Almost silently, the lemurs came bounding down a hill, through the woods. Three, four – finally seven in all, they squatted on the pinestraw and snapped up “lemur chow” crackers an attendant tossed them.
One struck a Buddha-like pose facing the warm sun while others ate, glancing from time to time with idle curiosity at the crowd of humans admiring them.
“Look how beautiful they are,” said Patricia Wright.
Wright knows her lemurs. She’s studied them, taught about them and tried to protect them for more than 30 years, since first making their acquaintance as a post-doctoral fellow at Duke University.
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She was back at Duke on Monday, touring the university’s Lemur Center in Duke Forest, in conjunction with a premiere of “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” at the Wells Fargo IMAX theater at the Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh, and a mayoral proclamation of “Lemur Week” in Durham.
“The Durham-Raleigh area ... is a very appropriate site to be doing that,” said Charlie Welch, conservation coordinator at the Lemur Center, which has the largest collection of lemurs and lemur species outside the animals’ native Madagascar.
“They make me a little homesick,” said Hanitra Rasoanaivo, a Malagasy singer who performs on the movie soundtrack.
Lemurs thrived and evolved on Madagascar for about 60 million years, until humans’ cutting of the island’s forests reduced their population to the point 90 percent of lemur species are threatened or critically endangered with extinction, Wright said.
“Island of Lemurs” premiered last week in Los Angeles and was scheduled for an East Coast premiere Monday night at the Marbles IMAX because it’s the closest IMAX theater to the Duke Lemur Center, said Wright, a primatologist and anthropologist now at Stony Brook University in New York.
The Warner Bros. movie opens to the public Friday in Raleigh and a handful of other IMAX theaters. Besides depicting lemurs in the wild, the movie describes Wright’s work to keep them alive in their natural habitat.
Current thinking, Welch said, is that a group of ancestral lemurs was swept out to sea from Africa and floated on a mat of vegetation across the Mozambique Channel to Madagascar – about 300 miles. With no natural predators to meet them on the 270,000 square-mile island, they thrived and developed into hundreds of distinct species.
“It speaks to the power of nature, what can happen because of random events,” Welch said.
Most of the 3-D movie was shot on location, no easy feat given the heavy equipment and wild terrain. The first two scenes were filmed at the Lemur Center, but those presented challenges of their own, according to writer/producer Drew Fellman.
The first scene shows a group of lemurs floating across the ocean, and that required “casting” from the Duke population to find which would suit the job.
The filmmakers settled on several fat-tailed dwarf lemurs, which are thought to closely resemble the proto-lemurs of 60 million years ago. They were filmed in front of a green screen so a background could be added later, and were supposed to emerge from shadow into light as if coming out to inspect their new home.
Trouble was, fat-tailed dwarf lemurs are nocturnal, Fellman said, and as soon as they got close to light they fell asleep.
Scene two was not so problematic. It depicts a lemur, a ringtail named Licinius, playing with a computer. Licinius has been an experiment subject using touch-screens, and in the movie – with the aid of some more special effects – he is seen clicking through the evolutionary family tree until he gets to lemurs.
“He clicks on lemurs, and that kind of kicks off the film,” Fellman said. “It’s a little lemur here who’s learning about his origins. ... We thought kids would get a kick out of that.”