What It’s Really Like to Research Lemurs in the Wild

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You probably read about wildlife research and thought, “Hey, I could do that”. Want to know what it’s really like to conduct lemur research?

Read on to find out:

How Did I Get Into Lemur Research?

From the time I was 7 years old, I knew I was going to work in the country of Madagascar. A childhood interest in lemurs fueled a lifelong obsession with research on the bizarre island. I couldn’t learn enough about the plants and animals, and the unique ecosystems and culture of Madagascar. This was probably why I chose lemur research.

Growing up, nearly every paper, project, and presentation of mine revolved around lemurs or Madagascar. I found creative ways to make a connection to almost any assignment. When I reconnect with past elementary and high school teachers or undergraduate professors, their first instinct is to inquire about Madagascar. I am fortunate enough to finally be able to tell them that I have been there.

So far, I have been lucky enough to have made four separate trips to Madagascar. A couple of expeditions were to conduct my own research projects on lemurs (including a species that is currently undescribed to science). I have also served as an instructor for young people from around the world, including National Geographic.

Related Reading:  Want a Pet Lemur? What You Need to Know First

There’s nothing in the world I would rather do than research lemurs for a living. Truthfully, it’s a dream to be able to pursue my passion – something so many people don’t have the privilege of doing.

Why I’m Fascinated with Lemurs

Lemurs are charismatic and fun to watch. Many species of lemur live in social groups. These little lemurs can be involved in more drama than most soap operas! Unlike some other primates, lemurs get used to people quite easily. It doesn’t take long before they decide that you won’t harm them and then just go about their business and pay no attention to you.

Related Reading: Magic of Madagascar Ecoctour: Lemurs and Other Wildlife

Researching Lemurs

To put that into perspective for you, it only takes a few months for lemurs to get used to you. Whereas baboons and apes can take longer than 5 years.

While I don’t think any of the lemurs I have researched got to the point where they recognized me specifically, they trusted me regardless because they recognized my guides. The same guides have been following these same social groups of Milne-Edwards’ sifaka (one of the largest living lemur species) for nearly 30 years!

They collect data on their life-history, behavior, and monitor their health and group dynamics. These Malagasy guides are the best at finding the lemurs. They can replicate their lost call (in hopes that they will respond if they are nearby), and never frighten the lemurs.

Related Reading: How Seeing Lemurs in the Wild Can Help Save Them.

The Downfalls Of Lemur Research

It’s very difficult not to get attached to the lemurs you are researching. As a scientist, you have to remember not to “anthropomorphize” them. I know its a big word. It basically means that you have to remember that you are collecting data and therefore you need to learn to keep your human emotions out of it.

But there are times where you are tested in this. Especially when you witness disturbing behavior such as killing an infant. This isn’t as rare as you might think. If a new male enters a group, or a new female wants to come and take the group over, this often results in the babies of the group being killed.

Infant mortality is high – most lemur species don’t even have a 50% surviving until their first birthday. This is difficult to accept. I frequently need to remind myself that it is natural for these wild primates.

Sometimes the individuals you are observing become prey, hunted by humans, or mysteriously die/disappear. It can be heartbreaking to experience. Especially when you think about how endangered these little lemurs are! For these reasons as well as the poverty that ravages most of Madagascar, studying lemurs and working in conservation isn’t always sunshine and rainbows.

Ring-tailed lemur with her babies as seen during research
close-up of a ring-tailed lemur with her cute babies (Lemur catta)

Why Do I Keep Doing Lemur Research?

However, lemur researchers are some of the most entertaining, passionate, and hysterical people I know. Working in the field CAN get lonely, but you are never physically alone. You always have guides, a cook, and a Malagasy student.

The language barrier can feel isolating at times. But some Malagasy people do speak English (as a third language!). In addition, I’ve worked at learning their native language. The difficulty with learning to speak Malagasy is that each ethnic group (there are 18) has its own dialect.

When I am working with people who don’t speak the “official dialect,” we frequently experience misunderstandings. It’s important to remember to roll with the punches.

Moving Forward

I just completed my first semester as a Ph.D. student at Clarkson University under conservation biologist, Dr. Tom Langen. Together we aim to apply his expertise in road impacts on biodiversity, to my growing expertise on Malagasy wildlife conservation.

I intend to continue working in Madagascar for the rest of my life. Not only to uphold conservation efforts in such a biologically diverse and unique place but also to encourage Malagasy people to continue inspiring and empowering one another in a country with so many socio-economic and political complications.

Thank you very much and take care, or as they say in Madagascar – Misaotra betsaka, Mazotoa!

Lemur research most definitely hs its pitfalls, but doing anything else just wouldn’t be this rewarding!

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