A 'Juliet' is found for the rare lemur Romeo

October 18, 1999

DURHAM, N.C. -- A Duke University Primate Center expedition to rescue a rare species of lemurs from a dwindling forest in the depths of Madagascar has captured two of the animals, a male and a female.

The animals are "diademed sifakas" -- the largest living lemur and considered among the most beautiful of primates, with lush fur of yellow, orange, gray, white and black. The captured female has already been dubbed "Juliet," because after a six-to-12-month period of acclimatization in Madagascar, she will likely join another of her species, Romeo, in residence at the Primate Center in Durham. He is the only member of his species in captivity and has waited six years for companion members of his species to arrive at the center.

Report of the capture came from an e-mail dispatch from expedition leader and center director Ken Glander.

"Juliet was rescued at 2:16 p.m. on October 10, 1999," Glander reported. "The rescue team had spent two frustrating days of walking through the forests of Mahatsinjo, 10 kilometers southeast Tsinjoarivo, Madagascar without seeing any sign of ... Juliet's species."

According to Glander, the expedition's Malagasy guide, the vice president of Mahatsinjo village, first saw Juliet and her group about four hours earlier.

"They were moving along the edge of a ridge-top forest segment. It took the rescue team another four hours to approach and tranquilize Juliet [and the accompanying male]," Glander wrote.

Once captured, the two diademed sifaka were carried in transport kennels by the local villagers the 10 kilometers from the forest to the expedition's vehicle, then driven to Ivoloina, a park managed by the Primate Center.

"The trip from their disappearing forest home to their new home in Ivoloina took two days because of the distance and the poor roads," Glander said. "Juliet and her unnamed companion are now adjusting to their new cage and learning to eat new foods."

The expedition, which began Oct. 7, was part of an urgent effort by the Primate Center scientists to establish a captive breeding colony of the animals before they go extinct from hunting and habitat destruction.

The expedition concentrated on an isolated 600-acre patch of forest that is rapidly being destroyed by wood-gathering and slash-and-burn agriculture. The expedition originally sought to capture three young adult females and two males.

The Ivoloina Zoological Park where Juliet and the male are being acclimatized is a combination lemur breeding facility, zoo, education center and tourist attraction developed over the past decade by the husband-and-wife team of Primate Center primatologists Charles Welch and Andrea Katz.

Any of the captured animals' return to the Duke Primate Center will depend on construction of a new quarantine facility, which the Primate Center is seeking to build to more easily meet the federal requirement for a 30-day quarantine of any animals brought to the center. The $50,000 quarantine center, for which funds are still being sought, will include chambers with separate ventilation systems and an entry area in which people can don isolation suits. The quarantine will also prove invaluable for isolating animals coming into the center from zoos and other facilities, according to Glander.

Romeo first came to the Primate Center in fall 1993, along with his mother Titania and another unrelated male Oberon. The three animals were the first diademed sifakas ever brought into captivity outside Madagascar. Oberon arrived at the center in poor physical shape and subsequently died of an infection. Titania also died later from what the Primate Center scientists believe was too much calcium in her diet, an unexpected and atypical reaction for a lemur.

Romeo, on the other hand, survived and prospered, because as an infant his body required more calcium, and he did not suffer from hypercalcemia. Calcium-rich foods are now excluded from Romeo's diet, and the Duke primatologists believe that they have developed enough information about the sifaka's low-calcium diet of leaves to bring more animals into captivity.

Romeo has now reached a weight of 14 pounds, well on his way to his adult weight of 18 to 20 pounds.

Captive breeding programs such as the Duke Primate Center's can rapidly replenish populations of animals. Because captured animals are well fed, and protected from disease and natural enemies, they can produce from five to 10 times more offspring that survive to adulthood than wild animals normally can, Primate Center primatologists say.

The Duke Primate Center houses the world's largest collection of endangered primates. Duke is also the only university-operated center that concentrates solely on studying and protecting prosimians such as lemurs, lorises, and galagoes. The center is supported by the National Science Foundation, private donations and Duke University.

Prosimians, or "submonkeys," are descended from primates that also were ancestors to the anthropoids, a suborder that includes monkeys, apes and humans. Thus, studying prosimians can yield insights into the early history of human ancestors.

Lemurs, isolated on Madagascar, off Africa's east coast, for more than 50 million years, evolved into almost 50 species, including about 16 species of giant lemurs that are now extinct.
Note to editors: A high-resolution image of Romeo is available at http://photo1.dukenews.duke.edu, file name "Romeo.jpeg." Questions regarding the current status of the animals at Ivoloina may be e-mailed to Andrea Katz or Charles Welch at ivoloina@bow.dts.mg.

Duke University

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