Parents Gone Feral: Peter and Martha’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure

Having colorful parents who raised you and your siblings in unorthodox ways is considered, these days, a piece of literary luck. Hey, look at you—you have memoir material! (Thinking Jeanette Walls’ Glass Castle, Tara Westover’s Educated, or, casting farther back, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell—which my own father read aloud to us.)

Don’t worry, this isn’t a pitch to buy my memoir; I’m not writing one. But if I did, the Aldabra Winter would fill a good chapter. And since it really is a good stand-alone story, what better place to share it?

I’ve blogged about my marathoning, Civil Rights activist, lemur-studying, poetry-writing, horse-riding, Quaker school-founding—oh, heck, colorful parents before. But I’ve never written about the Aldabra Winter of 1976-77, when my parents abandoned my sister and me for ten weeks to disappear into the Indian Ocean.

Okay, that was unnecessary drama. I just enjoy thinking of the story that way. In reality, I was 15, my sister was 17 (with the all-important driver’s license), and we had both a Duke student living with us and my grandmother living adjacent. Hardly “abandoned.” But still. These were the days LONG before internet, and Aldabra did not do phones.

So where is Aldabra, and what were Martha and Peter Klopfer doing there? For that I’ll turn to my parents’ Aldabra Journals, which they kept back then, written longhand, and which my dad is now digitizing one by one, a kind of 42-years-later blog. Take it away, Dad.

“Among students of animal behavior, it is commonly believed that if one concentrates ones studies on a particular species, one comes to resemble it.  Doesn’t Konrad Lorenz remind you of an arrogant gander, Niko Tinbergen of a graceful gull, and Karl von Frisch of a preoccupied honey bee?  Given such Noble [Nobel?] examples, we could be forgiven for accepting this belief and thus diversifying our interests so that, by switching from ducks to deer to damselfish, we could avoid a resemblance to the goats which had been our primary subjects.  However, insofar as the U.K.’s Royal Society was concerned, we were still goat-people, so when they and the Smithsonian decided to deal with the depredations of the goats on Aldabra Atoll, we were the ones they called.  The goat population on that isolated island had increased considerably in the past several decades and the fear was that this would adversely impact the large land tortoises, a threatened species, that shared the atoll.

We had been looking at the process by which newborn kids bonded to their mothers, a process that depended on events that were limited to a very short period of time: if bonding did not occur within 5-10 minutes after parturition it would not take place at all. We had reasons to believe these events were mediated by the pituitary hormone, oxytocin, but caprine oxytocin was not commercially available, and we were unwilling to sacrifice animals merely to obtain extracts from their glands.  But, if the goats of Aldabra were due to be slaughtered anyway, harvesting their pituitaries would be a sensible act.  The Royal Society proposed to allow this if, in return, we would document the impact of goats on the tortoises.  With Meg Gould (now Dr. Meg Burke), a doctoral student who was prepared to spend a year in the field, we agreed to undertake the task.

Aldabra is a fly speck in the Indian Ocean, some 400 kilometers northwest of the giant island of Madagascar.  The atoll resembles a flattened doughnut, 30 kilometers long, its width varying from 5 to 10 km.  Most of the interior, the doughnut hole, is a shallow lagoon that connects to the sea through three channels that dissect the rim of the doughnut, dividing it into 4 separate islets.”

Dad and Mom, ready for some serious goat-watching action

Let me take the mic back here to explain, in case you haven’t picked up on it: my dad is an academic, and both his speech and his writing tend toward the, shall we say, multi-syllabic. So let me zip through this next part to say that simply getting to Aldabra was an odyssey in itself. Starting in December of 1976, they left from L.A.–three hours after completing a marathon race!–flew to London, then Nairobi, and finally to Mahe, the main island of the Seychelles. Can you imagine how cramped and sore they must have been? Then they discovered their luggage was missing. OK, back to Dad.

“10 December. – Mahe

The day began with a desperate search for clothing to replace what was in our lost luggage, a search that was largely unsuccessful as local stores only offered sizes appropriate for the local population, who are considerably smaller than we.  But, miraculously, before the day was out, our wandering suitcase was located and we could turn our attention to confirming the arrangements for the final leg of our journey, a three day boatride on the freighter that, twice each year, resupplies the garrison on Aldabra.

