Growing up in rural northern Alabama, Luke Dollar never imagined roaming the island of Madagascar -- but his desire to be primatologist led him on a path to become an explorer for National Geographic.

Dollar recently shared his experience in the African nation -- as well as a motivational message -- with students at Etna Road Elementary School.

Dollar visited the school Jan. 30 as a reward for Whitehall City Schools' adoption of National Geographic's Reach for Reading program, said Beth Robine, a second-grade teacher at Etna Road.

Dollar's stop was designed to "teach our students we are not just citizens of Whitehall but citizens of the world," Robine said.

Dollar, 46, has a doctorate degree in ecology and undergraduate degrees in anatomy and biological anthropology from Duke University. He is chairman of the department of environmental and sustainability at Catawba College in North Carolina, where he lives.

"Nature was my playground," said Dollar, adding that Jane Goodall, the British primatologist renowned for her work with chimpanzees in Tanzania, fueled his desire for "adventure and exploration."

Dollar journeyed to Madagascar as a primatologist -- someone who studies primates -- to research lemurs but discovered a specific lemur had been killed by a cat-like predator called a fusa, also known as a fossa.

"I had never heard of a fusa," Dollar said.

As it turned out, not many others had, either.

"I learned that no one had studied or learned much about (fusas)," said Dollar, whose career took a turn from strict primatology to studying the fusa, a mammal.

Dollar uses the experience as a teaching tool, imploring students to "never give up" when something doesn't go as expected or planned.

Dollar and a support team captured the animals and placed GPS collars on each one, allowing Dollar to track their movements and learn if they are nocturnal, how far they travel and other tendencies.

The experience led to other discoveries, he said.

"A lot were being killed by cars and trucks," he said.

Unlike the United States, few traffic controls or police officers exist in the rural network of unimproved roads in Madagascar, Dollar said.

Dollar worked to have speed bumps placed on roads, which drastically reduced the danger to fusas and other animals, he said.

He also worked to educate sustenance farmers about how to better protect crops and chicken coops from fusas rather that shoot and kill them, as fusas eat rats that are even more detrimental to crops, Dollar said.

Dollar uses the lesson -- titled "Exploration Means Not Giving Up" -- as an example to teach students, among other things, the value of teamwork and problem-solving.

In 2007, National Geographic, after learning of Dollar's work in Madagascar, offered him the position of explorer.

"It was a surreal call," said Dollar, who visits schools throughout the United States about three times a month to represent National Geographic and its mission.

"We are thrilled to have Dr. Dollar visit and share his message with our students and parents," said Lisa Miller, acting principal of Etna Road Elementary School.

Dollar led evening interactive programs with students and parents Jan. 30 after presentations to students in all classes during the day.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo