I’m not a huge fan of primates, so I tend to avoid writing about them. That being said, the less human-like a primate is, the more I like it. So lemurs are right up there as some of my favourite primate species, as they don’t look anything like people, and don’t even look that much like classic monkeys.
Lemurs are a family of primates found only on Madagascar, an island known for having strange and wondrous wildlife. There are almost 100 species of lemur, ranging in size, colour, and habitat. For simplicity’s sake I’m going to focus on the most well-known lemur, the ring-tailed lemur.
Ring-tailed lemurs live in the south and southwestern parts of Madagascar. Their favoured habitat is in gallery forests — forests located on the edge of riverbanks. They will live in other types of forest, however, including deciduous forest, dry scrub, and montane forests. Though they live in forested areas, ring-tailed lemurs are not strictly arboreal. In fact, of all the lemurs, ring-tailed lemurs are the most terrestrial, and can spend up to a third of their time on the ground.
The bodies of ring-tailed lemurs only get to be 39 to 46 cm in length, but their tails add a whole lot more to their overall length. Their tails can reach lengths of 56 to 63 cm, and are covered in distinctive black and white rings. The rest of the lemurs’ bodies is covered in grey or brown fur, which gets lighter on the neck and belly. Ring-tailed lemurs have a black ‘mask’ on their faces, where the fur is less dense and their black skin can show through.
You might be thinking that the large, extravagant tails of ring-tailed lemurs must make excellent climbing tools. After all, what better to wrap around tree branches than a super long tail? Unfortunately, that doesn’t work so well for these lemurs, as their tails are not prehensile. Instead, ring-tailed lemurs use their beautiful tails for balance, communication, and social cohesion.
Ring-tailed lemurs live in groups called troops, which range in size from six to over thirty individuals, though the average troop size is between thirteen and fifteen lemurs. Within troops, there is a strict dominance hierarchy, which is separate for males and females. Female lemurs dominate males, and often establish dominance by biting, cuffing, grabbing, and lunging at conspecifics. Lemurs will also defend their territory from other troops, using scent to mark their territories.
Competition gets really heated during the breeding season, when males fight for the right to breed with females. Breeding season is from April to May, and females stagger their estrus so each is receptive to mating on a different day, reducing competition. Clever girls. After a 135 day gestation, female lemurs give birth to one baby, or rarely twins.
Baby lemurs are carried on their mothers’ chests for the first two weeks of their lives, and then get to piggy back on moms’ backs for the next few months. They start to eat solid food after two months, and are fully weaned at five months of age. All members of the troop can assist with rearing and protecting the young, though survival of infants can be as low as 50%. Ring-tailed lemurs reach sexual maturity at around 2.5 to 3 years.
Unfortunately for ring-tailed lemurs, human activity has made them an endangered species. Destruction of forests for agriculture, lumber and fuel have had a serious impact on lemur populations. Lemurs are also hunted for food and as pets. Madagascar is known to have periodic droughts, which can severely impact the survival rate of young lemurs. All these factors have led to a decline in lemur populations. There are a number of reserves currently on Madagascar, where lemur populations are protected, so hopefully they can bounce back.
Cover image by Mattis2412, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons