“In college, I had trouble deciding what I wanted to be when I grew up. I bounced around from elementary education to photojournalism to creative writing. I knew I loved nature, I knew I loved adventure and travel, and I thank my lucky starts that my undergrad advisor, Linda Taylor, recommended this trip to Madagascar. It changed my life.“
Squish, squish, squish. Andrea Baden’s boots moved gracefully across the rainforest floor. It was late July, and pools of water were forming on the soggy ground in Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park.
But her attention wasn’t on the mat of leaves, sticks and ferns underfoot. Andrea was scanning the canopy above for the animals that would change her life… the rare and beautiful black-and-white ruffed lemurs.
Andrea became intrigued by Madagascar in school. As she learned more and more about this unique and isolated place, Andrea knew she had to see it for herself. Her dream became a reality at age twenty, when she worked with her professors at the University of Miami to plan a trip to this far-flung island nation. Andrea was a photojournalism major, and she was about to apply what she’d learned to an amazing real-world experience: she would create a photo-documentary on the people of Madagascar.
After months of planning, Andrea and her team left New York’s JFK airport on September 10, 2001. She was awash with excitement, expectation, and responsibility for the project ahead.
She was already deep in a rainforest jungle on the other side of the world when she learned of the “9/11” attacks. Several of her team members had family in New York. At that time, communication in Madagascar was very limited. Andrea and her team had to drive 1.5 hours from the rainforest to the nearest town to buy a phone card. Then they had to stand in line to use an unreliable pay-phone to try to connect with their families.
The team spent a tense night deciding if they would stay in Madagascar for three months as planned, or if they would return home. They stayed, and Andrea calls it her “best decision ever.”
To Andrea’s surprise, the inhabitants that captured her imagination over those three months were not the native Malagasy people, but other natives with cold noses, inquisitive faces, and non-prehensile tails. She had fallen in love with lemurs.
As she spent more time with lemurs, Andrea decided that rather than photograph lemurs, she wanted to understand them. Their social structure. Their diet. What makes them unique.
By the time her flight landed back in Miami, Andrea had made up her mind. She was going to become an expert on lemurs. She immediately changed her major to study Anthropology. The catch? She was well into her Junior year at the University of Miami, and she had little time to complete the requirements of the major and still graduate on schedule.
Fueled by her love of lemurs and an intense curiosity, Andrea doubled-up on difficult courses and studied insatiably. She accomplished her goal.
When she returned to Madagascar after college, Andrea assisted scientists studying lemurs, leaf geckos, and exotic birds. In the evenings, around the dinner table at the camp, she heard her colleagues discuss ideas for new research projects. She saw those projects become new discoveries, and realized that textbooks were only a small part of science. The real science happens all around us every day. She decided to be a primatologist.The experience stuck with Andrea, and after college she applied to work with world-renowned primatologist Dr. Patricia Wright, a professor at Stony Brook University, studying black-and-white Ruffed lemurs and their babies.
It seemed like a logical choice. In addition to being one of the world’s foremost experts on lemurs, Dr. Wright was also responsible for the creation of Ranomafana national park… a place where Andrea had initially fallen for lemurs. Dr. Wright has continued to lead the charge in learning about lemurs. She is the driving force behind Stony Brook University’s Centre ValBio research facility in Ranomafana, and was recently featured in IMAX’s Island of Lemurs: Madagascar film.
So just who are these black-and-white ruffed lemurs?
Like all lemurs, black-and-white ruffed lemurs are only found in the wild in Madagascar. They reside in the eastern rain forest corridor from the north to the south of Madagascar. In particular, they can be found in Manombo Reserve, Ranomafana National Park, Mantadia National Park, and Betampona Reserve.
Their diet is 95% fruit, and they guard fruit trees by roar-shrieking. You can find the link to that here. They have two or three offspring every two to six years, depending on fruit availability. Black-and-white ruffed lemurs live in troops of 18 to 30 individuals. These lemurs are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day and they sleep at night. (Though there is some evidence of cathemerality – activity throughout a 24-hour period – on moonlight nights.)
