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Blue-Eyed Black Lemur

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Eulemur flavifrons

Blue-eyed black lemurs are among the most threatened primates in the world. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently elevated the status of E. flavifrons to critically endangered and added them to the Top 25 Most Endangered Primates list.

There are only five female blue-eyed black lemurs of breeding age in North America. Of these, four reside at the Duke Lemur Center: Margret, Wiig, West, and Velona. The fifth, Poots, was born at the DLC but lives at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Sexual Dichromatism

This species is one of the most distinctively sexually dichromatic (different coloration in males and females) of all the lemurs. Males are completely black, while females vary from reddish-brown to gray. The blue-eyed black lemur lives in fairly large groups which may contain more than one breeding animal of each sex.

Although common black lemur males are the same intense black as blue-eyed black lemur males, females of both species are different shades of brown. 

Feeding

Blue-eyed black lemurs eat ripe fruit, leaves, flowers and occasionally insects. Since the ecology and behavior of the blue-eyed lemur has not been studied in the wild, the feeding information reported here has been obtained from observations of wild populations of black lemurs, but should hold true for the blue-eyed subspecies as well. Groups of black lemurs studied in the wild have been seen to eat primarily fruit during the rainy season when it is readily abundant. During the dry season when fruit becomes scarce, black lemurs turn to leaves, flowers, nectar and seeds. Hence depending on the season, the animals might be described as either frugivores or folivores.

In the wild, blue-eyed black lemurs have been observed feeding on animal matter in the form of millipedes. In poor or disturbed habitats, blue-eyed black lemurs might be found on the ground, foraging through the leaf litter for fallen fruit or fungi. They have even been seen feeding on soil. Captive black lemurs have been seen catching and eating a variety of birds including cardinals, brown thrashers, and eastern peewees.

Reproduction

Blue-eyed black lemurs, like all diurnal lemurs, are seasonal breeders. In Madagascar, the breeding season ranges from April to June. In northern hemisphere locations, such as the DLC, most breeding occurs in November and December with births in March and April. During breeding season, both males and females experience physiological changes. By the time the females are approaching estrous, the testicle size of the males has become notably larger, and the males are becoming more aggressive towards and less tolerant of their fellow males.

In the wild, female blue-eyed black lemurs give birth to one or two offspring in the fall, after a gestation period of approximately 126 days. It is possible for two females in the same group to become pregnant during the same breeding season. After successfully giving birth, mothers might immediately become very aggressive to other members of their group, threatening them and lunging at them if they come too close. After a few days or a week of guarding the infants, juveniles are typically granted first access to the newborns, followed by the father, and later the other adult females in the group.

Although dichromatic as adults, both male and female blue-eyed black lemurs are born with the same orange-brown coloration. Males turn black as they age over the first 4-8 weeks. Infants cling to their mothers’ bellies for the first 3 weeks, shifting position only to nurse. At three to four weeks of age, the young lemurs will begin to make short explorations of a foot or two away from their mother, quickly scurrying back to the safety of her belly at the first sign of danger. Infants begin to explore solid food at 4-6 weeks of age, sampling bits of whatever their mothers or other nearby group members are eating. Nursing continues, but with a steady decline in importance in the infant’s diet, until the infant is weaned at 5 – 6 months of age.

Size + Social Behavior

A medium sized lemur (adults can weigh 5 lbs [2.4kg]), blue-eyed black lemurs have long tails which are often carried high in the air as the animals move. These lemurs generally move in a horizontal position and will walk or run quadrupedally through the trees and on the ground, except when leaping from tree to tree.

Blue-eyed black lemurs have not been studied extensively in the wild, so little is known about their behavior outside of captivity. Most of the following information was recorded for black lemurs, but it is assumed that it will also be correct for blue-eyed lemurs. They are reported to live in social groups of between 7 and 10 individuals, although group sizes of between 2 and 15 have been observed. Group sex ratio is often biased in favor of males. Females are dominant to males, which gives them preferential access to food and the choice of whom to mate with. This female dominance is fairly typical of prosimians.

