Liesl, a 9-year-old ring-tailed lemur with the attitude of an Amazon warrior, is the undisputed matriarch of the North Carolina pine forest her family calls home. She and her troop preside over 14 acres of land, foraging alongside squirrels and cardinals when the weather is nice.
Aracus, Liesl’s aging mate, is attuned to the slightest change in her body language – a single glance and he hastily vacates a sunny napping spot or drops a choice piece of food. If he hesitates, a swift yank of the tail reminds him who’s boss.
Matriarchy is rare in the animal kingdom, but it’s rarer still in the scientific community. At the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, the females are in charge – the lemurs and the humans.
While women held only 28 percent of science and engineering jobs in 2015, the Duke Lemur Center’s staff directory and volunteer roster are 85 percent female, and five of seven department heads are women. It’s a sign of progress – at least in the life sciences – and a testament to the legacy of early primate researchers like Jane Goodall.
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“There’s a lot of estrogen here,” said Britt Keith, primate technician supervisor at the Duke Lemur Center, a sprawling 70-acre complex that is home to 224 of the most endangered animals in the world.
From bison to baboons, larger, more aggressive males tend to rule the roost. There are a few notable exceptions – bees, elephants and hyenas, among others – but nowhere other than Madagascar is matriarchy the norm. So lemurs provide a glimpse into a world run by women.
The majority of lemur species are female-dominant, and it’s not just the queen who calls the shots. Liesl’s privilege extends down her matriline, meaning her daughters also enjoy the ability to pull rank on all male relatives. Even female infants outrank Liesl’s beleaguered mate Aracus.
Like Liesl’s ring-tailed lemur family, a woman runs the show at the Duke Lemur Center. Anne Yoder, a celebrated primatologist and director of the center, turned it into the research powerhouse it is today, according to senior staff.
Though the life sciences are now more co-ed – women hold around half the positions in agriculture, zoology and animal husbandry – it wasn’t always that way. Keith recalls her beginnings in the field of animal husbandry over 30 years ago.
“Every job I had was either managed by a man or I was the only female on the job. Maybe one other. Maybe,” Keith said.
When she returned to the zoo field after a decade-long stint in wildlife research, she couldn’t believe her eyes.
“Whoa, where did all these chicks come from?” she asked. “I was so used to working with men, and men only. It was a very good-old-boy system.”
Keith credits the overwhelming shift in demographics to Jane Goodall’s influence on what a generation of women saw as possible.
Breaking the mold
In the late 1950s, paleontologist Louis Leakey suspected the conventional wisdom on animals – that they had nothing like a mind or personality – was wrong. To see if his theory had legs, Leakey deployed a crack team of scientific outsiders to study great apes in the wild.
Who was more “outside science” in the 1950s than women?
Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birutė Galdikas – “Leakey’s Angels” – broke the mold on animal cognition and scandalized the scientific community when they observed tool use and complex communication in great apes. They also broke the first of many glass ceilings for women in the sciences.
Primatology, the study of primates, has become the not-so-secret stronghold of women in the sciences due to these strong female role models.
“That’s been a pattern that’s been in existence since the field of primatology was in existence,” said Erin Ehmke, the center’s research manager. “I know it was (Goodall) who inspired me as a young child to want to be a primatologist.”
Duke is even home to the Jane Goodall Institute Research Center, the official repository for Goodall’s meticulous hand-written records of her 50 years in Gombe, Tanzania – and, you guessed it, it’s run by a woman, Anne Pusey.
David Brewer, a former research technician and frequent mentor for undergraduate researchers, said he never really noticed how few and far between men were in his 29 years at the Duke Lemur Center.
“It’s never occurred to me ... there’s always been way more women than men here,” he said.
But the undergrads sure notice. Especially the women.
‘Women helping women’
Prarthana Minasandram was a freshman at Duke University when she took a class with Yoder, the center’s director and top-of-the-field evolutionary anthropologist.
Yoder’s class, “Politics of Evolution,” left Minasandram dazzled by the prospect of working with lemurs at the center, a mile from Duke’s main campus. When she reached out to Yoder about getting involved in research, the center’s matriarch knew just where to send her – Ehmke.
Ehmke paired Minasandram with a research mentor right away and would later take Minasandram under her wing as a summer intern. Minasandram’s project from that summer, fittingly on maternal investment, hangs in a place of honor outside Ehmke’s office.
“She was like our mother,” Minasandram said, adding that Ehmke carved hours out of a cramped schedule to teach her protégés field methods in the forest.
