Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Category: Lemurs (Page 2 of 4)

Underwater Cave is a Lemur Treasure Trove

Guest post by Gregg Gunnell, Division of Fossil Primates

(A version of this column originally appeared in the Duke Lemur Center newsletter)

Lagerstätten – that word sends a shiver of excitement up and down the spine of every paleontologist.

In German the word means ‘storage place’ or ‘deposits,’ but in paleontology it has come to mean a very rich fossil deposit that contains complete or nearly complete specimens that sample a wide variety of the creatures living at a certain time.

cave diver

A cave diver and subfossil specimen in Aven Cave, Madagascar. The plastic triangle is a scale for photographs of the specimen in situ. (Image by Phillip Lehman and Pietro Donaggio-Bitner)

As you might imagine, Lagerstätten are quite rare. Some of the more famous examples are the Burgess Shale in Canada which preserves soft body outlines of ancient (530 million years ago) Cambrian animals; the Jurassic (150 Ma) Solenhofen limestones in Germany where the famous Archaeopteryx is found; and the middle Eocene (45 Ma) Messel Oil Shale in Germany which preserves whole skeletons of many birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.

I have had the good fortune to be in on the discovery of two Lagerstätten in addition to studying specimens from two others. The first one our team discovered was in 1998 in Pakistan, a place we named Gandhera Quarry. It preserves a remarkable wealth of early Eocene (52 Ma) mammals from Balochistan Province – an assemblage that has yet to completely studied.

But the latest and most exciting to me as Director of the Division of Fossil Primates in the Duke Lemur Center happened late last year in Southwest Madagascar.

The discovery of subfossils at a place called Aven Cave was known to local people, but not reported to the scientific community until an Australian cave diver named Ryan Dart saw it. The cave and its specimens are underwater. The specimens are called subfossils, because they aren’t old enough to have completed (or in some cases even started) the fossilization process.

A joint team from the University of Antananarivo, Duke University, University of Massachusetts, Brooklyn College and Midwestern University led an expedition to this cave site in October 2014. Cave divers Phillip Lehman  and the Dominican Republic Speleological Society dive team helped us find a treasure trove of subfossils.

lemur skulls

Lemur skulls, as they were found in the cave, with a scale marker. (Photo courtesy of Phillip Lehman and Pietro Donaggio-Bitner)

Only a preliminary survey has been made of Aven Cave to date, but it is clear already that it is one of the richest subfossil sites ever discovered in Madagascar. The initial list of animal specimens found in the cave includes three genera of extinct lemurs (Pachylemur, Mesopropithecus, and Megaladapis) as well as one species of a living form, Lemur catta, the familiar ring-tailed lemur. In addition to the primates there are abundant specimens of bats (Hipposideros), carnivores (the extinct fossa Cryptoprocta spelea as well as a smaller, still living species, C. ferox), two species of rodents, an extinct pygmy hippopotamus, crocodiles, turtles, and two bird species including the extinct elephant bird Mullerornis.

Not only is there a diverse assembly of species coming from Aven Cave, the sample is also abundant, with many species represented by multiple specimens. Many specimens appear to be complete or nearly complete skeletons.

The expedition was aided by Mr. Lovasoa Dresy, the director of Tsimanampetsotsa National Park, and was generously supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society.

We anticipate many more and surprising discoveries in the future. Stay tuned for updates from Aven Cave!

Mouse Lemur Quandary Stumps Researchers

By Sheena Faherty, Ph.D. Candidate in Biology

What does famous lemur researcher, Dame Alison Richard, do when she has a burning question she can’t answer?

She visits Duke and appeals to a room full of lemur enthusiasts to help out.

Richard’s question concerns the curious case of the mouse lemurs at Beza Mahafaly in southwestern Madagascar, where she has been involved in a wildlife-monitoring program since the mid-1990s.

Alison Richard (left) and Lemur Center Director Anne Yoder (right) lead a discussion in the 'Beach House' at DLC.

Alison Richard (left) and Lemur Center Director Anne Yoder (right) lead a discussion in the ‘Beach House’ at DLC.

“What do I know about mouse lemurs?” she questioned a group that gathered at the Duke Lemur Center on March 3 as the first of three talks she held at Duke this week as part of the Von der Heyden Fellows Program. “Probably less than you do. But I am incredibly interested in what is going on with them at Beza Mahafaly.”