Numerous attempts to introduce blue-eyed black lemurs into mixed species groups of lemurs in multi-acre forested enclosures at the DLC have ended in failure due to the relatively aggressive nature of this lemur. In fact there have been several instances of black lemurs at the DLC committing infanticide against other species of lemurs in these forested enclosures. Such behavior has not been demonstrated by any other lemur species in these habitats.

Like most prosimians, blue-eyed black lemurs use olfaction as a primary method of communication. The most common method of scent marking for both males and females, is done by way of rubbing the anogenital region, rich in glandular skin, over a suitable substrate. In addition males have two scent marking techniques not seen in the females. The first is palm/wrist marking where the male will rub his palm and wrist vigorously back and forth on a branch or other surface for a few seconds or even a few minutes. The other scent marking technique unique to the males is head rubbing, where the head is lowered and then the surface to be marked is rubbed with one or two head swipes.

Habitat + Conservation

Blue-eyed black lemurs are found south of the Sambirano region in northwest Madagascar. Pure populations are found south of the Andranomalaza River near Moromandia and east to the Sandrakota River near Befotaka. Researchers have recently discovered a hybrid zone in the far northern part of its range, where Eulemur macaco macaco might breed with Eulemur macaco flavifrons. This region is considered a transition area between the rain forests of the east coast and the dry deciduous forests of the west coast.

Blue-eyed black lemurs are severely threatened by hunting, trapping and forest destruction (especially from slash and burn agriculture) across their entire range, which is among the smallest ranges of any lemur species. The species is protected in only a tiny area of Madagascar, Sahamalaza National Park. Sadly, because Sahamalaza is susceptible to wildfires and other pressures on the forest, the species is at risk even within the park. These factors – a narrow geographic range, a single park protecting their natural environment, hunting, and a habitat under pressure – have resulted in blue-eyed black lemurs’ CRITICALLY ENDANGERED conservation status. The species is consistently placed in the top ten of the most endangered varieties of lemurs, and in 2008, it was included on the list of the world's 25 Most Endangered Primates, drawn up every two years by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Primate Specialist Group, the International Primatological Society, and Conservation International (Schwitzer et al. 2009). In 2015, it was estimated that the blue-eyed black lemur could go extinct in the wild as little as 11 years due to habitat loss, forest fragmentation, and hunting pressures (Volameno et al.). It is thought that there may be fewer than 1,000 individuals of this species left in the wild.

Efforts to breed this subspecies in captivity began in the mid 1990s with the importation of four wild caught animals to the Duke Lemur Center. There is an SSP (Species Survival Plan) in place for this lemur and institutions holding this species are working together cooperatively to maintain genetic diversity. There are only six female blue-eyed black lemurs of breeding age in North America. Of these, four reside at the Duke Lemur Center: Margret, Wiig, West, and Velona. The others, Poots and Hendricks, were born at the DLC but are on loan to other institutions: Poots to the Los Angeles Zoo and Hendricks to the Jacksonville Zoo. As of July 11, 2018, a total of 9 males and 10 females live at Duke.

See also "Two Critically Endangered Blue-Eyed Black Lemurs Born at Duke Lemur Center." 

Arrival of Two Blue-Eyed Black Lemurs from Madagascar in 2017

After three years of planning and 60 hours of travel, a new pair of lemurs arrived in summer 2017 at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina, 9,000 miles from their home in Madagascar.

The breeding pair will be used to improve the gene pool of captive members of the critically endangered species, blue-eyed black lemurs (Eulemur flavifrons).

The 5-year-old male Mangamaso and 3-year-old female Velona were relocated from Parc Ivoloina, a nonprofit nature center in eastern Madagascar where they and their parents were born into a conservation breeding program.

The transfer marks the first time lemurs have been imported from Madagascar to the United States in 24 years because of strict import and export regulations intended to protect the animals.

“The addition of two lemurs genetically unrelated to our current animals is a huge asset to our conservation breeding program,” said Andrea Katz, curator of animals at the Duke Lemur Center and primary organizer of the transfer. “The more genetic diversity we have, the better we can maintain our role as a safety net for this species.”

The blue-eyed black lemur (Eulemur flavifrons) has been named one of the world’s 25 most threatened primates, with possibly fewer than 1,000 individuals remaining in the wild, said Sara Clark, director of communications at the Duke Lemur Center.

In 2015, it was estimated that the species could go extinct in the wild in as little as 11 years.

