Inspiring Latina of the Week: 'Island of Lemurs' Anthropologist Mireya Mayor

Inspiring Latina of the Week: 'Island of Lemurs' Anthropologist Mireya Mayor

Dr. Mireya Mayor holds a Ph.D. in anthropology. Born to Cuban immigrants, the scientist, explorer, wildlife correspondent, anthropologist and inspirational speaker (yes, she does it all!) always had a passion for animals -- a curiosity and love that started at a very early age.

In 1996, while attending the University of Miami, Mayor realized she could turn this passion for animals into a full-fledged career. And she's transformed into a huge success! Mayor was hired to be the first female wildlife correspondent for the series Ultimate Explorer on National Geographic in 1999. About a year later, Mayor went on to co-discover a new species of lemurs in Madagascar.

Her work with lemurs landed her an opportunity to take part in the new documentary Island of Lemurs: Madagascar. The film highlights the tireless efforts of trailblazing scientist Dr. Patricia Wright and her lifelong mission to help these unique creatures survive in the modern world.

We spoke with the Latina anthropologist to learn more about her work with lemurs, her role in the Island of Lemurs documentary, and breaking down barriers in the world of science.

Tell us about your involvement with Island of Lemurs: Madagascar.

I’ve been working in Madagascar for nearly 15 years and I specialize in lemurs. My graduate advisor who stars in the film, Dr. Patricia Wright, is a close friend and we were approached by IMAX to do this amazing documentary on lemurs. I was a scientific advisor [for the film], so I was helping with all sorts of things from the ground up. Figuring out what kind of lemurs to feature, where would we find those lemurs, what kind of behaviors could we capture, and just making all those things come together so we could pick the best of Madagascar and the best of lemurs all into one.

And you actually discovered a specific type of lemur.

Yes! The world’s smallest primate -- a Mouse lemur. It fits in the palm of your hand, weighs less than two ounces and is spectacularly cute.

Editors Note: The mouse lemur (pictured above) is the smallest primate in the world but still hold the same genetic foundation of all primates, including humans. Mouse lemurs in captivity are one of the few animals to have been documented getting Alzheimer's. By conducting a long-term study, Dr. Wright and her team hope to analyze the difference between captive and wild populations to search for clues for what causes Alzheimer's.

We saw a picture of you holding adorable! Tell us a bit about your research on lemurs and how the discovery sort of went about.

I went to Madagascar back in, I want to say, 1998. As I was working, I found these two lemur species that had never been studied before. And not only had they never been studied, there were not even photographs of them. We knew nothing about them, and on top of that, they were two of the most critically endangered primates not only in Madagascar, but in the world. So I was instantly sort of fascinated with the idea of studying these animals that we know nothing about before they go extinct. That’s how I started working in Madagascar.

Then while I was there, I began learning about their behaviors and realized that wasn’t going to be enough. I had to do something more. They were considered sub-species, so I took on this genetics project and actually found that they were distinct species. That got them more conservation attention and priority. And then while I was out in the jungle studying these big lemurs, my colleague Dr. Ed Lewis and I, put out these small mammal traps just to see what was in that area. I mean, we never thought that we were going to discover anything, we were just sort of taking inventory.

One morning we woke up and as always checked the traps. There was this adorable little face with huge eyes inside this little trap looking up, soaking wet because it just started raining. We immediately both had the same thought: this is something different [Laughs]. So it was super exciting, and it turns out that our suspicions were correct. It was a brand new species to science. It was an amazing experience and totally by chance!

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