Black-and-white ruffed lemurs fluff makes them look larger than a house cat, but when you hold them, you quickly realize that there’s not much ‘body’ under all that fluff. Young animals are ~3kg (6 to 7 lbs), but mature adults can be as large as 4.7kg (10.4 lbs). Interestingly, their body weight changes significantly throughout the year depending on how much food is available.
Unlike other lemurs, black-and-white ruffed lemurs have babies in litters of two or three. While most lemur babies cling to their mothers, B&W ruffed lemurs do not. They reside in nests high in the rainforest canopy, where mom cuddles them and gives them milk. Mothers carry the babies by mouth like a mother cat carries her kittens.
As the babies grow larger, feeding the babies becomes more taxing for the mother, and she must spend more time away from them gathering food for herself. Before going out to forage, these lemur moms warn their babies to be quiet so they are not found and eaten. But, babies being babies, they often vocalize (cry) or curiously stick their heads out of the nests when unsupervised. When this happens, unattended baby lemurs become targets for predators.
Patience and Determination
Lemurs are the most endangered primate group in the world, and scientists became interested in finding ways to reduce infant mortality in lemurs. Scientists have long thought that cooperation evolves between lemurs through “kin selection,” or close genetic relationships among family members. The theory is that lemurs would be more likely to help their sister or mother with costly behaviors (e.g., behaviors that their own well-being at risk, either by placing themselves in harm’s way, reducing their energetic intake) than they would be to help a non-related lemur.
Andrea designed an experiment on infant care, and identified a troop of lemurs to study. Andrea’s insight involved radio-tracking mothers. Because the black-and-white ruffed lemurs nest high in the rainforest canopy, scientists knew little about how they are reared in the wild.
Her team applied radio collars to the lemurs. Then they waited. And waited.
The first year came and went, and but not a single baby was born in the troop. Her luck did not improve in the second year.
Not easily discouraged, Andrea pressed on, and in the third year of the study… still nothing.
When no babies had been born after the fifth year, Andrea reluctantly set aside her tenacity and decided to shift the study to look at a different aspect of lemur behavior. Why do certain individuals choose to hang out with each other?
A few months into this new study, a strange thing happened. Several litters of baby lemurs arrived! Andrea quickly dusted off her old study, and, with ample subjects in collars, the research she had long sought began!
All the lemurs in the area were already collared, so they knew specifically who was interacting with whom. They were able to follow mothers from the time they woke up in the AM to the time they went to bed.
Not only did Andrea’s team follow the mothers, they “followed” their nests. This was the first time someone had marked, mapped and staked out trees to observe behaviors in the absence of the mother. Doing this allowed them to analyze which lemurs were babysitting each other’s kids.
They were able to recognize behaviors not witnessed before. Three mothers lifted their babies by the scruff of the neck and put them into one nest. Then the mothers then left some males and juvenile females in charge while they went off to feed.
Andrea’s discovery was groundbreaking, as she was the first to systematically document the intricacies of “kindergarten” in primates other than humans.
We asked Andrea what advice she would give students.
“You never know what’s out there until you explore. Test the waters. I never thought of myself as a scientist growing up. I had a curiosity, but I never put myself in that box. But when you find something you love, you stick to it. You do what you need to do to make it happen. Dr. Wright taught me that. Don’t take no for an answer. If you want something, go get it. So I decided I wanted my Ph.D. I decided I wanted to study ruffed lemurs. I decided I wanted to make science my life. And so I did. And I couldn’t be happier with my decision.”
The scientific community couldn’t be happier either.
Dr. Andrea Baden is now a Professor at Hunter College, City University of New York. She is currently teaching courses in Primate Behavior and Conservation at Hunter College. Her latest research is focused on lemur reproductive biology, including the genetic and hormonal underpinnings of shared infant care and whether and how climate change is influencing patterns of lemur reproductive timing.
Hans and Jen Hartvickson write books and stories for elementary students under the pen-name “Mister Lemur.” Their newest title, The Scheming Lemurs: Rivals in Rhyme will be available in November 2014. Leveled for grades 3-4, this fictional story features a group of lemurs on an adventure in Ranomafana National Park and Madagascar’s capital city of ‘Tana. Hans holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Stanford University and an M.B.A. from The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Jen earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a master’s degree in Education from Stanford University. Visit www.misterlemur.com