They’re popular in zoos but if you want to see wild ring-tailed lemurs, the only place to find them is in southern Madagascar. And so almost every year for nearly two decades, biological anthropologist Lisa Gould (left) has packed field gear and made the long journey to the world’s fourth largest island, off the south-east coast of Africa. Her explorations have put her at the forefront of science’s understanding of the behaviour and ecology of these distinctive primates.
I'VE BEEN STUDYING RING-TAILED LEMURS SINCE 1987. I was drawn to them by their uniqueness—they’re lovely animals—and the fact they weren’t well studied at the time. Now there’s lots and lots of research not just on lemurs but Madagascar in general.
YOU GET TO KNOW THEM SO WELL. It’s like living in the middle of a soap opera. In any primate group, somebody’s always in trouble.
THERE WAS AN OLD MALE who had broken his tibia. The sad thing is it took a couple of months for him to die. But there was another fairly low ranking male who stuck with him. This was fascinating. When the group moved, he waited for him and groomed him when he was dying. In evolutionary psychology there’s this idea that there’s no true altruism. But it was very interesting that he was sticking by this guy.
MOST LEMURS ARE FEMALE DOMINANT and there’s lots of contention as to why. The most sensible (explanation) is that Madagascar is a very seasonal island. It’s battered by cyclones. It’s subject to really severe drought. All the females give birth within a short period during the dry season when there’s not much food available. So it would be in the best interest of the males to let the females have priority access to the food, and have their offspring survive.
SO PRIORITY ACCESS TO FOOD evolved into social dominance. If a female wants to rest in an area where there’s a beam of sun and a male’s there she can just walk over to him and smack him and he leaves. It’s just the way it works.
THERE'S ALWAYS GOING TO BE an alpha female in the group. It’s based on good social and manipulative skills. That’s true of all primates and all mammals: the highest ranking has the best manipulative and social skills.
MADAGASCAR IS KIND OF URGENT. It’s a real environmental hotspot because there’s not very much forest left there. In the next 10 or 20 years there could be a lot of extinctions.
I'VE WORKED AT TWO PRIMARY field study sites. One site (the Berenty Private Reserve) I’m returning to this year after 19 years. Research was started at Berenty in 1960s by (lemur research pioneer) Alison Jolly. There are lots of foreign researchers plus (local) Malagasy scientists and students. Every time I go, I provide about $750 US to assist Malagasy grad students.
THIS YEAR (AND FOR THE NEXT five years) I’ll be studying nutritional ecology. It’ll be arduous: recording everything they eat, how long they eat, estimating how much they’re taking in, comparing males and females during lactation period. I’ll also be looking at predator-sensitive foraging.
I COULDN'T BE FARTHER AWAY from Madagascar than I am here at UVic. In 2002 there was nearly a civil war and I couldn’t go. You realize you have an attachment to the place. There are aspects I like, others are really hard…I’m always happy to come home.
Lemurs: Ecology and Adaptation, co-edited by Lisa Gould and Michelle Sauther, will be published in 2007 by Springer.