James Herrera and the Dwarf Lemurs

James Herrera
“I want to protect the species and their mountain habitats, and work with the local people to stop deforestation and plant trees to help the forest grow back faster. I want to keep working with the Malagasy people, encouraging them to save the forest, protect the animals and showing them ways to improve their lives by protecting the forest as well.”

The next time you feel lonely, remember that the lemurs of Madagascar have been isolated for 50 million years.

Primatologist James Herrera became fascinated with Madagascar because of this magical history of isolation. Not to mention that he loves adventure. . . so trekking through remote jungles, climbing far-off mountains, and seeing diverse cultures makes working in Madagascar fun and exciting.

Many of the plants and animals on Madagascar can be found nowhere else in the world, and they are some of the most endangered species in existence. In addition to his thirst for adventure, James was also drawn to the area by his concern about the impact human activities such as deforestation, logging, and hunting wildlife were having on lemurs.

James’ goal is to understand what kinds of forest are good places for lemurs to live. For example, some species only live in pristine forests where no trees have been cut down. Other species are actually more common in areas that are re-growing from being cut in the past. He wants to use that information to protect forests and species from extinction.

Losing forest and species of all kinds can be bad for people too. There are more diseases in human communities near forests with low numbers of species than near pristine forests with high diversity. Species diversity is also important for maintaining healthy ecosystems that filter clean water, strengthen the soil, and produce clean air.

Introducing Dwarf Lemurs

In his research, James studies dwarf lemurs. These lemurs are small (300g, 9-10 oz, about the size of a squirrel), and nocturnal (active at night). There are seven species, some occur in dry forest where it only rains a few days a year, while other species live in rainforest where it rains every day. His favorite species is the one only found on remote mountain tops. . . so he gets to do a LOT of hiking in his research.

Dwarf Lemurs love bananas
Dwarf lemurs eat insects and fruits, but love the sugary nectar of flowers. When they visit flowers, they get the powdery pollen on their faces, and then, like big cuddly bumble bees, they spread the pollen to other flowers in their territory.

James is especially interested in the dwarf lemur species that live on mountain tops because they are so rare and unique. Studying these lemurs also provides him a great excuse to explore remote jungles and climb mountains. Some of the mountains he’s explored take two or three days of hiking through the forest to reach. and sleeping along the way. When he and his team reach the mountain, sometimes it can take two or three hours of hiking (up and up and up!) to get to the top.

One mountain, Maharira, was so remote and hard to reach it took two weeks of exploring just to find it! The forest on top of the mountain was totally different from the rainforest below. In the rainforests at lower altitude, the trees are big and tall (30+ meters, 90-100ft) with broad canopies that block out the sun, making the forest floor open. On the mountain tops, trees are short (10 meters, ~30 ft) with low, narrow branches and the sun reaches the forest floor, making it thick with vegetation.

Once James started searching for the dwarf lemurs, he realized there were two kinds on the mountain tops: some were large, brownish-red with long noses like the dwarf lemurs at low altitude, while others were smaller, grey-white with short noses and wide heads. How could this be? How do two species of dwarf lemurs that seem to have the same behavior and environment live together? Do they compete for food and shelter, or do they have different behaviors that allow them to coexist? Do they ever mix or do they only stay with their own kind? To find out, he spent three years trekking to lots of different places around Madagascar and searching for lots of animals.

Finding Dwarf Lemurs

Dwarf lemurs are the only primates that hibernate, like bears or groundhogs, but they don’t do it because it’s cold; dwarf lemurs hibernate when food is scarce. In the dry forests and rainforests, dwarf lemurs hibernate in the hollow cavities in trees, but on high mountains, they burrow underground. All these features make dwarf lemurs adaptable and interesting for research about their behavior and environment.

Safe, cage-like traps
James and his team catch the lemurs in big cage-like traps, so they’re safe and unharmed.

James setting traps high in the trees
He has to set these traps way up in the trees, so he gets to climb tall trees in the jungle and see the jungle from high above.

James has several different camps around forests in southeast Madagascar. Some are low altitude, some are mountain tops, some are pristine, and others are heavily cut and disturbed by people. At each camp, he has trails all around the forest where he looks for lemurs and sets cage traps to catch them. Dwarf lemurs are small and go out at night, and also travel up in the canopy so it is hard to study them only by looking at them in the forest.

James and his team catch the lemurs in big cage-like traps, so they’re safe and unharmed. (Picture the cages you might use to catch raccoons or opossums in the backyard.) Another fun part about his research is that he has to set these traps way up in the trees, so he gets to climb tall trees in the jungle and see the jungle from high above. It is hard work, and just finding trees he can climb is hard, because the trees are usually tall, and they often don’t have branches until very high up. Sometimes he uses vines to help climb up to the first branches, and sometimes he uses small trees near-by to help him reach the bigger trees.

