Experts at Lemur Conservation Foundation helped us get our facts straight for the animal info-graphic found inside our Endangered Species Chocolate Coconut Creme Filled Bar. But…you can only fit so many lemur facts inside a chocolate wrapper! Our friends at Lemur Conservation Foundation offered up this broader picture of this highly social, super smart species.
Guest post via Catherine Olteanu, Communications and Development at Lemur Conservation Foundation
Ring-tailed lemur Species
Ring-tailed lemurs were first mentioned in western literature around 1625 in Samuel Purchas’s popular ‘Pilgrimages’ or travel logs. In his writing Purchas describes ring-tailed lemurs as being about the size of a monkey with a face like a fox and having a long tail with black and white rings. Carl Linnaeus might have been familiar with Purchas’s work, and with the 1729 journal of Robert Drury, an English sailor shipwrecked on Madagascar for fifteen years. Drury’s journal is one of the oldest written accounts of life in southern Madagascar, the home of the Ring-tailed lemur.
Linnaeus looked to the works of Ovid and Virgil for the term ‘Lemur’ and its reference to ‘Lemuria,’ a Roman festival during which ghosts were exorcised. It is descriptive of some lemurs’ nocturnal habits, noiseless movements, reflective eyes, and ghost like cries and appearance. Today lemurs are known as ‘ghosts of the forest.’
Lemurs, found only on the island of Madagascar, are some of the most unique and the most endangered animals in the world. Scientists theorize that they arrived in Madagascar as a result of rare rafting or swimming events that brought them to the island from the African continent. Once in Madagascar they evolved in ecosystems that rival the Amazon basin in biodiversity. Among
the 103 species of lemurs only the Ring-tailed lemurs is classified as its own genus. It is the type species for the genus of ‘Lemur.’
Known scientifically as Lemur catta, and as ’Maki’ or ‘Hira’ in the Malagasy language, they are highly adaptable with a range
covering a large portion of southern Madagascar’s diverse geography. They breed successfully in captivity. Despite their success as a species ring-tailed lemurs, like virtually all of Madagascar’s species of lemurs, face severe challenges to their survival. The 2012 assessment of Madagascar’s fauna by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature documented 91% of lemur species as ‘Critically Endangered,’ ‘Endangered,’ or ‘Vulnerable.’
According to Dr. Russell Mittermeier, President of Conservation International and Chairperson of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group, lemurs are the most threatened primate on earth. Ring-tailed lemurs are listed as ‘Near Threatened,’ with declining wild populations and habitat that is shrinking faster than any other in Madagascar. As we observe Ring-tailed lemurs in their natural habitats we can learn what they need to survive as a species and how we can better manage precious resources.
Adult lemur catta are about the size of a house cat which is relatively large for lemurs. They weigh approximately six pounds, and have an average body length of seventeen inches, not including their tails. Their lower incisors form a ‘tooth comb’ which is used in their oral grooming behaviors. They also have a ‘toilet claw,’ a specialized claw on their second toe that is used to groom fur that cannot be reached for oral grooming. Their long slender frames and narrow faces are covered with dense fur that is white on their chest and throat and grey to dark grey-brown on their backs.
Beneath their fur ring-tailed lemurs have black skin which is visible on their palms, the soles of their feet, and around the throat where their fur is less dense than on their backs and chest. Their skin is leathery with dermal ridges on their hands and feet. The dermal ridges, common to all primates, help improve grip and facilitate terrestrial movement. Their feet are more specialized that their hands with an opposable big toe instead of an opposable thumb. Ring-tails have feet more adapted to terrestrial movement compared to other lemurs that spend all of their lives in the forest canopy.
The ring-tailed lemur’s distinctive bushy, ‘balancing tails’ that are about twenty-four inches long with alternating black and white bands giving them their distinctive look and popular name. Tails have twelve or thirteen white bands and thirteen to fourteen black bands, and always e
nd in a black tip. Ring-tailed lemurs use their tails used to help stabilize their movements in the forest canopy unlike some
primates who use their tails for gripping branches. They also use their tails for communication, and group cohesion.
Ring-tailed lemurs are endemic to the south and southwestern regions of Madagascar. They have adapted to a variety of habitats from deciduous forests, montane humid forests, scrub, and gallery forests. Although their distribution is quite wide across southern Madagascar and its variety of habitats today they are only found in a few special protected areas. Their population density varies, often dramatically.
