Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

Students exploring the Innovation Co-Lab

Category: Lemurs Page 2 of 3

2016 Going on 2030: The Madagascar Winter Forum

For two and a half cold days in January, 91 Duke students and I had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in Malagasy culture—without the warmth of its sub-tropical climate.

We were participants in Duke’s 2016 Winter Forum:  ‘Madagascar 2030: Sustainable Development Innovation Challenge’. The goal was to design solutions to help the country meet its Sustainable Development goals by the year 2030.

Winning team Mamboly

Winning team Mamboly

After being divided into teams of four or five, we were all given a task to solve through the creation of a social venture. The forum was steeped in the spirit of entrepreneurship, with lessons and guidance being given by Duke faculty members, notably Deb Johnson and Matthew Nash from the I&E Center, and social entrepreneurs in Madagascar.

The forum began with a trip to the Duke Lemur Center, followed by lectures about Madagascar at Fuqua School of Business from faculty and guest speakers.

After spending a day learning about the island nation’s wonderful history and biodiversity, as well as its challenges, we were ready to work on our pitch. Each team was given about 36 hours to help solve one of the country’s most pressing problems: poverty, food insecurity, environment, and health.

Team YOgLO presenting their pitch for locust harvesting as fare for food-insecure regions.

Team YOgLO presenting their pitch for locust harvesting as fare for food-insecure regions.

So my team and I had a day and a half to help solve hunger in Madagascar.

Some hours and many headaches later, we created a model of a scalable non-profit social venture using innovative aquaponic farming technology. And, after overcoming a disaster featuring spilled orange juice, a laptop, and unsaved changes, we were ready to pitch.

I was blown away by the wide range of creative solutions that were offered by my peers. From an agricultural research framework, to a locust-farming business, each team made an effective argument for how they could help mitigate food insecurity in Madagascar.

Team Mamboly, won with a pitch for a scholarship program in sustainable agricultur. Team Medex, was the people’s choice for their proposal to use drones to deliver much-needed medicines to isolated communities.

One of my favorite takeaways from the forum.

One of my favorite takeaways from the forum.

The forum taught me the importance of research in entrepreneurship, social and otherwise (and I’m not just saying that because I happen to write for the Duke Research Blog). Most of the time we spent on our pitch was gathering information about food insecurity in southwest Madagascar and how our idea can be designed with the local area in mind.

I also learned that well-meaning ventures often fail because the do-gooder didn’t use human-centered design in their product or service, or didn’t do enough research into the current competition, the culture of the area, or how they might scale their product.

My teammate Elena Lie “learned to never leave drinks close to my laptop, to always save presentations on the cloud, and to always keep calm when the unexpected things happen.” And William Ding “learned a lot about Madagascar and the issues it faces from experts on the field, both in-person and over Skype.”

Until next year.

2015-09-03 17.36.37 Post by Devin Nieusma, Duke 2019

A Gutsy Approach to Lemur Science

By Sheena Faherty, biology Ph.D. candidate

Can the microorganisms living in a baby lemur’s gut help it grow up to be a vegetarian or an omnivore?

A new study appearing May 13 in Plos One shows that baby lemurs’ gut bacteria have different, diet-dependent strategies for reaching adult mixtures of microbes.  This, in turn, might contribute to why some lemurs are strictly leaf-eaters, while some nosh on just about everything.

lemur eating flowers

A black and white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata) finds North Carolina’s vegetation as delicious as it is beautiful. (Duke Lemur Center, David Haring)

Erin McKenney, lead author on the study and a Ph.D. candidate in the Biology department, is looking at the patterns of how the bacteria colonize the gut of their lemur host and why this is essential for helping the adult lemurs navigate their environment — and their diets.

“This study is important because all mammals are born with basically sterile guts,” McKenney said. “But by the time we’re adult mammals, there are 20 trillion bacteria living in the gut. (The bugs are an) adaptive super organ that has co-evolved with the host and dictated the host’s evolution. We want to know more about how that happens.”

This “microbiome” of the gut is a jack-of-all-trades, performing jobs like protecting the host’s body from pathogens and helping it digest food. When the gut’s microbes digest foods that are high in fiber — like plant matter — some of the digestion by-products are absorbed by the intestine, which provides nutrition for the body. Humans get up to 10 percent of our daily nutritional requirements from fiber breakdown by bacteria.

