Coquerel’s sifaka (Propithecus coquereli) are delicate leaf-eaters from the dry northwestern forests of Madagascar. The sifaka of Madagascar are distinguished from other lemurs by their mode of locomotion: these animals maintain a distinctly vertical posture and leap through the trees using just the strength of their back legs. Their spectacular method of locomotion is known as vertical clinging and leaping and their long, powerful legs can easily propel them distances of over 20 feet from tree to tree. On the ground, the animals cross treeless areas just as gracefully, by an elegant bipedal sideways hopping.
The Malagasy name ‘sifaka’ comes from the distinct call this animal makes as it travels through the trees: “shif-auk.”
Coquerel's sifakas have extremely sensitive digestive systems and specialized nutritional needs. As a species, they have a reputation of being very delicate and difficult to care for, and the Duke Lemur Center is one of very few places that has succeeded in caring for and breeding them. So much so, in fact, that all sifakas in North America are on loan from, and managed by, the Duke Lemur Center.
Because of their sensitive digestive systems, the DLC's sifakas are fed multiple times daily – which mimics the feeding bouts wild sifakas have throughout the day and keeps our lemurs’ GI tracts operating at a level of fill similar to that of wild populations. As part of our feeding strategy, we distribute browse (leaves) to the sifakas every afternoon — even to our free-ranging sifakas. In the wild, leaves comprise about 40-60% of sifakas’ diet; so it’s clear that browse is important, and introducing native NC browse plants into our sifakas’ diets has proved hugely beneficial.
At the DLC, our animal care team harvests fresh redbud, tulip poplar, mimosa, and sweetgum for the sifakas every day during the warmer months. The sifakas' favorite species of plant to eat here in the U.S. is winged sumac, Rhus copallinum, which is high in the tannins and sap that the sifakas enjoy.
Every fall, our animal care team also harvests and freezes enough browse to feed the sifakas throughout the winter, when there are no fresh leaves to harvest. Winged sumac is the only plant that will freeze well, without disintegrating upon thawing. We fill seven large chest freezers with sumac harvested from many different sites around Durham and Chapel Hill.
(Note: The sumac that we grow and harvest is winged sumac, Rhus copallinum — not poison sumac, Toxicodendron vernix. Although they are in the same plant family of Anacardiaceae, they are definitely different plants. Toxicodendron is the same genus as our poison ivy, which believe it or not some of our DLC sifakas in the forest enclosures like to eat!)
In Madagascar, Coquerel’s sifakas feed on young leaves, flowers, fruit, bark and dead wood in the wet season, and on mature leaves and buds in the dry season. As many as 98 different plant species have been recorded in their diet. However, only 12 of these plants make up two-thirds of the diet. Foraging activities occupy between 30% and 40% of the day.
The Lemur Center’s colony of Coquerel’s sifaka is the most successful breeding colony in the world of this species or any species of sifaka. The Center owns and manages every individual in captivity, a total of 60 animals. Twenty-eight sifakas live on-site at the DLC (15 males, 13 females) and the remainder live at several zoos throughout the USA.The Lemur Center has been successful enough with our breeding program to send animals to other zoological institutions. The Los Angeles Zoo has a breeding group of four animals (an adult pair and their offspring), the Philadelphia Zoo has a sibling pair, and the St. Louis Zoo has a breeding group along with six other institutions in the USA. Many of these facilities have seen their own breeding success based on DLC husbandry guidelines.
Coquerel’s sifaka are classified as endangered* in Madagascar and are threatened with increasing habitat destruction and the erosion of social customs against hunting this species. The species is found only in the Ankarafantsika Nature Reserve and the Bora Special Reserve, and these have both been damaged by yearly fires set by nearby farmers. Hunting of these animals by locals might occur in some areas, although in many parts of its range it is protected by taboo or fady.
*At the IUCN Red List Primate Specialist Group meeting in Antananarivo, Madagascar in 2018, all nine sifaka species were uplisted from endangered to critically endangered. The status change is not yet official but has been widely reported. Learn more HERE.
Meet Jovian, a Coquerel’s sifaka! Outside the Duke Lemur Center, Jovian was famous as “Zoboomafoo,” the leaping, prancing otherworldly star of the PBS Kids show by the same name, hosted by brothers Martin and Chris Kratt. He was a graceful, long-limbed co-star with cream and russet fur and bright, intelligent yellow eyes and he taught millions of children what a lemur is. The show aired 65 episodes in just over two years, 1999-2001, and continues in syndication.
