LEMUR LOVEs: Scent-marking mates call Duke Lemur Center home

Feb. 13, 2014 @ 01:38 PM

Sometimes love can be expressed through an exchange of odors.

Down a long hallway at the Duke Lemur Center, different lemur species native to Madagascar are shielded from the North Carolina winter, spending their afternoons scent-marking their enclosures and each other with gland secretions and urine.
The center is monitoring 11 breeding pairs this year, varying from crowned lemurs, blue-eyed black lemurs, mongoose lemurs, ringtailed lemurs to ruffed lemurs.
But if everyone was allowed to mate, Duke’s lemur population of about 250 would double in just two years.
Some species, such as the red-bellied lemurs, are more monogamous than others. But for the animals still trying to determine their mates at the start of breeding season, the quest for the best partner can come with injuries.
“There’s a competition of who becomes daddy,” said Christine Drea, a Duke associate professor in the biology department. She is studying how lemurs can exchange information by using scents and sniffing.
The Coquerel’s sifaka lemur, a leaf-eater from the northwestern forests of Madagascar that moves around by leaping from tree to tree, is particularly showy when scent-marking. They have glands on their throats and genitals, which produce a sticky goo they rub on trees, walls or even their bunk mates.
“They make a big display of it,” Drea said. “It’s visually striking.”
A study the center released this year showed that lemurs who’ve had children together produce similar odors and even share the same scent-marking behaviors.
Researchers say this could be used for defending territory or for showing off relationship status, and their continued studies hope to uncover if lemurs use scent to pick out their best genetic partner, to root out mates more prone to infections and parasites.
“They have to solve the same kind of problems that other animals have to solve, finding food, finding a nest site, finding shelter, finding a mate,” Drea said. “They have to do all of those things, but the fact they live in a social group means that they have to do it while maintaining their interactions or their place in society.”
January is sifaka birth season, and the lemur center recently welcomed two babies, Gertrude and Eleanor. Center staff monitor the lemur mothers and take time to learn their personalities, to ward off threats of abandonment or infanticide.
“It’s not all sun and roses,” the staff members say.
Walking past the enclosures one recent morning, Drea and Duke Lemur Center curator Andrea Katz greeted lemurs by name as they leapt from shelf to shelf, scent-marking each other or snacking on cucumber, broccoli, apples and celery. 
They pointed out a ring-tailed lemur named Aracus, calling him a “good ol’ boy,” then a 7-year-old, bug-eyed sifaka named Irene.
Katz stopped at one of the enclosures, pointing out West, a blue-eyed black lemur due to give birth in March. She’s named after actress Mae West.
“They’re gentle, there’s something other-worldly about them,” Katz said.
Katz added that she met her husband, the conservation coordinator at Duke Lemur Center, in 1978 at the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo. They were exchanging lemurs as part of a breeding program.
Since then, they both have traveled back and forth to Madagascar, to help research and protect the wild lemurs, endangered now due to deforestation in their natural habitat, and to add to the genetic strength of the U.S. lemur population.
“It’s another world,” Drea said. “It’s another world that many of us don’t have the opportunity to see.”