Erin McKenney

Erin McKenney scooping lemur poop for SCIENCE!

“Mammals don’t secrete the enzymes that are necessary, so no mammal can digest fiber on its own,” McKenney said. “These microbes are performing an incredibly important life process for us.”

At the Duke Lemur Center, McKenney collected fecal samples from three different species of lemur that evolved to eat different foods—a strict leaf-eater, and two omnivores. Using DNA sequencing, she determined the communities of bacteria that are living in their guts at different life stages from birth to adulthood.

Watching microbiomes through time may enable her to answer the question of how the microbiome of each species becomes teeming with 20 trillion bacteria, and if the patterns differ based on diet.

lemur eating pokeweed

Vegetarian lemurs can eat a surprising variety of stuff we’d find nasty, like pokeweed and even poison ivy. (Duke Lemur Center, David Haring)

The results suggest that all species of baby lemurs, when they are born and nursing from their mothers have similar microbiome profiles that are much less complex than adult profiles. But leaf-eaters that eat the most fiber show adult microbiome profiles as soon as solid foods are introduced, which is in contrast to the other two species that take longer to reach adult microbiome profiles. Additionally, leaf-eaters have more complex microbial communities, which allows them to digest fiber-rich foods.

“So when you start to think about the really big picture, beyond everything the gut microbes do for the hosts they live inside of, we find the microbes have done an incredible service to mammalian speciation. The only way that we have leaf-eaters is because of these gut microbes,” McKenney said.

Underwater Cave is a Lemur Treasure Trove

Guest post by Gregg Gunnell, Division of Fossil Primates

(A version of this column originally appeared in the Duke Lemur Center newsletter)

Lagerstätten – that word sends a shiver of excitement up and down the spine of every paleontologist.

In German the word means ‘storage place’ or ‘deposits,’ but in paleontology it has come to mean a very rich fossil deposit that contains complete or nearly complete specimens that sample a wide variety of the creatures living at a certain time.

cave diver

A cave diver and subfossil specimen in Aven Cave, Madagascar. The plastic triangle is a scale for photographs of the specimen in situ. (Image by Phillip Lehman and Pietro Donaggio-Bitner)

As you might imagine, Lagerstätten are quite rare. Some of the more famous examples are the Burgess Shale in Canada which preserves soft body outlines of ancient (530 million years ago) Cambrian animals; the Jurassic (150 Ma) Solenhofen limestones in Germany where the famous Archaeopteryx is found; and the middle Eocene (45 Ma) Messel Oil Shale in Germany which preserves whole skeletons of many birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.

I have had the good fortune to be in on the discovery of two Lagerstätten in addition to studying specimens from two others. The first one our team discovered was in 1998 in Pakistan, a place we named Gandhera Quarry. It preserves a remarkable wealth of early Eocene (52 Ma) mammals from Balochistan Province – an assemblage that has yet to completely studied.

But the latest and most exciting to me as Director of the Division of Fossil Primates in the Duke Lemur Center happened late last year in Southwest Madagascar.

The discovery of subfossils at a place called Aven Cave was known to local people, but not reported to the scientific community until an Australian cave diver named Ryan Dart saw it. The cave and its specimens are underwater. The specimens are called subfossils, because they aren’t old enough to have completed (or in some cases even started) the fossilization process.

A joint team from the University of Antananarivo, Duke University, University of Massachusetts, Brooklyn College and Midwestern University led an expedition to this cave site in October 2014. Cave divers Phillip Lehman  and the Dominican Republic Speleological Society dive team helped us find a treasure trove of subfossils.

lemur skulls

Lemur skulls, as they were found in the cave, with a scale marker. (Photo courtesy of Phillip Lehman and Pietro Donaggio-Bitner)

Only a preliminary survey has been made of Aven Cave to date, but it is clear already that it is one of the richest subfossil sites ever discovered in Madagascar. The initial list of animal specimens found in the cave includes three genera of extinct lemurs (Pachylemur, Mesopropithecus, and Megaladapis) as well as one species of a living form, Lemur catta, the familiar ring-tailed lemur. In addition to the primates there are abundant specimens of bats (Hipposideros), carnivores (the extinct fossa Cryptoprocta spelea as well as a smaller, still living species, C. ferox), two species of rodents, an extinct pygmy hippopotamus, crocodiles, turtles, and two bird species including the extinct elephant bird Mullerornis.