The boat in question was an ancient 500 ton tub, the Nordvaer, which plies the Indian and South Pacific Oceans.  We clambered aboard and were escorted to the Captain.  “Sorry”, was how he greeted us, “my First Mate is sick and must be hospitalized.  Maritime law in the Seychelles forbids freighters lacking a Mate to carry passengers”. With the next available trip a full six months distant, we were stunned.  Somehow, in the lengthy discussions that followed, someone came upon the idea of enrolling us in the seamans’ union and then signing us on as members of the crew.  We dashed to the relevant maritime offices, signed various forms, and were officially listed as “supers” aboard the Nordvaer.  The title seemed a bit exalted to us, until, later, we learned “super” stands  for “supernumerary”, and meant we need not stand watches nor handle the engines, but at least we could ignore signs that read “no admission except for crew”.

Mom with the freighter Nordvaer

Stay tuned for the next installment of Aldabra Journals! (Or, as I like to call them, “Where In The World Are Peter And Martha Klopfer?”)

 

 

“Sleeping Cuties:” When Your Scientist Father’s Life Work Makes You Go “Wow!” But Also, “Awww…”

I’ve written before about my father’s work at the Duke Lemur Center. But never before has the mainstream media captured that work so clearly for us laypeople. And I have to say, I’m feeling a little conflicted.

On the one hand, my dad is a Serious Scientist who’s spent his life doing Serious Science. His past subjects have ranged from elephant seals to domestic and feral goats to reef fish to, yes, lemurs. (Which is why he is a co-founder of the Duke Lemur Center in my hometown, Durham, North Carolina.) His work has taken him all over the world, most notably to Madagascar, where lemurs live. This particular study has to do with understanding primate brains, with an eye to everything from surgery to long-range space travel. SERIOUS STUFF.

But on the other hand…these animals are really stinkin’ CUTE!

Now, thanks to this episode of Science Friday, created by Luke Groskin and Johanna Mayer, his research is easy to explain…and it’s also ridiculously adorable. I don’t really know what to do with that. But I guess if Dr. Serious Scientist Peter Klopfer can handle his subjects’ cuteness, so can I. Enjoy!

Celebratin’ 50 Years of Redneck Lemurs

How about another lemur update? Here we go.

If you only stop by Wing’s World now and then you might not know my connection to the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, NC. I’m no biologist; I just grew up there. Literally. My sisters and I roamed the building back when no one knew about it nor worried about little kids roaming among the other primates.

See, I chose my parents wisely. Not only are they largely responsible for Carolina Friends School, my dad’s also the one who turned my hometown into the largest home for lemurs, anywhere in the world outside of Madagascar.

If you’re ever in central North Carolina, you can see for yourself–in a guided tour; sorry, no more roaming. But if you don’t get the chance, here’s a glimpse of how it all began, 50 years ago:

What else can I say? Congrats, lemurs. Congrats, Duke. Way to go, Dad.

Who Doesn’t Need More Lemurs in His/Her Life?

Proud daughter + lemur-lover = another update on my dad’s research.

Really, this isn’t new. It’s just a look at how popular culture is becoming (understandably) attracted to the idea of lemurs one day helping humans with things like medical breakthroughs or space travel.

So here’s a cool article & video from my hometown, Durham, North Carolina (home of the Duke Lemur Center). I couldn’t get the video to copy separately, but if you click on this link, you can watch it:

http://www.wncn.com/story/26669493/dukes-lemurs-may-hold-key-to-extended-space-travel

(Not actually the lemur in question, but be honest: this is what you think of when you hear "lemur," right? Courtesy Duke Lemur Center.)

(Not actually the lemur in question, but be honest: this is what you think of when you hear “lemur,” right? Courtesy Duke Lemur Center.)

Can’t get enough lemurs? Click on this link, Duke Lemur Center, to get your fill. 

Coming soon: the latest on Book Two of the Flying Burgowski trilogy, Headwinds. But until then–enjoy the lemurs!

 

Lemurs, Suspended Animation, and My Dad: No, I’m Not Making This Up

When the fat-tailed lemur becomes the most famous animal in the world, you can say you read about it here first. Unless you read it in Slate.

I got an email from my dad the other day, which turned out to be forwarded from some random person who had sent him a link to something else random. He does that a lot, so I almost deleted it. Then I saw the word “Slate” and “lemur.”

Slate? As in the online magazine? Hip and savvy and mainstream? I clicked. The title said:

Do Lemurs Hold the Secret to Suspended Animation?

What we might be able to learn from our closest hibernating cousins.

Sure enough, Slate had run an article on my dad’s research.

