Not Just Any Prosimians

June 1, 2006
Taking center stage: ring-tailed lemurs

Taking center stage: ring-tailed lemurs. Duke University Photography

Duke's forty-year-old home for primates is getting a makeover and a new name, the Duke Lemur Center, to reflect "a refocusing of our scientific goals and overall mission," says Anne Yoder, the center's director.

Although the lemur center houses several types of prosimians, a suborder of primates, lemurs are the stars. "It makes sense to rename the center," Yoder says. "Its unique value lies with its collection of lemurs, which is the largest outside of their native Madagascar, an island off the southeast coast of Africa. We want to leverage this resource to benefit science.

"Our new emphasis positions lemurs as models of primate biology and evolution," Yoder says. "Lemurs are complex creatures, and their unique biology, combined with their similarities to other primates, makes them an ideal model."

red ruffed lemur

Red ruffed lemur. Duke University Photography

Lemurs are the closest living representatives of the kinds of animals from which humans evolved. As part of its new research focus, the center is collaborating with the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy to establish a Duke Lemur Genome Initiative. According to the institute's director, Huntington F. Willard, one goal of the joint effort is to develop a toolkit of genome markers, distinctive segments of DNA that serve as landmarks for specific genes.

"With a standardized toolkit of genome markers, researchers should be able to greatly speed up efforts in working out the evolutionary trees of these animals," Willard says. "This will greatly assist lemur conservation efforts, as well as enhance understanding of our own evolution." Center biologists also will be able to use the genetic tools to develop active breeding programs.

Lemurs can help scientists in other research efforts. Peter Klopfer, professor emeritus of biology, and Andrew Krystal, director of the Duke Sleep Disorders Clinic, are studying hibernation in dwarf lemurs, which are the only primates to exhibit this trait. Their research may be useful to organizations such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which is interested in examining the possibility of using hibernation mechanisms to prolong human sleep during long space flights.

In other work, Elizabeth Brannon, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Duke, has been using lemurs to probe the connection between linguistic ability and conceptualizating numbers, running experiments in which lemurs interact with computer touch screens.

To support the center's reinvigoration, Duke is allocating roughly $8 million to improve and expand its facilities, facilitating year-round observation. At least one of three planned new buildings will be devoted to large social groups in which animals can reproduce freely (many animals are now on contraception). The substantial space and the numbers of animals will allow authentic social interactions.

To complement its research activities, the center also will get a new building geared to public-outreach efforts. Heather Thomas, the center's tour coordinator, plans to develop a new exhibit featuring a replica of a Malagasy field researcher's hut. "The planned exhibit will be a reconstruction of a field station down to the tiniest detail--excluding the mosquitoes," Yoder says. "We expect the exhibit to help children make a connection. They will be able to imagine themselves there. They'll think, 'I want to do that.' "