Lemurs are unique in that they are found only on Madagascar, an island off the coast of Africa. Only 35 remain of over 50 known species today, including Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) which are found mostly in the arid south and southwest of the island.
Cat-sized with dense grey fur, white underparts, a black face mask and an extravagant, boldly hooped black and white tail, the Ring-tailed lemur is the most instantly recognisable of all lemurs.
Lemurs are very agile and can move from branch to branch very easily using their long tails for balance. They are capable of jumping several meters from one tree to another, using their very muscular back legs to push off the tree. Ring Tailed lemurs are the only species of lemur to live on the ground more than they use trees and are predominantly active during the day.
The Ring-tailed lemur’s diet consists mainly of fruit, leaves, flowers and occasionally other animal prey. Lemurs themselves are often prey to fossa where they still occur, as well as boa constrictors and eagles.
In lemur society it is the females that are dominant. Hierarchy normally breaks down during breeding season when the males compete equally for females by having ‘stink fights’. Male lemurs scent their tails by rubbing the scent glands in their wrists along their tail and then wave the highly scented tail in the direction of the rival. The one with the most noxious perfume wins the fight. Interesting fact – the scent can’t be smelt by humans!
The Ring tailed lemurs also use their long black and white tail (which is almost twice as long as its body) as a communicator; the striking colour helps them make visual signals to others, while a tail raised high gives the signal ‘follow me’. Additionally smell used a lot in communication, particularly during ‘stink fights’. They have 22 vocalisations including a ‘meiow.’ Some vocalisations are just communication between the groups so they know where others are and some are loud alarm calls.
Today Ring-tailed lemurs are under threat as a result of hunting, habitat destruction and microclimatic change. It is thought that when humans first arrived on Madagascar around 2000 years ago there were around 50 species of lemurs, yet today there are only around 35. The decline of lemurs has been so rapid that extinct species’ remains haven’t even had the time to form fossils but are rather known from bones and skeletons found in caves.
Interesting fact - Lemur means ‘ghost’ in Latin.