The Allure of Lemurs

Rachna Reddy learns from lemurs and charging bull elephants

Part of the Lemur & Primate Studies Series
Rachna Reddy and a primate acquaintance in Uganda.
Rachna Reddy and a primate acquaintance in Uganda.

When a high school student picks a college, they don't always know what to look for, or what they might get out of one campus experience versus another. But choose they must, for whatever reason, and it often ends up setting their path for life.

Rachna Reddy, who graduates in May with a bachelor's degree in evolutionary anthropology and an impressive resume of experiences, admits that she chose Duke in part because it had a Lemur Center.

"I always loved animals, to the point of being obsessed with them," says the 21-year-old from Port Huron, Mich. "But I thought I'd be a writer because I didn't know of anything you could do with animals besides being a veterinarian."

She was indeed a writer at Duke. Her first story for the student paper was about a lemur, Ichabod, the newborn baby aye-aye. Reddy rose through the ranks to be a health and science editor of the Chronicle as a sophomore and, as a senior, co-editor of the Towerview magazine.  "I loved the adrenaline rush of the newsroom," she says. "I got to teach new writers and develop them."

But she also quickly learned that there's more to studying animals than being a vet. Through a stroke of remarkable luck, she signed on to the lab of new faculty member Brian Hare after meeting graduate student Evan MacLean at a job fair in the fall of her freshman year.

"We were lucky that our lab was just starting up around the time she arrived, and she was one of the reasons we were able to hit the ground running," MacLean says. "I could take her to the Lemur Center, teach her a few things and turn her loose with complete confidence.  The next time I would have a moment to work with her again, she would be (unknowingly) teaching me. "

A research path for the undergrad was set.  As a junior, Reddy spent four months in Kruger National Park in South Africa  studying plant and insect communities.

"I just got really into insects while I was in Kruger." Specifically dung beetles. "It was weird," she says. "I got really into everything, in fact." Seeing six leopards, one of which is in the act of making lunch out of a cute little steenbok antelope, will do that to a person. Getting charged by a bull elephant will too.

"It happened in slow mo," Reddy recalls of the afternoon she and some friends came around the bend in a road and found themselves face-to-face with a tusky pachyderm 10 meters away. "I couldn't remember the proper response. We stood our ground at first, but then all of a sudden, everybody was running. They say you're supposed to drop something, but all I had was my computer. So yeah, I dropped it. I thought I was going to die." She wrote a column about the elephant's charge for the Chronicle.

With Hare's help making a connection, Reddy also spent a semester in Uganda tracking chimpanzees 13 hours a day and making detailed behavioral notes in the style of Jane Goodall. After she came home, the research team named one of the Ugandan chimps Rachna.

Reddy was back to the Lemur Center for her senior thesis, a study of whether yawning is as contagious among our primate cousins as it is among humans, chimps and old world monkeys. But so far, the answer is no, she says. Watching a video of other red-ruffed lemurs yawning does nothing for them, but they'll respond with alarm to the image of a fox, so she knows they understand what's on the TV.

"Rachna's been the kind of student who makes mentoring fun," MacLean says. "And she has turned into a natural mentor for the younger students in our lab. There have been moments in the last year or so when we're in a seminar or lab meeting and you can just watch people listening to her, recognizing what an expert she has become through her education at Duke."

Reddy is sticking around Durham this summer, except for possibly working with service dogs in California, and then returns in the fall as a research associate in the Hare Lab for probably a year before taking a shot at graduate school in anthropology.  It all flows from that lucky break at the job fair.

"You don't realize it's the start of something at the time it's happening," Reddy says.