The Toledo Zoo's two newest primates are tiny, with wide red eyes and long, striped, animated tails. But they aren't monkeys, though most of the public seems to think so.
The pair of ring-tailed lemurs, donated by the Duke Lemur Center, appeared before the public at the zoo for the first time Wednesday. The twin sisters, Fanta and Fresca, are the zoo's first lemurs in at least 20 years, and zoo officials hope the mammals -- popular with children most recently through the Madagascar movies -- will breed up to five more lemurs by next summer.
"Not only will they be interesting to the public, but they have an important conservation value as well," zoo spokesman Andi Norman said.
Lemurs originate in Madagascar, but the mammals are increasingly threatened by deforestation and hunting.
The two new primates are still getting used to their surroundings, but have spent their time in their new section of the zoo's Primate Forest sunbathing, walking around on their hind legs, and eating yams out of pinecones that zoo trainers strategically have placed for them.
Ring-tailed lemurs are known to huddle together into "lemur balls" -- piling on top of each other to keep warm.
Primate intern Hailey Schurr said lemurs are notoriously difficult to keep busy, so zookeepers must make their food as difficult to find as possible, to mimic conditions in the wild. "They're incredibly curious … and they're really cute, so that doesn't hurt," Ms. Schurr said.
Visitors appeared excited by the new exhibit.
"They're adorable," zoo visitor Lisa Heineman of Port Clinton said. "They remind me of humans the most."
Though the ring-tailed lemurs are classified as primates (and the smallest primates in the zoo's Primate Forest), they are less evolved and differ from monkeys. But Ms. Schurr said the public often seems confused about whether the creatures are raccoons, monkeys, or cats.
Primate zookeeper Kate Clifton said zoo officials used to tell the public to remember if they saw a tail, it was a monkey -- but lemurs are a potentially confusing exception. She added that the Madagascar series was an important influence on the animals' popularity, since she said she has heard children correct their own parents, who often refer to them as monkeys.
"We got a wide spectrum [of primates] here now," Ms. Clifton said. "We were excited because the Toledo public [hadn't] gotten to see them."
Ms. Clifton said that zookeepers will train the lemurs to feel comfortable during medical checkups in the coming months, but otherwise will let them be free to explore their surroundings.
Ms. Norman said that ring-tailed lemurs are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as "near threatened," in part because of a steady population decrease over multiple decades.
Ms. Norman said that as lemurs has become more rare, zoos such as the Toledo Zoo likely will play a crucial role in ensuring species diversity.
"Zoos as a whole are conservation organizations, whether it's [through] breeding or going out in the field," Ms. Norman said. "Seeing animals in person leads to an appreciation of the species."
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