Leaping lemurs! 'Madagascar' exhibit is coming

Aquarium officials weren't sure Thursday what type of lemurs will be housed in their Madagascar exhibit that opens in March 2012. Pictured is a ring-tailed lemur.

Petr Mašek

A little bit of an island off the coast of Africa will roam around the South Carolina Aquarium next year.

The waterfront tourist facility on Concord Street will add "Madagascar" as the new exhibit in March, and the star attraction will be lemurs until 2015.

"They are a really cool animal," aquarium President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Mills said Thursday after the board's quarterly meeting.

Preliminary plans call for two to four lemurs, hissing cockroaches, a radiated tortoise, birds and some undetermined aquatic species -- all originally from Madagascar -- as part of the new exhibit, he said.

The aquarium has not decided which of the more than 100 species of lemurs will be on display, but the primates will come from the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, N.C.

"We should know by the end of the summer," Mills said.

Lemurs live only on the island of Madagascar off the coast of Africa. The more common types are ring-tailed and red-ruffed, Mills said.

Lemurs range in size from 1.1 ounce to 20 pounds. They have divergent digits on their hands and feet, and nails instead of claws in most species. They communicate more with scents and sounds rather than visual signals, and they eat a variety of fruits and leaves.

To make way for the new $250,000 exhibit, the Camp Carolina set up on the first floor, which has been in place for four years, will be dismantled. The bald eagle exhibit will be moved to the second floor, and elements of Toddler Cove will be dispersed through other exhibits, including the new Madagascar feature.

"It's going to be rather large," aquarium spokeswoman Kate Dittloff said of the exhibit.

The Madagascar exhibit has never appeared at an aquarium before, but Mills said it will represent an island environment that ties it to the water-based attraction.

"It allows us to tell a powerful story about one of the most unique places on the planet," he said. "We think it's going to be a great experience for families that they wouldn't typically see in Charleston."

Mills said the aquarium wants to boost attendance with a charismatic animal and an exhibit that allows interactive features for visitors.

"We want to make it immersive so you feel like you are transported into a different part of the world through flora, fauna and architecture," he said.

The exhibit also will offer merchandising opportunities for the aquarium, such as new stuffed animals in the gift shop. It also opens ahead of the release of the third and final installment in the "Madagascar" animated movie series in the summer of 2012.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524.