For millions of years, lemurs, the ancient relatives of monkeys, apes and humans, have evolved in isolation on the island of Madagascar. With only a few natural predators, expansive habitat, and lush vegetation, lemurs flourished on the island paradise until slightly less than 2,000 years ago when humans began to settle there. Since the first immigrants arrived, one third of the lemur species have become extinct and more teeter on the brink of extinction. As Madagascar’s population is currently doubling every 25 years, there is ever growing pressure for land, mainly for slash-and-burn agriculture. Therefore, protecting and preserving these truly unique primates requires a holistic approach involving multiple strategies both in Madagascar and internationally.
The Duke Lemur Center (DLC, formerly the Duke University Primate Center) was originally established as an opportunistic collaboration between two biologists, one who was studying maternal behavior in mammals at Duke University and the other who was at Yale, studying biochemical genetics in lemurs. Together, the two investigators conceived the idea of establishing a primate facility in Duke Forest that would combine their research perspectives in order to explore the genetic foundations of primate behavior. The National Science Foundation rewarded their initiative by providing the funds to build a living laboratory where lemurs and their close relatives could be studied intensively and non-invasively. In 1966, the nascent DLC was founded on 80 wooded acres, two miles from the main Duke campus. The DLC assembled the largest living collection of endangered primates in the world, both in numbers of species and in number of individuals. Over its history, the DLC has housed, cared for, and made available for study nearly 4000 animals across 31species of non-human primates including lemurs, lorises and at one point, tarsiers (together, colloquially referred to as prosimian primates). Today, it houses nearly 250 individuals across 21 species. The scientific endeavors at the DLC span a remarkable array of disciplines, from behavior and genomics to physiology and paleontology. Conservation biology is also a major focus and provides the conceptual and operational bridge between the living collections of the DLC and its outreach activities in Madagascar.
The Duke Lemur Center through its living laboratory advances science, scholarship, and biological conservation through interdisciplinary research on lemurs. By engaging scientists, students and the public in new discoveries and global awareness, the Center promotes a deeper appreciation of biodiversity and an understanding of the power of scientific discovery.