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.