March 18, 2014 – One of the first things visitors notice when they come to the Duke Lemur Center is that lemurs are LOUD. You might say stinky too. Of course we love them anyway. But what do our guests think? In today’s post, we asked Lemur Center volunteer and Duke undergraduate Faye Goodwin how visitors react to the sounds and smells of lemurs:
It’s a peaceful, quiet morning; the birds sing, the trees rustle. I have no one to compete with as I talk to the group, answer questions, walk backwards so everyone can hear me…Then suddenly, shrieks and wails explode from a nearby group of red ruffed lemurs, ringing through the air like sirens. I have to confess, the reactions from the guests are my favorite part—some look frankly terrified and cover their ears, others laugh excitedly, babies cry or clap their hands. It’s amazing that such a small animal can make such an impressive sound!
If you spend one afternoon at the Duke Lemur Center, you’ll hear firsthand all the different sounds these chatterboxes can make. You’ll hear grunts and snorts like little pigs come from some as a “location marker” for their cell companion, an occasional squeak or chirp if things get rowdy, and of course the full-on opera performance of the Varecia. Many lemurs, ringtails in particular, have an extensive vocabulary that they use for different situations. And if a predator is near, all residents of the forest would most likely respond to the ringing alarm call of the ruffed lemurs.
The noises that come from the humans are just as interesting and unpredictable. I have quiet groups and chatty groups, inquisitive folks and shy folks, six-year-old birthday parties and middle school field trips. You can imagine the variety of sounds that are exchanged between the guests and the lemurs! Grunts get giggles, squeaks get sighs and guttural cries get gasps of surprise. Lemurs sometimes sound the alarm when approached by a noisy group of children. People often try to imitate the sounds they hear—and I have heard some fantastic red ruff calls from a couple of first grade boys.
As we’ve learned more and more about lemurs, we’ve begun to understand how they communicate with each other behaviorally, vocally, and most importantly—olfactorily! Understanding visual and olfactory (scent) cues among lemurs helps us understand how they’re feeling, what they need, or what they respond to. Though humans are capable of expressing themselves through speech, that’s not to say the same rules don’t apply to them. Human body language and vocal response is a crystal clear indicator of how they feel about something, and what they respond to. It helps me out to see visually what guests are responding to the most, what makes them laugh, or what doesn’t interest them as much. Thankfully, humans don’t communicate through scent, but that doesn’t mean they don’t respond to it! If you don’t believe that human body language isn’t just as expressive as lemur body language, just watch a tour group enter the Miaro building and get a whiff of good strong lemur smell.
Faye is a sophomore at Duke University and a docent at Lemur Landing. She’s studying environmental science and performance art, and spends her free time onstage, at the Duke Lemur Center, or baking goodies.