Once James is up there, he uses bananas, pineapples, sweet jellies, and other fruits to bait the traps. He sets up to 100 traps per night, but when he comes back in the morning, he’s lucky if he catches one or two lemurs. Dwarf lemurs are rare, and very hard to catch. Then he brings them back to his camp, where he takes pictures, measures and weighs them, and gives them little identifying marks by clipping their fur.

Then he keeps them in cotton bags and lets them sleep in his tent. When the sun sets, he releases them back to the forest and they go off on their way for the night. . . presumably with a crazy story to tell their friends!

James also searches for dwarf lemurs at night – which is his favorite time to go out! He describes the forest like this:

“The forest really comes to life at night. There is an endless chorus of frogs, crickets, owls, and sometimes even lemurs! Yes, many of the lemurs that go out at night stay in touch with their friends by making loud calls that can travel up to half a mile! Sometimes it can be a little spooky, like when it’s so dark that you can’t see at all. But we bring big powerful flashlights so we can spot the lemurs high up in the trees. Sometimes it’s not all fun, like when it rains. Rain at night seems so much worse than during the day because it gets cold, and being wet and cold can be annoying. And slipping in the mud in the dark is never fun! But sometimes when I take a big fall and land face-first in the mud, I just have to laugh and remember I love to be in the jungle and it’s not always fun and games. Because then the special moment comes when I actually do find one of the little lemurs high up in the trees and I get to make observations of the animal’s behavior in their natural environment. It’s a special feeling to see the animals foraging for food, socializing, and to see them bounce through the trees with such ease and grace even though it’s total darkness!”

Malagasy People

Getting ready for a big expedition with local people
Sometimes James has a team of ten to twenty assistants, all local people from the places he explores.

James loves working in Madagascar because he loves the Malagasy people. He describes them as “fun, loving and giving.” Even though Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, the people regularly offer him food and shelter, even when they have so little.

“The people, culture and language are so different from in America, it was a big shock at first, but then it started to seem like home. I have a team of Malagasy people that work with me. One is a student from the University in the capitol city. Lydia has been working with me since the beginning and has been a huge help to run my research project. She helped me learn the language, communicate with the people, collect data on lemurs, and do education and outreach projects with local people. She is always motivated and has a big smile, even when we’ve lived in the forest for one year with no shower!”

James also has a team of research assistants that he met in villages near the forest. Sometimes he has a team of ten to twenty assistants, all local people from the places he explores. He teaches them about lemurs, teaches them how to do research, and pays them for their help. This way they make money and learn about the environment. They are great because they know so much about the forest already—more than most scientists—and they teach James so much about Madagascar plants, animals and people.

The Results

James’ results suggest the small grey dwarf lemur species is a “specialist” that only lives on mountain tops while the other species occurs both on the mountain and at low altitude. It does not appear that the two species are mixing, and they don’t seem to change their behavior. The grey dwarf lemur species seem to be better adapted for the colder, drier environment on the mountains than the species found at low altitudes as well.

Deforestation around the mountains
The high mountain forests where the grey species lives are highly threatened by human activities.

James’ research continues, and to prove his ideas, he wants to track the same animals year after year. This will allow him to see which animals survive longest, especially after their hibernation, when many animals may not survive.

Most importantly, the high mountain forests where the grey species lives are highly threatened by human activities. People cut and burn the forests to farm, first low on the mountain, but as the land gets used up, the farmers move higher and higher. Now, most mountains are separated from each other by grasslands and farms, so lemurs on one mountain cannot cross to the next mountain to mix and increase the populations. James says,

“I want to protect the species and their mountain habitats, and work with the local people to stop deforestation and plant trees to help the forest grow back faster. I want to keep working with the Malagasy people, encouraging them to save the forest, protect the animals and showing them ways to improve their lives by protecting the forest as well.”

On behalf of all the lemurs in Madagascar, I say a big “Thank you!” to James for all he is doing for lemurs and lemur conservation!


James Herrera is a Ph.D. student at Stony Brook University, New York. He conducts biodiversity research combined with education and capacity building for local Malagasy communities on the frontier of natural habitats. His goal is to motivate local stakeholders to conserve their natural lands. His research aims to uncover the links between the natural environment and lemur biology. Most important, he hopes to understand how humans are impacting the wildlife and environmental degradation.

Hans and Jen Hartvickson write books and stories for elementary students under the pen-name “Mister Lemur.” Their newest title, The Scheming Lemurs: Rivals in Rhyme is available on Amazon. Leveled for grades 3-4, this fictional story features a group of lemurs on an adventure in Ranomafana National Park and Madagascar’s capital city of ‘Tana. Hans holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Stanford University and an M.B.A. from The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Jen earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a master’s degree in Education from Stanford University. Visit www.misterlemur.com