Everywhere else in Madagascar, mouse lemurs that look indistinguishable are classified as different species due to big variations at the genetic level. But at Beza Mahafaly, Richard is finding that mouse lemurs with major deviations in appearance are genetically the same.

Dame Alison Richard (Photo: HHMI)

Dame Alison Richard (Photo: HHMI)

For a long time, the general view was that there were two species of mouse lemur in the forests of Beza Mahafaly : the gray-brown mouse lemur and the gray mouse lemur (both being exceptionally adorable).

A few studies in the mid-1990s and early 2000s compared the shapes of certain features such as jawbone shape and leg length, and confirmed this view. Then, researchers started noticing a few trapped animals that had very noticeable differences in coat coloration. These animals were redder than the other two known species. Was this a possible third species?

In 2006, Duke Lemur Center Director, Anne Yoder, and her former Ph.D. student Kellie Heckman examined this same population of mouse lemurs from a genetic standpoint. Comparing sequences of DNA they expected to find major genetic differences between the two known species, and possibly confirm the existence of a third species.

“The genetic data was a disaster for the mouse lemurs,” Richard said.

All the samples collected from animals at Beza Mahafaly, regardless of the animal’s outward appearance, sorted together and seemed to be one species.

Dame Alison and the bedeviled mouse lemur of Beza Mahafaly

Dame Alison and the bedeviled mouse lemur of Beza Mahafaly

“There’s a part of me that’s very distressed about this, but there’s a part of me that thinks this is great,” Richard said. “At Beza Mahafaly we swim upstream. We’re contrarians,” she said laughing. “But we still don’t know how to best explain the diversity that we do see.”

She offered up some suggestions: A glimpse of an ongoing process of change? A replacement by one species over another? The beginning of a new species?

Flashing a picture of a mouse lemur displaying ominous eye shine from a headlamp, she said: “The mouse lemurs are waiting with an evil gleam in their eye to be told the truth about themselves. The question is how should we take this forward?”

Madagascar’s Conservation Superhero to Visit Campus

Guest Post By Sheena Faherty, Ph.D. Candidate in Biology

Dame Alison Richard is the epitome of someone who puts her money where her mouth is. And her dedication is directed precisely where it’s needed most.

Richard, a protector of lemurs, artisanal salt entrepreneur and endless optimist, is not just doing something about Madagascar’s conservation crisis. She’s doing everything about it.

Alison Richard (Photo: HHMI)

Alison Richard (Photo: HHMI)

She’ll visit Duke March 3-5 to give three-part lecture series discussing her role in over forty years of community-based conservation efforts in Madagascar.

Members of the Duke community know all too well that our beloved lemurs— many of which can only be found at the Duke Lemur Center or in Madagascar—are in dire straights.

Their plight has been a life’s work for Richard, who is best known for her research on sifakas in the spiny forests of Madagascar.  But she also lays claim to having been the first female vice-chancellor at Cambridge. She has now returned to Yale, where she spent most of her career, as a senior research scientist and professor emerita.

“Sometimes I think that because I’m covering so many bases, I end up doing nothing very well,” Richard said. “But it’s what I do and I can’t imagine not doing any of them—so it’s too bad,” she said laughing.

Richard is a conservationist who understands that without considering the local people’s well-being, all attempts to save wildlife habitats will fail.

“There are a variety of ways in which we are trying to facilitate socio-economic enhancements to people’s lives,” Richard said. “[On a recent trip to Madagascar] I met with the association of women salt producers, who are producing artisanal salt by techniques that have been in place for hundreds of years.”

In collaboration with a start-up company that is highly focused on sustainability, she recently shipped the first 500 kilos of the Madagascan salt to the U.S.

Verreaux's Sifaka, a favorite of Richard's in Southwestern Madagascar. (Credit: Flickr user nomis-simon, CC)

Verreaux’s Sifaka, a favorite of Richard’s in Southwestern Madagascar. (Credit: Flickr user nomis-simon, CC)

Taking time away from protecting the lemurs and enhancing the lives of the Malagasy people, Richard said her Duke lectures will have broad appeal for anyone interested in conservation, or for those who just enjoy seeing adorable pictures of lemurs.

