Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring primatologist Dr Patricia Chapple Wright of Stony Brook University, who founded Madagascar's Centre ValBio Research Station. Dr Wright has won numerous awards, including a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and the 2014 Indianapolis Prize. She was one of the subjects of the recently released IMAX film Island of Lemurs, along with the eponymous island and its endemic primates.
Dr Wright began her lecture with a quick account of her pathway to a career in the sciences. After a childhood in Buffalo, New York, she determined to make her way to a warmer clime, joking, "In my dreams, I thought I'd go south of Buffalo, I'd go to New Jersey." She and her husband made it all the way to Brooklyn, in the days when she could see Dzimi Hendriks at the Filmore East for five dollars. In a pet shop near the Filmore, she was enchanted by an Aotus monkey, which she purchased. The purchase of the monkey inspired her to learn all about furry animals and the monkey's dissatisfaction with being alone when she and her husband went out at night drove her to take a leave of absence from work so she could travel to Latin America to find her monkey a mate, a project in which she succeeded. While in Costa Rica attempting to ascertain whether Aotus was present in that country, she was stuck in San Isidro by a cyclone. While there, she fell ill and, after a battery of tests to determine if she'd picked up an illness, she learned that she was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter right around the time that her pet monkeys had a baby (at this point, she displayed an incredibly cute picture of her adorable young daughter with an adorable baby monkey perched on top of her head).
After the birth of the baby monkey, she noticed that the father took care of the baby about 90% of the time. The mother would nurse the baby, but the father would take care of it when she had finished. She wanted to learn how the division of parental care between males and females evolved, but first she had to learn how a non-academic would begin such a study. Her initial impulse was to write a letter to Jane Goodall. After receiving no reply, she wrote to the National Geographic Society and was informed that she would not be eligible for funding without a PhD. She called her mother for advice, and her mother was able to have upstate philanthropist George Eastman advise her- without a university affiliation, she wouldn't be able to get grant money, if she were to obtain affiliation, she would be able to get funding. She was able to contact a staffer at The New School who told her that, for a 25% fee to cover overhead, she could receive affiliation. At around the same time, her mother, a habitual clipper of newspaper articles, sent her an item about a City College professor studying monkeys in the Amazon. She then called CCNY, where she informed Dr Warren Kinzey that she wished to study Aotus. His immediate response was, "You know they're nocturnal?" She was able to secure funding and eventually wrote her doctoral dissertation on Aotus.
After obtaining her dissertation, Dr Elwyn Simons of the Duke University Primate Center (now the Duke Lemur Center) contacted her- he had received a grant from the NSF to study tarsiers, and had sent five researchers to obtain the nocturnal primates, with no success. Hearing that she was the nocturnal primate expert, he wanted to send her to Borneo to bring back tarsiers. She was able to obtain twelve tarsiers in Borneo and twelve tarsiers in the Philippines.
After this successful foray, she was presented with a big problem- since a 1972 revolution had occurred, there were no primatologists working in Madagascar. Nothing was known about the current state of the island's lemurs. In particular, it wasn't known if the greater bamboo lemur (Haplalemur simus) had gone extinct. In 1986, Dr Wright was sent to ascertain whether or not the animal were extinct. When she traveled to Madagascar, it was one of the poorest countries on the planet- there were no roads, no cars, the medium of exchange was barter, and the country's only ally was North Korea. After a month of searching, she looked for lemurs in the forest behind the old hotel in which she was staying. Her first clue that there were lemurs about was a shredded bamboo trunk surrounded by green pellets- lemur turds! While she didn't find H. simus at this time, she discovered a species new to science, the golden bamboo lemur (Hapalemur aureus). Happily, she found greater bamboo lemurs in 1987.