Not only is there a diverse assembly of species coming from Aven Cave, the sample is also abundant, with many species represented by multiple specimens. Many specimens appear to be complete or nearly complete skeletons.

The expedition was aided by Mr. Lovasoa Dresy, the director of Tsimanampetsotsa National Park, and was generously supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society.

We anticipate many more and surprising discoveries in the future. Stay tuned for updates from Aven Cave!

Mouse Lemur Quandary Stumps Researchers

By Sheena Faherty, Ph.D. Candidate in Biology

What does famous lemur researcher, Dame Alison Richard, do when she has a burning question she can’t answer?

She visits Duke and appeals to a room full of lemur enthusiasts to help out.

Richard’s question concerns the curious case of the mouse lemurs at Beza Mahafaly in southwestern Madagascar, where she has been involved in a wildlife-monitoring program since the mid-1990s.

Alison Richard (left) and Lemur Center Director Anne Yoder (right) lead a discussion in the 'Beach House' at DLC.

Alison Richard (left) and Lemur Center Director Anne Yoder (right) lead a discussion in the ‘Beach House’ at DLC.

“What do I know about mouse lemurs?” she questioned a group that gathered at the Duke Lemur Center on March 3 as the first of three talks she held at Duke this week as part of the Von der Heyden Fellows Program. “Probably less than you do. But I am incredibly interested in what is going on with them at Beza Mahafaly.”

Everywhere else in Madagascar, mouse lemurs that look indistinguishable are classified as different species due to big variations at the genetic level. But at Beza Mahafaly, Richard is finding that mouse lemurs with major deviations in appearance are genetically the same.

Dame Alison Richard (Photo: HHMI)

Dame Alison Richard (Photo: HHMI)

For a long time, the general view was that there were two species of mouse lemur in the forests of Beza Mahafaly : the gray-brown mouse lemur and the gray mouse lemur (both being exceptionally adorable).

A few studies in the mid-1990s and early 2000s compared the shapes of certain features such as jawbone shape and leg length, and confirmed this view. Then, researchers started noticing a few trapped animals that had very noticeable differences in coat coloration. These animals were redder than the other two known species. Was this a possible third species?

In 2006, Duke Lemur Center Director, Anne Yoder, and her former Ph.D. student Kellie Heckman examined this same population of mouse lemurs from a genetic standpoint. Comparing sequences of DNA they expected to find major genetic differences between the two known species, and possibly confirm the existence of a third species.

“The genetic data was a disaster for the mouse lemurs,” Richard said.

All the samples collected from animals at Beza Mahafaly, regardless of the animal’s outward appearance, sorted together and seemed to be one species.

Dame Alison and the bedeviled mouse lemur of Beza Mahafaly

Dame Alison and the bedeviled mouse lemur of Beza Mahafaly

“There’s a part of me that’s very distressed about this, but there’s a part of me that thinks this is great,” Richard said. “At Beza Mahafaly we swim upstream. We’re contrarians,” she said laughing. “But we still don’t know how to best explain the diversity that we do see.”

She offered up some suggestions: A glimpse of an ongoing process of change? A replacement by one species over another? The beginning of a new species?

Flashing a picture of a mouse lemur displaying ominous eye shine from a headlamp, she said: “The mouse lemurs are waiting with an evil gleam in their eye to be told the truth about themselves. The question is how should we take this forward?”

Madagascar's Conservation Superhero to Visit Campus

Guest Post By Sheena Faherty, Ph.D. Candidate in Biology

Dame Alison Richard is the epitome of someone who puts her money where her mouth is. And her dedication is directed precisely where it’s needed most.

Richard, a protector of lemurs, artisanal salt entrepreneur and endless optimist, is not just doing something about Madagascar’s conservation crisis. She’s doing everything about it.

Alison Richard (Photo: HHMI)

Alison Richard (Photo: HHMI)

She’ll visit Duke March 3-5 to give three-part lecture series discussing her role in over forty years of community-based conservation efforts in Madagascar.

Members of the Duke community know all too well that our beloved lemurs— many of which can only be found at the Duke Lemur Center or in Madagascar—are in dire straights.

