Mad for Madagascar

Mad for Madagascar

Mad for Madagascar

Biologist Anne Yoder ’77 was elected to the American Academy of Arts for her extensive and distinguished research devoted to understanding how the varied forces of climate, geography, genetics, and ecological interactions have converged to generate the unique and incredibly diverse biota of Madagascar.

By Susie Zimmermann

Anne Yoder studies evolutionary biology and conservation threats to the biodiversity in Madagascar. This highly specific niche, which has opened a world of inspiration and passion for this Saint alumna, was reached through much hard work as well as three guidepost events in her early adult years.

As a zoology undergrad at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Anne toured the nearby Duke University Primate Center. She was impressed with the evolutionary diversity of lemurs, and that sparked an interest. 

After graduation, she returned to the Washington, D.C. area to work at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. She interacted daily with scientists and evolutionary biologists, attended seminars, and “knew I’d found my community of professionals,” she recalls. This was the second ‘click’ indicating to Anne what she was meant to do.  

Then, while at the Smithsonian in 1986, two curators financed an opportunity for Anne to travel alone to Madagascar to study the island’s birds and rodents. 

“I was mad to go to Madagascar,” Anne says, laughing at her own pun.When she arrived on the island after a 48-hour journey, she found a country much more remote than it is today. She quickly became enthralled with the people, the island’s scientists, and the amazing biodiversity. “I have been focusing on that ever since,” she says.

Madagascar is home to approximately five percent of the world’s biodiversity, with 80% of those organisms unique to the island. This makes Madagascar a sort of speciation lab and ideal testing ground for conservation methodologies. Anne’s focus is the study, preservation, and conservation of the unique biodiversity found there. The Yoder Lab at Duke University, where she is also the Braxton Craven Distinguished Professor of Evolutionary Biology, specifically examines the diverse lemur population on the island. Her investigations uncover assorted geographic factors that lead to biological differences in speciation and utilize genome research to further understand this complex and unique speciation within Madagascar’s lemur populations. 

After her early work at the Smithsonian, Anne returned to North Carolina for a doctorate in biology from Duke in 1992. In the following years, she was a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard University’s environmental biology program, and then taught at Northwestern and later at Yale. During her time at Yale, she also was the associate curator of mammals at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. 

British neurologist, naturalist, science historian, and writer Oliver Sacks with Anne (photo on the top). Oliver and Anne shared a passion for lemurs and corresponded nearly to the day he died. Other well-known people Anne met include actor John Cleese (photo on the bottom), Kenyan paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, and molecular geneticist Masami Hasegawa.

Anne returned again to North Carolina to become a professor of biology at Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences in 2005. The next year she became the director of the Duke Lemur Center (the renamed Primate Center that had sparked her interest as an undergraduate). The center houses 18 different species of lemurs and more than 250 specimens. During Anne’s 12-year tenure leading the center, she guided its expansion adding animal housing facilities, doubling its research activity, and opening its doors to thousands of visitors each year. One of her accomplishments included the launch of the center’s SAVA Conservation project, based in northern Madagascar, which aims to protect lemur lives and habitat by improving human lives through education, fish farming, tree planting, and healthier cooking stoves.

Anne stepped down from her leadership role at the Lemur Center in 2018 to focus full time on her research and teaching. She balances teaching evolution and genetics to undergraduates and grad students with her own research. 

The National Science Foundation recently announced plans to fund new Yoder projects for speciation genomics and conservation outreach in Madagascar.

 She hopes to return to the island nation in 2023 to begin testing DNA bar coding for field genomics to identify organisms in the field. Anne plans to include Malagasy scientists in her work and teach them about this methodology. 

While she remains interested in all vertebrates, Anne is still enthralled most by the lemurs of Madagascar and the example they provide of Darwinian evolution. Her research has led to more than 100 research papers in scientific and academic journals, as well as seminars and presentations to scientific gatherings around the world. She also maintains a website, The Yoder Lab, that includes updates on her research and findings. 

In 2021, Anne was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Each year, the Academy honors exceptional scholars, leaders, artists, and innovators and engages them in sharing knowledge and addressing challenges facing the world. The 2021 class of new members was selected to recognize “the excellence of these individuals, celebrating what they have achieved so far, and imagining what they will continue to accomplish,” said David Oxtoby, the president of the Academy. Speaking of the class elected after a tumultuous year of COVID-19, racial reckoning, and political unrest, he said, “The past year has been replete with evidence of how things can get worse; this is an opportunity to illuminate the importance of art, ideas, knowledge, and leadership that can make a better world.”

Looking back at her St. Agnes days, Anne fondly recalls English teacher Norma Smith, for developing Anne’s interest in learning. “Ms. Smith was the first teacher I had who made learning genuinely fun,” she remembers. Anne’s years at St. Agnes were challenging and developed in her an emotional maturity and focus that were helpful at UNC. “I would not have survived as a college student without that experience,” she says.

Anne with her husband, Dave Hart, a journalist and writer.

While her work is extremely busy, she enjoys time with her husband, journalist and writer David Michael Hart. She also proudly speaks about her 22-year-old son, Dylan, a recent graduate of Appalachian State, where he was a track and field athlete, math major, finance minor, and recently began working in the solar energy field. 

With all of Anne’s contributions to her field, she still has several goals to achieve, including completing two scientific projects. 

The first in cryptic speciation uses genomic approaches to understand what cannot be observed, and the second explores the spontaneous mutation rate that occurs from parent to offspring. This “engine of evolution,” as she describes it, “is critical to life on earth but very difficult to measure.” 

Anne’s third professional goal is to return more regularly to Madagascar to embed in its academic and conservation community. 

“Habitat destruction is still a problem there,” she explains. “The people are so poor and don’t have resources, but the silver lining is that academic, scientific, and conservation communities have flourished among the Madagascar people, so decolonizing conservation is well on its way. It’s an amazing progress but still there is much to do among desperately poor people to feed their families who still rely on deforesting to make fire and to grow crops. It’s hard to justify saving lemurs in that situation, making the situation a human crisis as much as a biodiversity crisis.” Raising money to address this situation is the focus of much of her work today.

Given the challenges ahead, Anne has no plans to retire. “I don’t know what I’d do with myself,” she says. “It’s my vocation and avocation. I fell in love early with science and followed that path always, without ever a moment of doubt. Science has been the backbone of my life and provided a level of joy in my work that has gotten me through so much!”