Emma Wellbaum: Close Watching of Lemur Social Dynamics

Sophomore Emma Wellbaum spends her days at the Duke Lemur Center learning about group dynamics in primitive primates.

The prospective evolutionary anthropology and environmental sciences and policy double major is conducting an independent study with Julie Teichroeb, visiting assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology. They research leadership and group progression in red ruffed lemurs and black-and-white ruffed lemurs.

"Eventually we're going to be doing some trials that look at foraging efficiency and spatial position in the [ruffed lemurs]," Wellbaum said. "But right now I'm collecting some preliminary data on relationships between individuals in the group."

Wellbaum is currently trying to understand the dynamics of each social group in preparation for the trials in the fall. She takes timed samples and observations of the lemurs, looking for dominance hierarchies and noting each individual's nearest neighbor.

She also worked for the Lemur Center as a research intern throughout the last academic year, studying sifakas and ring-tailed lemurs.

Her research projects with the sifakas and ring-tailed lemurs, however, are very different from her independent study this summer. Rather than taking general behavioral scans, her independent study will push her to look for data that answers specific questions about social dynamics. She said she will continue her work at the Lemur Center in the fall.

"The ringtails are really great, but they can be really sassy sometimes," she said. "The sifakas' movement is so peculiar that it makes them really fun to work with and see the social dynamics there. And the [ruffed lemurs] are really lazy."

Because many lemur species are endangered, only noninvasive research can be performed on them. Wellbaum said the inability to do invasive research on the lemurs is something that drew her to working with them.

"Invasive research is something that I'm not as comfortable with morally," she said. "I understand its value for the medical world, but I'm not trying to be involved in it personally."

Besides her research, Wellbaum is involved with the Duke Disability Alliance and spends several days a week riding horses. She takes dressage lessons a few times a week and helps a friend exercise his horses.

After graduation, Wellbaum said she hopes to attend graduate school and continue her work with primates.