Sarah Zohdy and Mouse Lemurs

I’m really lucky to have lemurs and chameleons that live in my workplace.

Sarah Zohdy always loved science, but she didn’t realize it. She loved picking scabs and looking at them under microscopes. She loved learning about diseases. “I thought it was cool that if one kid in a class got sick, everyone else did.”

Sarah became obsessed with diseases, and learned that this was a type of science. She decided to be a veterinarian. As Sarah explored the process of getting into vet school, she learned that several of the programs she liked wanted students to do a “study abroad,” spending time as a college student living in another country.

Studying abroad

When the study abroad fair came to her area, she grabbed a pencil and a notepad and eagerly went searching for the right program. There were long lines for England and Australia (and other English speaking countries), and she dutifully took her spot in the back of a queue. As Sarah waited, she noticed a pleasant looking woman standing at a table with no line. Ten minutes later, when her line had barely moved—and there was still no one at the pleasant woman’s table—Sarah decided to go talk with her.

The table was advertising a program located on the fourth largest island in the world, the former French colony Madagascar. Her conversation with the pleasant woman ignited her imagination. She started to read everything she could about Madagascar. “The more I read, the more obsessed I became. It’s an evolutionary gem. Madagascar is an island where strange creatures went, then evolved into even stranger creatures.”

microcebus 1“The more I read, the more obsessed I became. It’s an evolutionary gem. Madagascar is an island where strange creatures went, then evolved into even stranger creatures.”

Alzheimer’s and Mouse Lemurs

As she read, Sarah learned that mouse lemurs are the only primates, other than humans, that develop Alzheimer’s disease. However, mouse lemurs only get Alzheimer’s disease in captivity, but not in the wild. This struck a personal chord for Sarah. “I had a grandparent who suffered from Alzheimer’s, and it was very difficult to see.” The disease was important to her, and she became fascinated with understanding what was happening in the wild to prevent mouse lemurs from developing the disease. The more Sarah read about it, the more she realized that no one knew. She decided to study mouse lemurs herself.

The next thing she learned, once she decided to study mouse lemurs, is that mouse lemurs are not very thoroughly studied. Virtually everything she and her peers found was new, including ectoparasites (pronounced “ECK toe PEAR uh sites”).

Ectoparasites, such as fleas or lice, are parasites that live on the exterior of another organism. Sarah began doing work with sucking lice on mouse lemurs. Lice can only move between lemurs if they come into direct contact with each other. Sarah developed a study to mark lice on the lemurs, and see how the lice moved between lemurs. “It revealed lots of crazy info about their movement.”

Lemurs wear nailpolish?”

Sarah found that mouse lemurs are more social than expected.

“For example, if Bob the lemur has five lice on his ears, they each got a nail polish dot code.”

For example, Bob’s lice all got three green dots, applied with nail polish and a toothpick. Sarah and her team then released these lemurs—and their lice—back into the wild, before trapping them again several days later. If she recovered another lemur with one of Bob’s “three green dots” lice, then she would know the lemur had interacted with Bob, or with a lemur Bob had interacted with. This was an idea that came to Sarah in the field, and it was a great way to study disease spread in the population. It was also very inexpensive to implement; just nail polish and fragments of toothpicks to apply it.

While the idea of looking for lice on lemurs might remind one of the analogy about finding a needle in a haystack, Sarah says the process is easier than it seems. “Most of the lice are ear lice, and a lemur’s ear is like a louse jungle gym. A mouse lemur’s ear doesn’t have much hair, so the lice are relatively easy to find. . . especially when they are wearing nail polish.”

mouse lemur croppedThe lice are relatively easy to find. . . especially when they are wearing nail polish.”

Surprisingly, 74% of the lice marked were captured on other lemurs. In this way, Sarah’s work has established that mouse lemurs are more social than previously believed. This knowledge will be very helpful as Sarah—and her scientific colleagues—continue to study disease in lemurs. . . and in humans.

I never thought I’d see…

Sarah shared that the most unexpected thing about her trip was seeing the deforestation that ravages the country. It influences every research project she takes part in, and everything she does while in the country. Before her first visit to Madagascar, she pictured it as a lush green paradise full of lemurs. Parts of it still are, but “you have to make an effort to get there.” Much of the island’s forest land has been burned down to make space for rice paddies. Sarah adds, “It’s hard to think about the future when you see a mother lemur crossing the street with a baby on her back, trying to come home to a place that used to be a forest.”

I asked Sarah what advice she would have for someone wanting to be a scientist. It seems that her advice is good for people wanting to be anything.

“Most important thing is to wobble through and feel your way through things until you realize that you really like something. People think it would be comfortable and easy to be a doctor. It is important to study your options, and when you find a topic that you go home and read about in your free time, watch on TV—things you are REALLY interested in—then you realize what you love. A profession you would do for no pay… then you have something.”

Fortunately for us—and the mouse lemurs—science really has something with the talented and enthusiastic primatologist Sarah Zohdy.


Dr. Sarah Zohdy is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) where she is studying how deforestation influences mosquito-borne diseases in mouse lemurs and humans. Ultimate goals are to better understand the ecology and evolution of these diseases, and in doing so, promote better health not only in the human communities but the lemur communities as well. In addition to her research, Sarah also teaches an Introduction to Primatology course at Spelman College.

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