Guests visiting the Tennessee Aquarium can enjoy a new immersive exhibit featuring two species of lemurs beginning today.
Lemur Forest has been under construction since September and features two distinct habitats representing both the lush rainforests and dry spiny forest regions of Madagascar. The former features large red-ruffed lemurs and the latter the highly social ring-tailed lemurs.
More than 100 species of lemurs are known to exist on the island of Madagascar, which represents a hotbed of biodiversity for the primates. The world "lemur" is derived from Roman mythology and "lemures," meaning "ghosts or spirits."
Lemur Forest also offers a renovated Stingray Bay touch tank, radiated tortoises and large freshwater stingrays. The tortoises will be housed with the ring-tailed lemurs, and the freshwater stingrays are with the red-ruffed lemurs.
According to a release from the aquarium, two daily programs have been added to the schedule—at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.—to offer guests a chance to learn more about the new lemur residents. A lemur expert will provide nutritious snacks for the lemurs and answer questions during the programs.
Chelsea Feast is an animal care specialist for lemurs at the aquarium. She has studied primates, including lemurs, for years, and her input was critical to the design of Lemur Forest.
Feast said the end result is more than she imagined.
"It's an immersive experience when you look at these exhibits," Feast said. "You're seeing something you would see in Madagascar, with caves on the southern end and a ridge of plants on top. We wanted it to feel like you were coming down below the surface."
All plants within each habitat are native to Madagascar, which means the lemurs can snack on anything they find. In just a few weeks, the ring-tailed lemurs have already helped themselves to a few tamarind trees.
As a part of Lemur Forest, the aquarium has partnered with the Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group, a nonprofit working to restore habitat and lemur populations in Madagascar. A variety of fair-trade items from Madagascar are on sale in the Ocean Journey gift shop.
"I wanted to see an exhibit where they were living among plants they would have in the wild," Feast said. "Just by coming to the aquarium, you're supporting the organization."
Eventually, both lemur species will be able to roam freely throughout both exhibits. But Feast said time is needed to allow them to get used to the new environments. The exhibit also happens to be opening at the end of lemur breeding season, which means certain behaviors are different than they would be otherwise.
The female is the dominant gender among lemurs. This is especially true during breeding season, when the female red-ruffed lemur will show a heightened dominance over the male.
"You might see our male approach and she'll smack him away," Feast said. "That's perfectly normal. Eventually, you may see them sharing food, but females will always get preferential treatment among lemurs."
Lemur Forest also represents an extension of an accelerated conservation effort for all species of lemurs.
"The pet trade is one of the leading causes of ring-tailed lemur extinction," she said. "They've had a 90 percent decrease in population since 2000."
At the current rate of decline, Feast said, all lemurs will be extinct by 2050.
"That's right around the corner," she said. "My goal is that people come here and fall in love with these animals and get involved with their conservation."
The Tennessee Aquarium is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Tickets are available here.