Geographic Distribution and Habitat
The crowned sifaka (Propithecus coronatus), not to be confused with the closely related golden-crowned sifaka, is a species of lemur that, like all lemurs, is endemic to the island of Madagascar. This species inhabits the dry deciduous and mangrove forests of the northwest side of Madagascar, and can be found up to an elevation of about 2,300 feet (700 m). The specific distribution of this species is not well understood, and new populations have been discovered as recently as the last decade.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
The bodies of crowned sifakas are up to 18 inches (45 cm) long, with tails up to 22 inches (56 cm) in length. Adults weigh about 9 lbs (4 kg). Lifespan in captivity is between 20 and 30 years, while the average lifespan in the wild is unknown.
Ex situ conservation:
Conservation actions that occur outside of the species’ natural habitat, such as captive breeding programs in zoos.
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Crowned sifakas are covered in a thick coat almost everywhere but their faces, which are gray and feature a short snout. Their large, bright blue-green or gold eyes are visually striking. Their heads are black, with white on the backs of their ears. Their body is mostly white or light tan, darkening to orange then to a deep rusty brown on their shoulders and chests.
Specially adapted to their unique method of locomotion, their body proportions are slightly different from most other primates. They have relatively short arms and long, very powerful legs. They have enlarged big toes on their feet, which are used for gripping trunks and branches of trees as they move through the forest.
Their diet consists mostly of leaves, supplemented by fruits, buds, stems, and bark. In the dry season, they eat more mature leaves and fruits, and in the wet season, they eat more young leaves and flowers.
Behavior and Lifestyle
Crowned sifakas are diurnal (active during daylight hours) and arboreal, spending the majority of their time in tree crowns.
Sifakas, a term that refers to all nine members of the genus Propithecus, have a method of locomotion that is unique even among lemurs. Unlike the many primate species that move by swinging from long arms, and even other lemur species that use both their arms and legs to move about, sifakas rely entirely on their powerful hind legs to both provide force for movement and to absorb the shock of their landing, a type of locomotion called “vertical clinging and leaping.” Crowned sifakas are able to clear over 30 feet (9 m) in a single leap, jumping agilely from tree to tree. They can take off from a tree almost instantaneously after landing, giving the impression that they are bouncing from trunk to trunk. Their terrestrial locomotion, while perhaps not as graceful, is just as unique. Their relatively short arms make quadrupedal locomotion (on all fours) impossible, so instead they hop sideways bipedally (on two legs) using their arms for balance.
Malagasy legend holds that human ancestors are reincarnated as sifakas, which is why their hunting is traditionally considered taboo.
Crowned sifakas live in matriarchal groups of about two to eight individuals, usually with only one breeding female, and have home ranges about 3–4 acres in size (1.2–1.5 ha). They defend their territories aggressively from neighboring groups.
Year round, this species spends about half its time resting, which it does by clinging vertically to a tree with its knees pulled to the chest. Their daily waking behavior changes slightly depending on the season. During the dry season, they spend more time traveling and foraging for food and less time eating. During the wet season, when food is more abundant, they spend less time traveling and foraging, and more time feeding and socializing.
Sifakas have an alarm call for which they are named that sounds like “shi-fak.” Crowned sifakas also display a warning signal that involves a loud sneezing sound accompanied by a head shake.
Scent marking is also an important method of communication for sifakas. It is not clear what specific purpose scent-marking serves, and it may in fact serve different purposes for different individuals.
Females give birth to one baby every 2–3 years, after a five-and-a-half month gestation. The generation time of this species is between 6 and 15 years, which is very slow among lemurs and makes recovering from losses in populations difficult.
Little is known about parental care in this species. In other sifaka species, mothers are the primary caregivers, although non-mothers also help, such as by allonursing (nursing by a female other than the biological mother) and carrying the infant. In the Milne-Edwards’ sifaka, and presumably other sifaka species, the infant is carried on the mother’s belly until it is three weeks old, at which point it moves primarily to the mother’s back. In the golden-crowned sifaka, weaning occurs at five months of age. Mothers continue to sleep with their offspring until they are about two years old.
