In my very first post here, I alluded to the fact that my entire reason for being on St. Catherines Island was to be a caretaker for lemurs. Then, I went ahead and proceeded to post about everything but the lemurs. So without further ado, here is the long-awaited lemur post. That orange-eyed beast staring out of the photo above is Hazel. She is one of the island's 48 resident ring-tailed lemurs. Jessie James and June Carter Cash are behind her to the right and photobombing in from the left there is Zipporah. When I first announced my desire for this internship to friends and family, a barrage of questions followed. What are lemurs? Why are they in Georgia? Are they dangerous? What do lemurs have to do with LifeSavers candy? For an answer to that last question, I'm going to hold off a bit longer. But, as far as the first few go, here's the quick and dirty about my new furry friends.
First and foremost, lemurs are not monkeys. They are, however, primates. For those visual learners like myself, here is a basic primate family tree. Essentially, the great, great, great ancestors of all primates split into two groups about fifty million years ago. One of those groups went on to become today's prosimians. This is the group to which lemurs and slow lorises belong. That second group of primates went on to split many more times and gave birth (evolutionarily speaking) to monkeys, apes, chimps, and humans. So, while all of these animals fall under the primate umbrella, humans are more closely related to monkeys than lemurs are. Lemurs have two very sharp incisors (making them look like deranged little vampires sometimes), but do not possess claws. While they can be quite vicious to one another, my cat poses more of a threat to me than these guys do.
There are many types of lemurs and every one of them are native only to Madagascar. The particular group of ring-tailed lemurs that came to live on St. Catherines Island initially came from the Bronx. In 1985, the New York Zoological Society (which later became the Wildlife Conservation Society) decided to release six lemurs on the island; two boys and four girls. The intent was to have a place closer to home where the lemurs could roam and their habits and social structure could be studied. Since their diet and the climate here are different, the lemurs' reproductive capabilities are a tad off from what they would be in their home country. Female lemurs are able to get pregnant at a younger age, infant lemurs survive longer, and there are more twins born (lemurs usually only have one or two babies at a time). Consequently, the population on St. Catherines grew and grew until it reached well over 100 individuals. Many of the lemurs went off to supply other zoos over the years. In fact, most of the ring-tailed lemurs in the United States are directly related to the ones that live here on the island.
Today, we have five small troops of free-roaming lemurs and one building where the lemurs live in enclosures. I have the glamorous task of cleaning up after that last group, as well as preparing food for all 48 of them. Our lemurs get plenty of fruits and veggies, as well as something called "primate biscuits." Their favorite foods tend to be berries and bananas, while their least favorite food is almost certainly cantaloupe (and I don't blame them - yuck!). I also get to play with the enclosed lemurs as part of their daily enrichment. We give them puzzles, target train them, and bring them different plants from around the island. Each of them have their own personalities, habits, and proclivities. While I haven't learned them all yet, I've gotten to know a few of them well. Even after a month, they're still awe-inspiring - not to mention cute as hell.