Researcher Sheds Light on Elusive Lemurs

D.L. Parsell
for National Geographic News
September 20, 2002

Seven years ago, as she set out for the first time to study lemurs in the forests of Madagascar, primatologist Mireya Mayor wasn't even sure she'd be able to find what she was looking for.

Lemurs are famously elusive, and those Mayor hoped to study—two types of a sub-species known as sifakas—were so rare that scientists and conservationists didn't know whether they still existed.

For two weeks after setting up camp, Mayor and her research assistants had no success at all. When they finally did glimpse the mysterious lemurs, the acrobatic creatures fled too fast for observation.

Then, moving a bit deeper into the forest, the team got a lucky break. Local villagers said they knew an old man who talked often about seeing the lemurs at a certain spot in the forest. "We walked 12 hours straight to reach his village," Mayor recalls. "I didn't speak Malagache, but we were able to hire him to guide us to the area."

The group set off—in killing heat and across dense, mountainous terrain—hiking for two days alongside a team of oxen that carried a month's supply of food. At one point, Mayor asked the old man about the name of their destination. His reply: Camp Antoberatsy, or "bad camp."

"People came to that area of the forest to mourn," Mayor explains.

That tradition proved to be advantageous because the lemurs that lived in the surrounding forest were more accustomed to seeing humans. "Even while we were still pitching camp, we spotted lemurs in the trees above us," said Mayor.

Over the next month, the animals gradually got used to the intruders, enabling Mayor to begin the field studies that laid the foundation for her career.

She is now completing her Ph.D. dissertation at Stony Brook State University of New York, a study of how two types of lemurs found only in northern Madagascar—silky sifakas (Propithecus diadema candidus) and Perrier's sifakas (Propithecus diadema perrieri)—are affected by forest fragmentation and isolation. Both sifakas are among the most critically endangered primates in the world.

Mayor, whose research has been the subject of PBS and National Geographic television programs, has just been named a field specialist and on-air correspondent for Geographic's EXPLORER TV series.

Fascination With Primates

Continued on Next Page >>




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