The Duke Lemur Center was established as an opportunistic collaboration between two researchers: John Buettner-Janusch of Yale University, who was studying biochemical genetics in lemurs; and Peter Klopfer, a Duke University biologist studying maternal behavior in mammals. Together, the two biologists 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.
Bill Anlyan, then dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, granted a large swath of Duke Forest to the project, and the National Science Foundation provided 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 (then called the Duke University Primate Center) was founded on 80 wooded acres, two miles from the main Duke campus. Buettner-Janusch’s colony of lemurs was relocated from Connecticut to North Carolina, and the DLC began assembling 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 non-invasive study nearly 4,000 animals across 31 species of non-human primates including lemurs, lorises, and tarsiers (together, colloquially referred to as prosimian primates). Today, it houses nearly 240 individuals across 17 species. The scientific endeavors at the DLC span a remarkable array of disciplines, from behavior and genomics to physiology and paleontology, and the Center is recognized as a global authority on lemur veterinary medicine. Conservation biology is also a major focus, providing the conceptual and operational bridge between the living collections of the DLC and its outreach activities in Madagascar.
In 2016, the DLC celebrated 50 years of trail-blazing lemur research and conservation. Much of that knowledge – from research data to ground-breaking insights on health, genomics, paleontology, and more – is showcased here on the DLC website. Take some time to look around. Then, schedule a tour to come and see. Come and see the world’s largest population of lemurs – Earth’s most endangered mammals – outside of Madagascar. Come and see a conspiracy of sifakas leaping through native North Carolina pines. And most of all, come and see what you can do to help the Duke Lemur Center save lemurs from extinction. We can’t do it without you.
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.
Protecting and preserving these truly unique primates requires a holistic approach involving multiple strategies both in Madagascar and internationally. Our mission is three-fold: to advance science, scholarship, and biological conservation through interdisciplinary non-invasive research, community-based conservation, and public outreach and education. 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.
Curiosity and knowledge prompt discovery. Discovery prompts action. And the more we learn about lemurs, the better we are able to protect them in the wild, care for them in captivity, and engage the public to not only care, but to participate. And how do we discover? Through research!
In 1966, John Buettner-Janusch, a Yale anthropologist, partnered with Duke biologist and Yale alumnus Peter Klopfer to relocate Buettner-Janusch’s colony of lemurs from Connecticut to North Carolina. Today, what began as a collaboration between two researchers studying the genetic foundations of primate behavior has blossomed into an internationally-acclaimed facility that supports research across a huge variety of disciplines. The DLC is home to nocturnal, diurnal, and cathemeral animals as well as species that encompass a wide range of social systems, modes of locomotion, and dietary preferences. Such diversity yields a large and diverse research program, and students and researchers from across campus and around the world travel to the DLC to study topics ranging from brain sciences to biomechanics, One Health disease dynamics, aging, paleontology, genomics, and more. The one thing that all DLC research has in common is that is non-invasive: we do not allow research that will harm our animals in any way.
Research library: The Center has digitized and made publicly available the vast stores of biological data housed within its archives, enabling investigators worldwide to explore the biological controls of primate health, fecundity, and longevity. The Research Department also maintains a large inventory of biological samples that are available for scientific study by qualified researchers or institutions (e.g, research centers or museums). Our Division of Fossil Primates is making digital 3D images of DFP specimens available for download and research through MorphoSource, giving researchers and students — even high-schoolers! — in the U.S. and around the world free access to the DFP’s vast collection of fossils without having to drive or fly to our facility.
Virtual ark: Duke and the Duke Lemur Center are using MorphoSource to build a “virtual ark” of the DLC’s animals, making them available to researchers worldwide in stunning 3-dimensional detail. “By scanning them in the microCT and creating these beautiful 3-D models, we can digitize the specimens and share them online. Instead of being locked in a museum drawer, they’re freely available.”
Lemurs are found in the wild only in Madagascar, where their habitat has dwindled to only a fraction of what it once was: only about 10% of the original vegetation cover remains. To protect the world’s only wild lemurs and the biodiversity they represent, the DLC works “on the ground” with local Malagasy communities to preserve lemurs’ natural habitat.
Madagascar is the 10th poorest country in the world, with subsistence agriculture being the primary driver of forest loss. 30 years of conservation experience has taught the DLC that sustainable forest protection in Madagascar is a long-term investment that requires building relationships and earning the trust of the local people. The DLC-SAVA Conservation project relies on a community-based approach to protecting natural forests, using an array of project activities designed to protect the forest and to improve the lives of the Malagasy people.