Only three small populations of blue-eyed black lemurs exist in zoos and conservation facilities around the world: 12 animals in Madagascar, 34 in Europe and 28 in the U.S. Prior to the arrival of Mangamaso and Velona, every blue-eyed black lemur in North America descended from seven wild-born animals imported by the Duke Lemur Center in 1985 and 1990.

While the current captive population is healthy, transfers like this one are necessary to grow and sustain it, Katz said. Greater genetic diversity is linked to better health and immune responses and increased ability to adapt to environmental pressures — crucial factors in the fight to protect this species from extinction.

“The success of the transfer is the result of a unique international collaboration, three years in the making,” Katz said. “In my 40 years at the Lemur Center, this may have been the most difficult and rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

The transfer culminated in a complex negotiation between the Government of Madagascar, Parc Ivoloina, the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Program and the European AZA Endangered Species Program. As a part of the agreement, the Duke Lemur Center transferred two of its blue-eyed black lemurs to France to strengthen the European breeding program. Parc Ivoloina also received two blue-eyed black lemurs from other facilities in Madagascar to bolster their breeding program.

The dossier of required documentation for Mangamaso and Velona included 19 separate documents: U.S. and Malagasy CITES permits; additional authorizations from Madagascar wildlife authorities; veterinary certificates; airline, customs and freight forwarding documents; and arrangements with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A Malagasy alumnus of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business contributed the use of a private plane to transport the lemurs from Parc Ivoloina to Madagascar’s capital city of Antananarivo for the international flight, sparing the pair a 10-hour drive over bumpy roads.

Duke Lemur Center veterinarian Cathy Williams personally escorted the lemurs on their 60-hour journey from Madagascar to the U.S. They were kept in quarantine for two months to monitor their health and make sure they were disease-free before settling into their new home in Durham.

“These exchanges are absolutely critical to the genetic health of all lemurs, and the partnership and cooperation with other institutions that we enjoyed over this long process have been truly inspiring,” said Anne Yoder, director of the Duke Lemur Center. “It takes a global village to save lemurs, and we are grateful and proud to be part of that village.”

Pictured above: Ivoloina Zoo Manager Bernard Iambana, DLC veterinarian Cathy Williams, and Duke postdoc Peter Larsen with the Ivoloina zoo team. For additional images, click HERE.

Birth of Ranomasina by C-Section in 2018

Because they’re endangered, all baby lemurs are special. But some, like Ranomasina, are extraordinary.

“This is not just any baby,” says Bobby Schopler, a veterinarian at the Duke Lemur Center since 2005. “This is the most important birth in the 13 years I’ve worked here.”

Baby Ranomasina is the third blue-eyed black lemur — one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world — born at the center this season, which brings the total number of her kind in North America to 34. But she is also considered among the most “genetically valuable,” since she is the offspring of the first lemurs imported from Madagascar to the U.S. in 24 years.

Ranomasina is also unusual because she was delivered via cesarean section, a surgery so rare that since the Duke Lemur Center’s founding in 1966, C-sections have been performed only 15 times.

“She’s the most important offspring from one of the rarest lemur species,” Schopler said. “She was born to a pair that took us three years to bring to Durham from Madagascar, and we may never be able to import anymore.”

In fact, Ranomasina is genetically so valuable to the population of these critically endangered lemurs that when she was discovered in breech position, veterinarians resolved to perform a rare C-section rather than risk a difficult — and potentially fatal — birth.

The infant, whose name means “sea” in Malagasy, is the first offspring of Mangamaso and Velona, blue-eyed black lemurs brought from Madagascar to the Duke Lemur Center in 2017.

Until Ranomasina’s birth, every blue-eyed black lemur infant born in North America had descended from just seven wild-born individuals imported by the Duke Lemur Center in 1985 and 1990.

“With the birth of Ranomasina, for the first time since 1990, we have a whole new lineage of blue-eyed black lemurs coming into the North American population,” said Cathy Williams, curator of animals at the Duke Lemur Center.

While the current captive population is healthy, new genetically unrelated individuals like Ranomasina are critical to grow and sustain it. “The more genetically diverse a population is, the more resilient it is, the healthier it is, and the better it can adapt to environmental pressures,” Williams said.

