Saturday, November 12, 2011

Love at first lemur

Beware supernormal stimuli!

You mightn’t be familiar with the term, but you’ll know the concept:
some innocent critter is sensibly designed to react to a natural trigger (like the colour of its mate) and then we come along and offer it something that’s... well, MORE.

Maybe you’ve seen footage of those songbirds who happily ditch their own eggs in favour of plastic ones because the fakes are bigger and brighter. Or how about the Aussie jewel beetles who prefer to woo beer bottles because they’re soooo much sexier (bigger and more amber) than their mates. (Please note that I’ve shown great self restraint re racist/sexist quips about Aussie males in general).

In a world of computerized special effects, photo-shopped images and plastic surgery, it’s easy for us to fall victim too. We’ve all seen those lovely faces of perfect symmetry, pupils enlarged to whisper of arousal.

Yet despite my awareness, I wasn’t expecting to encounter such chicanery on the first day of my holiday in Madagascar.

With a morning to kill in Antananarivo (the catchy name of Madagascar’s capital), we visited a small park in which rehabilitated lemurs roam free. It was drizzling as we pushed between the overhanging branches, peering through the wet leaves for our first glimpse of lemur.
Then womp. It happened.
I felt my chest contract and, for a moment, I couldn't breathe.

Right in front of me, staring intently into my eyes, was the most amazing animal.

Now lemurs come in a wacky assortment of models. There are tiny, trembling mouse-sized ones and weird etiolated ones with frog-like limbs. There are fluffy orbs with saucer-eyes, aspiring pandas and flamboyant confections of fur, complete with colourful ruffs, tufts and plumy tails.
But the lemur sitting in the tree in front of me was none of these. It was a common brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus): a sensible, work-a-day kind of critter. Clothed demurely in soft grey fur that shaded into a sooty face, it gazed at me with huge amber eyes and an intelligent, if slightly rueful expression.
I stared back open-mouthed, and felt as if we’d known each other all our lives.
Oh shit!

Common brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus): love at first sight.
A mongoose lemur (Eulemur mongoz) looking pensive. In retrospect, the name alone should've made me wary.

Now ‘Eu’ in Greek means ‘easy’ or ‘well’ and I can’t think of a better moniker for these lemurs. Each time I encountered a Eulemur species (there are ten in all), I was swept off my feet all over again.

Why? For a start, all their legs are of equal length (I know this doesn’t sound notable but - believe me - it’s no mean feat for a lemur) and they saunter about quadrupedally (as all good mammals should).

But don’t imagine that Eulemurs simply walk, oh no. They sashay along with all the poise of a supermodel. To see them walking toward you along a forest trail is to have your breath snatched away by their... well, panache. Unable to figure out what evoked such a strong air of self-assurance, I finally resorted to searching the literature. And, lo and behold, someone has actually studied the gait of brown lemurs (primatologists are a well funded lot).

These lemurs not only have an unusually long upper and forearm bones, their shoulder blades are astonishingly mobile. At the touch down of a fore foot, a brown lemur’s shoulder joint is extended much further forward than in other small mammals, and this serves to further lengthen its stride. From a human perspective, this exceptionally long stride coupled with a very prominent swing of the shoulders, is something one only ever sees on the catwalk!

The morning after the night before. Eulemurs are unique among primates (except perhaps for humans) in refusing to live in thrall to the sun. They happily gad about both night and day (i.e. they’re cathemeral).

Sipping sap. Red-fronted brown lemurs (Eulemur rufus) adore fruit (and are influential seed distributers) but when times are hard, they’ll also nibble flowers, buds, leaves, sap and creepy-crawlies. They even munch toxic millipedes, rinsing them in saliva and wiping them off on their tails!

The black lemur (Eulemur macaco) has a more macabre relationship with millipedes. This species nips the millipede repeatedly to make it ooze toxin, and then anoints its fur with a toxin-saliva mix (you can see one doing this here). Experiments have shown that the benzoquinones in the millipede secretion repel mosquitoes.

Many lemurs like to socialise, but the brown lemurs (there are six closely-related species) are best seen as the hippies of prosimian society. Unlike most other species (in which the females wear the pants), brown lemurs don’t go in for any of that tense, hierarchical stuff. Their co-ed bands are fluid and truly egalitarian, and no one seems to mind if a few of the neighbours crash for a while. If an argument does break out, brown lemurs respond promptly with loving gestures of reconciliation (unlike the better known ringtailed lemur, in which an escalation of conflict is all you can expect). Oh, and did I mention that they’re promiscuous too, happily bedding all opposite-sexed group-mates? Although no one has actually observed them putting flowers in their fur or driving VW Beetles, I reckon it’s only a matter of time.

Red-fronted brown lemur mums give birth synchronously in September or early October.

Baby red-fronted brown lemurs cling to Mum’s tummy for their first month and then go piggyback. After three months of baby-haulage, Mum puts her foot down and the little one must travel on its own four paws.

Now if you’ve looked at the photographs and you’re secretly wondering why I’m so smitten by such nondescript looking critters, you’re not alone.
In truth, I found my infatuation for these animals quite disconcerting. The problem is, you see, Eulemurs are a supernormal stimuli as far as I’m concerned.

After 15 years studying mongooses, I can’t look into a little mongoosey face without experiencing a warm inner glow. And these lemurs don’t just look a bit like mongooses, they’re equivalent to computer-enhanced mongooses! Not only are they ten times larger (and big is good, right), they also have HUGE lamp-like eyes, and they look right at you with a knowing intelligence that (sad as I am to admit it) mongooses just don’t show.

Now I’m not going to go rushing out and start studying these lemurs.
After all, I’m only attracted to them because of my love for mongooses, right?
I’m sure I won’t.

Well, at least I’m pretty sure...

A common brown lemur (left) and a mongoose lemur (rear) conspiring to break my resolve.

“Mum everyone's watching!” Social embarrassment is rife among immature red-fronted brown lemurs.


  1. That black lemur with his own source of mosquito repellent is amazing. (But you know, the lemurs are a bit TOO pop-eyed!)

  2. oh, my, what soulful eyes! I can see how you could be tempted to stray...

    Re: Supernormal stimulus. In grad school I hung out with a lot of evolution & human behavior people (my secret life, outside of my natural resources world). One of my guy friends there dated a housemate of mine, a who was as tall as me (6'), long, really full, thick brown hair, and a very lanky walk.

    I learned weeks later that all the guys in this little gang of mine by that time referred to her, simply, as "The Supernormal Stimulus." =) So, in addition to thanking you for the super interesting and well-supported and beautifully written post, thanks for memories! =)

  3. They're simply mean very interesting animals from a zoological perspective. Yes, that's it.

    That teenager in the last pic looks totally mortified by the lemur equivalent of mum spitting on a hanky to wipe his/her face.

  4. Elephants Eye,
    They'll be inventing air freshener and dish-washing liquid any day now.

    Ahh, psychology geeks - who can live without 'em.
    And thank you for the supernormal compliments!

    Oh yes, I almost forgot that we scientists are immune to all the emotional biases suffered by lesser mortals. Sheesh, that's lucky.


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