The DLC also works within a network of other accredited institutions to develop and adhere to Species Survival Plans (SSPs), which use carefully planned conservation breeding programs to create a “genetic safety net” for rare and endangered species such as the aye-aye, sifaka, and blue-eyed black lemur. In partnership with these institutions, we’re helping to ensure “the sustainability of a healthy, genetically diverse, and stable” population of lemurs for the long-term future. We’re proud to have celebrated more than 3,285 births since our founding in 1966.
Learn more about the DLC's conservation work in Madagascar by visiting the DLC-SAVA Conservation homepage.
Because its research is non-invasive, the DLC is open to the public. More than 25,000 people visit every year to learn about lemurs, science, and conservation. Revenue generated by our public tour program and camps helps fund the Education Department and pay for lemur care, housing, veterinary supplies, and conservation programs in Madagascar. Learn more at lemur.duke.edu/visit.
In addition, the DLC offers unparalleled educational and research opportunities to students and faculty. Field research internships introduce students to lemur research and data collection, the Director's Fund offers financial support to Duke graduate students pursuing research at the DLC, and classes offered through Duke's Department of Primate Anthropology often include observations of free-ranging lemurs. Our online resources and MicroCT scans of fossils from the DLC’s Division of Fossil Primates - available at no charge at morphosource.com - are utilized internationally as educational and research resources.
Student engagement: The DLC is a unique “living laboratory” where students can test their ideas in a controlled setting before taking on the uncertainties of the wild. Students exposed to lemurs as undergrads have gone on to make huge strides in the areas of conservation and research. Alex Dehgan, founder of Conservation X Labs, is just one of many examples. Listen to Alex’s story here.
Public education: The DLC invites students, volunteers, and the public to visit and participate in our mission. Students intern in various departments, volunteers assist with cleaning and food prep, and camps, special programs, and tours engage children and adults of all ages and backgrounds.
There are MANY reasons researching lemurs is important and interesting! Here are some of our favorites:
The more we learn about lemurs, the better we can work to save them from extinction. Lemurs are the most endangered group of mammals in the world. They are endemic only to Madagascar and so it's essentially a one-shot deal - once they are gone from Madagascar, they are gone from the wild. By studying the variables that most affect their health, reproduction, and social dynamics, we learn how to most effectively focus our conservation efforts. And the more we learn about them, the better we can educate the public around the world about just how amazing these animals are, why they need to be protected, and how each and every one of us can make a difference in their survival.
Lemurs are an extremely diverse taxonomic group. Currently there are over 100 species of lemur identified, and those species vary dramatically in their styles of locomotion (how they move), diet, social structure and behavior, activity patterns (nocturnal, diurnal, cathemeral), etc. Lemurs are much more diverse in these ways than are the monkeys and apes. From this perspective, a question can be studied within closely related species but from many different angles.
Lemurs are an amazing example of speciation in response to environmental niches and challenges, and thus are an ideal study system within the field of genetics/genomics.
Most lemurs live in a female-dominant society - and this is relatively rare in the primate world. Studying female-dominant primates yields interesting comparisons to male-dominant or co-dominant societies, and also makes possible the study of why female dominance evolved and how (for example, changes in hormone levels and external anatomy).
Lemurs (along with the other prosimian primates - lorises and bushbabies) are the most ancestral primate. They were the first to evolve along the primate lineage, approximately 65 million years ago - long before monkeys evolved and long, long before apes evolved. So lemurs and other prosimians retain more primitive features such as a wet nose, a heavy reliance on olfactory communication and less on eye sight, and less manual dexterity compared to monkeys and apes. By studying these early representatives of the primate family tree, we gain tremendous insight into primate evolution. We even learn more about ourselves (since humans are primates) by studying these "living fossils".
"How did humans evolve?" has been one of the most compelling scientific questions since the time of Charles Darwin, and comparative study of humans to other primates is fundamental to answering this question. Up to the present, the scientific community has largely focused on chimpanzees and other great apes (the closest relatives to humans) or a model organism such as the mouse. This focus on the evolutionary extremes of apes and mice, however, leaves unexamined many important questions raised by the more than 90 million years of evolutionary change that separate mice and men. The lemurs of Madagascar, and their closest relatives the lorises, fall midway between these evolutionary endpoints and provide an important bridge to how we came to be.
By comparing the biological characteristics of lemurs and humans, we can infer that characters shared in common must have typified the ancestral primate. From there, the sequence of evolutionary transitions that led to the human species can be reconstructed and examined in evolutionary context. This process of inference holds true for all biological disciplines, including the biomedical sciences. We can only fully understand the genetic and physiological mechanisms underlying human health and longevity by analyzing them in a comparative context.