BLACK-AND-WHITE ruffed lemurs from the Duke Primate Center have been reintroduced to Madagascar with mixed success. Many species of lemur are threatened by deforestation on the island, which has only about 13 percent of its original forests. Image: DAVID HARING Duke Primate Center
"Keep your voices down," cautions Lincoln Larson, "because if you get into a shouting match with the lemurs, they will win every time." We are standing beside a series of spacious outdoor cages at the Duke Primate Center in Durham, N.C., staring at three female red-ruffed lemurs and a black-and-white-ruffed male that is housed with them. It is midday in June, and the primates in question are sluggish and for the most part staying in the shade of their sleeping boxes. But soon, as if to prove our guide Larson right, they begin to cry out, something between a growl, a hoot and a chirp. The crescendo of calls is quite loud but subsides quickly before the rest of the lemurs get going.
There are currently 250 or so prosimians--the roots of the term mean "pre-ape" or "pre-monkey"--at the Duke center, mostly lemurs from Madagascar but also bushbabies and lorises from Africa and Asia. Prosimians appeared about 55 million years ago. Because they branched off the line leading to humans and retain some of the characteristics of that common ancestor, they are fascinating to primatologists and other scientists interested in our origins. But they are equally fascinating to those not snooping around the family tree. The 50 or so species--which all evolved from one ancestral lemur that most likely traveled the 250 watery miles from Africa to Madagascar on a tangle of vegetation--are beautiful with their various colors and almost canine faces, intriguing because of their amazing specialization to narrow ecological niches, and highly endangered because of intense deforestation.
This article was originally published with the title A Promenade with Prosimians.