At around this time, timber exploiters were coming to Madagascar to cut trees in the forest in which a new species had been discovered and a lost species rediscovered. A national park was needed, but money was needed to form a park. If she were able to get money, the government of Madagascar could create a park. Put starkly, if she did nothing, these animals would go extinct. She was able to raise $3.8 million dollars from Liz Claiborne and the MacArthur Foundation, and then contacted the timberers and all of the villagers in the vicinity in which she'd located the bamboo lemurs, explaining the need for a park. In turn, the villagers spoke of their needs- they needed schools, they needed healthcare, they needed economic aid, and they needed a soccer ball. Dr Wright noted that the Malagasy people are extraordinarily organized, so once their needs were met, they acted quickly- in 1991, Ranomafana National Park was created. USAID provided a new bridge to replace the terrifying old bridge that gave access to the area, and soccer balls were obtained for the villagers.
After her account of her career, and her triumph in creating a refuge for lemurs, Dr Wright proceeded to discuss the primates themselves. The ancestors of lemurs arrived at Madagascar about sixty million years ago, not long after the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. When these early primates colonized Madagascar, there wasn't much animal life there, so they were able to adapt to a multitude of environmental niches, eventually radiating to over 100 species. Members of the order Carnivora didn't reach the island until about twenty million years after the lemur ancestors did, and there weren't a lot of birds or bats on the island, though some of the birds were spectacular. She introduced us to a bunch of representative lemurs- the bamboo lemurs, which have adapted to a cyanide-rich diet,being able to excrete cyanide in their urine rather than having it blow up their red blood cells. The dwarf lemurs hibernate for about six months- Dr Wright quipped that they are the world's laziest mammals. The frugivorous black-and-white ruffed lemurs swap babies from nest-to-nest among related groups in a form of animal 'daycare'- the males care for the babies while the females feed, thus increasing the chance of survival for all offspring. The nocturnal woolly lemurs are noted for their night calls. The sportive lemurs have a high tolerance for alkaloids in their diet. Red-bellied lemurs form female-dominant groups- males are colorblind while females have color vision... it is thought that high-status females use their color vision in order to better forage for fruits.
There was a wonderful aside concerning the otherworldly Aye-Aye. Aye-Ayes were needed at the Duke University Primate Center, so Dr Wright was charged with bringing them to the U.S. Regarding the task, "It's easy, climb tree and pull the Aye-Aye out of its nest." After poking around one-hundred and thirty-five nests, no Aye-Ayes were obtained... thousands of dollars, and no Aye-Ayes? Finally, two Aye-Ayes were found... both male, no breeding pair- what kind of biologist brings back two males? The males were brought to the primate center, and another expedition was sent to obtain females. Finally, a pair of female Aye-Ayes were found, a mother and her daughter, were found on the first day in the field. They were supposed to be transported in dog carriers, but one of them was able to gnaw its way out of the carrier- it had to be pushed down into the carrier, which was hastily repaired with duct tape. Facing a six month quarantine for the animals (a critical delay), Dr Wright was referred to KLM being told "They like animals." She was reluctant to show the animals to the KLM agent, thinking "look at that face!" She relented and showed one of the animals to the agent, who promptly exclaimed "That's an Aye-Aye!" and produced a picture clipped from National Geographic magazine. The only seats available were in the first class section, but the agent exclaimed, "This animal deserves first class." While Dr Wright had beetle larvae in her pocket to feed to the Aye-Ayes, the KLM stewardess decided to feed them a banana, which they ate- until that stewardess in the first class section of that KLM flight fed them that banana, it was never known that they ate fruit. At some point in the flight, the animals were let out of their carriers with the permission of the other passengers. When the female Aye-Ayes arrived at the primate center, the formerly silent males began calling out and now there are thirty-two Aye-Ayes in the center. A female Aye-Aye enters estrus every three years, when it calls out and mates with a single male, which she grabs with her hind feet, whereupon they copulate for one to two hours.
The Aye-Aye has big ears and long fingers- it taps on dead logs in order to listen for insect larvae (a technique known as percussive foraging). It then gnaws holes in the wood with its beaver-like teeth and spears the grubs with an alarmingly skinny finger- its feeding style is best compared to that of a woodpecker.
