Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lemurs! Aye-ayes! Mammal woodpeckers!????!

Prepare to be assaulted by cute pictures and amazing discoveries! By the end of this post you will never look at the mammal world in the same way.

As I walked into the lemur enclosure during my discovery-filled visit to the Duke Lemur Center as part of the Science Online 2012 conference, I was impressed not only with the lemurs' musky odor but also with their piercing eyes. So intense, so seemingly interested!

Coquerel's Sifaka (mother and child) living large at the Duke Lemur Center. via their Blog

I was privileged with such an up-close view because the lemurs were in their indoor/outdoor enclosures to escape the chilly North Carolina winters. Lemurs are accustomed to the warmer tropical climate of their home island Madagascar. 

The Duke Lemur Center houses the largest colony of lemurs outside of this island nation, and as part of their research and conservation efforts they make sure their lemurs have ample opportunity to "make the sex" (procreate). In fact, I visited in January at the very heart of Coquerel's Sifaka birth season. This unstoppably cute Coquerel's Sifaka baby was born just days before I visited.

I dare you to find a cuter pro-simian primate picture!! via Duke Lemur Center Blog.

Understandably, they wouldn't let me anywhere near the babies, but they did show me these two photos. The puffball of adorableness on the left is a pygmy slow loris (not a lemur, but related) and the craziness on the right is my favorite lemur, an aye-aye. Can you believe the contrast?!

Baby Battle: Pygmy Slow Loris vs. Aye-aye

Cute/crazy-looking babies are only the beginning of the wonders of the lemur world. By studying lemurs' DNA and that of other primates, scientists can tell that lemurs and other African primates parted evolutionary ways around 65 million years ago. Here is what earth looked like back then. No Himalayas!

This was long after Madagascar split off from mainland Africa around 160 million years ago. This fact along with some fossil evidence from Madagascar means that lemurs must have somehow traveled to the island from eastern Africa. The current best guess for how that happened is on rafts of floating vegetation (ref). That's right! Imagine relaxing one sunny day on a luxurious but tenuously attached riverside vegetation mat and BAM, you're off to Madagascar where your DNA will help form a brand new primate suborder.

Madagascar's isolation, diverse range of habitats, and lack of big scary predators have allowed lemurs to evolve into a crazy variety of ecological niches--some not typically associated with mammals. This is why the aye-aye is my favorite lemur, because it is the woodpecker of the mammal world.

Not a mammal. via WrenWorks.

The main adaptations it has developed in order to fill this niche are its crazy big ears...

57-day old baby aye-aye. via Duke Lemur Center Blog.

...crazy big teeth...

Aye-aye skeleton. Crazy big teeth. Aye-ayes are the only primate whose teeth continue to grow throughout their lives. This caused scientists to initially misclassify them as rodents instead of primates. via Mammalian Species.

...and crazy long thin fingers.

Look at those fingers! via David Haring.

Notice the extra creep-tacular middle finger! The aye-aye uses this terrific trio of adaptations to tap on trees and listen/feel for the hollow tunnels made underneath the bark by wood-boring beetle larvae. Once located, they gnaw their way in...

Intently gnawing aye-aye. via David Haring.

...and extract their meal with their extra spooky finger (extra spooky stare optional).

Aye-ayes! Woodpeckers of the mammal world! They're AMAZING! In case you remain unconvinced of their awesomeness, I leave you with this:


  1. EVOLUTION IS SO INSANE! Like, why didn't evolution select for the index finger to be the skinny one? Or for all of the fingers to be skinny?

    The story of the lemurs floating to Madagascar reminds me of Polynesians who ended up on Easter Island - how a lot of them left their home islands on canoes over a long period of time, and how most of them probably starved to death. Presumably only a few lucky lemurs made it to Madagascar, and lots more died in the process, right? I wonder if a certain level of suicidal recklessness is built into some successful species - bad for some individuals, but very very good for a lucky few.

    1. Yeah, excellent connection! I really struggle to imaging what was going through the polynesians' minds as they set off into the blue abyss! Presumably a bit more than what was going through the lemurs' minds as they did the same? Who knows.

      There's of course no way to know for sure how many lemurs died floating to madagascar, but presumably lots. The mozambique channel b/w Africa and Madagascar was 350-750 miles wide at the time. Luckily for the lemurs, the climate was different then than it is today, resulting in a prevailing ocean current leading TO Madagascar from Africa, but the voyage must have taken forever.

      The CRAZIEST part is that some living lemur species are able to go into a state of torpor, decreasing their physiological activity and conserving energy. Some people think this ability might be left over from the few ancestors that were able to use it to survive the ocean voyage. NUTS!!!!!

    2. I think the most commonly invoked reasons for the Polynesian migrations are war and famine. I'm not sure which is more insane, the evolution of aye-ayes or getting onto an outrigger, crossing your fingers and hoping you find something.

    3. Woah. Yeah, I guess it takes a crazy event like war or famine to make someone do something so crazy. Intense!!