Saturday, October 6, 2012

Collaring our first lemur


The hot, dry breeze blowing through camp, carrying the faint scents of eucalyptus, citrus blossoms, and smoke rising from a faraway valley, remind me of the Santa Ana winds back home in Southern California this time of year.

I am happily situated at the campsite in Mandena, near Fort Dauphin in Madagascar, and have been very busy with learning some essential phrases in Malagasy and French, as well as trying to learn the local and scientific names of every living thing I see, from birds to reptiles, insects to primates.

Tim and I set up our tent, our home for the next few months. It is in a quiet neighborhood, very spacious with high ceilings, built-in shelving, good lighting, and marble countertops. Just kidding about that last one. (And because many of you have asked, there is a real toilet --that flushes!-- a few hundred meters away).

Home sweet home

 While I had a few days to settle in and get over my jetlag, as soon as we got to the forest, it was time to get down to business. The first order of business for this study is to fit radio collars to the hapalemurs, so that they will be easier to find, and easier to habituate. By that I mean that a few groups of the lemurs are not accustomed to people following them, and it takes some time for them to become used to our presence without fleeing; so if we are able to locate them faster with a radio collar, and able to track them even if they run away, they may relax a little sooner once they realize we do not pose a threat. Once the lemurs are habituated, they generally ignore us as we diligently collect data on their feeding behavior and social behavior.

So, the goal of my first day in the forest was to capture a hapalemur and put a radio collar on her. The collars not only help us to locate individuals, but they also measure the animal's body temperature and their activity level (sleeping, moving, etc), which will be important data to analyze in conjunction with our observations of what they eat. These lemurs, known as bamboo lemurs, live in a forest without bamboo; hence, the goal of the research is to determine how the hapalemurs are behaviorally flexible in their dietary choices (e.g., eat terrestrial grass, rather than leaves up in the trees), and how they are physiologically adapted to their environment (e.g., their body temperature might be lower, or they might sleep periodically throughout the day and eat periodically throughout the night to maintain their metabolism).

Now, because a picture is worth 1000 words, I'll let the photos tell the story.

We came upon the first group of lemurs a few minutes' walk into the forest.

3 of the 5 group members

In order to collar them, our experienced team of field guides must first use a blowdart to gently anesthetize an individual.
While we waited for the anesthesia to work, Tim set up all of the necessary equipment to collect morphometric data on the subject.
The anesthesia is working, and we safely capture an adult female.

Tim uses calipers to measure the female's head.

Tim collects morphometric data; here, he measures the length of her palm.

This is called a toilet claw- specialized for grooming
Finally, the collar is on!
Afterward, the female joined her group again, and Tim tested out the signal.


  1. This is fascinating. Do the non-collared lemurs treat the collared ones differently?

  2. Great question! The Hapalemurs live in small family groups (up to 7 individuals), and our goal is to put radio collars on one adult male and one adult female in each of four groups, and ID collars on everyone else. Hopefully by the end of the month, everyone will be wearing a collar. They do not appear to treat each other differently, but I will definitely be looking out this week to see if they groom the area around the collar more than usual.

  3. After they get darted, would you have to catch the lemur as it falls out of the tree? This is super interesting! The toilet claw freaks me out a little bit.

  4. After they are darted, we wait under the tree with a green blanket (see picture #6 in this post), and catch them old-school cartoon firefighter style. Other times, if they are lower on the branch, we can wear long leather gloves and pretty much pick them right up. The toilet claw freaked me out too! Like all other primates, lemurs have hands/feet with fingernails, except on one finger they have this claw, which is specialized for grooming. I learn something new every day!