A baby lemur was born at the Duke Lemur Center that veterinarians have called "extraordinary."
"This is not just any baby," said Bobby Schopler, a veterinarian at the Duke Lemur Center since 2005. "This is the most important birth in the 13 years I've worked here."
The baby has been named Ranomasina and is the third blue-eyed black lemur, one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world, born at the center this season, which brings the total number of her kind in North America to 34, according to the center. But she is also considered among the most "genetically valuable," since she is the offspring of the first lemurs imported from Madagascar to the U.S. in 24 years.
Ranomasina is also unusual because she was delivered via cesarean section, a surgery so rare that since the Duke Lemur Center's founding in 1966, C-sections have been performed just 15 times.
"She's the most important offspring from one of the rarest lemur species," Schopler said. "She was born to a pair that took us three years to bring to Durham from Madagascar, and we may never be able to import anymore."
Fewer than 1,000 blue-eyed black lemurs are believed to remain in Madagascar today. In 2015, it was estimated that the species could go extinct in the wild in as little as 11 years, according to Duke.
But as crucial as she is to the genetic health and long-term survival of her species, Ranomasina's own survival was initially uncertain. Two weeks before her due date, Ranomaina's mom, Velona, was evaluated by the Lemur Center's veterinary team, who discovered the infant was in breech position.
"There isn't a lot of data regarding breech births in lemurs," said center veterinarian Laura Ellsaesser. "In humans, babies in breech position are a concern because they are more likely to become stuck in the birth canal, which can become life-threatening to both the baby and the mom."
The C-section was performed on April 12, proceeded smoothly, and resulted in the birth of a healthy little girl weighing just under three ounces. But for mom and infant, the hard part had only just begun.
"She fell asleep without a baby and woke up with one," said Schopler, who spent the night in the veterinary office to monitor Velona's behavior toward the infant. Velona's recognizing and accepting the baby would be crucial to Ranomasina's survival. If her mother didn't bond with her, she could have attacked and damaged the tiny infant.
"Even though it took a while, Velona formed a tight motherly bond with her baby," Duke Lemur Center primate technician Becca Newton said. "Once it was there, it was there. She's been a good mom. I'm very pleased, very proud of her."
Now over a month old, Ranomasina is thriving. Her dad Mangamaso has been successfully reintroduced to the family group, and the infant has begun nibbling solid food and venturing tentatively away from Velona, though never far from the safety of mom.
"It's really exciting for the staff to be part of this," said Cathy Williams, curator of animals at the Duke Lemur Center. "It reinforces why we work here and why we're so committed to what we do. We're part of something much larger. Saving these animals is our contribution to making the world a better place for future generations."