Sifakas, like other lemurs, contribute to seed dispersal through their consumption of fruit. In fact, a Rice University study found that the ecological tie between lemurs and the trees from which they feed is so strong that a population loss of lemurs would result in an altered forest composition. Because lemurs tend to feed from, and therefore disperse the seeds of, the largest canopy trees, their loss would result in an altered forest makeup. These large, dense, slow-growing hardwoods would be replaced by small, quickly growing trees. This new forest would have a significantly reduced ability to store carbon, which is an important mechanism in mitigating climate change.
Crowned sifakas are considered to be Critically Endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, 2018), appearing on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, and their population is only decreasing.
Habitat loss in Madagascar is of utmost concern because the island is home to a huge array of species that are found nowhere else on earth—a full 92% of Madagascar’s mammals are endemic, and 90% of those species reside in or rely heavily on the island’s forests. Only about 20% of the country’s original forests remain after being subject to rampant deforestation for over a century. Not only has the total area of suitable habitat decreased steadily over the years, but the habitat is becoming increasingly fragmented. Habitat fragmentation is of particular concern to crowned sifakas as the species is so specialized to life in trees. While this species can move on the ground, it is not nearly as agile on the ground as in trees and therefore much more vulnerable to predators, including humans. This makes it difficult for the species to cross areas between fragmented habitats.
Habitat loss is largely a result of forests being cleared for livestock grazing and charcoal production. The hunting of sifakas is traditionally considered “fady,” or taboo, among the local people, although this taboo is not necessarily adopted by everyone on the island, especially as a result of an influx of immigrants to the country. The species also faces threats of live capture for the illegal pet trade. Given the likely continuing population decline, the species has been up-listed to Critically Endangered.
While exact figures are not known, over the past 30 years, the population of this species has likely decreased by 20–50%.
The crowned sifaka is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a listing reserved for species in immediate threat of extinction and for which trade of the species is allowed only in exceptional circumstances.
There have been observations of crowned sifakas in two protected reserves in Madagascar, although it is unknown what the status of these populations is. Most members of the species do not live in protected areas.
There is an ex situ conservation program centered around the captive population of crowned sifakas in zoos around Europe, although this program has been plagued by difficulties such as a lack of females and high infant mortality rate. While this program may help to raise awareness about the species, it is unrealistic to expect this population to sustain the species as a whole.
- BBC “Life on Earth”, Episode 4: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c116fcBzFI
- Fichtel, C. 2014. Acoustic Differences in Loud Calls of Decken’s and Crowned Sifakas (Propithecus deckenii and P. coronatus) at Two Sites in Madagascar. Primate Conservation 2014(28). 85-91. https://doi.org/10.1896/052.028.0105
- Pichon, C., L. Tarnaud, F. Bayart, A. Hladik, C. M. Hladik, et al.. 2010. Feeding ecology of the crowned sifaka (Propithecus coronatus) in a coastal dry forest in northwest Madagascar. Lemur News 15.
- Razafindramanana, J. and R. Rasamimanana. 2010. Discovery of crowned sifaka (Propithecus coronatus) in Dabolava, Miandrivazo, Menabe Region. Lemur News 15.
- Roullet, D. 2014. The European Captive Population of Crowned Sifaka: 25 Years of Management. Primate Conservation 2014(28). 99-107. https://doi.org/10.1896/052.028.0118
- Salmona, J., E. Rasolondraibe, F. Jan, A. Besolo, H. Rakotoarisoa, S. V. Meyler, S. Wohlhauser, C. Rabarivola, and L. Chikhi. 2014. Conservation Status and Abundance of the Crowned Sifaka (Propithecus coronatus). Primate Conservation. 2014(28), 73-83. https://doi.org/10.1896/052.028.0122
Written by K. Clare Quinlan, September 2019