For the Love of Lemurs

To her delight, social worker-turned-scientist Patricia Wright has found the mischievous Madagascar primates to be astonishingly complex

A verreaux's sifaka lemur can jump 30 feet (Frans Lanting)
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A few days later, she and her family climbed out of a bush plane in Puerto Bermudez, Peru, where her daughter Amanda, age 3, shrieked at the sight of a Campa tribesman with face paint and headdress. Wright said, “¿Donde está el hotel turista?” (“Where is the tourist hotel?”), and everybody within earshot laughed. The family moved in with some farmers before heading out into the field.

The local guides were nervous about going into the rain forest at night to help her hunt for owl monkeys. So Wright headed out alone, leaving behind a Hansel-and-Gretel trail of brightly colored flagging tape. She got lost anyway and began to panic at the thought of deadly fer-de-lance snakes and jaguars. “And then I heard this familiar sound, and it was an owl monkey. And I thought, OK, I can’t act like I’m scared to death. I’ll act like a primatologist. There are fruits dropping down in four places, so there are probably four monkeys. And I just started writing anything so I didn’t have to think.”

Near dawn, she heard animals stampeding toward her, and she scrambled up a tree for safety. “I heard this sound above me, and it was an owl monkey scolding and urinating and defecating and saying, ‘What are you doing in my territory?’ And by the time he finished this little speech, it was daylight. And then he went into this tree and his wife followed right behind him, and I thought, Oh, my god, that’s their sleep tree.”

She wrapped the tree with tape, “like a barber pole,” so she could find it again, and made her way to camp. Six months later, back in the United States, she presented Kinzey with her study and got it published in a leading primatology journal. She also applied to graduate school in anthropology. In her second week of studies at the City University of New York, Wright and her husband separated.

The mother of all lemurs—the castaway species that somehow found its way to Madagascar—was probably a small, squirrel-like primate akin to the modern-day bush baby in central Africa. Prosimians (a name literally meaning pre-monkey, now used as a catchall category for lemurs, lorises and bush babies) tend to have proportionally smaller brains than their cousins, the monkeys and apes, and they generally rely more on scent than vision. There are now ring-tailed lemurs, red-bellied lemurs, golden-crowned lemurs and black-and-white ruffed lemurs—so many different lemurs that Madagascar, with less than half a percent of the earth’s land surface, is home to about 15 percent of all primate species.

Among other oddities, the population includes lemurs that pollinate flowers, lemurs with incisors that grow continuously like a rodent’s, lemurs that hibernate—unlike any other primate—and lemurs in which only the females seem to hibernate. The smallest living primates are mouse lemurs, able to fit in the palm of a human hand. An extinct lemur as big as a gorilla roamed the island until about 350 years ago. Lemur species also display every possible social system, from polygyny (one male with multiple female partners) to polyandry (one female with multiple males) to monogamy.

Females are usually in charge. Males acknowledge the female’s dominance with subtle acts of deference. They wait till she finishes eating before going into a fruit tree. They step aside when she approaches. They cede her the best spot in the roosting tree at night.

Female dominance remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of lemur behavior. Food sources are scattered on Madagascar, and highly seasonal. It may be that females need to control the limited supply to meet the nutritional demands of pregnancy and lactation. Big, tough, high-maintenance males would likely consume too many calories, Wright theorizes, and provide too little compensatory protection against a flash-in-the-night predator like the fossa. But whatever the explanation, the lemur system of low-key female leadership has become a source of deep, playful empathy for Wright.

Dominant females don’t usually practice the sort of relentless aggression that occurs in male-dominated species such as baboons, macaques and chimpanzees, she says. They typically commit only about one aggressive act every other day, and “they do it expeditiously. They run up and bite or cuff the individual, and it’s very effective. They don’t do a lot of strutting around saying, ‘I’m the greatest.’” For every aggressive act, females engage in perhaps 50 bouts of friendly grooming, according to Wright’s observations. In fact, grooming is so important to lemurs that it has shaped the evolution of their teeth. Whereas our lower canines and incisors stand upright, for biting and tearing, theirs stick straight out and have evolved into a fine-toothed comb plate, for raking through one another’s hair.

Wright herself exerts dominance in the benign style of lemurs. “Zaka,” she says one afternoon, taking aside one of her best fieldworkers for a sort of verbal grooming. “I have to tell you about how important you are. When we were looking at all the data from the survey you did, it was very nice, very nice.” She is also a shrewd consensus builder, adept at winning local support. When she sends a student into the field, she urges him to hire local villagers as porters and guides, so they will see that the park can put money in their pockets. “I didn’t know how to make a national park,” Wright says. “What I did was brainstorm with the Malagasy [as people from Madagascar are known] here and with the people in the Department of Water and Forests. It was always a group effort. They had to be a part of it, or it wasn’t going to work at all.”

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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