23.1f – The Sportive Lemurs

Loner lemurs. (Sahamalaza sportive lemur photo by R. Hilgartner)

At long last we have scrambled across the entire island nation of Madagascar, we have scoured its corners and learned about the lemurs, that remarkable, cooperative, sometimes strange, often endangered branch of the primate group. Only one family of lemurs remains unaccounted for — the sportive lemurs.

While most of the lemurs we’ve seen so far have been generally kind, sportive lemurs do not like members of their own species and gender. They are nocturnal lemurs, about a foot in length with a tail that goes on for another foot, and they live alone. Males and females have their own territory, and these may overlap, but no male is allowed to overlap his territory with another male, and similarly no female is allowed to overlap her territory with another female. If this happens, whoever was there first will get very angry, rather violent, and there will be a fight.

Like many lemurs, sportive lemurs stick to the trees when they can, but when drawn to the ground they move about in hops, more like a kangaroo than an indriid. Sportive lemurs are on the whole not as active as the other lemurs. They rest and conserve energy during the day, and when they come out at night, though they are very good climbers and jumpers, they keep their activity rate to a reasonable level and don’t make a fuss. A sportive lemur would much rather pass by unnoticed if it can.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell a sportive lemur apart from a woolly lemur, or even a large dwarf lemur. The trick is in the ears. Sportive lemurs tend to have big ears. If you see a lemur with big round ears sticking out from its head, you’ve probably got a sportive lemur situation on your hands. Let the poor fellow pass on into the night in peace.

There is something of a funny trend in recent animal discoveries, and the sportive lemurs give me a chance to touch on it. Once upon a time animals were named almost exclusively for their physical characteristics. If a lemur has white feet, it becomes the white-footed sportive lemur. If it has small teeth, it becomes the small-toothed sportive lemur. That sort of thing. Other times the animal is named for its location in a given area — if it’s found to the north of that type of animal’s range, perhaps it might be named the northern sportive lemur, for example. This is all relatively straightforward.

As you get away from the better-known animals in a group, particularly in a group with a lot of different species, you start to find animals that are named after a person, often the person who discovered it, but sometimes as an homage to someone who did a lot of work with that type of animal. At times this leads to a straightforward name — there is Hubbard’s Sportive Lemur, for example, or Scott’s Sportive Lemur, even Otto’s Sportive Lemur. Other times it leads to names that have a bit more flourish to them — for example, Flaurete’s Sportive Lemur, or Randrianasolo’s Sportive Lemur.

And sometimes, once in a great while, they name a lemur after something that doesn’t even sound like it should belong in the realm of animal names. When a research team discovered a new type of lemur after twelve years of work, they decided to name the lemur after their sponsor, the Association Europeenne pour l’Etude et la Conservation des Lemuriens (The European Association for the Study and Conservation of Lemurs). And thus, AEECL’s sportive lemur was born. You are supposed to pronounce each letter separately, like an acronym. And yes, that is the animal’s official name. I am certain that the AEECL has done fantastic work with lemurs and deserves every accolade they can receive; it’s only that my sense of aesthetics wishes they could have found a better-sounding name for their lemur.

“Wait, my scientific name is Lepilemur aeeclis? You guys have got to be kidding me.” (AEECL’s sportive lemur photo by U. Thalmann)

23.1e – The Indriids

The lemurs of hip-hop. (Diademed Sifaka photo by Tom Junek)

In the mad, mad world of lemurs in Madagascar, we’ve looked at the tiny dwarf lemurs, the bizarre aye-aye, and the typical lemurids, but those aren’t all. There are even more types of lemurs sharing the treetops on this crowded island.

There are 19 different species of indriids, and we can roughly divide them into three types — the woolly lemur, the sifaka, and the indri. The basic thing that sets indriids apart from the other lemurs is that they are not very good at moving on the ground. An indriids hind legs are very much longer than their arms, and this means that they cannot move around on all fours, as the lemurids do.

To visualize their dilemma, try it yourself, for humans suffer the same problem. Try to move not on your hands and knees, but on your hands and feet. You will quickly see why indriids don’t really like to move around this way. But unfortunately for the indriids, they aren’t able to walk upright in the manner of humans either. What’s a poor indriid to do?