Their plight has been a life’s work for Richard, who is best known for her research on sifakas in the spiny forests of Madagascar.  But she also lays claim to having been the first female vice-chancellor at Cambridge. She has now returned to Yale, where she spent most of her career, as a senior research scientist and professor emerita.

“Sometimes I think that because I’m covering so many bases, I end up doing nothing very well,” Richard said. “But it’s what I do and I can’t imagine not doing any of them—so it’s too bad,” she said laughing.

Richard is a conservationist who understands that without considering the local people’s well-being, all attempts to save wildlife habitats will fail.

“There are a variety of ways in which we are trying to facilitate socio-economic enhancements to people’s lives,” Richard said. “[On a recent trip to Madagascar] I met with the association of women salt producers, who are producing artisanal salt by techniques that have been in place for hundreds of years.”

In collaboration with a start-up company that is highly focused on sustainability, she recently shipped the first 500 kilos of the Madagascan salt to the U.S.

Verreaux's Sifaka, a favorite of Richard's in Southwestern Madagascar. (Credit: Flickr user nomis-simon, CC)

Verreaux’s Sifaka, a favorite of Richard’s in Southwestern Madagascar. (Credit: Flickr user nomis-simon, CC)

Taking time away from protecting the lemurs and enhancing the lives of the Malagasy people, Richard said her Duke lectures will have broad appeal for anyone interested in conservation, or for those who just enjoy seeing adorable pictures of lemurs.

She hopes to focus on writing a book, the topic of which will draw from her public lecture on March 5 at 6:00 pm at the Great Hall of the Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans Center for Health Education. This lecture is set to explore how an array of different sciences has changed our understanding of Madagascar’s history.

And the conservationist who said she does everything has some advice for conserving her own mental sanity.

“One thing I need to do going forward is to find things to stop doing,” she admits. “And I’m not good at that because they are all too interesting and seemingly too important,” she said.

So, what’s next for Alison Richard?

“More of doing everything!” she said.

Richard's installation as vice chancellor of Cambridge in November 2009 was occasioned by a visit from  her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who's husband, Prince Philip, is the chancellor.

Richard’s installation as vice chancellor of Cambridge in November 2009 was occasioned by a visit from her majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who’s husband, Prince Philip, is the chancellor.

Scents Are Key to Lemur Nightlife

LEMUR SUPERPOWER #457:  Some lemurs can safely digest cyanide in amounts sufficient to kill an elephant. Others can enter hibernation-like states to survive periods when food and water are in short supply. To add to their list of superpowers, lemurs also have especially keen powers of scent.

Buried in the nose of Fuggles the mouse lemur are specialized pheromone receptors that help her distinguish friend from foe in the dark of night, when mouse lemurs are active.

By Robin Ann Smith

If you could pick one superpower, consider taking inspiration from lemurs. Some lemurs can safely digest cyanide in amounts that would kill an elephant. Others can enter hibernation-like states to survive periods when food and water are in short supply. Still others have keen powers of scent, with the ability to find mates and avoid enemies in the darkness by smell alone.

Research by biologist and Duke Lemur Center director Anne Yoder suggests that the molecular machinery for sniffing out pheromones — much of which has gone defunct in humans and many other primates — is still alive and well in lemurs and lorises, our distant primate cousins.

Lemurs use scents to mark the boundaries of their territories, distinguish males from females and figure out whether another animal is friend or foe. When a lemur gets a whiff of another animal, specialized pheromone receptors in the lining of the nose transmit the information to the brain, triggering instinctive urges like mating, defense and avoiding predators.

The receptors are proteins encoded by a family of genes called V1Rs. First identified in rats in the mid-1990s, V1R genes are found in animals ranging from lampreys to humans. But the proportion of these pheromone-detection genes that actually functions varies greatly from one species to the next, Yoder said last week in a roundtable discussion hosted by Duke’s Science & Society program.

Randy the ring-tailed lemur scent-marks his territory. Photo by David Haring.

Randy the ring-tailed lemur scent-marks his territory. Photo by David Haring.

Studies suggest that as much as 90% to 100% of the pheromone-detection genes in humans consist of disabled pieces of DNA, called pseudogenes.