From that point on, evolutionary anthropology seemed like the only way to go for Minasandram. The field was “literally just women helping women” as far as she could see.
Now, as a senior wrapping up a thesis on the cognitive evolution of lemurs, Minasandram rattles off the names of female professors who have encouraged her along the way – Emily Boehm, Ashley Gosselin-Ildari and Leslie Digby, her thesis adviser and director of undergraduate studies for the evolutionary anthropology department.
“It’s really important to have a female role model in the sciences,” Minasandram said. “They just really push you to do better – and you know that you can, because they have.”
While evolutionary anthropology has a pantheon of female role models for aspiring scientists, other disciplines don’t have it so good. Environmental science, zoology and wildlife science students are overwhelmingly female, but professors remain conspicuously male.
“We’re still living in the past a little bit” in both academia and zoos, Keith said. “All the people on top are still mainly dudes, but everyone underneath is not. ... In 10 or 15 years, we’re going to see that completely change in this field.”
A genetic ark
And “this field,” primatology, is booming. The center’s residents are in high demand for scientific study, and it’s Ehmke’s job to coordinate the dozen research teams in action at any given moment.
From the 2-ounce, nocturnal mouse lemur to scrappy ring-tailed lemurs like Liesl, the 15 lemur species at the center don’t look like they come from the same planet, much less the same biological group. Evolving in isolation for tens of millions of years on the remote island of Madagascar, lemurs got weird.
Textbook descriptions of some lemur species read like a mad scientist’s fever dream. Aye-ayes like baby Agatha are raccoon-sized, with big ears and buck teeth that can chew through concrete. But she prefers to fish insects out of trees with an alarmingly elongated middle finger.
But, Ehmke insists, lemurs aren’t just the gag gift of the animal kingdom. As descendants of ancient primates, lemurs are our genetic cousins – and since we’re closely related, the study of lemurs can give us insight into human biology.
Studies involving lemurs have been pivotal in Alzheimer’s research and are helping break new ground on the gut microbiome, the rich community of bacteria that lives in our digestive tracts and communicates directly with the brain.
Rapid habitat loss and an escalating bushmeat trade in their native Madagascar have left lemurs the most threatened group of mammals in the world. As wild populations dwindle, the Duke lemurs increase in importance since the center houses the largest population of lemurs outside of Madagascar.
Like a genetic ark, the Duke lemurs are a safeguard in case of total extinction in the wild. All the center’s studies on lemurs are non-invasive, meaning the animals are never harmed in the process. Each one is too important to risk.
A lemur for a week
As women prepare to take up the mantle of the life sciences, perhaps they should take cues from Liesl’s troop. Five members of the Duke Lemur Center staff chose Liesl as the female lemur who leads her family best.
“I always appreciate Leisl’s group, because they are actually quite inclusive to Aracus, who is a geriatric male and a good dad,” Ehmke said. “She’s still dominant, but yet not nasty about it.”
On the other extreme, Gisela might be the most large-and-in-charge female lemur at the center.
Gisela, of the Coquerel’s sifaka species, is about two and a half feet tall with expressive yellow eyes – and she has a bone to pick with her mate.
“She likes to keep Rupert on his toes,” Brewer said.
Keith explained, “If the animals under the queen are not focusing on (her body language), they’ll get hair pulls, or maybe a nip, or a tail yank ... or sitting on them and pushing them out of the tree.”
Though some dominant females are less tolerant of their mates than others, Keith insisted there’s noticeably less violence in matriarchal lemur groups than in male-dominant animals she’s worked with.
“There’s a lot of strife, but most of the time, it’s understood,” she said. “Everyone falls in line. ... There’s not the violence in a female-dominated society. They don’t use it, they don’t need it, they just have control. Do the females beat the males up? Yeah, but not to a pulp.”
When Keith watches the lemurs romp in the Duke forest, she can’t help but imagine herself in their place. “When I go out there, I see these females totally in charge of their lives, their families, their food, their resources, their sleep spots. And I go, ‘I wonder how that feels? I wonder what that would be like?’ Not to have to always fight. As a human, as a woman here on this planet, what that feels like to be completely reversed.”
She paused. “I’d love to be a lemur for a week.”
Want to go?
The Duke Lemur Center in Durham was founded in 1966 and is now home to 224 of the most endangered animals in the world. To schedule a tour, go online to lemur.duke.edu. All revenue from tours helps pay for lemur care, housing, veterinary supplies and conservation initiatives.