Brandon Semel

Fish and Wildlife Conservation

Primatologists are typically found in anthropology departments. After receiving a B.S. in Evolutionary Anthropology and Environmental Science from Duke University and an M.A. in Anthropology from Northern Illinois University (NIU), I sought to break that mold. Now I am pursuing my PhD in Dr. Sarah Karpanty’s lab in Virginia Tech’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Department.

In the Midwest, I grew up in the world of wildlife management. I began banding wood ducks (Aix sponsa) at an early age and often volunteered with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where I engaged in wetland bird surveys, habitat restoration, and prescribed burns to maintain native prairies. “The Prairie State” currently holds on to less than 0.05% of its original grasslands. I was soon hired to maintain, restore, and survey threatened prairie systems as part of the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Natural Areas Inventory (INAI) and on behalf of privately owned Illinois Nature Preserves.



My fascination with lemurs began at an early age, and I wanted to bring what I had learned about species and habitat management in the US to Madagascar. While studying at Duke University I promoted ex situ lemur conservation efforts at the Duke Lemur Center, home to the world’s largest collection of lemurs outside of Madagascar. I soon conducted my first fieldwork in Madagascar as a research assistant under Dr. Luke Dollar. I engaged in extensive vertebrate surveys and trapping efforts to establish the effects of human encroachment on the main predator of large-bodied lemurs, the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox).

Several subsequent research and educational expeditions to Madagascar as a leader with Operation Wallacea and a student through SIT Study Abroad: Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management provided me with a better understanding of Madagascar’s natural treasures and its beautiful cultural heritage. My projects investigated the effects of habitat disturbance on critically endangered silky sifakas (Propithecus candidus) in the northeastern rainforests and on endangered Verreaux’s sifakas (Propithecus verreauxi) in the southern spiny forests. I also investigated the use of different sampling techniques for estimating population densities in extreme environments.

As a masters student I worked with the foremost expert on diademed sifakas (Propithecus diadema), Dr. Mitchell Irwin. I investigated the ecological function of soil consumption, or geophagy, for this critically endangered sifaka and common brown lemurs (Eulemur fulvus) in eastern rainforests. The latter has been completely extirpated from forest fragments due to hunting and the removal of large fruit trees by local people. Continued cultural immersion provided me with firsthand accounts of the challenges faced by the Malagasy people to provide food and finances for their families in one of the world’s most malnourished and impoverished nations, often at the cost of incredibly diverse and fragile ecosystems.

Lemurs are now considered earth’s most threatened mammals: 24 of 103 species are critically endangered. Habitat destruction for agricultural and grazing expansion, hunting, and now climate change all threaten their persistence in Madagascar. I am particularly interested in species responses to these anthropogenic pressures. My current work looks at understanding how species responded to past climate-driven environmental change, which is critical to informing species management decisions in relation to present and future changes. To that end, I am studying golden-crowned sifakas (Propithecus tattersalli) in northern Madagascar. Understanding the behavioral adaptations, historical distribution, and genetic diversity that enabled this species to successfully overcome severe population declines driven by historic climate fluctuations will ensure the survival of this and many other species for years to come.

Novel technologies, such as advanced telemetry and geospatial techniques, population genetics, aerial drone surveys, and historical climate and species distribution reconstructions will enable use to meet conservation challenges of the future. The interdisciplinary community fostered by the IGC Program will be invaluable as I create the network of experts needed to help me to master new technologies, to re-evaluate historical conservation approaches in Madagascar, and to face these global social and environmental challenges head on.

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