Well, for the most part they stick to the trees, where they are incredibly agile and can jump great distances with their long, powerful legs. But they don’t hesitate to use the ground when they have to. What they do is stand up tall on their hind legs, stick their arms in the air for balance, and hop.

The sifakas are the best at this, or at least the most interesting to watch. They take great, sideways leaps across the ground in order to cover distance as quickly as possible. I cannot embed videos on this blog, but if you would like to click on the following link it will open a new window in which you can see the sifaka doing its wonderful thing.


The woolly lemurs are much like the sifakas, but the indri is the odd animal in the group — every family has at least one. The indri is one of the largest of all lemurs, measuring up to two and a half feet, not including its tail. The reason it’s not fair to include the tail is that the indri, well, does not really have one.

Every other type of lemur on the entire island has a magnificent tail, sometimes longer than the entire rest of its body. These tails are used for balance and sometimes for stink-fights, as we saw with the lemurids. But the indri has only a tiny knob of a tail, hardly even worthy of the name. Despite this balance handicap it still climbs and jumps around in the trees as well as anything, and still does the side-stepping hop-along movement on the ground.

No tail? No problem. (Indri photo by Erik Patel)

One interesting thing about the indri is that it is entirely monogamous. It is one of those rare species that mates for life; a mating pair will stay together and raise multiple generations of offspring — one at a time — until one of them dies, and will only then move on to seek a new partner.

Indris are very vocal, and different groups will “sing” to one another. Their songs can last several minutes at a time, and when one group is finished singing another group nearby may take up the tune. We aren’t entirely certain why they do it, but it may simply be a means of letting all the other indris know where they are. There doesn’t seem to be any one reason why they do it, however. Indris will sing after some loud noise has disturbed them, will sing to respond to other groups singing or even to other types of lemurs making noise, and sometimes will sing seemingly just because they want to. A group of indris might sing up to seven times a day, and their songs resemble in some ways those of humpback whales.

To hear what an indri’s song sounds like, give this link a gander: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4d3vFI5UpIc

In some ways the indri is one of the most advanced lemurs, and the natives of Madagascar treat it as a sacred animal. In local mythology, the indris and humans have close relationships. One myth tells the story of two brothers, long ago. One brother decided to leave the forest and cultivate the land, and he became the first human; the other brother stayed in the forest and the trees, and became the first indri. The myth says that the indris sing as a form of mourning for their long-lost brothers who left the forest.

And if that isn’t wonderful enough, the Malagasy people also believe that the indris worship the sun, much as a human would worship a god. There is a surprising amount of truth to this idea. Every morning when the sun rises, an indri will face it and sit cross-legged, back straight, palms in its lap or facing up, and watch the sun with eyes half-closed, the very image of a human in meditation. It is not believed by scientists that indris have enough social organization to actually be worshiping the sun, of course; it is most likely only a coincidental body posture and a desire to warm up in the morning. But it is wonderful all the same, and these strange, knob-tailed lemurs have a lot of surprisingly human-like features for being so far removed from us in the primate group.

Unfortunately, the indri is also endangered, highly threatened by habitat destruction. They do not survive in captivity, and have never been successfully bred, which means that without adequate protection this wonderful creature, and indeed many of the indriids, may someday soon leave our world forever. It is unfortunate that Madagascar combines at the same time such a rich diversity of species and such a lack of environmental protection, due to the material needs of a poverty-stricken society.

23.1d – The Lemurids

Life in lemur-land. (Ring-tailed lemur photo by Alex Dunkel)

We have met the tiny dwarf lemurs and the mysterious aye-aye, but they are not the only lemurs in the forests of Madagascar — not by a long shot. Even on such a small island, the lemurs have split into so many different species and types that it is a wonder they all get along and have not reduced their diversity through competition, with a smaller number of stronger lemur species coming out on top. Instead, lemurs have each found their own niche and area on the island, and none has dominated the others. However, when it comes to the popular conception of a lemur, the lemurid group is what most people think of.