Why should you care? I’ll let David Casarett of Slate tell you:

You know all about suspended animation because it makes an appearance in virtually every science-fiction movie that’s ever been made. Usually it’s portrayed as a handy device for space travel. But what you probably don’t know is that suspended animation isn’t just science fiction. It’s real. And it could save lives.

Suspended animation is really just slowed metabolism, like hibernation. Think of it asartificial hibernation. When animals hibernate (and when science-fiction characters venture off-world), they’re in a state in which their cells have downshifted to low gear and they need very little oxygen.

That’s handy for intergalactic travel, of course. But what if we could use that trick in situations in which our cells—and particularly our brain cells—don’t have access to much oxygen? That might be the case for a patient who has suffered a cardiac arrest and who isn’t breathing. Or someone injured in a car accident, or someone with a serious gunshot wound. Or a soldier injured on the battlefield.

[Reprinted from Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead by David Casarett with permission of Current, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) David Casarett, 2014.]

My dad studies lemurs that hibernate. So what? Don’t lots of animals do that? Not PRIMATES. There’s only one that does that: the fat-tailed lemur. What can it teach us about our own brain’s capacity for suspended animation?

In 2005…a German team of researchers collected the first evidence of prolonged hibernation in fat-tailed dwarf lemurs (Cheirogaleus medius). That discovery raised the very intriguing possibility that other primates—like humans—that don’t normally hibernate might be able to pull off the same trick. Lemurs are much closer to us, genetically, than other hibernating animals are. And that’s important, because if we want to understand how hibernation works in a way that might someday help people, it pays to study hibernation in an animal that’s as close to us as possible.

Mr. Casarett based this piece on an interview with my dad, Peter Klopfer, now an emeritus professor of Zoology at Duke University. Dad is also the co-founder of the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, NC, home to the largest collection of lemurs outside of Madagascar.

Lemurs are very hip right now. Forget the cartoon Madagascar movies–have you seen the IMAX film, Island of Lemurs? Whoa.

When I was a kid, my dad made repeated trips to Madagascar. My sisters and I took it in stride, never asked questions about what he did there or what it was like. It was his work, right? What kid is interested in their dad’s work?

There was that time he came home with malaria. That got some attention. But still, even as my sisters and I got older–research, ho-hum. Yeah, the lemurs are cute. Can I borrow the car?

Luckily, my sons were more interested than I was. First one, at age 16, then the other, at 19, joined his grandfather on one of those research trips. I learned what it was like, doing that hands-on research, speaking bad French with the locals, hearing the scary fossa chuckle as you walked the dark path through the forest to the outhouse at night. And I finally started paying attention.

Hibernating lemurs? This is pretty cool stuff.

The fat-tailed lemur my dad’s been studying doesn’t play much of a part in the movie. It’s no more dramatic than its name. But it IS cute as the dickens.

(Courtesy Slate.com)

(Courtesy Slate.com)

Mr. Casarett does a wonderful job of walking his readers through the science as my dad walked him, literally, past the darkened cages of the Duke Lemur Center, and back into the bright North Carolina sunshine. My sisters and I spent hours of our childhood at that center, back before it was a major tourist attraction, when there was no need to “sign in” at the front desk because there was no front desk at all, just a bunch of earnest researchers and keepers doing their work. When we could even pat the lemurs or feed them by hand if we wanted to–watching those sharp teeth, of course. When we had no idea that the place my dad had co-founded would one day be working on such…well…mainstream, high-interest science.

The article concludes with a wonderful sequence that captures both the interviewer’s curiosity and my dad’s character.

Klopfer and I are back in the parking lot now, standing in front of my rental car, when a thought occurs to me. We’ve spent the last couple of hours talking about the physiology of hibernation. So I’m wondering…

Do lemurs dream?

The question seems to surprise him. Klopfer strokes his beard, deep in thought. Under the hood of a rain parka that obscures his eyes, he looks a little like a wizard, if wizards dressed in Gore-Tex and track suits.

Finally he nods. “I would think so.” He grins. “Otherwise months of hibernation would be pretty dull, don’t you think?”

I agree. So there’s hope for us all. Not only might it be possible to put humans in suspended animation, but that’s a lot of dreams to look forward to. Let’s hope they’re pleasant ones.

Yup–that’s my dad. Kinda proud of him. Let’s consider this post my way of saying sorry for not being all that impressed when I was a kid.

Have you seen the lemur movie? Have any thoughts about the potential of this research? Or want to sound off about your own filial pride? Please share.