Another fascinating aside concerned grey mouse lemurs. In the 1950's a bunch of mouse lemurs were brought to Paris by French researchers. In captivity, the lemurs are subject to dementia and type two diabetes. In 1991, it was discovered that the mouse lemurs of Paris got plaques and tangles in their brain neurons (for some Secret Science synergy, see the recap of last month's lecture). A NSF grant was earmarked to study if lemurs in the wild were subject to dementia, so a number of animals were caught, chipped, and tracked. Old lemurs, twelve to eighteen years of age, were found in the wild, but out of a sample of 650 individuals, none exhibited symptoms of Alzheimer's. The wild lemurs eat a lot of insects and berries toxic to humans, but only captive lemurs exhibit symptoms of diabetes and dementia.
The heart of the talk was the history of Ranomafana National Park and the Centre ValBio facility. From 1986-2003, researchers had to camp in tents or cabin. In 2003, a grant came in to build a grander facility, and provisions were made to train Malagasy students. In 2012, the facility was expanded- the expansion involved a great deal of labor, with bricks being handmade and the stones being chiseled by hand. The expanded facility includes a molecular biology lab and an infectious disease lab. Currently a reforestation project is underway- in twenty-two sites, ten thousand endemic trees are being planted in order to restore degraded habitats. Thirty-thousand tourists are expected to visit the park per year, and 50% of the park entrance fees goes to support nearby villagers. With improved horticultural techniques, the fruit-to-flower timespan for most of the native trees is about eighteen years. The reforestation efforts are first being put in place along riverbanks.
There are conservation education outreach programs- the future of lemurs depends on educating the next generation. To benefit the local Malagasy population, cyclone relief is provided as needed and there is an economic development component to the center's work- local people are employed full-time and there is a mobile wellness team to provide care for locals. A certain amount of parkland is earmarked for vanilla and cacao production- cash crops among the endemic trees. The center also is expanding university connections and sponsors four "study abroad" sessions per year. There's also a Music and Arts "embassy" program. Madagascar's Minister of the Environment is working to create a constellation of connected sites for lemur conservation and research. There's hope for Madagascar, and there's hope for lemurs.
After the lecture, as a special treat, Dr Wright had Ben Mirin, a musician who combines his "human beatbox" schtick with lemur calls, give a brief performance:
Ben, seems like a really likeable, idealistic guy, but I'd be lying if I said most of us weren't hoping for a live lemur.
In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience asked about discoveries of extinct lemur species, and Dr Wright went on a glorious digression about an amazing discovery of subfossil remains, including the bones of lemurs the size of gorillas. When presented with sacks of large bones, Dr Wright hired fifteen laborers to dig for fifteen days in an area of fifteen meters, uncovering hippo bones, Aepyornis bones, crocodile bones, and tortoise bones dating to approximately ten thousand years ago- humans did not reach Madagascar until about two-to-three thousand years ago. More recently, a treasure trove of remains was found in an underwater cave, and among the giant lemur remains, the remains of a giant fossa were found.
Dr Wright delivered a fantastic lecture- part superhero origin tale, part introduction to a fascinating branch of our primate family tree, part conservation procedural, part earnest argument for development and conservation spending, and part well-deserved victory lap with cautious acknowledgement that the important work goes on. Her love for science, her love for lemurs, her love for the Malagasy people, and her love for Madagascar were palpable. She informed the audience that she'd be flying to Madagascar in a couple of days, and I wish her a heartfelt bon voyage.
As an added bonus, Secret Science superstar and Madagascar adventurer Evon Hekkala was in attendance, along with her awesome husband. Over a post lecture beer, Dr Hekkala mentioned that she had asked Dr Wright for some of the prefossil crocodile remains. It's always good to know that Secret Science synergy is actually a thing.
Thanks to Dr Wright, Dr Hekkala, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. Once again, a standing room only crowd was treated to a fantastic, informative lecture. High fives all around.
Here's the trailer for Madagascar: Island of Lemurs:
Crack open a beer and soak in the gorgeous visuals and the mellifluous tones of Morgan Freeman's narration, and you'll have some sense of the Secret Science Club ambiance.