Lemurids are generally one to two feet long, with the tail an extra length beyond that. They are more capable and willing to move about on the ground than the other lemurs we’ve discussed, even though their back legs are longer than their front legs, giving them a wobbly, hoppy sort of gait when they walk on all fours on land.

They are, as you might expect, much more at home and agile in the trees. With long tails for balance, grasping fingers, and strong vision, they can fly about through the branches and will regularly leap more than ten feet from one tree to the next.

The lemurids are more social than the other lemurs we’ve mentioned as well. They live in groups of up to thirty individual lemurs, and in some species they form long-lasting groups with stable hierarchies, like large families.

The most prominent member of the lemurid group is also the animal that most people think of when they imagine a lemur — it is the ring-tailed lemur. It is perhaps the best-known and most recognized lemur in the world, even though it only lives in one corner of Madagascar. The reason everyone loves the ring-tailed lemur is, of course, for its long, black-and-white striped tail, which is two feet long and is actually longer than the entire rest of its body.

Unlike the dwarf lemurs and the aye-aye, the ring-tailed lemur does its business during the day, not at night. It lives in large groups where the females have social dominance (which is true for most lemurs), and these lemurs love to do things together. They can be found huddling together for warmth or just for fun, and they like to group up to sunbathe, turning their white underbellies to the sky to soak up some rays.

Like a boss. (Photo by Keven Law)

Despite their relatively small brain, ring-tailed lemurs display some measures of intelligence. They are highly vocal and social, and can understand basic arithmetic and tool use. They don’t use tools in the wild, but they quickly pick up the knack when trained and are able to select tools based on how well they will do the job.

Though they are highly vocal and enjoy chattering at one another, ring-tailed lemurs use scents for a lot of their communication. The males in particular are covered with scent glands of various types, and they will not hesitate to stink you up with some sort of scent from almost any part of their body. They use these scents to mark territory, to maintain their group hierarchies, and for mating purposes.

The most wonderful use of scent among ring-tailed lemurs is stink fighting. For this, males will coat their tails with smelly liquid from their glands and will then wave their stinky tails at other males, often ones who are their rivals for mates. Boys will be boys, whatever the species. Males will also wave their smelly tails at females as a means of attraction, but the females usually respond by punching or biting the male, because who on earth really wants a stinky tail in their face?

And as a random closing fact about ring-tailed lemurs, the females have four nipples, but only two of them work. Why? Impossible to say.

Contrasted with the ring-tailed lemur is the common brown lemur, also a lemurid. This particular lemur lives in groups, but does not have hierarchies at all. The females are still dominant, but members can come and go from the groups as they please, and no one is really the boss. When there are disagreements and fights, both parties reconcile their differences afterward and are nice to one another again with no hard feelings.

“Right, mate. I’m sure you didn’t mean it.” (Common brown lemur photo by David Dennis)

Combined with the fact that so many different types of lemurs co-exist without trouble on a small island, sometimes it seems as if lemurs got the whole social thing right, and it’s humans who have somehow messed it up and gone off course.

And there are many other lemurs in the lemurid group as well, all being social, getting along with others, and having a happy time on their island except for the fact that many of them are endangered due to human activity. They range from the endangered but vain red ruffed lemur (you would spend a lot of time grooming yourself as well if you had such a luxurious coat of red hair), to the critically endangered black-and-white ruffed lemur who roar and shriek in groups that form a sort of synchronized chorus, to the small and funny-looking bamboo lemurs.

The greater bamboo lemur is one of the world’s most endangered primates. Once believed extinct, a new population was discovered in 1986, but there are believed to be only between 60 and 160 remaining. There is every chance that they will not survive, because they are not protected in their habitat, more of which is destroyed all the time. This is unrelated to the fact that they are one of the few male-dominant lemur species, but you have to admit, it looks suspicious.

23.1c – The Aye-Aye

A superstition in the night. (Photo by Frank Vassen)

In Madagascar, a land of strange creatures, one of the strangest of all comes creeping out after dark. Nearly two feet long from head to tail with another two feet of bushy tail behind it, this creature’s large, red eyes peer out through the leaves of a tree. Soon you see its fingers — long, thin, alien, the things of nightmares. With a tap-tap-tapping of its thinnest, almost skeletal finger on the tree, it comes toward you.

