Lemurs Get Their Day

The Duke community celebrates World Lemur Day with a lesson in species conservation

In honor of World Lemur Day on Oct. 29, the Duke Lemur Center invited a virtual audience to brunch with the rare animals. On the menu: nuts and mixed greens.

The morning feeding session took place at the research center housed in the Duke Forest, where – during the warm months of the year – lemurs bound through more than 80 acres of woods. Founded in 1966, the center is now home to more than 200 lemurs representing 14 different species, making it the most diverse colony of lemurs outside of Madagascar.

“What we learn here in captivity helps us to understand what the animals are doing in the wild and vice versa,” said Britt Keith, animal curator at the Duke Lemur Center, who manages the lemur breeding program and led part of Friday’s special feeding session.


Conservation of Lemurs

About 95 percent of lemurs are considered endangered, and the primary threat to lemur species is deforestation because of economic activities such as subsistence agriculture and mining.

“The majority of deforestation is a result of Madagascar being one of the 10 poorest nations in the world,” said Faye Goodwin, lead education specialist at the Duke Lemur Center, during the event. “People are really just trying to find any way they can to survive and feed their families.”

Other pressures to the animals include poaching and hunting, as well as climate change and extreme weather events.

lemur facts
“The instability in climate causes an increase in human and animal conflicts,” Goodwin said.

The colony at the Lemur Center is bred from a lineage of ancestors from Madagascar, and the center follows recommendations from zoological societies for breeding each year.

From observing the lemurs in the colony, researchers are learning what foods the animals prefer, which trees are needed for habitat, where the animals like to nest with their babies, and more. This knowledge helps improve the chances of wild populations, too, Keith said.

A sifaka munches on a treat plucked from the Lemur Center grounds. Photo by Jared Lazarus
Some species of lemurs can live for 35 years or more, and the animals at the center benefit from good veterinary care. But while providing a long-term home for the primates – which, like monkeys and apes, are cousins to humans – staff have a “hands-off” policy with the animals.

“We don't pet the animals, we don't pick them up, and we don't let them ride around in our shoulders,” Keith said. “We feel that those really inappropriate behaviors for wild animals to do with human beings.”


A Study in Evolution

Like other great natural experiments in evolution, the lemurs’ history of isolation has offered an unusual scientific glimpse.

The earliest lemur ancestors arrived on the Madagascar 60 million years ago. Those first animals enjoyed a wide range of habitat on the island – forest, desert and savannah – and few competitors or predators.  

“It's kind of like landing in Oz and everything is open for the taking,” Goodwin said.

This allowed for adaptive radiation, a process where a species rapidly diversifies, when all of the lemur species were able to find homes in these different ecosystems without competition, Goodwin said.

A research division at the Duke Lemur Center is also exploring how that historic process may have occurred through the fossil record.

Today, there are more than 125 species of lemurs to celebrate.

To learn more about lemurs, watch the virtual visit to the Duke Lemur Center (above) and follow World Lemur Day on social media with the hashtag #WorldLemurDay.