The key to space travel and complicated surgical procedures could be found in lemurs at Duke University.

With about 250 lemurs from 23 different species roaming 80 acres of natural habitat at Duke Forest, Duke University has the largest number of lemurs outside Madagascar.

Those lemurs could hold the key to faster recovery times from injuries and even deep space travel because of hundreds of species of primates, the fat-tailed dwarf lemur is the closest genetic cousin to humans that can hibernate.

“That suspended animation doesn’t occur in primates very often,” explained Duke Lemur Center veterinarian Bobby Schopler. “These are relatives of ours that do this, and it’s a fascinating aspect.”

Scientists have been studying the primates in their natural habitat for 48 years at the Duke Lemur Center. Duke researchers want to find out how some of the lemurs can regulate body temperature, store massive amounts of energy and sleep for 7 months at a time.

The research could have some major implications.

“Surgical procedures would be possible that are not possible now, we could exploit this for space travel perhaps, we could induce artificial comas that are persistent,” said professor emeritus Peter Klopfer. “The value of this research is quite significant.”

During its extended sleep time, a lemur is able to go into what’s called torpor, which is characterized by minimal brain activity. Torpor allows the lemur to store massive amounts of fat for energy.

“It’s incredibly crazy,” said Sheena Faherty, a biology graduate student. “They get really, really fat then when they go into hibernation, they stop eating that entire time.”

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