“He was great to work with,” said Martin Kratt, a 1989 Duke graduate who had volunteered at the Lemur Center as a student. “He’d jump in through the window and we’d feed him mangoes or garbanzo beans. Sometimes he’d grab our noses with those soft sifaka hands.”
Jovian was born at the Duke Lemur Center in the spring of 1994 to parents Flavia (a female who had been wild caught in Madagascar in 1986) and Nigel, who had been born at the Center in the winter of 1972.
Jovian was living in a group that included just him and his parents when they were visited and filmed in June 1997 by Chris and Martin Kratt, who planned to produce a PBS Kids show called Zoboomafoo. The Kratt brothers hoped to host their wildlife show for kids with an unusual co-host: a sifaka named Zoboo. Most of the time Zoboo would be played by a talking lemur puppet, but the brothers were interested in obtaining action footage of a real sifaka to intersperse with footage of the puppet.
They auditioned several sifaka groups at the Lemur Center on film. But it came as no surprise to anyone who was familiar with Flavia’s group that the Kratts selected Jovian and his somewhat elderly father Nigel to be the model for Zoboo. “They and their family were, and still are, the most distinctively beautiful sifakas in our colony, as well as being the easiest and most delightful animals to work with,” said David Haring, the center’s registrar and photographer.
In October 1997, the Kratts returned to Durham with a complete stage set erected inside a specially constructed outdoor cage. For nearly two weeks they filmed Jovian, Nigel, and Flavia leaping around and exploring what was to become known on Zoboomafoo as Animal Junction.
“You can probably see all three of them on the show, but Jovian was the star,” Kratt said. “He was young and good-looking and very gentle.”
After the Kratt-inspired madness, life returned to normal for the television stars. Jovian continued to live with his parents and a new little sister, Rupilia, until October 1999 when tension developed between father and son and Jovian was removed from his family group. (A common practice for adult males in the wild is to remove possible competitors from their groups, forcing males who are coming-of-age to find a new group and thus also diversifying the gene pool. Nigel was just doing what was natural.)
In October 2000, Jovian was introduced to an established group consisting of adult female, Alexianus; her one- and two-year-old daughters Pia and Livia; and her six-month-old son Marius. Jovian successfully worked his way into that complex group, and in April 2001 the family was released into a free-range outdoor enclosure at the Lemur Center — Jovian’s first taste of the acrobatic sifaka lifestyle at age 7.
He and Alexianus produced the first infant for both in February 2003. Pia was kicked out of the group by her mother Alexianus in April 2004 and, just over a year later, Alexianus died. Jovian and Pia were reunited in June 2005 as a new breeding pair.
In the forest, Jovian could often be found lounging in the sunshine or helping himself to a mimosa – mimosa leaves, that is! He occasionally play-wrestled on the forest floor with his sons and daughters, all the while maintaining a watchful eye to avoid the wrath of Pia, who never failed to chase him from choice food items and weighed 30% more than he did.
His job as a male sifaka was to watch over his group and to carefully monitor Pia’s frequent scent-marking, keenly anticipating the one day a year when she would come into estrus. The pair produced nine infants in their time together.
“Every year the scenario would be repeated in a delightful seasonal pattern,” Haring explains. “Pia’s pregnancy would be confirmed in the fall and she would deliver a single infant in December, January, or February – and one time in July!”
“When the time came for the infant’s introduction to Jovian, everyone always marveled at how intensely interested he was in the newborn,” remembers Haring. Some sifaka sires could care less. Jovian would immediately make eye contact with the infant and continue to watch it as he approached, making the unique sifaka contact call the technicians call ‘sifaka singing.’ ” Pia would eventually allow Jovian to sniff, groom, and even handle the infant. He was gentle with the newborns, carefully cradling and grooming them, protecting them from interested juveniles and technicians.
In November 2014, the much-loved Coquerel’s sifaka died of kidney failure at the age of 20.5 years. Jovian was a playful, gentle, intelligent animal, fondly remembered as an exceptionally capable and caring father and the sire of 12 sifakas. "He was perhaps one of the best sifaka sires ever," says Haring.