Sunday, February 7, 2016

Superb Lemur Sunday

On this most hallowed of Super Bowl Sundays, I watched some lemurs instead of football.

Lemurs are very busy at all times!

The paleo crew from the museum and NCSU decided to visit the Duke Lemur Center, a research facility at Duke University about 30 minutes from Raleigh with the largest and most diverse collection of lemurs outside of Madagascar. Although it is primarily a scientific research facility, the DLC also offers tours and educational workshops.

It's a large facility with numerous enclosures for the different species they keep, including these 'summer homes' for when the weather is a bit warmer. The DLC also has multiple large multi-acre forest habitats where the lemurs can freely roam during the daytime in the summer. I'd love to go back for one of the forest tours!

At the beginning of the tour there's an opportunity to check out some cool anatomical specimens, like the hand and skull of the insectivorous aye-aye! Check out that thin probing finger!

And you can also touch some pelts from some of the individuals that died of natural causes. I can confirm that lemurs are extremely soft. Also of interest is the wide variety of colours and patterns that lemurs have - I love the little white blaze on the top of the head of the red ruffed lemur (Varecia rubra), the pelt in the centre of this photo.

And there were plenty of live lemurs for us to meet as well! One really cool thing about the DLC is that there are lemurs that are not found in most zoos because they are either relatively delicate in captivity, or destructive of their habitats and require a lot of maintenance. Coquerel's sifakas (pronounced "shifawkas"; Propithecus coquereli) might be familiar to many from the TV show Zoboomafoo! In fact, the show was partly filmed at the DLC.

I also really liked the black and white ruffed lemurs (Variecia variegata).

New to me was the mongoose lemur (Eulemur mongoz), a relatively relaxed fellow compared to the others.

And also new to me were the blue-eyed black lemurs (Eulemur flavifrons). Although it might look like there are two species in the photo below, both lemurs are E. flavifrons! Several lemur species exhibit sexual dichromatism, where males and females are markedly different colours. In this case, the males are black and the females are golden. I'd love to learn what drives this difference in colours, especially when the males aren't particularly elaborate or showy! It's a weird manifestation of sexual selection. 

In addition to these lemurs we also got to see some ring tailed lemurs (Lemur catta), which I'm sure mostly everyone is familiar with, a slow loris (Nycticebus coucang), an unfortunate victim of the pet trade despite being toxic, the diminutive gray mouse lemur (Microcebus murinus), and a fat-tailed dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus medius), which was true to its name.

But the real showstopper for me was a chance to see the remarkable aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis)! Luckily for us, the nocturnal species are kept on a flipped daylight schedule, so we got to see an active aye-aye under dim red light. 

Aye-ayes are one of the species that is particularly hard to keep because, as insectivores that gnaw into wood in order to find food, they are rather destructive to their habitats. The DLC is the only facility in the world that has successfully bred aye-ayes, and these are not animals you're going to see at most zoos so it was a real treat to watch them in action. Things I did not realize about aye-ayes: they are big, and they have incredibly fluffy tails! I'd say the aye-aye was about the size of a large house cat, which was much bigger than I had imagined - I think I had always considered them to be one of the smaller species, perhaps squirrel-sized.

The DLC is a pretty cool place doing a lot of interesting conservation work in addition to non-invasive research on lemurs, and if you're in the Raleigh area it's definitely worth a tour!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Cool stuff at my museum.

Today I wanted to share some of the cool stuff the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences does besides palaeontology!

My home is in the Nature Research Center, the new addition to the museum that opened in 2012 and which features a 3-story-tall globe on the outside! The globe is always an attention-getter, and most days when I'm walking to the bus there are people outside posing in front for pictures. It's a cool thing to have as the icon for the museum. It looks cool in the rare snow we get here, and moody at night.

But the globe isn't just a cool external feature, it's also an important part of the inside of the museum, as the Daily Planet Theatre. The inside of the globe forms a curved surface visible from all three floors, during which scenes from nature are projected for most of the day. Each day one of the scientist gives a special presentation on their research in this venue, and special guests speak here for events. This is where Lindsay and Susan debuted the Carolina Butcher last spring!

The first floor has this spectacular right whale skeleton, but it's not just any right whale - this one has an important scientific story to tell. If you look closely on the right mandible (on the left in this image), and towards the back, you will see a series of little circular divots. This whale's mandible was sampled in order to understand breaking stresses in whale jaws during ship strikes, the cause of death for this poor fellow. Research on this specific whale helped create new legislation for ship speeds in whale zones. I think it's an awesome example of real science making tangible benefits. It's a great way of linking research to a specimen and giving it a powerful narrative.

Within the Nature Research Center are five active research laboratories - Paleontology, Astronomy & Astrophysics, Genomics & Microbiology, Evolution, and Biodiversity. Our labs are part of the exhibit space and visitors to the museum can peer into the labs. Most of the labs have interesting displays in the windows and one of my favourites is the Biodiversity Lab's dermestid colony. They have bear skulls, deer skulls, coyote bits, and all kinds of things decomposing in full view, and at the moment there is a whole baby seal in there.

Not all of the animals are dead! The museum has a pretty extensive collection of live animals on exhibit, like this matamata turtle. Another really cool thing is the visible veterinary lab in the Nature Research Center, where you can see veterinarians caring for the museum's animals. And sometimes this includes surgery! There is always a bi crowd of people whenever the vet window is occupied. Most recently, the museum took in several cold-stunned sea turtles to rehabilitate.

One of my very favourite things in the whole museum besides the Paleo Lab is the Naturalist Center, basically a hands-on library of STUFF. All kinds of good stuff: bones, fur, feathers, specimens in plastic, stuff to look at under the microscope, field guides and anatomical diagrams. I've never really seen  something quite like this in any other museum. It's almost always busy, especially on the late nights on Thursdays, and kids LOVE IT and I think parents probably absorb some information too because everything's hands on.

The thing that gets the most attention is this awesome interactive table where you can take specimens from a specially designated shelf, stick them on, and then a computer somewhere recognizes the specimen and projects a whole bunch of interactive information onto the table. There is much swooping and swishing and it's one of the only touch screen info things I've seen people really use for more than 2 seconds. It's slick, it's cool, and you move a real object around in order to make it work. It's perfect. Here it is in action:

There's so much more that I can't possibly put everything in one post, but I hope this gives you a sense for the unique and interesting ways the museum incorporates real-time scientific research, hands-on and experiential learning, and cool narratives into its exhibits. Things are blended really well and it's no surprise that the museum is one of the most popular destinations in the region. Here's a dinosaur, thanks for sticking around!