For kids: Look at those lemurs!

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

Courtesy of David Haring/Duke University
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.

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?

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.

Four years ago, scientists named a new lemur species, the Avahi cleesei, after Mr. Cleese.

Different types of lemurs

One neat thing about lemurs is their astonishing variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and lifestyles.

The ring-tailed lemur has a long tail with black and white rings. You may have seen this lemur in the animated films "Madagascar" and "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa."

Like most lemurs, ring-tails are active during the day. They are very sociable and prefer to hang out with their buddies. In chilly weather, a group will huddle closely together for warmth. And these little guys love the sun. They will sit upright with their arms and legs stretched out to soak up the sunshine on their stomachs.

But when male lemurs get upset with their pals, they can create a real stink – literally! Ring-tailed lemurs produce a strong odor from scent glands that they rub onto their tails and thrash at their opponents.

One of the most beautiful lemurs is the brown and white Coquerel's sifaka. This lemur leaps from tree to tree and can soar distances up to 20 feet. When they're on the ground, the sifakas, unlike other lemurs, hop on two legs like kangaroos!

Other lemurs are just as interesting. The blue-eyed lemur is the only primate besides humans to have blue-colored eyes, while the lesser mouse lemur is one of the smallest and is active at night.

Oh, what big eyes you have

Just like cats, lemurs have tissue over their retinas that cause their eyes to shine eerily at night. Because of this, the people of Madagascar have always associated lemurs with spirits. In fact, the word lemur means "ghost" in Latin.

In addition to its big, staring eyes, the bizarre aye-aye lemur has huge ears and a long clawlike middle finger that it uses to dig insects out of tree bark. This gives it an especially frightening appearance.

Many native people mistakenly think the aye-aye is evil, says Fidisoa Rasambainarivo, a veterinarian at a zoological park in Toamasina on the east coast of Madagascar.

"Some tribes believe they must be killed," Dr. Rasambainarivo wrote in an e-mail. And in some parts of the country, "tribes still hunt lemurs for human consumption."

But the news isn't all bad.

Other species, such as the indri – the largest lemur – is considered sacred, and it's forbidden to kill one, he says.

One way that some people help protect lemurs is by adopting one from the Duke Lemur Center. No, that doesn't mean they can take a lemur home with them. But those who become involved with the center do help scientists continue their research on these amazing animals.


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