She hopes to focus on writing a book, the topic of which will draw from her public lecture on March 5 at 6:00 pm at the Great Hall of the Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans Center for Health Education. This lecture is set to explore how an array of different sciences has changed our understanding of Madagascar’s history.

And the conservationist who said she does everything has some advice for conserving her own mental sanity.

“One thing I need to do going forward is to find things to stop doing,” she admits. “And I’m not good at that because they are all too interesting and seemingly too important,” she said.

So, what’s next for Alison Richard?

“More of doing everything!” she said.

Richard's installation as vice chancellor of Cambridge in November 2009 was occasioned by a visit from  her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who's husband, Prince Philip, is the chancellor.

Richard’s installation as vice chancellor of Cambridge in November 2009 was occasioned by a visit from her majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who’s husband, Prince Philip, is the chancellor.

Scents Are Key to Lemur Nightlife

LEMUR SUPERPOWER #457:  Some lemurs can safely digest cyanide in amounts sufficient to kill an elephant. Others can enter hibernation-like states to survive periods when food and water are in short supply. To add to their list of superpowers, lemurs also have especially keen powers of scent.

Buried in the nose of Fuggles the mouse lemur are specialized pheromone receptors that help her distinguish friend from foe in the dark of night, when mouse lemurs are active.

By Robin Ann Smith

If you could pick one superpower, consider taking inspiration from lemurs. Some lemurs can safely digest cyanide in amounts that would kill an elephant. Others can enter hibernation-like states to survive periods when food and water are in short supply. Still others have keen powers of scent, with the ability to find mates and avoid enemies in the darkness by smell alone.

Research by biologist and Duke Lemur Center director Anne Yoder suggests that the molecular machinery for sniffing out pheromones — much of which has gone defunct in humans and many other primates — is still alive and well in lemurs and lorises, our distant primate cousins.

Lemurs use scents to mark the boundaries of their territories, distinguish males from females and figure out whether another animal is friend or foe. When a lemur gets a whiff of another animal, specialized pheromone receptors in the lining of the nose transmit the information to the brain, triggering instinctive urges like mating, defense and avoiding predators.

The receptors are proteins encoded by a family of genes called V1Rs. First identified in rats in the mid-1990s, V1R genes are found in animals ranging from lampreys to humans. But the proportion of these pheromone-detection genes that actually functions varies greatly from one species to the next, Yoder said last week in a roundtable discussion hosted by Duke’s Science & Society program.

Randy the ring-tailed lemur scent-marks his territory. Photo by David Haring.

Randy the ring-tailed lemur scent-marks his territory. Photo by David Haring.

Studies suggest that as much as 90% to 100% of the pheromone-detection genes in humans consist of disabled pieces of DNA, called pseudogenes.

“Our pheromone-detection genes are so boring — we don’t have many of them, and almost all of them are broken,” Yoder said.

But in lemurs and lorises — whose ancestors split off from the rest of the primate family tree more than 60 million years ago — the proportion of pheromone-detection genes that is still intact is much higher.

In a study published this year, Yoder and colleagues analyzed the DNA of 19 species and subspecies of lemurs and lorises, looking for subtle differences in their V1R genes. They found that one group — the mouse lemurs — has the highest proportion of intact V1R sequences of any mammal yet studied.

To find out which genes are linked to which scents, Yoder and her colleagues plan to take DNA sequences from pheromone-detecting genes in lemurs, insert them into mice, and expose the mice to different scents to see how they respond.

An ability to sniff out the right mates — and avoid being seduced by the wrong suitors — may have served as a mating barrier that allowed lemur species to diverge after arriving in their island home of Madagascar, helping to explain how the more than 70 living species of lemurs came to be, Yoder says.

Chimpanzee Voices From the Past Go Digital, Open Access

By Karl Leif Bates

A treasure trove of chimpanzee audio recordings from the 1970s has been posted on an open access site for study by a team that includes Evolutionary Anthropology chair Anne Pusey, who also directs Duke’s Jane Goodall Institute Research Center.

An image from the  Scientific Data paper shows the bulky, analog field gear used for making recordings in the 70s.

An image from the Scientific Data paper shows the bulky, analog field gear used for making recordings in the 70s.

