Field guide to Ring-tailed Lemurs
Lemurs, found only on the island of Madagascar, are some of the most unique and endangered animals in the world, says Catherine Olteanu of the Lemur Conservation Foundation. Here she shares some fascinating facts about these charismatic and endearing mammals.
Scientists theorise 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 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. Despite their success as a species, Ring-tailed Lemurs, like virtually all of Madagascar’s species of lemur, face severe challenges to their survival. The 2012 assessment of Madagascar’s fauna by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature documented 91 per cent of lemur species as ‘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 ‘Endangered,’ 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 for grooming. They also have a ‘toilet claw’; a specialised claw on their second toe used to groom fur that can’t be reached for 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.
Did you know?
The name ‘lemur’ comes from the Roman festival ‘Lemuria’, 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.’
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 specialised 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’ are about 24 inches long with alternating black and white bands, giving them their distinctive look and name. Tails have twelve or thirteen white bands and thirteen to fourteen black bands, and always end in a black tip. They use their tails used to help stabilise 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 Madagascar, where they have adapted to a variety of habitats from deciduous and humid forests, scrub, and gallery forests. Although their distribution is quite wide across southern Madagascar, they are only found in a few special protected areas, and 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 from a variety of plants, insects, and the occasional small vertebrate.
The leaves and fruit of the tamarind tree can provide up to 50 percent of a wild Ring-tailed Lemur’s diet, along with fruits, leaves, flowers, herbs, bark, sap and pollen.
The forests where the lemurs live doesn’t have continuous vegetation, and they must frequently travel on the ground as they move and forage for food. As they travel, their diet becomes more opportunistic, especially during the dry season.
Ring-tailed Lemurs are diurnal, meaning they are active both during the day and at night. Thanks to their habitat, they are able to 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 position.
Females live in the same group all of their lives. Young males migrate to a new group when they are three to five years old. When they leave their natal group they often travel in pairs or groups of three to search for new troops to integrate into. 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, and then shake them at the other males. During breeding season they might also engage in ‘jump fighting’; a more violent and aggressive behaviour than stink fighting.
Both male and female Ring-tails use scent marking to note the edges of their troop’s home range. Territorial disputes can occur when troops meet at home range boundaries. The dominant female defends the troop’s home range with behaviours like staring, lunging, and occasionally physical aggression. These encounters resolve with members of the troops moving toward the centre of their home range.
Ring-tailed Lemur vocalisation ranges 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, indicate distress, mark location, and express contentment. They range from meows and purring to clicks, yaps, moans, wails, squeaks and screams. You can listen to different calls here: http://macaulaylibrary.org/
The lemur’s tails are also used as a form of communication. Members of a troop hold their tails high in the air while travelling to act as distance signals, keeping the troop together, and also 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.
Females Ring-tails usually give birth first at three years of age and then produce offspring annually. Mating 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, and then ride on her back in the ‘jockey-style’ position. Ring-tail babies grow very quickly, and 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 and 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’. Mature males sleep alone.
The biggest threat to Ring-tailed Lemurs is habitat loss from encroachment and slash and burn agriculture. Madagascar’s southern forests, the lemurs’ 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 walking circuits of varying lengths and corresponding degrees of difficulty, and most areas require a guide. Don’t deviate from the routes or engage wildlife, don’t smoke in the forests, stay on the trails and don’t litter.
Don’t feed lemurs anywhere that you see them, whether in the forest, or in resorts or restaurant areas as 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 lemurs’ habitat are Andohahela, Andgingitra, Isalo, Tsimananampetsotse, and Zombitse-Vohibasia. You can visit Madagascar National Parks & Special Reserves website for more information about most of the country's parks and special reserves.
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 Beza-Mehafaly, Kalambatritra, Ivohibe (part of the Madagascar national Parks system), Berenty, 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.Anja Community Reserve
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.
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. Accommodation is in the forest and there is a network of trails to enjoy. Berenty has the most visitors of any Madagascar nature reserve.Beza Mahafaly
Beza Mahafaly has a large population of Ring-tailed Lemur as well as several other species of lemurs. Research is also carried out at this special reserve by several international research organisations. Here you might see some lemurs with telemetry collars.
The reserve is in the southwestern part of the island 35 kilo metres northeast of Betioky. Covering 600 hectares, Beza Mahafaly is the second smallest special protected area in the Madagascar national parks system.Ivohibe
Andgingitra National Park
The ‘Peak of Ivohibe’ special protected area is in the southeast of Madagascar and connects to Andringitra National Park by a 20 kilo meter forest corridor. The mountain peak is 2060 meters in elevation.
Andohahela 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 the park.
Isalo National Park
Andohahela, in southeast Madagascar, is the only protected area with both dense and humid forests. Its unique geographic location connects the southern and eastern eco-regions. The Tropic of Capricorn crosses the park.
Tsimananampetsotse National Park
Isalo, covering 81,540 hectares, is the most visited park in Madagascar. It is part of the Commune of Ranohira in the Ihorombe region. Significant landscape features include river furrows and a massive continental sandstone plateau dating from the Jurassic period.
Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park
Tsimanampesotse is in the southwest part of Madagascar. It is among the original 10 reserves created in 1927, more than 70 years before the modern Madagascar National Parks system was adopted, and six 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 per cent of its fauna and flora found here are endemic to the 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 eight species of lemur, including Ring-tails.
The park covers 36,308 hectares organized into three 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. The free-ranging lemur colony lives in native forests in multi species groups much like they do in Madagascar. The foundation is 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.