It’s a question that’s undoubtedly bounced through many people’s minds in the lead-up to the grand opening of Lemur Forest on March 1.
After all, the seven Ring-tailed Lemurs and two Red-ruffed Lemurs that now call Chattanooga home aren’t aquatic. Then again, however, neither are many of the Aquarium’s most-beloved species, from Hyacinth Macaws, Groundhogs and Poison Dart Frogs to Pancake Tortoises and dozens of species flitting about the Butterfly Garden.
In fact, one of the things that has defined the Tennessee Aquarium during its 25-year history — and helped it to stand out from other aquariums — is its focus on showcasing all forms of life, both above and below the water. Incorporating lemurs into an already-diverse collection helps make an even more convincing case in support of the Aquarium’s core principle that: “Water connects all life.”
Entering Lemur Forest, guests will feel transported into the rain- and spiny forests the lemurs call home. After extensive consultation with lemur experts, this sprawling space encompasses tremendous elevation changes to keep the lemurs stimulated and to encourage the kinds of behaviors for which they are so well-known.
Guests will be wowed by the Red-ruffs’ acrobatic leaps between perches — some more than 30 feet overhead — and their gravity-defying habit of eating while hanging upside-down by their hind feet. They’ll see the Ring-tails clustering together in furry masses known as “lemur balls” and warming themselves in a yoga-like pose called “sun worshipping.”
The exhibit was intentionally designed to minimize the distance between the animals and guests, providing opportunities to observe the lemurs’ beautiful appearance and intelligence. Beyond their innate charm, guests will gain deeper insights into the Red-ruffs’ and Ring-tails’ behavior and learn more about their fragile status in the wild through Leaping Lemurs, a twice-daily addition to the Aquarium’s Extraordinary Experiences program schedule.
“When you are close to lemurs, you see how captivating these animals are,” says Dave Collins, the Aquarium’s director of forests and animal behavior. “Physically and personally, it's hard not to be overwhelmed with the charisma they have. They also carry incredibly important conservation messages.”
There are more than 100 known species of lemur, all of which are native to Madagascar. Like many islands, this African country is a hotspot of diversity, and three-quarters of its native plant and animal species are found nowhere else in the world. Showcasing lemurs opens the door for the Aquarium to inform guests about the role islands play in spurring greater species diversity as well as the development of unique traits and behaviors.
Islands are generally thought of as a body of land surrounded by water, but biologically speaking, an island can be any place where species evolve in geographic isolation. In that sense, even though it’s in landlocked Chattanooga, the Tennessee Aquarium sits in the midst of a cluster of many biological islands — an “inland archipelago.”
The waterways of the Southeastern United States are among the most diverse in the temperate world, and much of that variety stems from the isolation resulting from its geographically rippled landscape. Separated from each other by ridges and other natural barriers, each of the thousands of streams that make up a complex network of waterways stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico represents a unique ecosystem. These microhabitats often contain species found nowhere else in the world.
Showcasing the incredible diversity of the natural world — in our backyard and half a world away — and making a case for its preservation are central components of the Aquarium’s mission. By exhibiting lemurs, the Aquarium has the opportunity to convey a powerful conservation story that compliments those of other animals guests meet, such as the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout, Four-eyed Turtle and Lake Sturgeon.
Lemurs are the most-endangered class of mammals on the planet. In Madagascar, all lemur populations are declining thanks to a rogues’ gallery of human-induced threats, including heavy deforestation and the pet and bush meat trade. As a result of these threats, more than two-thirds of lemur species are classified as endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, including Red-ruffed Lemurs (critically endangered) and Ring-tailed Lemurs (endangered).
Guests will not only learn more about these fascinating animals, they’ll also be bolstering efforts to save them. Recognizing the perilous position they face, the Aquarium has pledged annual financial support for field conservation efforts to safeguard and restore wild lemur populations through the Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group. By visiting the Aquarium, guests will be contributing to this international consortium of zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens and universities, which works directly with the Malagasy government to conserve that country’s rich biodiversity.
So in essence, a trip through Lemur Forest isn’t just an eye-opening experience; it’s part of a rescue operation.