The aye-aye is an oddity. Once thought extinct, it was rediscovered in the 1950s and still roams the forests of eastern Madagascar. We call it a lemur, but in truth we aren’t one hundred percent certain what it really is.

The aye-aye, if it is a lemur, is the world’s largest nocturnal primate. The creepy thin hands it sports are a unique evolutionary adaptation that allows it to reach a food source untouched by other animals on the island — insect larvae living beneath the bark of trees, the same food source used by woodpeckers in other parts of the world.

While the woodpecker bores holes in trees with its beak, the aye-aye taps its incredibly thin middle finger up to eight times per second along the bark as it moves. It is able to hear the echoes of its tapping and determine where there are hollow spaces. The creature then gnaws a hole in the bark with its long teeth and inserts its longest finger into the hole to pull out any grubs or other insects living within.

Its teeth grow constantly throughout its life, exactly like a rodent’s teeth, and this prompted early scientists to classify the aye-aye as a rodent. In addition, it climbs trees in a very similar manner to a squirrel, and has some anatomical similarities to rodents as well. Is it possible that some lone species of rodent somehow crossed to Madagascar and evolved into something so strange?

It is possible, but scientists now believe the aye-aye is a primate. What sort of primate is up for debate, but current general consensus is that it is a unique type of lemur, distantly related to the others, highly evolved and specialized to take advantage of a certain food source that none of the other lemurs can access. But in truth, we’re only making educated guesses. It is the only primate known to use echolocation, and we don’t know for certain how it fits into the classification scheme.

The native people of Madagascar don’t know either, and in fact they are just as creeped out by the long fingers and red eyes as we are. The aye-aye also has a somewhat fearless nature, and has been known to stroll into villages or approach humans in the forest. People are afraid of them.

Looking at this, I’m not entirely sure we can blame them. (Image by Joseph Wolf)

In addition to natural fear, the native people believe the aye-aye is evil, a harbinger of death. It is claimed that if an aye-aye points his thinnest tapping finger at you, it has marked you for death. Some believe that the creatures can break into houses in the night and kill a man by piercing the heart with that same long, thin finger. For these reasons, the aye-aye is traditionally killed on sight by natives.

Combined with deforestation, this means that the creature is considered near-threatened, and a second species of aye-aye is believed to have gone extinct within the past thousand years. And there is nothing inherently evil about them, no more so than any other animal and less perhaps than some. They look rather disturbing compared to other animals we are used to, but they are harmless. They eat insects, and will occasionally steal fruit from villages; the rest is superstition brought on by the strange appearance they have evolved to reach their food.

However, even without the superstition, aye-ayes can damage local crops, and are killed by farmers for this reason. Madagascar is not a wealthy nation, and many of its people are poor. Any threat to local food supplies, whether in the field or through thievery from storage areas at night, prompts unfortunate but understandable reactions.

And if you’re wondering where the name “aye-aye” came from, no one quite knows that either, but it’s not because it was named by affirmative sailors. It might refer to a sound that the animal makes; it might refer to the sound the natives make when they see it and run away; or it might come from “heh-heh”, which in a Malagasy language means, simply and appropriately, “I do not know”.

Aye-aye distribution

23.1b – The Dwarf Lemurs

The littlest lemurs. (Gerp’s mouse lemur photo by Blanchard Randrianambinina)

Though all of the lemurs found on Madagascar are a little on the small side — there is, after all, no evolutionary pressure to grow large when you have no competition and live on an island with limited resources — the dwarf lemur family contains the smallest members, and in fact they are the very smallest primates in the world.

There are 31 different species of dwarf lemurs, though many of them are known rather as mouse lemurs. Even the largest is less than a foot tall, and they have exceptionally soft hair. All of the various dwarf lemurs spend nearly their entire lives in trees, where they are agile and comfortable; on the ground they hop on their hind legs like tiny kangaroos, and become easier targets for predators.