Announced this week in the open access journal Scientific Data, the collection includes more than 1,100 recordings made of 17 immature chimpanzees, totaling 10 hours. The recordings were made between 1971 and 1973 by the late Hetty van de Rijt-Plooij and Frans X. Plooij, Dutch researchers working at Goodall’s study site in Gombe National Park, Tanzania.

Though the Plooij collection was catalogued and annotated — notes which Frans then translated from Dutch to English with support from the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham — the massive collection has never been studied. Preparation of the metadata for the audio recordings was supported by the National Science Foundation (LTREB-1052693).

What the newly digitized recordings represent is the opportunity to study the development of vocalization over a chimpanzee’s lifetime, Pusey explained. Many of the individuals who were recorded as infants and adolescents subsequently turn up in recordings made by Peter Marler in 1967, Charlotte Uhlenbroek in 1991–1993, and Lisa O’Bryan in 2009–2010.

The authors say, “comparing their adult recordings with their infant/juvenile recordings might be an especially effective way of studying vocal development.”

They’re also just kind of fun to listen to. (Browse the entire catalog here.)

Jane Goodall visited Anne Pusey and the archive of Gombe field notes at Duke in 2011. (Duke Photo)

Jane Goodall visited Anne Pusey and the archive of Gombe field notes at Duke in 2011. (Duke Photo)

This work is the latest in a trend of Duke becoming one of the world’s great centers of longitudinal primate studies. Pusey’s work on this audio collection joins the more than 50 years of observational notes and data from Gombe now housed at Duke; Susan Alberts has led the assembly of life history data from nine different primate field studies into a single database. And nearly 50 years of captive lemur data from the Duke Lemur Center was digitized and just posted a few weeks ago. (Pro version on Scientific Data.)

Some Animals Move Through The Treetops With Help From A Stiff Back

Guest post from Robin A. Smith, Duke Lemur Center

Some tree-dwelling animals move through the forest with the help of an unlikely tool — a stiff back. A more rigid spine seems to help  stabilize their trunks as they reach across gaps in the canopy, according to Duke researchers.

Slender Loris

The slender loris (Loris tardigradus) is able to exploit tender tips of tree branches by moving slowly and keeping a stiff back rather than leaping from branch to branch. (Credit: David Haring, Duke Lemur Center)

The findings appear in the March 2014 issue of the Journal of Morphology.

Animals that live in the treetops need to be good at crossing gaps between trees in order to move and forage in the canopy without constantly climbing up and down. Some animals leap, hop or bound from branch to branch, flying through the forest in a feat of aerial acrobatics. But others move more slowly and deliberately, reaching out and grabbing onto the tips of the nearest tree to form a bridge and pulling themselves across.

The latter strategy helps some animals venture onto slender branch tips where young leaves and fruits are often found –- perches that are too thin and delicate to leap off without buckling, said lead author Michael Granatosky, a grad student in Evolutionary Anthropology.

To investigate the anatomical traits that help some animals bridge rather than bound between branches, Granatosky and colleagues pored over skeletons in museums and took measurements of the spines and ribs of 22 species — including lemurs, treeshrews, anteaters, opossums and squirrels. Some of the species move slowly and cautiously through the treetops, while others leap and jump.

The researchers also analyzed the bridging behavior of two pairs of closely-related species — the bare-tailed woolly opossum versus the gray short-tailed opossum, and the fat-tailed dwarf lemur versus the slender loris — while the animals negotiated custom-made jungle gyms.

The opossum study was part of a previous experiment by co-authors Daniel Schmitt and Pierre Lemelin at Duke, and the primate study was conducted at the Duke Lemur Center.

The researchers found that the species that bridged more often, or for longer periods of time, had narrower spaces between adjacent ribs and vertebrae.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VA8diXNvffY?rel=0]

Their more tightly-woven spines limit their ability to bend side-to-side, but enable them to hold their body out straight to span openings in the canopy without relying on brute muscle strength alone, Granatosky said.

The study was funded by the Force and Motion Foundation and by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to Michael Granatosky.

CITATION: “Functional and evolutionary aspects of axial stability in Euarchontans and other mammals,” Granatosky, M., et al. Journal of Morphology, March 2014. DOI: 10.1002/jmor.20216. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jmor.20216/abstract

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