Caltech Biologist's Lab Is Jungle

Times Staff Writer

After days and nights of slogging through the muddy, cold, dark rain forests of Madagascar, Patricia Wright looked up and saw the animal that would bring her worldwide recognition.

Here she was, a one-time Brooklyn housewife, and there it was, the greater bamboo-eating lemur, a primate that was thought to be extinct until Wright found it last summer in a remote mountain region of the island off Africa.

"That moment after horrible tramping through the mud to see what nobody else has seen, the excitement of waiting for something so special . . ."

Words almost failed the Caltech researcher, who is the world's foremost authority on the behavior of nocturnal primates.

Wright herself is considered a rare species.

"She is the only person who has really gone through the Amazon jungle at night following monkeys," said EveLynn McGuiness, a research biologist and primatologist at Caltech.

"Nobody else is crazy enough to do that," said Wright, who has faced jaguars and poisonous snakes in Paraguay, stampeding rodents in Colombia, exotic diseases and physical misery to satisfy her curiosity as to why primates behave as they do.

Wright, 42, left Caltech earlier this month for Madagascar and the rare lemurs, this time in the hope of helping preserve the few that are left.

"It's important to us to know what their natural enemies are--we know man is one of them," Wright said.

Wright spends part of each year as a research associate at Caltech, working with McGuiness and John Allman, another primatologist, and teaching a course on primatology. Between September and April she is an assistant professor of biology at Duke University in North Carolina.

Since 1978, she has spent most of her summers in some remote corner of the world in quest of little-known nocturnal primates.

She was scheduled to leave last weekend on her fourth trip to Madagascar with a team of scientists who will study the rain forest and its animals. McGuiness and Allman were members of the team last summer when Wright made her discovery.

The large island of Madagascar, because of its isolation after splitting off from Africa millions of years ago, contains wildlife found nowhere else in the world. Wright said Madagascar's rain forests are now only one-tenth their original size, having been stripped for agriculture, thereby killing much off the island's rich animal life.

Wright said she hopes to alert government officials to the value of preserving the island's unique features.

In August the research team will be joined by Murray Gell-Mann, Caltech physicist and Nobel Prize-winner who shares Wright's concern over the disappearing rain forests.

Lemurs, similar to monkeys but lower on the evolutionary scale, exist only in Madagascar. The greater bamboo-eating lemur ( Hapalemur simus ) was last seen in 1972 and was believed to be extinct, McGuiness said.

"They're very secret animals," Wright said. "Local people knew very little about them. But we found eaten stalks of bamboo--some even had saliva on them--and suddenly, there it was!"

High in the stalks she saw a bright red lemur with "chubby chipmunk cheeks, whirling its tail around, very weird and very beautiful. There was nothing like it," she said.

Until then, Wright had seen only one paragraph about the greater bamboo-eating lemur in a reference book.

"They sleep in the bamboo tops, near active streams," she said. "They make outrageous noises, but it's hard to hear them because of rushing water."

She eventually counted 36 of the rare species, as well as "mouse lemurs, woolly lemurs that come in pairs, red-bellied lemurs and some rare subspecies."

Wright describes lemurs as having thick furry coats, necessary for the high, cold mountain regions. Wright, wearing a thick jacket, plods through rough, wet terrain by night, usually alone, using her keen hearing and an infrared spotting scope to locate her subjects.

She is seldom frightened in Madagascar because the only jungle carnivore is a fossa, a mammal about the size of a mongoose. But she admits to terror in other jungles where she has been face-to-face with large, vicious animals.

"You have to want to do this very much," she said.

Pet Monkey

As she talks about her adventures, Wright loves to remind people that she began as a Brooklyn housewife. Although she has a bachelor's degree in biology, she first worked as a social worker while her husband studied art.

"My first experience with animal behavior was in the ghettos of New York," she said.

She walked into a pet store in New York in 1972 and bought an owl monkey to keep her husband company when he worked at night. Failing to find a mate for the nocturnal monkey in New York, she went to Colombia for a female.

Then, during summers on Cape Cod, she let the pair out of their cage and followed them in their night activities. The male proved to be dominant, although females often are dominant among primates.

When the monkeys had a baby, the male took care of it and the mother's only role was to nurse her infant.

"How did this social system evolve?" Wright asked, only to discover that she would have to find out herself by going into the natural habitat, since there had been no research on owl monkeys.

Lacking money for what would be a six-month excursion to the South American jungles in 1978, Wright sought a grant. Although she did not have a doctorate, which she said was considered mandatory for obtaining a grant, she was able to get credentials to qualify for the needed money by affiliating with the New School of Social Research in New York City.

Then she asked a primatologist at City University of New York how to go about collecting information about monkeys in the jungle. Armed with a $3,000 grant, she left for Peru the following week.

With her husband and 3-year-old daughter, Amanda, and the help of Indian natives who had never seen white people, she stalked owl monkeys in the Amazon jungle. She followed them around at night for six months.

"It's been an obsession to find things out," Wright said.

She entered graduate school at City University of New York where she earned a Ph.D in biology in 1982. After a divorce, she took Amanda with her on research trips to Peru and Paraguay.

"If you had asked me at any earlier time, I would have said I wanted to be a third-grade teacher," Wright said. "I did this (research) because I wanted to know.

"For one year, I lived in the most isolated rain forest in the world, in Paraguay. My daughter was 7, and I had to teach her with courses provided by her school in New York. The schools were very supportive, but grandparents thought this was no life for a child. I used to wonder, myself."

Wright then became a teacher and researcher at Duke University, known for its Primate Center, a conservatory for endangered simians. As her skills and reputation grew, she was asked to do more studies of nocturnal animals.

She went to Borneo and the Philippines to study tarsiers, little nocturnal primates, and then to Madagascar to study its 30 species of lemurs.

When someone suggested that she study the greater bamboo-eating lemur, Wright at first was skeptical.

"Who's going to give me money to study an extinct animal?" she said. "Nobody's been in the southeastern Madagascar rain forest in 15 years."

The World Wildlife Fund and Wildlife Conservation International sponsored her trip last summer. She and a small group of researchers drove as far as they could toward the rain forest, backpacked for several days and then pitched camp in the mountains.

Once she sighted the greater bamboo-eating lemurs, she stalked them day and night.

"You have to know them," she said. "They try to hide, but you stay with them and after awhile they say, 'Oh, there she is again,' and they get bored. It takes incredible patience. You have to stalk them, and then you have to find them again. It's not easy."

She has suffered from rare tropical diseases and has lost weight on a diet of mostly rice and beans cooked over a wood fire with mountain stream water.

She takes notes on everything.

"Writing is extremely hard," Wright said. "Sitting down and writing is lots harder than dealing with disasters like the road is washed out or a flat tire."

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