Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A First - Duke Lemur Center participates with the Study Abroad Program at Ivoloina

by Charlie Welch, Duke Lemur Center's Conservation Manager

For the first time, the Duke Lemur Center (DLC) has been part of a Madagascar study abroad opportunity for university undergraduate students. DLC conservation coordinator Charlie Welch accompanied Appalachian State (ASU) agroforestry professor Dr. Christof den Biggelaar, and James Madison (JMU) anthropology professor Dr. Roshna Wunderlich, in leading the study abroad. A total of 11 students from both ASU and JMU participated in the traveling class. Unfortunately, Duke’s credit hour requirements for study abroad classes did not allow for Duke students to participate and receive an equal number of credit hours.
The class covered tropical agroforestry, sustainable agriculture, lemur ecology and research techniques, and conservation, with instruction including lectures, discussion, and field work. Although based at Park Ivoloina, the 4 week learning experience was by no means limited to that location. There were 2 field trips during the period – a 4 day trip to the north to visit the coastal forests at both Analalava and Tampolo (with a relaxing day off at the beautiful beach site of Mahambo!), and a 3 day trip to the higher elevation wet forest at Perinet/Andasibe. Day trips included a visit to a local oil palm plantation which practices sustainable organic farming techniques with the palms and various other fruit products, and a day with two different non-governmental organizations (NGOs) doing humanitarian work in the Tamatave area.
In addition to the ASU and JMU students, the group was joined by 4 English capable Malagasy students from GRENE (environmental program) of the University of Tamatave. Their participation broadened the cross-cultural aspects of the experience for both the American and the Malagasy students.
Hopefully this is the beginning of a regular collaborative study abroad in Madagascar program, which can also in the future include Duke students.
Many thanks to the Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG) for hosting the study abroad at Ivoloina, and to MFG staff for sharing time and expertise with our students.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Free in the Forest - Duke Lemur Center's Free-range program

by David Haring, Registrar

It was an historic day at the Lemur Center: The release of the first group of lemurs from the new Releasable Building (now officially designated as Ata Ala) into the 6.5 acre NHE 8, one of the four Natural Habitat Enclosures which surround it. Animals released into the forests from Ata Aly will be able to roam freely all summer (and throughout the cooler months, during warm spells). It is fitting that the group chosen for the first release was led by the red-ruffed lemur matriarch Pyxis, who at 15 years of age, is a veteran of many months free ranging at the Lemur Center. Pyxis was born into NHE 6 before it was subdivided into four enclosures, so her habitat in NHE 8 has been home turf since infancy (although she has not free ranged here since 2007). For a detailed summary of Pyxis’ amazing life, please see my blog entry of May, 2009.

Surprisingly, when the gates of the RB were opened and Pyxis’s group (consisting of her mate Hunter; their triplets born in 2009, Esther, Phoebe and Orion Junior; and twins born in 2007, Scorpius and Aries) were released into the forest, it was not the indomitable Matriarch who boldly led the way into the wilderness, but the triplets, still not quite full grown, fairly gangly and really not very well coordinated (at least when it comes to navigation of an unknown and complex forest habitat). Perhaps Pyxis hung back so that she could witness and get a chuckle out of Phoebe and Orion Junior (OJ’s) hilarious first attempts at climbing trees. I have witnessed a fair amount of releases of naïve lemurs into forest environments new to them, but none have come even close to displaying the level of clumsiness shown by both OJ and Phoebe!

They had trouble climbing five foot tall saplings, of a size that could easily be mastered by the clumsiest of human children. They seemed to keep getting tangled up in the mass of branches that have a tendency to grow on healthy saplings (admittedly very unlike the branches of their home cages), and several times fell out of trees that were three or four feet high, disgraceful behavior for an arboreal primate! After a few minutes, the adults (Pyxis, Hunter, Sorpius and Aries), perhaps bored with this display of ineptitude from the younger ones, or perhaps eager to show them how the arboreal lifestyle is accomplished, took to the trees, scaling the highest tulip poplars with relative ease, (although Scorpius and Aries had only a few months experience free ranging in NHE 6 two years ago, it obviously made a big difference!). Surprisingly one of the triplets, Esther, seemed fairly competent in her first ever ascent of a real tree and could actually just about keep up with the group.

Alas, OJ and Phoebe were a different story. When they had finally mastered, to a certain extent, the art of climbing six foot saplings, they proceeded full steam to the next giant step: scaling huge pine trees (the type that have zero branches for the first forty feet). With each attempt the overly ambitious youngsters succeeded only in ascending a few feet up the scaly shear vertical wooden columns, before quickly losing their momentum, then their grips and then plummeting back to the ground in a hail of scraped off pine bark. Finally, they abandoned the pines, and figured out how to climb a reasonably sized hardwood tree (they really do learn fast!), which took them up to a level near the more experiences older animals. Here they were faced with learning another of the basic rules facing every free ranging lemur: not to jump on or walk out onto an obviously dead and rotten branch. Arboreal primates are amazingly adept at being able to quickly brush off falls that would seriously injure a person, but it is little wonder that by the afternoon of the first day free ranging, Orion Junior was cowering inside his cozy air-conditioned RB room, while the rest of the group continued to frolic in the forest.

