Microscope mysteries and weird tree dogs (aka lemurs)

Estimated reading time: 6 mins (1089 words)

Those of you who follow me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter may have noticed that I’m teaming up with my girl Maggie Hernandez to do an awesome special Hair Edition of Mystery Magnification for October!

What is Mystery Magnification, you ask?


Well, every Friday, Maggie uploads a photo she took of some random object she stuck under a microscope, which makes for some fun guessing among her followers.

It’s something South Florida was so hyped about that they even wrote about her in the Sun Sentinel!

So, if you want to join all the people scratching their heads trying to solve this weekly microscope mystery, follow her on Twitter and Instagram and good luck!

And this brings us to last Friday’s mystery magnification:


If you want to give it a go yourself, then spoiler alert: I’m about to talk about what it is…..



It was a lemur! And someone actually managed to guess that! (Also, it was in the title of this blog post so I’m not really sure how my spoiler alert helped you but…. I tried?)

Specifically, we uploaded a white tail hair from a ring-tailed lemur! 

In case you don’t come across many ring-tailed lemurs in your line of work, that would be one of these guys:


Below is what the black and white tail hairs look like side by side:

Once we revealed that our little hair came from a ring-tailed lemur, the next question was, naturally:

“How the hell did you get a hair from a ring-tailed lemur???”

Excellent question.

Luckily for Maggie and I, we work in a department of anthropology that has a number of primatologists and that means that it’s not too weird to hear:

“Oh, sure, I could totally get you some chimp/orangutan/monkey/lemur hair!”

Love my weird department….

So, when Maggie and I were talking about finding some interesting hair, one of the postdoctoral fellows in her lab, Katie Grogan, said she had some lemur hair lying around.

We gladly accepted this gift.

When we asked “soooooo, how come you just casually have lemur hair???”, she kindly explained.

When Katie was doing research on ring-tailed lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center, there were a bunch of juveniles among the adult lemurs. Apparently, juvenile lemurs are especially hard to tell apart…

Katta - Gruppelemur katta ring-tailed lemur
I wonder why anyone would ever have trouble telling these guys apart…..

So, what the people at the Duke Lemur Center do when there are a lot of juveniles is shave their tails in particular patterns so that they can tell these lemur babies apart:

Juvenile ring-tails with what I assume is the lemur equivalent of an edgy undercut hairstyle.

Yeah, some anthropologists shave primates – it’s not that weird!

But back to lemurs.

They *are* weird.

First of all, who even knows about lemurs????

I certainly didn’t, as a child.

But I’ve been told that in the US, a lot of kids grew up with Zoboomafoo.

I can tell just by this picture that I was really missing out as a kid.

My first exposure to lemurs was probably through the iconic Madagascar:


King Julien was such a charismatic monarch

And honestly, all I really knew about lemurs after that is that they liked to move it…

I most definitely did not know they were primates!?

Before taking biological anthropology at university, I kinda knew that primate = monkey, more or less, so how the hell was this tree-dog looking thing supposed to be a primate???

Honestly, I spent so much time staring at pictures of lemurs my first year, trying to understand how something that looked so different from a monkey could be a primate.

I mean look at them – they have SNOUTS!!!

Coquerel’s sifaka is a type of lemur – but I’ve definitely seen chihuahuas with that same face.

At best, some of them look like squishy little squirrel mouse things:

Luckily I don’t work with these or I would have to fight the constant urge to smoosh them with my love. But also, how is this a primate???
I bet you real money that you could bring this Red Ruffed Lemur to a dog show and you could get away with it too.

But after 6 years of  Bio Anth, I more or less understand where lemurs fit into the primate family tree…

This nice phylogenetic tree from the Anthropology is Elemental Blog (University of Alabama) shows where lemurs belong – aaaalllll the way on the outskirts of the primate family tree

Lemurs are essentially these borderline members of the Order of Primates. There are some features that link them to other primates, like their grasping hands:

Lemur hand. As a rule, if it has weird kinda human-looking hands and feet, it’s probably a primate.

They are a strange group of primates that evolved in all kinds of weird ways once they became isolated on the island of Madagascar.

This amazing Madagascar/Lemur Island map is part of an educational packet (PDF link is at the end of this blog post).

But how do you even describe what a lemur is in simple English? Well, this is something another grad in the department, Alexis Sullivan, had to struggle with for her Up-Goer Five presentation at our annual anthropology conference.

The Up-Goer Five challenge basically asks you to describe what you do (or what your research is, in our case) using only the 1000 most common words in the English language.

Sounds simple right?

Well, when you realize “one-thousand” isn’t even one of those words (you have to say ten hundred), you can see how you might be riding the strugglebus on this challenge.

Alexis talks about her presentation on her blog and there’s a video if you want to watch!

Alexis decided to call lemurs “jumping tree animals”, but I’m convinced that “weird tree dog” is a more accurate descriptor of what lemurs are.


So yeah, we got some weird tree dog hair (of the ring-tailed kind) and put it under a microscope last week!

Side note: At some point, I’ll have to tell you guys about the weirdest of lemurs: the Aye-Aye.

The Aye-aye, or as I like to call it, the furry Antichrist.

Next week’s Mystery Magnification probably won’t be a lemur, but I can promise you it will be something pretty cool.

And if you want to learn more about lemurs or even teach about these funny little primates in your class, I found this awesome PDF educational package that could help you out! And, apparently, there’s a movie in IMAX…


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