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Lemurs, wolves and bears

Oh my! The Museum of Life and Science just got wilder

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Kids growing up in the Triangle already know the Museum of Life and Science is the best place to watch butterflies burst from their cocoons, make noise on an outdoor music machine or gobble at a turkey who gobbles back. Durham's science place has giant bugs and friendly goats--and now, it's got lemurs.

Explore the Wild, a six acres of woodland and wetland that's home to three endangered species, opened earlier this month. Black bears, a feature of the museum for years, have an improved one-acre habitat at the periphery of the wetland area with a waterfall, felled trees and a cave to play in. Red wolves, also museum veterans, have a new home too. Nine lemurs--three each of the ring-tailed, red-ruffed, and brown-collared species--are on loan from the Duke Lemur Center, which got a new name and an infusion of $8 million earlier this year.

Arguably the biggest star of the exhibit, however, is the wetland itself. A 750-foot wooden boardwalk leads down into the basin of what once was a granite quarry owned by the Nello Teer family. At some point, diggers accidentally struck below the water table, and the place got soggy. Now this site has been transformed into a big soup of living things. Besides the animals under the museum's official care, a wide variety of other critters have made the wetland habitat their home, including muskrats, mallards and spring peeper frogs. Stand on the boardwalk long enough, and you might see a box turtle sunning itself on a felled tree sticking out of the water.

In keeping with the museum's mission to engage visitors in the kind of observation that scientists do in the field, the wetland exhibit includes a station where visitors can pull up a sample of the water into a transparent plastic tube that allows them to look at and identify the various species inside. Thermal cameras (soon to come) will allow visitors to take the temperature of different parts of the habitat, thereby observing its microclimates. Animal cams let you watch the critters up close (a camera is being installed inside the cave of the shy red wolves). And multi-media kiosks permanently installed outside next to each viewing station are especially helpful at the lemur habitat, where a video produced at Duke Primate Center talks about the diet and behavioral quirks of the lemurs, with footage from their native Madagascar.

Looking at the expanse of the wetland, it's hard not to think about Hurricane Katrina and the analysis of scientists who said the disappearance of Gulf Coast wetlands made its impact much worse. Besides serving as a kind of learning lab, these six acres also filter the water that feeds into South Ellerbe Creek.

This exhibit is part of a larger expansion by the museum that will continue through the summer. Explore the Wind, which opens in September, uses four acres of grassy plain to show how plants and animals are affected by the wind. The exhibit will include a 5,000-square-foot elliptical pond with remote-controlled sailboats, a re-creation of Leonardo da Vinci's "ornithopter" flying machine that visitors can sit in to experience a birdlike liftoff, and a 30-foot tower where visitors can shoot giant models of seeds into the air to watch the aerodynamics of their path to germination.

On a hot summer day, however, it's OK to skip the science lessons and treat the museum more like a park. With its tall shady trees, copious benches, cafe and indoor-outdoor options, the Museum of Life and Science is an oasis for the stroller set--with plenty of room for everyone else, too.

The Museum of Life and Science is located at 433 Murray Ave. in Durham. Call 220-5429 or visit www.ncmls.org.

Correction (June 7, 2006): The headline of this article originally and incorrectly stated there are foxes at the Museum of Life and Sciences. They are red wolves.

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