Geographic Distribution and Habitat
Like all lemurs, the Coquerel’s sifaka (pronounced “shuh–fokk”) is endemic to Madagascar. More specifically, the Coquerel’s sifaka lives in the dry deciduous forests of northwest Madagascar. Each sifaka family sticks to a territory of 10-22 acres.
Just exactly how the ancestors of sifakas and other mammals arrived in Madagascar has been subject to fierce debate over the last 150 years in the scientific community. The prevailing theory today is the “rafting” theory, which suggests that lemur ancestors floated to the island on pieces of driftwood around 50 million years ago. While this would be nearly impossible under modern conditions, the journey could have been accomplished in under 30 days given the ocean currents at the time, making the trek difficult, but possible.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
These sifakas have a body length of 16-20 in (42.5–50 cm), with a tail length of 20-24 in (50–60 cm). Healthy adults weigh between 7.7 and 9 lb (3.5–4.3 kg).
The Coquerel’s sifaka’s lifespan is disputed by different sources. Some sources list their lifespan as 27–30 years, while others list their life expectancy at 18–20 years. Given the fact that the lifespans of their closest relatives, the golden-crowned and Verreaux’s sifakas, are 20 and 18 years respectively, it is safer to rely on the latter sources. However, it should be noted the oldest confirmed Coquerel’s sifaka lived to be 31 years old at the Duke Lemur Center.
Coquerel’s sifakas generally have white fur covering their backs and tails, with brick-red fur on their chests, arms, and legs. Their faces are mostly black and bare except for a patch of white fur on the bridge of their nose. Like most lemurs, they have relatively large eyes, which are usually yellow with the occasional tint of red.
Sifakas have a toothcomb—a set of thin teeth in the front of their lower jaw which they use for grooming and peeling fruit. A grooming claw, on the sifaka’s second toe, is also used to maintain a healthy coat of fur. The grooming claw, also called a “toilet claw,” appears in the fossil record about 40 million years ago, giving evolutionary biologists a good idea of when lemurs diverged from their prosimian relatives.
There is a wide separation between their thumbs and other fingers, allowing them to firmly grasp thick tree trunks as they climb and leap from tree to tree. The sifaka has disproportionately short arms, making it difficult for them to walk on all four limbs. To make up for their short arms, sifakas have long, strong legs that can propel them up to 35 ft (10.5 m) in a single leap.
The Coquerel’s sifaka diet changes with the seasons. In the wet season, sifakas feast from a variety of young leaves and fruit, plus tree bark, flowers, and nectar. In the dry season, they rely on mature leaves and insects.
Behavior and Lifestyle
Sifakas are mainly diurnal animals, but they are sometimes active during the night as well.
They are primarily arboreal, climbing trees using a method called “vertical clinging and leaping,” which is common for the families of lemurs that include sifakas, woolly lemurs, and indri. Vertical clinging and leaping is as it sounds. The sifaka will cling onto a tree in an upright, vertical position using his wide reaching thumbs to grip the trunk or branch (as pictured above). He will then leap from tree to tree with accuracy and grace.
However, due to mass deforestation, Coquerel’s sifakas have to travel on the ground more often than before. To cross the terrain quickly and efficiently, sifakas “skip” along the ground sideways on their two hind legs.
The PBS children’s show Zoboomafo starred a Coquerel’s sifaka who was portrayed by both a puppet and a real-life sifaka named Jovian, who lived at the Duke Lemur Center from 1994 to 2014.
Coquerel’s sifakas live in matriarchal groups of 3-10 individuals. All adult and most juvenile females are dominant over the males and have first access to food while the males must wait. Their waking lives are mostly dedicated to browsing for food with morning and afternoon sessions dedicated to foraging.
All sifakas are named for the warning call they make when they see a ground predator: “shuh-fokk.” They also communicate through soft grunts and echoing wails depending on their proximity to one another.
Coquerel’s sifakas are especially dependent on olfactory communication. Males scent mark using a special gland in their gular sac (the gular sac being one of the few examples of sexual dimorphism in the species). Females leave scent marks using their anogenital glands.
Although a female Coquerel’s sifaka may choose to be monogamous (having only one mating partner), most females practice polyandry when they can, mating with several males during a mating season. This means that when the offspring is born, multiple males will help raise the baby thinking they are the true fathers, thus giving the baby the best chance at survival.
Sifakas reach mating age at 2-3.5 years old. They mate during the wet season, between January and March. The infant is born 5-6 months (162 days on average) later, in the middle of the dry season. It will take about 1 year for the sifaka to reach adult size.
Because ancestral lemurs were some of the first vertebrates to colonize Madagascar, modern-day lemurs fill many different niches for the island’s ecosystem. Arguably the most important niche they hold is that of seed dispersal. A study from Rice University found that seeds that passed through lemur digestive systems had a 300% higher chance of sprouting into plants than undisturbed seeds. This fact is especially important given that the majority of birds on Madagascar only eat insects.
Predators of the Coquerel’s sifaka include large birds of prey, fossas, and feral dogs.
Conservation Status and Threats
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the Coquerel’s sifaka as Critically Endangered (IUCN, 2018), stating the species population has declined by more than 50% over the last half-century. The current population is listed as 200,000 and is in decline. The greatest threats to their existence include habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation, and hunting. Due to the lack of progress made on these issues, the IUCN warns that the Coquerel’s sifaka may be reconsidered as Critically Endangered in the near future.
Habitat fragmentation is particularly serious to a species like the Coquerel’s sifaka, which prefers to spend as much time in the forest interior as possible. Sifakas are unlikely to cross large patches of empty land, meaning that they can be locked into a small, low-quality habitat. This also limits the gene flow between sifaka populations, which would lead to lower genetic diversity, damaging the overall health of the species.
Hunting sifakas was at one point considered taboo by the local Malagasy people, but that belief has eroded over time and the Coquerel’s sifaka is now just one of many lemurs currently hunted for food.
Madagascar’s current GDP per capita is just $1,600, which is 217th out of 228 qualifying countries. This terrible poverty often pushes conservation issues to the back as citizens burn down forests for farmland. Therefore, in order for the wildlife in Madagascar to prosper, the people must prosper. The Wildlife Conservation Society in Madagascar works with local communities to make agriculture techniques more efficient, build enterprises centered around sustainable resources, and modernize local economies.
- Salmona, J, et al. “Extensive Survey of the Endangered Coquerelâs Sifaka Propithecus Coquereli.” Endangered Species Research, vol. 25, no. 2, 2014, pp. 175–183., doi:10.3354/esr00622.
- “Zoboomafo theme” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jj9u6SGB_GY
Written by Eric Starr, April 2018