“Our pheromone-detection genes are so boring — we don’t have many of them, and almost all of them are broken,” Yoder said.

But in lemurs and lorises — whose ancestors split off from the rest of the primate family tree more than 60 million years ago — the proportion of pheromone-detection genes that is still intact is much higher.

In a study published this year, Yoder and colleagues analyzed the DNA of 19 species and subspecies of lemurs and lorises, looking for subtle differences in their V1R genes. They found that one group — the mouse lemurs — has the highest proportion of intact V1R sequences of any mammal yet studied.

To find out which genes are linked to which scents, Yoder and her colleagues plan to take DNA sequences from pheromone-detecting genes in lemurs, insert them into mice, and expose the mice to different scents to see how they respond.

An ability to sniff out the right mates — and avoid being seduced by the wrong suitors — may have served as a mating barrier that allowed lemur species to diverge after arriving in their island home of Madagascar, helping to explain how the more than 70 living species of lemurs came to be, Yoder says.

Chimpanzee Voices From the Past Go Digital, Open Access

By Karl Leif Bates

A treasure trove of chimpanzee audio recordings from the 1970s has been posted on an open access site for study by a team that includes Evolutionary Anthropology chair Anne Pusey, who also directs Duke’s Jane Goodall Institute Research Center.

An image from the  Scientific Data paper shows the bulky, analog field gear used for making recordings in the 70s.

An image from the Scientific Data paper shows the bulky, analog field gear used for making recordings in the 70s.

Announced this week in the open access journal Scientific Data, the collection includes more than 1,100 recordings made of 17 immature chimpanzees, totaling 10 hours. The recordings were made between 1971 and 1973 by the late Hetty van de Rijt-Plooij and Frans X. Plooij, Dutch researchers working at Goodall’s study site in Gombe National Park, Tanzania.

Though the Plooij collection was catalogued and annotated — notes which Frans then translated from Dutch to English with support from the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham — the massive collection has never been studied. Preparation of the metadata for the audio recordings was supported by the National Science Foundation (LTREB-1052693).

What the newly digitized recordings represent is the opportunity to study the development of vocalization over a chimpanzee’s lifetime, Pusey explained. Many of the individuals who were recorded as infants and adolescents subsequently turn up in recordings made by Peter Marler in 1967, Charlotte Uhlenbroek in 1991–1993, and Lisa O’Bryan in 2009–2010.

The authors say, “comparing their adult recordings with their infant/juvenile recordings might be an especially effective way of studying vocal development.”

They’re also just kind of fun to listen to. (Browse the entire catalog here.)

Jane Goodall visited Anne Pusey and the archive of Gombe field notes at Duke in 2011. (Duke Photo)

Jane Goodall visited Anne Pusey and the archive of Gombe field notes at Duke in 2011. (Duke Photo)

This work is the latest in a trend of Duke becoming one of the world’s great centers of longitudinal primate studies. Pusey’s work on this audio collection joins the more than 50 years of observational notes and data from Gombe now housed at Duke; Susan Alberts has led the assembly of life history data from nine different primate field studies into a single database. And nearly 50 years of captive lemur data from the Duke Lemur Center was digitized and just posted a few weeks ago. (Pro version on Scientific Data.)

Some Animals Move Through The Treetops With Help From A Stiff Back

Guest post from Robin A. Smith, Duke Lemur Center

Some tree-dwelling animals move through the forest with the help of an unlikely tool — a stiff back. A more rigid spine seems to help  stabilize their trunks as they reach across gaps in the canopy, according to Duke researchers.

Slender Loris

The slender loris (Loris tardigradus) is able to exploit tender tips of tree branches by moving slowly and keeping a stiff back rather than leaping from branch to branch. (Credit: David Haring, Duke Lemur Center)

The findings appear in the March 2014 issue of the Journal of Morphology.

Animals that live in the treetops need to be good at crossing gaps between trees in order to move and forage in the canopy without constantly climbing up and down. Some animals leap, hop or bound from branch to branch, flying through the forest in a feat of aerial acrobatics. But others move more slowly and deliberately, reaching out and grabbing onto the tips of the nearest tree to form a bridge and pulling themselves across.

The latter strategy helps some animals venture onto slender branch tips where young leaves and fruits are often found –- perches that are too thin and delicate to leap off without buckling, said lead author Michael Granatosky, a grad student in Evolutionary Anthropology.

