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For kids: Look at those lemurs!

Far from Madagascar, these primates find a home in the US.

By Nick ThomasCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 17, 2009

Hanging out: A Coquerel's sifaka lemur swings from a tree limb. These brown and white lemurs can soar distances of up to 20 feet.

Courtesy of David Haring/Duke University


Perhaps you know that North Carolina is the birthplace of several US presidents. Or maybe you've heard that it's the state where the Wright Brothers first took to the skies in the early 1900s. But did you know it's also home to the largest collection of lemurs outside Madagascar?

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Tucked away in a shady, southeastern corner of the 7,000-acre Duke Forest, lies one of the best kept animal reserve secrets. Here, over 200 lemurs live at the Duke Lemur Center, located on 85 acres on the campus of Duke University, in Durham, N.C.

Far from home

Sporting their characteristic big, round eyes, lemurs are frisky ancient relatives of monkeys and apes, and belong to a separate group of primates called prosimians.

In the wild, they normally live far away from the United States, on the island of Madagascar, which is located about 250 miles from the southeast coast of Africa.

Duke obtained a small group of lemurs from Yale University in the 1960s, says Anne Yoder, director of the Lemur Center. Since then, the population has grown and is now home to babies and grandbabies from the original colony.

"Originally, they were studied for their behavior," says Dr. Yoder.

But now, the center strives to do more. One of the key missions is to help protect lemurs from becoming extinct, or disappearing from the animal kingdom.

Many of Madagascar's 80 lemur species are endangered or facing extinction. That's why it's important to teach people about these remarkable animals and how to protect them.

The center also conducts research to study the animals' habitat and breeding habits to help prevent them from becoming extinct.

Perhaps the best part of the Duke Lemur Center is that anyone can visit. Although the center doesn't have regular hours that it's open to the public, people can schedule a tour.

"It was amazing seeing the animals up close," says 10-year-old Adriana Lorenzini, who went to the center with her school class. "It was like we were in the wilds of Madagascar, but we were in North Carolina!"

John Cleese, a British comedian, developed a fondness for lemurs more than 50 years ago when he saw them in a zoo. He later made a documentary film about some of Duke's lemurs that were released back into the Madagascar rain forest. This was the first time that lemurs bred in captivity had been released back into the wild.