As a nocturnal species, dwarf lemurs are not generally as social as most other primates. They tend to live alone or in pairs, though some of them form big sleeping groups during the day so they can snuggle up together. Some of them store fat in their tails, so if you see a dwarf lemur with a big chubby tail, you know it’s well-fed. During dry times and times of food shortages, many of the dwarf lemurs enter a torpor, in which they sit around and use very little external or internal energy to help them survive until food returns.

One of them, the fat-tailed dwarf lemur, enters a full hibernation during the dry season. It is the only tropical mammal and the only primate known to hibernate (discounting, of course, human teenagers during Christmas break). This is interesting because most animals hibernate because of the cold; but even during the dry winter, Madagascar is still very warm, and the fat-tailed dwarf lemur’s body temperature tends to go up and down depending on the weather outside, even while it’s hibernating.

“If your tail was this fat, you’d be sleepy too.” (Fat-tailed dwarf lemur photo by Petra Lahann)

The mouse lemurs are even smaller than the other types of dwarf lemurs. For a long time we didn’t know a lot about mouse lemurs for the simple reason that we didn’t know how many there were. All of the various mouse lemurs look similar to each other, so for a long time we thought there was only one kind. But in the last 35 years we have determined that even though they look alike, there are actually 19 different species of mouse lemur scattered around Madagascar, and perhaps more that we haven’t found yet. One of them, Gerp’s mouse lemur, was only discovered this very year, in 2012.

The smallest primate in the entire world is Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur. It averages only about three and a half inches long, and weighs only an ounce. It can be found only in one small national park on the western coast of Madagascar, and its interesting name comes from Madame Berthe Rakotosamimanana, a woman from Madagascar who founded the Group d’Etudes et de Recherche des Primates (Group for the Study and Research of Primates). Be thankful they didn’t use her full name for the species.

There are no freely-available photos of this lovely small primate, but if you are so inclined, you should click through to this photo to see a baby Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, which I think you’ll agree is about the most adorable it is possible for a primate to be.

One of the most interesting things about the mouse lemurs is that they all somehow agree to get along and not bother one another. An extensive study was done on Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur and the gray mouse lemur, which live close to one another. They eat the same things and live in the same type of habitat. The gray mouse lemur is larger, stronger, more adaptable, and better able to survive; if it wanted, it could easily push the smaller mouse lemur out, perhaps to extinction. But it does not. The gray mouse lemur’s territory goes right up to the edge of the territory used by Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, and there it stops.

Why? We don’t know. There are very few animals in the world that share the same resources and the same habitats without one suffering from the presence of the other. But the mouse lemurs, for whatever reason, are content to live with what they have, in the area they call their own, and not to bother their neighbours. If only some of the larger primates could be so reasonable.

“Hi there, neighbour.” (Brown mouse lemur photo by Frank Vassen)

In fact, some dwarf lemurs and mouse lemurs have territories so small that they can only be found around the region of a single village. They are blips on the map, but they are there, living their tiny lemur lives.

But like many lemurs, they are threatened by deforestation across the island. It is entirely possible, given the miniscule territories of some recently discovered mouse lemurs, that entire species of these diminutive primates have already been destroyed before they were ever discovered.

Dwarf Lemur distribution

23.1a – The Lemur

Wet-nosed in a world of their own. (Mongoose lemur photo by IParjan)

For much of its history the island of Madagascar has been shrouded in mystery. Separated from Africa 160 million years ago and from the northward-bound India 90 million years ago, it has been one of the largest isolated areas for evolution outside of Australia, and like that continent-sized country Madagascar is home to many types of creatures found nowhere else on Earth. We looked earlier at the fossa, the Malagasy carnivore that evolved to look like a cat, but the most distinctive animal found on the island is the lemur.

Lemurs branched off from the rest of the primates sometime shortly after the dinosaurs went extinct. In the period from about 65 millions years ago to 50 million years ago — we aren’t exactly sure when in that time frame — the ancestors of all modern lemurs crossed the 350 mile channel between Africa and Madagascar and started an entire new branch of the primate family tree.