Amazingly the incompetent yearlings made it through their first free range days in fine shape, and their confidence and ability have increased daily since then. Now the whole group can be seen in the treetops together exploring their enclosure. And, once again, after an absence of two years, the wonderful raucous cry of the ruffed lemur can be heard from the Lemur Center parking lot greeting visitors and letting them know that they have entered the world of the lemur. Everyone on the Lemur Center staff is also delighted to learn that despite the group’s increasing confidence in traveling through the forest, in which they are daily becoming more and more like a wild group of ruffed lemurs, the animals have continued to respond to their audible training cues, coming down from the trees on command, obediently following their technician’s training cues into the RB for conditioning lock up and feeding.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Summer in the Forest at Duke Lemur Center

by David Haring, Registrar

It is fitting that the second group released into the forest from Aty Ala (The new releasable building at Duke Lemur Center) contains an exalted Lemur Center veteran, Tiberius, born here in 1988. Since I was Tiberius’s caretaker from the day he was born until the day he shipped to the Los Angeles Zoo for breeding purposes at the age of eight, he holds a special place in my heart. Due to his absence for the last fourteen years, it is somewhat surprising that of the six sifaka in the group (Rupilia the 11 year old matriarch, her daughter Irene 3.5 years old, son Gaius 1.5 years old, and infant Romulus, sired by Tiberius last summer), Tiberius is the only one with free ranging experience. In fact he free ranged in three different DLC enclosures during his first eight years (NHE1, NHE3 and NHE6) and has about 19 months of forest living experience under his belt. He spent over 11 months free ranging in NHE 6 with his first mate, Marcella, and their offspring, Nero, until he was removed for re-pairing with another female, Pulchra, and introduced to NHE 3 in August 1995. He left Marcella and Nero behind in NHE 6, and Marcella was introduced to a new male, Trajan.

Interestingly (and somewhat scandalously), Nero was ejected from his group by Trajan in 1996, and was eventually paired with the young Rupilia. Nero and Rupilia then produced three offspring: Lucius, Gaius and Irene. After Nero’s untimely death in 2008, Tiberius was called back from the Los Angeles Zoo and introduced to Rupilia and her offspring (his grandchildren!). More than willing to fill his son’s shoes, Tiberius and Rupilia bred successfully last summer. Now, it will be interesting to see how the old man copes with his return to the forest. Will he be able to help his naïve group learn the ropes of forest locomotion and free ranging, or will he be content to sit on the ground (as he has become accustomed to doing in his early dotage), simply lounging around? At his age he deserves to lounge, but my guess is that he will rise to the occasion and help lead his group (at least as much as any male sifaka is allowed to lead) as they learn the intricacies of free-ranging.

One final interesting fact is that Tiberius and Pyxis both lived in the same enclosure (NHE6E) from the time of Pyxis’ birth in May 1995, until Tiberius’ removal in August 1995. However, it is doubtful that there was any close interaction between the strapping young male sifaka and the infant red-ruffed lemur, as Pyxis’ mother, Galaxy, would have definitely discouraged any investigation by Tiberius or his group of her infant daughter! Since Tiberius and Pyxis now live in adjacent enclosures (NHE 7 and NHE 8), the closest they will come to a reunion is to look across the fence at each other.

For the remainder of this spring and summer, plans call for the introduction of an additional nine lemur groups into the four NHEs surrounding Aty Ala. Here is a brief rundown of which groups will be released into what enclosures in the weeks to follow: NHE 6 (now 4.2 acres) will house a breeding group of black and white ruffed lemurs and their offspring (Kizzy’s group, currently four animals) and a ring-tailed lemur trio with their two offspring (Schroeder’s group). NHE 7 (6 acres) will house Rupilia’s group, and a trio of mongoose lemurs. NHE 8 (6.6 acres) will house Pyxis’ group, a breeding group of collared lemurs and a pair of red bellied lemurs. Finally NHE 9 (3.5 acres) will be comprised of a family group of Coquerel’s sifaka (Drusilla’s group of five animals), a ring-tailed lemur group (Sprite’s with ten animals) and a breeding pair of blue-eyed lemurs (Foster and her mate). Should be an interesting summer to say the least!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Daring Escape Leads Lemurs to School Library Lured by fruit, two ringtailed lemurs are rounded up at Cresset Christian Academy.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Re-printed from Duke News

DURHAM, N.C. -- When the authorities arrived, the fugitives were lounging in the school library, stuffing themselves on a tropical fruit salad that the lunch lady had thoughtfully provided. A gaggle of admiring school girls stood around, snapping cell phone pictures from every angle and offering treats in their palms.

So ended the 36-hour adventure of Berisades and Ivy, a pair of 6-year-old ringtailed lemurs who daringly vaulted the electric fence of Natural Habitat Enclosure #4 at the Duke Lemur Center (DLC) late Saturday.