Fewer than 1,000 blue-eyed black lemurs are believed to remain in Madagascar today. In 2015, it was estimated that the species could go extinct in the wild in as little as 11 years.

But as crucial as she is to the genetic health and long-term survival of her species, Ranomasina’s own survival was initially uncertain.

Two weeks before her due date, Velona was evaluated by the Lemur Center’s veterinary team, who discovered the infant was in breech position.

“There isn’t a lot of data regarding breech births in lemurs,” said center veterinarian Laura Ellsaesser. “In humans, babies in breech position are a concern because they are more likely to become stuck in the birth canal, which can become life-threatening to both the baby and the mom.”

“Sometimes in humans, a breech baby does flip and do just fine,” Ellsaesser said. “But in lemurs, we just don’t know; so we put Velona on a much more aggressive baby watch.”

David Watts and his adviser Lisa Paciulli of North Carolina State University, who use concealed cameras to study maternal behavior in aye-ayes, contributed some of their equipment to the cause. “Using David’s cameras meant that we didn’t disturb her,” Ellsaesser said. “We could watch and, if we saw signs she was having a difficult labor, we could intervene.”

Duke Lemur Center husbandry and veterinary staff watched round-the-clock, but Velona showed no signs of labor. At 130 days’ gestation — past her expected delivery date — Ellsaesser and Schopler did an ultrasound. The infant was alive but still breech.

“We knew from thirty years of data that any blue-eyed black lemur infants born after 130 days’ gestation were stillborn,” Schopler said. “We were torn between not wanting to do a C-section on a first-time mom, versus possibly losing the baby and the mom in a difficult birth. Ultimately we decided that, all things considered, the lower risk was to deliver the infant via C-section.”

The C-section was performed on April 12, proceeded smoothly, and resulted in the birth of a healthy little girl weighing just under three ounces. But for mom and infant, the hard part had only just begun.

“She fell asleep without a baby and woke up with one,” said Schopler, who spent the night in the veterinary office to monitor Velona’s behavior toward the infant. Velona’s recognizing and accepting the baby would be crucial to Ranomasina’s survival. If her mother didn’t bond with her, she could have attacked and damaged the tiny infant.

Ranomasina and Velona hours after birth. As for any major procedure involving highly endangered animals, the veterinary staff consulted experts from a variety of specialties. In Ranomasina’s case, information was sought from Elley Schopler, a lactation consultant at The Women’s Birth and Wellness Center (Chapel Hill, NC), who updated the Lemur Center on the latest methods of post-partum care of C-section babies. Photo by Sara Clark.

C-section aside, having babies is partly a learned behavior for lemurs and infant mortality is higher in those born to first-time mothers.

“Baby season is fun, but it’s stressful too,” said Duke Lemur Center primate technician Becca Newton, Velona’s primary caretaker. “Those first days were critical. A lot could’ve happened, especially since Velona was a first-time mom.”

It took about 24 hours for Velona to adjust to her infant and for the veterinary staff to teach Ranomasina how to nurse. Once she learned, the hormones released during nursing helped further solidify the mother-infant bond, and the animal care team breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“Even though it took a while, Velona formed a tight motherly bond with her baby,” Newton said. “Once it was there, it was there. She’s been a good mom. I’m very pleased, very proud of her.”

Now over a month old, Ranomasina is thriving. Her dad Mangamaso has been successfully reintroduced to the family group, and the infant has begun nibbling solid food and venturing tentatively away from Velona — though never far from the safety of mom.

“This female infant has a huge responsibility in front of her,” Schopler said, but for the next 2.5 years she’ll grow and learn from her mother before being paired with a male to start a family of her own.

“It’s really exciting for the staff to be part of this,” Williams said. “It reinforces why we work here and why we’re so committed to what we do. We’re part of something much larger. Saving these animals is our contribution to making the world a better place for future generations.”

Veterinarians Bobby Schopler and Laura Ellsaesser and veterinary technicians Megan Davison and Catherine Ostrowski perform a rare C-section on Velona. Photo by Sara Clark.

