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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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. A total of 9 males and 9 females live at Duke.
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.
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.