We'll Never Be Able To Collect Data This In-Depth On Lemurs Ever Again

Meet Hiddleston. The blue-eyed black lemur was born at the Duke Lemur Center in March 2013. Since then, Duke researchers and students have recorded every detail of his life in their logbooks. Now, the Lemur Center is setting that data free, along with data for 3599 other lemurs that have called North Carolina their home.

Thanks to their careful, meticulous record-keeping, Duke scientists know how much Hiddleston weighed when he was born. They know precisely which day he first tried to eat solid foods. They keep track of which other lemurs are his friends, and who he's not quite so chummy with. They have detailed observations of the first time that Hiddleston tried to climb a tree.

Since it was first founded in 1966, the Duke Lemur Center has been home to almost 4200 individuals from more than 40 species of prosimians - the group of primates that includes lemurs, lorises, galagos, bushbabbies, and tarsiers. That's a lot of data, but the problem was that much of that data was kept in handwritten logbooks, until records became computerized in the 1990s. Even then, different data keeping systems meant that it was difficult to collate large quantities of data to do the kinds of analyses that researchers would like to do.

That all changed in 2012 when primatologist Sarah Zehr teamed up with a pair of software developers. Together, they worked to create a coherent database of data from the thousands of animals that have lived their lives at the Duke Lemur Center, in North Carolina. Now they've released the data to the world - 3600 individuals from 40 species of lemurs, lorises, and galagos. It's available online, for free.

The data include information related to each individual's body mass at multiple ages, ancestry, reproduction, longevity, and mortality. It includes information on whether the Duke Lemur Center has banked biological specimens from each individual. Altogether, the center has a bank of some 10,000 samples from more than 1000 individuals: blood, DNA, urine, skin, organs, and other tissues. Most were taken either postmortem or as part of routine veterinary examinations.

The massive size of the dataset, combined with the detailed life history for each individual, makes it one-of-a-kind, especially when it comes to primate science. Moving forward, the center hopes to begin including data from more detailed behavioral observations, as well as information on group composition. Who is friends with whom? How do alliances shift over time? It's not just a historical record; it's a living database, constantly ready for new information.

We'll Never Be Able To Collect Data This In-Depth On Lemurs Ever Again

Above: Baby lemurs! (a) crowned lemur (b) ring-tailed lemur (c) red ruffed lemur (d) blue-eyed black lemur (e) pygmy slow loris (f) Coquerel's sifaka (g) black-and-white ruffed lemur (h) gray mouse lemur (i) aye-aye. Via Nature Scientific Data.

The data won't only prove invaluable for those who maintain captive groups of lemurs and the other prosimians in zoos, sanctuaries, and research facilities. It will also allow conservationists unique insight into a group of animals who are already extremely rare. The only place on the planet that these animals live in the wild is on the island of Madagascar. There are almost 100 lemur species there, but a meager 8 percent are classified by the IUCN as of "least concern." Hiddleston's species, the blue-eyed black lemurs, is one of the 25 most endangered primates. This kind of data, at this scale, can simply no longer be collected in the wild.

Head on over to the Duke Lemur Center's Online Database to learn more about what variables are included in the data and for which species, and to download the data yourself, if you'd like. The database is described in an open-access paper in the journal Nature Scientific Data.