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Contact: Tim Lucas
Duke University

Duke scientists on 'Madagascar' the movie

Movie highlights island's endangered ecology, lemur mysteries

Ringtailed Lemur
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

DURHAM, N.C. -- The animated movie "Madagascar," which opens May 27, will be more than summer fun to scientists at Duke University.

-- Conservation scientist Luke Dollar, who studies the island's top predator, called the fossa, sees the movie as drawing much-needed attention to the plight of Madagascar's endangered species.

-- Cognitive neuroscientist Elizabeth Brannon sees the movie as highlighting the island's extraordinary lemurs, whose intelligence she is learning is far greater than previously believed.

-- The primatologists at the Duke Primate Center hope the movie will attract interest to the fascinating array of lemur species that populate the island.

According to Dollar, time may be running out for the real-life counterparts of the lemurs, fossas and other endangered animals featured in "Madagascar."

"Right now, the sword of Damocles is hanging over Madagascar," Dollar says. The undisturbed forests that many of the island nation's species need to survive are being burned for charcoal or cleared for subsistence farming by islanders driven by extreme poverty. "If you stop the clearing, you consign the islanders to a life of even greater poverty," he says. "If you don't stop it, you consign some of the world's rarest species to extinction."

About 85 percent of the country's plants and animals are endemic to the island you won't find them in the wild anywhere else in the world, he notes. Some could be lost within five years if the clearing continues at the current pace. Dollar is a doctoral candidate at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. He's spent five of the last 10 years in Madagascar tracking the island's top predator, the fossa an elusive relative of the mongoose with a fearsome reputation as a hunter. Though fossas weigh only about 25 pounds at maturity, they've been known to kill and eat bush pigs three times that size. Today, only about 2,500 of the carnivorous, cat-like creatures survive. Dollar hopes that the movie will increase public interest in fossas and the island's other rare species.

"We're hoping for a 'Free Willy' phenomenon," Dollar says, referring to a 1993 children's movie that triggered widespread public interest in whales, both in captivity and the wild. "If moviegoers leave the theater thinking, 'Madagascar what a wild place, we need to save it,' then we might be able to start generating more support to turn things around."

Ringtailed Lemur
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

The island's unique wildlife, its tropical beaches and its current pro-environment government make it a good candidate to be one of the next hot eco-tourism destinations, Dollar believes, despite its rudimentary infrastructure and isolated geographic location off the east coast of Africa. "This is one of the 10 places everyone should see before they die," he says. "It's one of the strangest, most endangered ecosystems on Earth the only place where we're still discovering and describing new species nearly every month." Photos and journal entries from Dollar's expeditions are online.

Elizabeth Brannon has mounted new experiments revealing that lemurs -- once believed to be primitive, ancient offshoots of the primate family tree -- are indeed intelligent creatures.

Brannon is using touch-screens, Plexiglas boxes holding raisins and buckets hiding grapes to establish that ringtail and mongoose lemurs possess a surprising ability to learn sequences of pictures and to discriminate quantities. While Brannon's work is still only at a preliminary stage, its initial results lead her to believe that such studies could mark the dawning of a new appreciation of lemur intelligence.

"We've only been studying ringtails and mongoose lemurs so far," she said. "But our hope is to study many different prosimian species at the Primate Center, taking advantage of the fact that the center has so many different species with such an incredible diversity in sociality and ecology."

Indeed, the Duke Primate Center is home to the world's largest collection of endangered primate species. The center houses only prosimians -- lemurs, lorises and galagos. The center is open for guided public tours by appointment. Call (919) 489-3364.

The center currently houses about 250 animals of 15 species. They include the popular ringtails depicted in the movie and the Coquerel's sifaka "Zoboo," the central lemur character in the popular children's television series Zoboomafoo.

"We hope that people who enjoy the animated lemurs in the movie will come to the center to see the very animated real-life lemurs we have at the center," said Primate Center Director William Hylander. "These animals offer us a dramatic educational lesson in the importance of preserving such extraordinary endangered species. They also represent important scientific mysteries that our center's scientists are now exploring," he said.