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How Ancient Rome’s Scariest Ghosts Gave Their Name to Madagascar’s Lemurs

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Lemurs. Some of them, like the tiny mouse lemur, are impossibly cute. Others, like sifaka and its extraordinary bounding walk, are impossibly hilarious. And at least one, the nocturnal aye-aye with its creepy elongated finger, is impossibly weird. But every single one of them is native to Madagascar and its surrounding islands—and together, every single one of them takes its name from one of Ancient Rome’s creepiest bits of folklore.

The name lemur derives from the Latin word lemures. Some dictionaries translate that word as simply meaning “ghosts,” but in Roman tradition there was a lot more to it than that definition would suggest.

The Lemures of Ancient Rome were in fact grotesque skeletal specters, who would wander the earth at night causing hurt and injury to the living. According to the early Christian scholar St. Augustine (who brought it up to disagree with it), these were the cruel and malevolent ghosts of iniquitous characters and lost souls: thieves and criminals, the executed and the damned, and all those who for whatever reason had not been afforded a proper funeral, like sailors lost at sea whose bodies could not be recovered and buried appropriately. According to Roman poet Ovid, they were “voiceless spirits” who would walk the earth in search of their old homes, terrifying all those who crossed their paths as they wandered the streets at night. The only way to hold them at bay, he explained, was to exorcise your home during an early springtime festival known as Lemuria. At midnight on the ninth, 11th, and 13th of May, the head of the household would walk the house barefoot, throwing a ceremonial offering of dried black beans over their shoulders with the words “with these beans I redeem me and mine.” Bronze pots and dishes would then be clashed together, creating a cacophony of noise meant to drive the spirits from the house. Only once this ritual had been completed for the third time would the house be deemed as safe for another year.

No one is entirely sure why the Romans knew these ghosts and demons as lemures, but the theory put forward by Ovid was that the first of all these beings was the ghost of Remus, the legendary co-founder of Rome who was killed by his twin brother Romulus after a bitter dispute over the founding of the city. The macabre festival of Lemuria, ultimately, was originally Remuria—a festival intended to commemorate Remus’s death and placate his spirit.

What does all that have to do with the bouncing sifaka and the creepy-fingered aye-aye? Well, for the next piece of the puzzle we need the Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus.

One of the most acclaimed scientists of his day, Linnaeus was the father of the Linnaean system of classification, which divides all living creatures into an intricate hierarchy of kingdoms, genera, and species. He outlined this groundbreaking system in several editions of his Systema Naturae, most influentially in 1758, and it has remained in use (albeit with various extensions and modifications over the centuries) ever since.

Using this system, Linnaeus entered a record of a creature he called a lemur into the exhibition catalogue of the Museum of King Adolf Frederick of Sweden in 1754 [PDF]. Four years later, he included it in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae, assigning it to a new genus, naming it the Lemur tardigradus (literally the “slow-moving lemur”) alongside two more species he called Lemur catta (literally the “cat lemur”) and Lemur volans (the “flying lemur”). These three are the earliest lemurs on the zoological and etymological record—and Linnaeus clearly took his cue from the ghostly lemures of Roman legend when it came to picking their names.

It’s often been said that Linnaeus had the lemurs’ bizarre screeching, whooping calls in mind when he named them after the ghosts of Ancient Rome, or else their eerie reflective eyes, their silent nocturnal wanderings, or even the fact that they are considered the ghosts of ancestors in Madagascan folklore. But as Linnaeus himself straightforwardly explained:

"I call [the creatures in this genus] lemurs, because they go around mainly by night, in a certain way similar to humans, and roam with a slow pace."

Things have changed since Linnaeus classified the first of his lemurs in the mid-18th century. For instance, only one of his original three is still recognized as a true lemur today: Lemur catta is the Latin name of the ring-tailed lemur. His Lemur tardigradus is now identified as the red slender loris of the Sri Lankan rainforests, while the “flying” Lemur volans is now the Philippine colugo, a small tree-dwelling mammal similar to a flying squirrel. The fact that he classified the three as all belonging to one close family is also questionable, as lorises, lemurs, and colugos aren’t today considered quite as closely related as Linnaeus had presumed.

Nevertheless, the mythological name he chose for them has remained in use, and over time has gone on to become attached exclusively to the 100 or so species of primates native only to Madagascar. And there’s nothing scary about them at all.

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How a Pregnant Rhino Named Victoria Could Save an Entire Subspecies
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

The last male northern white rhino died at a conservancy in Kenya earlier this year, prompting fears that the subspecies was finally done for after decades of heavy poaching. Scientists say there's still hope, though, and they're banking on a pregnant rhino named Victoria at the San Diego Zoo, according to the Associated Press.

Victoria is actually a southern white rhino, but the two subspecies are related. Only two northern white rhinos survive, but neither of the females in Kenya are able to reproduce. Victoria was successfully impregnated through artificial insemination, and if she successfully carries her calf to term in 16 to 18 months, scientists say she might be able to serve as a surrogate mother and propagate the northern white rhino species.

But how would that work if no male northern rhinos survive? As the AP explains, scientists are working to recreate northern white rhino embryos using genetic technology. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has the frozen cell lines of 12 different northern white rhinos, which can be transformed into stem cells—and ultimately, sperm and eggs. The sperm of the last northern white male rhino, Sudan, was also saved before he died.

Scientists have been monitoring six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to see if any emerge as likely candidates for surrogacy. However, it's not easy to artificially inseminate a rhino, and there have been few successful births in the past. There's still a fighting chance, though, and scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to build up a herd of five to 15 northern white rhinos over the next few decades.

[h/t Time Magazine]

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(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
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The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

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