It was a dramatic demonstration when former Primate Center technician Jennifer Campbell mounded two piles of lemur food -- one large, one much smaller -- on a table a few years ago. Her point: The center had been unknowingly overfeeding its animals.
The larger pile of pounds of food pellets, cabbage and bananas represented a human-sized extrapolation of what the generous technicians had been giving the lemurs -- the equivalent of a pile of Big Macs and fries. And the smaller pile represented the human version of a more reasonably sized diet. Since then, the technicians have monitored more closely the portions they give the lemurs.
And since then, Campbell has gone on to earn a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University by conducting landmark studies of lemur nutrition that are sure to influence the health and reproduction of some of the world's most endangered primates.
Her work has included "adventures" ranging from rising at dawn to collect samples of warm lemur feces, to X-raying lemurs to follow the course of food through their guts.
Formerly a zookeeper and naturalist who worked with elephants, tigers, caribou, moose and whales, Campbell came to the center in 1991 as a technician.
"I instantly got interested in the sifakas -- the leaf eaters -- and started tackling some diet issues they had," recalled Campbell. Sifakas are the amazingly acrobatic lemurs that are among the most popular with visitors, and Campbell's first job was to slim down one fatty named Sabina.
"Since she lived with other sifakas, we put a collar on her that gave her access only to certain "diet" feeding stations, and she ended up losing a lot of weight," said Campbell. "And she actually became reproductively active and started to show other, more normal sifaka behaviors. What we learned from Sabina helped us understand how to better feed all of the sifakas."