When I give tours of the lemur center, I can anticipate many of the questions since I have been asked the same ones many times. They are all perfectly good questions that I am always more than happy to answer, like questions about details of animal care at the center or the center’s history. Sometimes, I’ll get more pointed questions for which my answers are not so rehearsed. For these, I do not always have easy answers or easily delivered answers. On a recent tour that I led for scientists and science journalists (a.k.a. people who know how to ask questions!), somebody asked one of those hard questions, in fact one of the hardest I’ve had to answer. I had been talking about natural history traits and the research that occurs at the center when the question came:
Many lemurs are endangered. How does studying lemurs in these cells help them? If your goal is to protect lemurs in the wild, how can what you learn from them in a cage translate to helping protect them?
Ooh, tough question. I stammered, diving into my brain for everything I know about lemurs, research and conservation looking for that good-sounding answer. My initial thought was about understanding behavior within their environment, but as the guest pointed out, the difference between the wild and the cells is big. I tried again and surfaced with the idea that we simply want to know everything we can about lemurs. I added that research also tries to understand primate evolution since we are also primates. Good answer, but not great.
That question has continued to haunt me, probably because I’ve wondered about it on my own. How does a study on the different rates of growth between male and female lorises at different times of their life1 contribute to reducing habitat-destruction, increasing numbers in the wild or ending the loris pet trade? How does learning that the aye-aye’s middle finger heats up while foraging and cools down when inactive contribute to reducing cultural stigma and decreasing forest loss from agriculture?
Answering this question became my personal homework. The truth is that this is the nature of scientific inquiry. The “point” of scientific research is to explore the frontiers of knowledge on subjects which we know very little or nothing about despite the immediate application. We cannot foresee what discoveries, compounded on each other, will lead to breakthroughs in the foreseeable or unforeseeable future.
The variety of research – behavioral, cognitive, biological, genomic, ecological, conservation, and more – ongoing at the lemur center and in Madagascar attests to this idea. The lemur center is pushing the boundaries of research in many arenas because it is the composite nature of science that will inform the next conservation objectives in Madagascar. I’ll give a hypothetical example: Let’s say research showed that Coquerel’s sifakas preferred trees with small trunks in diameter for moving around, and a separate study showed that small trees were prime targets for woodcutters looking for charcoal. As individual studies, we might ask why it matters that sifakas prefer small trees based on trials in a cell at the Duke Lemur Center, or that people cut small trees first. Taken together we understand that with small trees disappearing, sifakas lose their prime habitat, and we can prioritize these areas for conservation. Although I used a hypothetical example here, researchers are putting together the pieces in real life too. Research on chewing and eating particular types of foods2 conducted at the lemur center may one day be correlated with research on the reduced availability of prime resources due to climate change3. Such conclusions would give even more reasons to reduce our carbon footprint. Each scientific study contributes to advancing the body of scientific knowledge; combined, they allow us to take action.
How does studying lemurs outside their natural environment contribute to their conservation? That’s a great question, and I think I’ll be ready next time it rolls around.
Have a question or comment? Leave it here or find me on Twitter @EnvEdChris. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
1: O’Mara, M. T., A. D. Gordon, et al. (2012). “Growth and the development of sexual size dimorphism in lorises and galagos.” AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY 147(1): 11-20.
2: Ross, C. F., R. L. Washington, et al. (2009). “Ecological consequences of scaling of chew cycle duration and daily feeding time in Primates.” Journal of Human Evolution 56(6): 570-585.
3: Wright, P. (2006). Considering Climate Change Effects in Lemur Ecology and Conservation. Lemurs: Ecology and Adaptation. L. Gould and M. Sauther: 385-401.