Lemurs are named after the ancient Roman ‘Lemures’, the spirits of the dead. Their haunting sounds and staring eyes led early observers to see them as the spirits of the forest.
The Ring-tailed Lemur is one of 22 species of lemur found on the African Island of Madagascar. The species is characterised by its bushy black and white-banded tail and also differs from other lemurs by spending more time on the ground compared to the other species which live almost exclusively in the trees.
The Ring-tailed Lemur’s tail serves a two-fold purpose. Firstly the black and white stripes made a striking visual sign. Secondly, in aggressive encounters, also called ‘stink fights’, the male will wave its tail, smeared with secretions from scent glands, in the direction of its rival.
Ring-tailed Lemurs weigh around three kilograms and females are usually smaller than males.
There is a well defined troop hierarchy, with females being dominant over the males.
Ring-tailed Lemurs are relatively well-known after featuring in the comedy movie, ‘Fierce Creatures’ with John Cleese, and in the animated movie, ‘Madagascar’.
The Ring-tailed Lemur is classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List, mainly due to forest clearing and hunting.
Forests have been cut down for farms and cattle pastures, and the lemurs have been killed or isolated in small pockets.
Habitat and distribution
Lemurs are only found on Madagascar off the east coast of Africa. It is thought that Madagascar’s early separation from the African continent provided lemurs with an isolated environment where they evolved and thrived.
Ring-tailed Lemurs occupy the scrubby forests and in closed canopy deciduous forests. They are also found in the dry, rocky mountainous areas in the southern portions of the central plateau where patches of deciduous forest remain.
Lemurs have a distinct mating season between April and May where females usually mate with multiple males in their troop. During this time, male lemurs battle to breed with females when they briefly come in to season for only four to six hours. Male rivals battle out the right to mate in “stink wars” where they cover their long tails with smelly secretions which they wave in the air towards their opponent to determine who has the right to mate with the receptive female.
Lemurs usually give birth to single young after a gestation period of approximately four and a half months from August to September.
The infants, until about two weeks of age, cling to their mother’s belly and then ride on their mother’s backs. Mums are given a helping hand by the females in the troop, with all females participating in raising the young.
At only one week old, they begin to sample solid food and are weaned by about six months of age. Ring-tailed Lemurs reach sexual maturity at about two years of age.
Lemurs are primarily vegetarian, and find virtually all their food in trees. Their diet consists mainly of fruit, but they also eat seeds, leaves, flowers and bark from 24 different species of plants. Occasionally they eat small mammals, birds’ eggs and invertebrates.
Communication and social structure
Lemurs have spurs on the inside of their wrists with a scent gland to mark their territories. They rub their wrists up and down their tail, which when raised in the air transports their scent by the breeze. They also mark their territories by rubbing their wrists on trees, and leaving their scent behind on the trunks and branches.
Lemurs are very vocal animals with many different and unusual calls. A guttural cough often indicates that they are disgruntled about something. They emit a higher pitch noise at feeding time.
They are considered to be very social animals, and can congregate in groups as large as 150 in number. In their natural environment, females dominate the male lemurs, and within groups of the same sex, there is yet another hierarchy. Overall, within the one colony of Lemurs, a structure of three hierarchies can exist.