Learning to ‘Speak Lemur’: Fulbright Fellow Carly Batist Will Go to Madagascar to Study and Help Protect a Critically Endangered Species

Carly Batist and a black-and-white ruffed lemur (Photos courtesy of Batist)

By Lida Tunesi

Ph.D. candidate Carly Batist (Anthropology (Biological)) received a 2021–2022 Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant to research the vocalizations of black-and-white ruffed lemurs in Madagascar. 

Or, as she told The Graduate Center in an interview, “I’m essentially trying to speak lemur.”

With her adviser Professor Andrea Baden (GC/Hunter, Anthropology, Biology) Batist investigates how the lemurs’ calls facilitate their social and reproductive strategies. Some of this work takes place at the Centre ValBio research station in Madagascar, which Graduate Center alumna Patricia Chapple Wright (Ph.D. ’85) helped establish in 2002.

Batist’s other focus is more an applied science, using passive acoustic monitoring, or PAM, to record a call of the black-and-white ruffed lemurs known as a “roar-shriek.” When one lemur makes the call, many others join in. Batist then uses machine learning models to parse through the recordings to estimate how many lemurs are in one area. Because PAM equipment can be left running outside for months at a time, it saves the time, labor, and money it would cost to monitor a population from the ground.

Knowing the range and abundance of these lemurs is important because they are a critically endangered species, Batist said, and much of their rainforest habitat has been fragmented by deforestation. Ruffed lemurs would be helpful in the reforestation effort, too, because they naturally disperse seeds from the fruit they eat, and their beards, or “ruffs,” spread pollen from one flower to another as they move through the trees.

“Being able to query which [forest] fragments have this species and which don’t can help form decisions around where potential protected areas should go or where to send more conservation efforts,” Batist said.

Batist notes, however, that there has been a push to rethink approaches to conservation in the last several years.

“You have to work with local communities to have success,” she said. “Conservationists, particularly from the global North, need to make sure not to perpetuate a neo-colonialist attitude because it is actually the richest countries that are contributing the most to climate change, funding exploitative and unsustainable practices, and having trouble keeping our own native species from going extinct.”

To this end, a large part of Batist’s fellowship is about community engagement, training local research technicians and research station staff, and translating conservation technology resources into Malagasy and French, the country’s official languages.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented Batist from seeing the lemurs in person in Madagascar so far this year. The island nation has closed its borders and though she is staying in touch with local collaborators, plans are still up in the air. In the meantime, Batist has been preparing manuscripts to submit to journals, and has gotten creative about doing research from home.

“I’ve been getting more involved in the conservation tech community,” Batist said. “There’s an online platform called WILDLABS that’s amazing. It brings together engineers and data scientists with ecologists and conservationists to figure out how they can work together.”

In one of these projects, Batist’s collaborators are using data from a study she did in 2019. Instead of just picking out lemur calls, the collaborators are combing the entire “soundscape” of her recordings to see how many species they can detect and get a fuller picture of the whole ecosystem.

As a horseback rider, Batist grew up wanting to be an equine veterinarian, but became fascinated by primates during an internship at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Belize. She then zeroed in on lemurs while doing research for a master’s degree at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina. This kind of focus can benefit students applying for Fulbrights or other large fellowships, Batist noted.

“It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of possibilities, but you’re not going to cure cancer or solve world hunger with your dissertation project,” Batist said. “If you can reign in your proposal to something that’s definitely feasible, you can flush it out and explain it in more detail.”

But the best thing might be to have help from someone who has received a fellowship in the past.

“I was really lucky to have an in-house resource,” she said. “Another Ph.D. student in my lab, Amanda Mancini, got a Fulbright a couple years ago, and she helped me edit my application. I’m happy to be that resource for someone else; I’d love to pay it forward.”

Follow Carly Batist on Twitter at @Carly_Batist

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing.

Submitted on: MAY 13, 2021

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