The first call came in to Duke Police from a neighbor of the Lemur Center who said she saw lemurs eating her neighbor's garden on Saturday night, but it was chalked up as a possible raccoon sighting. Then the two half-brothers failed to show up for brunch on Sunday morning, and the call went out to all Lemur Center staff to drop what they were doing and join the search.

This same pair had experienced a brief breakout the week before when a storm pushed over a tree, forming a bridge over the electric fence, said Greg Dye, Operations Manager of the Lemur Center. "We're still not sure how they did it this time, but let's just say that where there's a will, there must be a way."

DLC staff fanned out in the neighborhoods south of the center rattling their chow buckets, but the search was called off at about 8 p.m. Sunday as a thunderstorm moved through.

It resumed at 6 a.m. Monday and then quickly shifted farther south as a motorist called in to say she'd seen the pair crossing Cornwallis Road on her way to work. Calls started coming in more frequently, many through Durham animal control. One woman called to say they ran through her back yard as she was standing on the deck.

Based on these reports, Dye thinks they made it almost to Mark Jacobson Toyota at Garrett Road and 15-501 before turning around and heading back north.

At about noon, a pair of teenagers helping run the summer camps at Cresset Christian Academy at 3707 Garrett Road spotted the animals in front of the school and alerted preschool teacher Anna White. "I said, 'You guys are absolutely nuts!'" until she saw the lemurs.

The school is a mile and half from the lemur's enclosure as the crow flies, but based on excited reports phoned in from surrounding neighborhoods, they likely traveled a considerable amount more than that.
Together, White and the teens trailed the animals as they worked their way around to the rear of the school, and then somebody had the idea of getting them inside for safe-keeping with a bit of fruit left over from lunch.

"At one point, one of them was sort of lounging in a chair at the table, and somebody put a book in front of it," White said. "I had one eat out of my hand. I never thought to put that on my life list, but I could cross it off now."

Dye arrived shortly before 1 p.m. with a pair of kennel carriers. When they returned to the Lemur Center, "we did a ‘perp walk' and then they had a quick weigh-in and checkup to make sure they were in good health," Dye said.

"They are so grounded," said Lemur Center Director Anne Yoder. The pair will be restricted to an indoor-outdoor style caged enclosure until DLC officials can figure out how they escaped.

"Both boys are of the age when they would normally leave their family group and go out to set up new territories of their own," Yoder said. "That may have been their motivation for hitting the road, so to speak."

Escapes have happened before at the Lemur Center, not always with such happy endings. But the natural habitat enclosures that the animals enjoy are essential to their well-being and natural behavior, explained Colony Manager Andrea Katz. Some DLC lemurs have been repatriated to their native Madagascar, and it's important they don't lose their natural edge.

"They were able to forage and they stayed together while traveling," Dye said. "They did what lemurs do in the wild," including, apparently, striking out in search of young lady lemurs.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Duke Lemur Center Research - a lemur's perspective

Many people may think of research as being the “downside” to life as a captive animal. But that all depends on the kind of research you do! I can see, yes, if you happen to be a rat in a cage in a biomedical facility, you may be a bit nervous when seeing the scientist in the white coat approaching. But that is not what we do here! None of our projects harm the animals, and in fact, many of the lemurs get very excited (in a good way) when they see the researchers approaching. It means interaction. It usually means food. It never means pain. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Dr. Elizabeth Brannon has been conducting a study of numerical cognition in lemurs for several years now, and it involves the use of a touch screen computer. In a variety of trials that test numerical aptitude, the animals select from a series of photos on the computer screen and are rewarded for correct choices. Rather than bring the animals to the computer, the computer was installed in a mobile lemur-proof cart and it is wheeled into their cages for trials. You cannot imagine the glee in their little lemur eyes when the animals see that cart approaching. Not only are the lemurs happy, but this research has produced some fascinating results, showing that lemurs have transitive reasoning abilities, making it likely that the primate ancestor also had higher cognitive abilities than previously thought.
And let me tell you about Teres, a ring-tailed lemur whose female companion moved to another institution. He was depressed and losing weight. He then started participating in a project by Dr. Matthew O’Neill where oxygen consumption was measured as lemurs walked and ran on a treadmill to get an idea of how much energy was expended as they transitioned their gaits. Some lemurs -as some people- are much more inclined to walk on a treadmill than others. Some, in fact, just sit down and ride it to the back. Because this type of research at the DLC requires voluntary animal participation, the latter lemurs quickly earn a pass. Teres, however, took to the treadmill like a fish to water and not only provided an exceptional amount of data which allows us to better understand lemur energetics, he resumed his normal weight and is now living happily with another female, Cleomenis. It just goes to show that getting out, doing a little research, and getting some exercise can have a positive impact on your life. Even if you are a lemur.
We here at the DLC make every effort to come up with ways to make participation in research a form of animal enrichment; generally all it takes is a little creative thinking, positive animal interaction, and a handful of raisins.