Sleep influences cognitive performance in lemurs

  • David R. SamsonEmail author
  • Alexander Vining
  • Charles L. Nunn
Original Paper


Primates spend almost half their lives asleep, yet little is known about how sleep influences their waking cognition. We hypothesized that diurnal and cathemeral lemurs differ in their need for consistent, non-segmented sleep for next-day cognitive function—including long-term memory consolidation, self-control, foraging efficiency, and sociality. Specifically, we expected that strictly diurnal Propithecus is more reliant on uninterrupted sleep for cognitive performance, as compared to four other lemur species that are more flexibly active (i.e., cathemeral). We experimentally inhibited sleep and tested next-day performance in 30 individuals of 5 lemur species over 960 total nights at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina. Each set of pair-housed lemurs experienced a sleep restriction and/or deprivation protocol and was subsequently tested in a variety of fitness-relevant cognitive tasks. Within-subject comparisons of performance on these tasks were made by switching the pair from the experimental sleep inhibited condition to a normal sleep environment, thus ensuring cognitive equivalency among individuals. We validated effectiveness of the protocol via actigraphy and infrared videography. Our results suggest that ‘normal’ non-disrupted sleep improved memory consolidation for all lemurs. Additionally, on nights of normal sleep, diurnal lemurs performed better in foraging efficiency tasks than cathemeral lemurs. Social behaviors changed in species-specific ways after exposure to experimental conditions, and self-control was not significantly linked with sleep condition. Based on these findings, the links between sleep, learning, and memory consolidation appear to be evolutionarily conserved in primates.


Lemur Activity Sleep Cognition Primate evolution 



We are grateful to the staff at the Duke Lemur Center and offer thanks to Erin Ehmke and David Brewer for continuous support through all aspects of this research. We thank Emilie Melvin, Amanda Lee, Jack Grady, Alex Antezana, James Yu, and Sean Basile for countless volunteer hours. This research was supported by Duke University.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures performed in the study involving animals were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institution or practice at which the studies were conducted.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 23 kb)
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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of TorontoMississaugaCanada
  2. 2.Animal Behavior Graduate GroupUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA
  3. 3.Duke Global Health InstituteDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  4. 4.Department of Evolutionary AnthropologyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA

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