding age to keep the genetic variation of lemur families strong, but to house and care for the families we create. Each year a list of recommended breeding pairs, which take into account the genetic importance of the parents as well as space that is available to house the offspring, is generated by the Population Managers for each lemur species. This way we can be sure that only the most important lemurs breed, and that they will always be plenty of space to house them and their offspring.

In addition, future reintroduction of lemurs to the wild is a dream we all share. The Betampona project, where black and white ruffed lemurs born and raised at the Lemur Center (and other institutions) were "returned" to Madagascar for reintroduction during the years 1997-2000, is the only time this has been accomplished. In the meantime, the DLC is working on the ground in Madagascar to help create parks like Ivoloina for lemurs and people. The DLC works with the Madagascar Fauna Group to assist the people of Madagascar as they learn about their own resources and how to get the most out of what they have now while still saving resources for their children. (Go to our web page and read more about MFG and Ivoloina and conservation.)

Conservation is a major goal of the Duke Lemur Center. So are research and education. Right now our researchers are asking important questions like what is the advantage to standing upright and what does it cost to walk that way? How are decisions made? How is risk assessed? Does chemistry really play a big role in who is attracted to whom? Could scent convey genetic fitness? (Those good scents would make even better sense!). Studying lemurs might give us these answers and more.

So, yes, lemurs are beautiful, adorable, and cute. They are also biological treasures that the Duke Lemur Center is working hard to study and to protect.