Ranomasina immediately after delivery. The infant’s birth was especially meaningful to Lemur Center Director Anne Yoder. When Yoder began directing the DLC in 2006, lemur births had been extremely rare at the center over the previous decade, almost as rare as the importation of lemurs from Madagascar. “Two of my top goals when I assumed the directorship were to see babies being born at the center again, and to once again import animals from Madagascar to stabilize genetic variation in the colony. Ranomasina is the realization of both goals, and in the most beautiful little creature you have ever seen.” Photo by Catherine Ostrowski.

Cover photo: Ranomasina approximately one hour after delivery. Photo by Sara Clark. To read more about Ranomasina (and to see more pictures, too!), please click HERE.

How You Can Help

Adopt a blue-eyed black lemur: Want to learn more about this species AND help support their care, not only here but also in Madagascar? Consider symbolically adopting Presley, a male blue-eyed black lemur, through the DLC’s Adopt a Lemur program! Adoption packages start at just $50.

Visit the Duke Lemur Center: The DLC is only partially funded by Duke, so we rely heavily on revenue from tours to help pay for lemur care and housing as well as our conservation work in Madagascar. So, something as simple and fun as visiting the Lemur Center can help us help the lemurs!

Send a lemur a present: You can send special treats to the DLC’s lemurs, as well as raw materials for us to construct special enrichment activities to keep them happy and healthy. Simply visit our amazon wishlist!

Engage in conservation locally: Though it doesn't directly affect lemurs, the DLC also promotes local conservation. We encourage visitors to support local ecosystems and protect local habitats, similar to the way we're helping the local people in Madagascar preserve lemurs' natural habitat. A fun way to do this is to plant a local pollinators garden at your home or school. The DLC itself is incorporating a Monarch Waystation into its landscaping for the summer tour path in 2017. You can also stop using dangerous chemicals on your lawn, which might end up in lakes and streams and harm fish, frogs, and other animals.

Adopt a Blue-Eyed Black Lemur! Choose your gift level and receive a customized care package:

$50 Adoption Gift
Care Package includes:
  • Certificate of recognition
  • Species fact sheet
  • Individual bio about your lemur
  • 5×7 photo
  • Quarterly updates about your lemur for one year
  • Adopt a Lemur logo sticker
Make $50 Gift
$100 Adoption Gift
Care Package includes:
  • Certificate of recognition
  • Species fact sheet
  • Individual bio about your lemur
  • 5×7 photo
  • Quarterly updates about your lemur for one year
  • Adopt a Lemur logo sticker
  • Car magnet
Make $100 Gift Make $100 Gift without Tickets
$250 Adoption Gift
Care Package includes:
  • Certificate of recognition
  • Species fact sheet
  • Individual bio about your lemur
  • 5×7 photo
  • Quarterly updates about your lemur for one year
  • Adopt a Lemur logo sticker
  • Car magnet
  • Tote bag
Make $250 Gift Make $250 Gift without Tickets
$500 Adoption Gift
Care Package includes:
  • Certificate of recognition
  • Species fact sheet
  • Individual bio about your lemur
  • 8×10 photo
  • Quarterly updates about your lemur for one year
  • Adopt a Lemur logo sticker
  • Car magnet
  • Tote bag
  • Private Lemurs Live tour for up to 8 people. Reservation must be made in advance. Value of tour passes is not tax deductible but you can opt out of the passes.
Make $500 Gift Make $500 Gift without Tickets
$1000 Adoption Gift
Care Package includes:
  • Certificate of recognition
  • Species fact sheet
  • Individual bio about your lemur
  • 8×10 photo
  • Quarterly updates about your lemur for one year
  • Adopt a Lemur logo sticker
  • Car magnet
  • Tote bag
  • Private Behind the Scenes tour for up to 4 people. Reservation must be made in advance. Value of tour passes is not tax deductible but you can opt out of the passes.
Make $1000 Gift Make $1000 Gift without Tickets
$7,400 Adoption Gift
Care Package includes:
  • Informational package/photograph on the species of your choice (any of the species housed here at the DLC)
  • Your “own” special adoptee for the Year
  • A special ½ day visit to the Duke Lemur Center in which you will get to meet your adoptee along with the passionate staff that take care of our lemurs and keep the Center running on a daily basis
  • You will also learn how the Center promotes scholarship, scientific Inquiry and global engagement through our research and conservation programs.
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