Within their habitats ring-tailed lemurs live in ‘troops’ that average 13 to 15 individuals, although troops of up to 30 have been documented. A troop needs between 15 to 85 acres of ‘home range’ territory. Things like troop size, population density and the size of a troop’s home range area vary with the availability of food.
Ring-tailed lemur troops usually stay in a section of their home range for up to four days before moving. After a few days in one location a troop will move a little more than a half mile inside their home range.
The ring-tailed lemur is an omnivore and survives on a varied diet. They range widely and feed opportunistically form a variety of plants, insects, and the occasional small vertebrate prey.
The leaves and fruit of the tamarind tree can provide up to fifty percent of a wild ring-tailed lemur’s diet along with available fruits, leaves, flowers, herbs, bark, sap, and have been observed eating pollens.
The forests where ring-tailed lemurs live does not have continuous vegetation and they must frequently travel on the ground as they move and forage for food. As they travel the ring-tail’s diet becomes more opportunistic, especially during the dry season.
Ring-tailed lemurs are diurnal, with activity taking place both in the day and in the night. Because they live in the desert they take advantage of cooler temperatures after dark. Their troops have a well-defined female hierarchy with a dominant alpha female. Females are usually dominant over males but there is competition among the females for the alpha female position.
Females live in the same group all of their lives. Young male ring-tailed lemurs migrate to a new group when they are 3 to 5 years old. When they leave their natal group they often travel in pair or groups of three to search for and successfully integrate into a new troop. If they are successful at finding a new troop they challenge the resident males for access to the females for breeding.
Their challenges include a unique behavior called ‘stink fighting.’ Ring-tailed males use their wrist and shoulder glands to mark their tails then shake them at the other males. During breeding season they might also engage in ‘jump fighting,’ a more violent and aggressive behavior than stink fighting.
Both male and female ring-tailed lemurs use scent marking to note the edges of their troop’s home range. Territorial disputes can occur when ring-tailed groups meet at home range boundaries. The dominant female defends the troop’s home range with behaviors like staring, lunging, and occasionally physical aggression. These encounters resolve with members of the troops moving toward the center of their home range.
Ring-tailed lemur vocalization range from the simple to the complex and can have transitions and variations in the calls. Some sounds are used to alert the troop to predators, infant distress, to mark location, and express contentment and range from meows and purring to clicks, yaps, moans, wails, squeaks and screams. You can listen to ring-tailed lemur calls here.
Their tails are also used as a form of communication. Members of a troop hold their tails high in the air while traveling to act as distance signals, keeping the troop together, and as a presence signal, warning other groups to stay away.
Like all lemurs lemur catta engage in the iconic ‘Sun Worshiping’ posture. Females, offspring, and males all sit very still with straight backs and arms stretched out to their sides. This typical morning behavior allows maximum exposure of the chest and stomach to the sun allowing them to warm themselves quickly after a cold night.
Lemur catta females usually give birth first at three years of age and then produce offspring annually. Ma
ting begins in mid-April and lasts only a few weeks. Infants are born in August and September after a gestation period of about 135 days.
Single infants are most common but twins are frequent when food is plentiful. The ring-tailed infants cling to their mother’s abdomen for about two weeks. Then they ride on her back in the ‘jockey-style’ position. Ring-tail babies grow very quickly. By four weeks of age they are ready to leave their mother and begin exploring their environment.
Females with offspring form a very tight social unit. They will interact and travel together as well as share babysitting duties, feed & sleep together. Females and offspring huddle together facing inward with their tails intertwined and held over each other’s back and shoulder forming a tight circle or ‘lemur ball.’ The ‘sleep formation’ is only shared by females and offspring. Mature males sleep on their own. The sleep formation is unique to ring-tailed lemurs.
The biggest threat to ring-tailed lemurs is habitat loss from encroachment and slash and burn agriculture. Madagascar’s southern forests, the lemur catta’s only wild home, are sparse and easily cleared with even the simplest methods or tools for agriculture and other uses. Satellite images of Madagascar suggest that their habitat is disappearing faster than any other on the island. This encroachment is a significant reason for their ‘near threatened’ status on the IUCN Red List.
Be sensitive to local customs and taboos that often involve animals and vary from place to place.
Most parks have ‘circuits’ of varying lengths and corresponding degrees of difficulty. Do not deviate from the routes or engage wildlife. Do not smoke in the forests. Stay on the trails and do not litter. Most areas require a guide.
Do not feed lemurs anywhere that you see them, whether in the forest or in resort or restaurant areas. Feeding can provoke aggression among the lemurs and also towards you.