To investigate the anatomical traits that help some animals bridge rather than bound between branches, Granatosky and colleagues pored over skeletons in museums and took measurements of the spines and ribs of 22 species — including lemurs, treeshrews, anteaters, opossums and squirrels. Some of the species move slowly and cautiously through the treetops, while others leap and jump.

The researchers also analyzed the bridging behavior of two pairs of closely-related species — the bare-tailed woolly opossum versus the gray short-tailed opossum, and the fat-tailed dwarf lemur versus the slender loris — while the animals negotiated custom-made jungle gyms.

The opossum study was part of a previous experiment by co-authors Daniel Schmitt and Pierre Lemelin at Duke, and the primate study was conducted at the Duke Lemur Center.

The researchers found that the species that bridged more often, or for longer periods of time, had narrower spaces between adjacent ribs and vertebrae.


Their more tightly-woven spines limit their ability to bend side-to-side, but enable them to hold their body out straight to span openings in the canopy without relying on brute muscle strength alone, Granatosky said.

The study was funded by the Force and Motion Foundation and by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to Michael Granatosky.

CITATION: “Functional and evolutionary aspects of axial stability in Euarchontans and other mammals,” Granatosky, M., et al. Journal of Morphology, March 2014. DOI: 10.1002/jmor.20216.

Student Melissa Chieffe: Budding Conservation Biologist

By Nonie Arora

Melissa Chieffe, a Junior Biology major, grew up outside Cleveland, Ohio and arrived at Duke enthusiastic about following a pre-vet path. As a freshman, she began volunteering at the Duke Lemur Center as a technician assistant. Through her work, she became interested in conservation in Madagascar and decided to apply to OTS – South Africa.

Screenshot 2014-02-02 22.30.55

A map of Chieffe’s travels. Credit: Melissa Chieffe using Google Maps. (click on map to learn more)

Through OTS – South Africa, she had the opportunity to travel all around the region and work on three group research projects, focusing mainly on ecology and conservation in the Kruger National Park.


Melissa Chieffe. Credit: Liza Morse

In the first, she collected data for the Kruger long-term research initiative on vegetation changes caused by elephants. Specifically, she honed in on damage done to AppleLeaf trees (Philenoptera violacea) and assessed damage done to 175 trees of that species in the Kruger National Park. The study looked at bark stripping and toppling of trees caused by elephants. Bark stripping happens when elephants rub their tusks on trees; if the elephants remove too much mark the trees are more likely to die, according to Chieffe.

From their study, her team observed a bottleneck in tree size: the elephants generally knocked trees over before they could reach their mature height. Their preliminary data indicated that higher elephant population densities – combined with frequent burnings in the savannah – made it harder for trees to reach the mature stage.

In their independent research project, Chieffe and her group had the opportunity to work with a population of captive elephants. The elephant population in the Kruger National Park has been growing exponentially since the termination of culling operations in the 1990s, which is causing problems for the vegetation and the nearby rural farms, according to Chieffe. The elephants are known to destroy crops, fences, and storage facilities. The students looked into using bee hives as a deterrent for elephants. Chieffe explained that beehive fences could have great applications for conservation through community based conservation initiatives.

They used the sound of bees buzzing & the scent of honey to stand in as surrogates for bee hives. Wild elephants exhibited defensive retreating behaviors when exposed to the bee sounds and scents.

Camera traps

Chieffe learns to use camera traps (above) and photo of lion cubs taken by a camera trap (below). Credit: Melissa Chieffe

Chieffe learned to use camera traps (above) and made a photo of lion cubs with a camera trap (below). Credit: Melissa Chieffe

In her faculty field project, Chieffe worked with Professor Jeremy Bolton, an expert in the field, and Professor Tali Hoffman from the University of Cape Town to study camera traps. Chieffe’s team set up four camera traps at five different watering holes, which are known to act as “nodes of activity” for wildlife, to compare efficacy of two types of camera traps: field scan and motion sensor. Camera traps can be used to to record endangered animals and to survey biodiversity of an area.

“I enjoyed living in nature reserves, the national park, constantly surrounded by amazing researchers and scientists and others who are involved in conservation management. It was inspiring to live near them. We also got to present our findings to park management, which was awesome,” Chieffe said.

