The animated movie Madagascar will be more than summer fun to Duke scientists. Conservation scientist Luke Dollar '95, M.S. '05, who studies the fossa, the island's top predator, sees the movie as drawing much-needed attention to the plight of Madagascar's endangered species. Cognitive neuroscientist Elizabeth Brannon sees the movie as highlighting the island's extraordinary lemurs, whose intelligence, she says, is far greater than previously believed.
Officials at Duke's Primate Center hope the movie will attract additional attention to the center's work, as well as interest in the fascinating array of lemur species that populate the island.
According to Dollar, time may be running out for the real-life counterparts of the lemurs, fossas, and other endangered animals featured in the film. "Right now, the sword of Damocles is hanging over Madagascar," Dollar says. The undisturbed forests that many of the island nation's species need to survive are being burned for charcoal or cleared for subsistence farming by islanders driven by extreme poverty. "If you stop the clearing, you consign the islanders to a life of even greater poverty," he says. "If you don't stop it, you consign some of the world's rarest species to extinction."
About 85 percent of the country's plants and animals are endemic to the island--you won't find them in the wild anywhere else in the world, he notes. Some could be lost within five years if the clearing continues at the current pace.
Dollar is a doctoral candidate at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. He has spent five of the last ten years in Madagascar tracking the fossa, an elusive relative of the mongoose that has a fearsome reputation as a hunter. Though fossas weigh only about twenty-five pounds at maturity, they've been known to kill and eat bush pigs three times that size. Today, only about 2,500 of the carnivorous, cat-like creatures sur-vive.
Dollar wants the movie to increase public interest in fossas and the island's other rare species. "We're hoping for a Free Willy phenomenon," he says, referring to a 1993 children's movie that triggered widespread public interest in whales. "If moviegoers leave the theater thinking, 'Madagascar--what a wild place--we need to save it,' then we might be able to start generating more support to turn things around."
The island's unique wildlife, its tropical beaches, and its current pro-environment government make it a good candidate to become one of the next hot eco-tourism destinations, Dollar says, despite its rudimentary infrastructure and isolated location off the east coast of Africa. "This is one of the ten places everyone should see before they die," he says. "It's one of the strangest, most endangered ecosystems on Earth--the only place where we're still discovering and describing new species nearly every month."
Brannon, meanwhile, has mounted new experiments revealing that lemurs--once believed to be primitive, ancient offshoots of the primate family tree--are indeed intelligent creatures. Using touchscreens, Plexiglas boxes holding raisins, and buckets hiding grapes, Brannon wants to establish that ringtail and mongoose lemurs possess a surprising ability to learn sequences of pictures and to discriminate quantities. While her work is at a preliminary stage, its initial results have led her to believe that such studies could mark the dawning of a new appreciation of lemur intelligence.
The Primate Center, which houses only prosimians--lemurs, lorises, and galagos--is home to the world's largest collection of endangered primate species. It currently houses about 250 animals of fifteen species. They include ringtails, the popular species depicted in the animated film, and a real-life celebrity, a Coquerel's sifaka named Jovian who plays the central lemur character, "Zoboo," in the popular children's television series Zoboomafoo.