Never try to pick up a lemur, and warn children not to try to touch or pick up the animals. Wild lemurs might approach you but they bite if they are frightened.
Where to View
You can view the ring-tailed lemur at several special protected reserves and in five of Madagascar’s national parks. The national parks in the ring-tail lemurs’ habitat are Andohahela National Park, Andgingitra National Park, Isalo national Park, Tsimananampetsotse National park, and Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park.
Information about most of the parks and special reserves for watching lemur catta in the wild can be found at the Parcs Madagascar web site. A URL is included for private reserves like Berenty and Anja.
Madagascar’s national parks system was founded in 1990 as a management and conservation initiative for the country’s unique, rare, and often endangered flora and fauna. There are 12 parks and special reserves in the ring-tails’ habitat.
Special reserves like the Beza-Mehafaly Special Reserve, Kalambatritra Special Reserve, Ivohibe Special Reserve (part of the Madagascar national Parks system), the Berenty Special Reserve, and the Anja Community Reserve are popular viewing locations and offer unique experiences. Communities like Anja develop opportunities for visitors to come and enjoy Madagascar’s unique flora and fauna. Fees from visitors often are the major source of funding for the reserves.
The Anja Community Reserve became a protected area in 1999. It covers 30 hectares and is known for its dense population of ring-tail lemurs.
‘Anja Reserve is the most visited community managed forest and ecotourist site in Madagascar. Anja has become a vital example of how community management of natural resources can both effectively protect the area and benefit the community.’
Berenty is a small private reserve situated among gallery forest on the Mandrake River. This semi-arid eco-region in the far south of Madagascar includes spiny forest habitat. It is a base for students and professional conservationists as well as visitors who want to see lemurs and other wildlife in their native habitat.
The reserve is a two hour drive from Tolangnaro, on the southeast cost of Madagascar. Accommodations are in the forest and there is a network of trails to enjoy. Berenty the most visitors of any Madagascar nature reserve.
Beza Mahafaly has a large population of lemur catta as well as several other species of lemurs. Research is also carried out at this special reserve by several international research organizations. You might see some lemurs with telemetry collars.
The reserve is in the South Western part of the island 35 kilo meters northeast of Betioky. Covering 600 hectares, Beza Mahafaly is the second smallest special protected area in the Madagascar national parks system.
The ‘Peak of Ivohibe’ special protected area is in the south east of Madagascar and connects to Andringitra National Park by a 20 kilo meter forest corridor. The mountain peak is 2060 meters in elevation.
Andgingitra National Park
Andgingitra is known for its rough terrain including Mount Imarivolanitra with an elevation of 2658 m (8,720 ft.) as well as deep valleys and ridges. It is well known for its biodiversity and high concentration of endemic species. Over 200 species of animals are endemic to Andgingitra National Park.
Andohahela National Park
Andohahela, in south east Madagascar, is the only protected area with both dense and humid forests. The Tropic of Capricorn crosses the park. Its unique geographic location connects the southern and eastern eco-regions.
Isalo National Park
Isalo is the most visited park in Madagascar. It is part of the Commune of Ranohira in the Ihorombe region. The park covers 81,540 hectares. Significant landscape features include river furrows and a massive continental sandstone plateau dating from the Jurassic Period.
Tsimananampetsotse National Park
Tsimanampesotse is in the southwest part of Madagascar. It is among the original 10 reserves created in 1927, more than seventy years before the modern Madagascar National Parks system was adopted, and 6 years before Madagascar signed the 1933 London International Convention for the protection of fauna and flora in Africa. Tsimanampesotse has a unique saturated sulphate lake. 75 to 90% of its fauna and flora found here are endemic to the park.
Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park.
Zombitse Vohibasia is located in the southwest area of Madagascar. While it is well known for its rare birds, Zombitse is also home to 8 species of lemurs, including ring-tails.
The park covers 36,308 hectares organized into 3 parcels that include the forest of Zombitse as well as Vohibasia and Isoky special areas.
The Lemur Conservation Foundation
The Lemur Conservation Foundation, a 200 acre private reserve located in Myakka City, Florida, holds six species of lemurs, including ring-tails. Our free ranging colony lives in native forests in multi species groups much like they do in Madagascar. We are dedicated to the conservation and preservation of lemurs through captive breeding, education, art, observation based research, and partnerships. LCF is a managing member of The Madagascar Fauna Group and two species survival plans, including the SSP for lemur catta.