How did they cross the channel, you ask? For a long time this was one of the many mysteries of science, because that’s a lot of ocean to cross and the currents go the wrong direction. But it’s recently been proven that because both Africa and Madagascar were further south when the migration happened, the currents back then were in fact going the other way. Thus it is very likely that the ancestral lemurs lived along the African coast and crossed on rafts of vegetation by accident in multiple incidents over millions of years, swept across the channel by the current. It would have been a 30 day crossing for the creatures, difficult but survivable.

When they arrived, singly and in bunches over millions of years, they found what would prove for a long time to be a primate paradise — an uninhabited, unspoiled, enormous rainforest island, a place of wet seasons and dry seasons, a place with few competitors and few predators. And the lemurs took full advantage.

In their tens of millions of years on the island, lemurs evolved into many different forms to take advantage of all the resources and habitats on the island. Some became very small, as small as 30 grams, while others became very large. The largest lemur ever known was Archaeoindris, a lemur that evolved into a shape and size similar to a gorilla, weighing up to 400 lbs. They evolved into all sorts of behaviors, eating habits, movement types, social groupings — the lemurs formed their own diverse range of species on the isolated island, because they had no competition and were not forced to focus on only a few types of living.

But lemurs did not evolve quite the same as the more modern simians such as the monkeys did. Lemurs share the common primate features discussed in the previous article, but they have smaller brains relative to their body sizes, making them generally less intelligent. Lemurs can be taught to use tools in captivity, but they do not do so in the wild.

Either that, or they’re trolling us. Hey, lemur on the right, I see you laughing back there! (Ring-tailed lemur photo by Chris Gin)

Lemurs also have hands that are poorer at grasping than the hands of more modern primates, and lemur tails are not prehensile. This means that lemurs are not so acrobatic in the trees, but they can still get around just fine, and some are almost as good at it as monkeys. In addition, lemurs have generally poor eyesight.

To make up for these downsides, lemurs evolved powerful noses for more than just sniffing. Their noses are constantly wet and can be used as a touch-based sensory organ that lets them smell scent markings left by other lemurs by touching their nose to the marking. Through this method lemurs communicate information about themselves — their territory, their individuality, their gender, etc — without having to see one another, which comes in handy in the dark. Most lemurs are nocturnal, but some come out in the morning and evening as well.

One other thing that all lemurs have in common is the toilet claw. Besides being an object with a great name, the toilet claw is a longer nail on the second finger that is used for scratching and grooming.

But back to Madagascar, where all the lemurs were forming their lemur kingdom in isolation, with no worries and no competition, free to evolve however they wanted to take advantage of the island’s many resources. They were the ghosts of the forest, emerging in the evening and throughout the night to run wild through the rainforests, and indeed that is how they got their name — the word “lemur” comes from a Roman mythological term for ghosts.

“… Boo.” (Red-bellied lemur photo by Rachel Kramer)

But about 1800 years ago, everything changed. That’s when humans not from Africa but from Borneo in Indonesia discovered the island and native tribes colonized it. They were later followed by people from Africa. Together they are today known as the Malagasy people, and with their coming everything changed for the lemurs.

The Malagasy burned and cleared large sections of the rainforest to make room for pastures and rice paddies. So thoroughly did the Malagasy colonize the island that the lemurs, once found everywhere, were soon relegated to only about ten percent of the island’s area. The larger lemurs, including the enormous Archaeoindris, were killed off — as far as we know 17 different species of lemur went extinct in the 1800 years after human arrival.

And that was without hunting. Though the early human activity greatly damaged the lemurs, the people did not hunt or eat them. Lemurs are the subject of a great number of taboos from the native people, and it is believed to be extremely bad luck to harm a lemur.

European scientists have known about lemurs since the 1700s, but almost everything we know about them comes from research that took place only in the past 30 years. We used to believe there were only 30 or so lemur species, but today we know there are nearly 100 different species. Some of the species look so similar that we can only tell them apart with genetic testing.

These hundred or so species of lemur are split up into five major categories, or families, though as always science has not settled on the exact truth of this classification arrangement. Most species today are endangered or threatened due to human activity, especially logging of the Madagascar rainforest.

In the following series of articles we will look at each of the five major lemur families and learn more about these diminutive, diminished former rulers of the isle of Madagascar.

Lemur distribution