The program has helped her further her ambitions in conservation biology.

“I thought it was a dream [to become a conservation biologist]. But meeting people who are actually doing what I now want to do has made it seem realistic,” Chieffe said. She hopes to continue with  her research in South Africa on elephants and vegetation this summer.

Schmitt Blends Locomotion and Arthritis

Guest post by Joseph Kirollos, NC School of Science and Math

Walking up to the Trent Semans Center at Duke University to interview Dr. Daniel O. Schmitt, professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and teacher of anatomy at Duke University, I couldn’t help but wonder why he would pursue seemingly unrelated interests. On one hand, he studies the locomotion and evolution of primates while at the same time, he but he also has a strong clinical interest in both human functional anatomy and osteoarthritis.

Dan Schmitt with his wife, Christine Wall, who is also an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke. (Duke Chronicle photo)

Dan Schmitt with his wife, Christine Wall, who is also an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke. (Duke Chronicle photo)

How did these interests come about? Which came first? These were the questions that ran through my head as I read through his papers and prepared for the interview. Though as Dr. Schmitt sat down and began to tell his story, it didn’t take long for all of my doubts and confusions to quickly fade away. Everything began to blend, and it all made sense.

As it turns out, Dr. Schmitt was actually a latecomer to clinical research and it was through natural variance and human evolution that science first captivated his interest. Although he was somewhat of a “terrible college student,” he quickly developed a genuine curiosity in the vast physical differences between species. It was later during his graduate studies at SUNY Stony Brook, where he worked with live animals, that he became a post-doc drill associate in anatomy and began to wonder how factors such as leg design, pelvis width, or even high metabolism affected how humans and animals move. By asking these questions, he expanded his interests to the next level and created a stepping stone that would lead him into both his evolutionary and clinical research.


At the locomotion lab at Duke University, where he continues to research today, he was able to delve headfirst into Evolutionary Anthropology as he studied the selecting factors that govern limb design, gait mechanisms, and energy efficiency of locomotion in primates and humans. One of his main interests even today is the origin of human’s unique design and bipedal locomotion.

Daniel Schmitt

Schmitt, who teaches anatomy to medical students, went to the Duke-NUS graduate medical school in Singapore in 2012 to talk about medical education with colleagues. (Duke-NUS)

In fact, the first of his papers that caught my attention dealt with this very topic. It was a paper refuting the commonly accepted theory that humans evolved from terrestrial knuckle-walking primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees rather than tree-climbing ancestors (see the paper here). As I discussed the paper with Dr. Schmitt, he revealed that he normally preferred to avoid controversy, yet, in this case, he felt that he couldn’t “buy into” the fact that humans would evolve from terrestrial knuckle-walking ancestors. He said, “I couldn’t think of one good reason for them to stand up.” Interestingly, the paper analyzes features from the human wrist that previously supported knuckle-walking ancestors and turns it around and says that in fact these features actually may support that we had tree-climbing ancestors. However, in person, Dr. Schmitt referred to this argument as being rather “nihilistic” as it challenges an idea but doesn’t really propose an alternative.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before these interests in both human anatomy and the evolution of biomechanics in primates naturally brought him to wonder how human joints have so uniquely and efficiently adapted. Working with Dr. Ershela Sims, he has studied osteoarthritis in humans, a debilitating and widespread disease of the joints, and today he still explores the factors that cause it.

I found this quite interesting as my family has a long history with severe osteoarthritis. Interestingly Dr. Schmitt said that it was not intervention and treatment that he cared about, but rather he was interested in the basic science, the deeper causes that lead to osteoarthritis. Is there more than just obesity and wear and tear that leads to osteoarthritis and how does it affect human movement? These were the questions that he would ask. Naturally this blended quite well with his gait studies with primates as osteoarthritis affects the gait mechanisms and energy efficiency of humans. So by the time our discussion had finished, I felt a little dumb that I previously felt as though Dr. Schmitt had an unusual range of interests. I realize now that they blend in perfect harmony, each inspiring the other, leading to amazing discoveries.

Joseph Kirollos interviewed Dan Schmitt and wrote this post as part of a Science Communication seminar led by NCSSM Dean of Science Amy Sheck.

Page 2 of 3

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén