GOLDEN-CROWNED SIFAKA

Propithecus tattersalli

Geographic Distribution and Habitat
Golden-crowned sifakas, also known as Tattersall’s sifakas, are endemic to Loky-Manambato, near the town of Daraina, in northeastern Madagascar. The area spreads over approximately 960 square miles (2,500 square kilometers). It is one of the richest for its biodiversity, with over 1,200 plant species as well as many reptiles, birds, and mammals—including at least 11 lemur species. The area is delimited by the two rivers it is named after; the Loky to the north and the Manambato to the south. There are only two seasons—dry, between April and November, and rainy, between December and the end of March. The landscape is very picturesque with green patches of forest punctuated by stretches of barren red earth. The temperatures are warm all year round and fluctuate between 75 F and 104 F (25–40 C).

To spot golden-crowned sifakas, one has to walk deep into the dry deciduous, gallery, and semi-evergreen forests, found at altitudes below 2,300 feet (700 m), where these rare creatures dwell. The area they inhabit is one of the smallest for this type of lemurs and only represent less than a quarter of the Loky-Manambato park.

Golden-crowned sifaka range, IUCN 2020

Size, Weight, and Lifespan
Golden-crowned sifakas are one of the smallest sifakas, weighing approximately 7.5 pounds (3 kg). Their head and body measure approximately 20 inches (50 cm) and their tail is pretty much the same length.

They can live about 20 years.

Appearance
These beautiful creatures have silky white or honey-colored hair covering their body and tail. Their cute triangular face is black, hairless, and framed by light yellow fur, on top of which sits a patch of gold, just like a crown (hence their name). Their large ears are black on the inside and covered with light fur on the outside. Their round orange eyes make them appear very inquisitive. Their snout is pointy and wet. Their hands are black on the inside—just like their feet—and have five very long skinny fingers with flat endings. Their arms are short compared to their strong and muscular hind legs, which are perfect for leaping. They use their tooth-comb and the toilet claw on their second toe to clean and untangle their own fur and groom their friends.​

Photo credit: Jeff Gibbs/Creative Commons

What Does It Mean?

Endemic:
Native or restricted to a certain area or country.

Deciduous forest:
Forests that change seasonally. The word deciduous means to fall off at maturity. The opposite of deciduous is evergreen.

Gallery forest:
A forest that serves as a corridor along rivers or wetlands and projects into landscapes that are otherwise sparsely treed, such as savannas, grasslands, or deserts.

NGO:
A non-governmental organization that operates independently of any government.

Semi-deciduous forest:
A forest with both evergreen and deciduous broad-leaved trees, usually next to a rain forest and in a geographic area with a marked dry season.

​Slash and burn agriculture:
A method of unsustainable farming where farmers clear land by cutting and burning flora in order to create an empty field—a “swidden”—for cultivation. Such practices are detrimental to local ecosystems.

Toilet claw:
A specialized grooming claw common to prosimians and certain other primates. 

Tooth-comb:
The incisors on the lower front jaw of some animals are grouped as if to form a comb. The tooth-comb is used by these animals to groom and clean their fur or hair.

Visit the Glossary for more definitions

Diet
Golden-crowned sifakas are opportunistic eaters. They consume mature and immature leaves, seeds, unripe and ripe fruit, flowers, nuts, twigs, the occasional tree bark, and nectar, depending on the season. Their digestive system is adapted to a folivorous diet so they have no problem processing and digesting leaves from many different plant species—some say about 80. Such dietary flexibility contributes to their survival and adaptation to degraded habitats. Since they can eat whatever is available, they don’t need to travel far each day.

Behavior and Lifestyle
These sifakas rarely descend to the ground and spend most of their time on low- to medium-level branches where they forage. They are diurnal and active from the early morning to late afternoon. However, their schedule changes slightly depending on the season. During the rainy months, they start as early as dawn and continue foraging until just before nightfall.

They are vertical clingers and leapers and move in the direction of their choice by orienting their mid-section as they jump from one tree to the next.

Daily Life and Group Dynamics 
Golden-crowned sifakas are gregarious and live in groups of 3 to 10 with most groups averaging 8 individuals of both genders. These groups include one adult male and one adult female with offspring, including sub-adults, and are governed by a strict linear hierarchy. The reproducing female is dominant over all members, and females are dominant over all males.

Each group has a home range between 22 and 30 acres (approximately 8 to 12 hectares).  Both genders mark their territory—males by urinating and rubbing the scent glands on their throat onto branches, and females by rubbing the scent glands around their anus.

Members of the group forage, play and rest together during the day before settling on high branches in large trees to sleep at night.

Fun Facts

The golden-crowned sifaka was unknown to science until 1974 when the species was discovered by Dr. Ian Tattersall, a paleoanthropologist who has worked extensively with lemurs and is associated with Yale University and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. At the time, the golden-crowned sifaka was considered a variant of the diademed sifaka. It was only recognized as a distinct species in 1988.

Golden-crowned sifakas share forest patches with Sanford’s brown lemurs and crowned lemurs.

Golden-crowned sifakas do not thrive in captivity. The last known captive member of the species died in 1988. There aren’t any in captivity today.

Communication
Sifakas communicate in a variety of ways. Scent marking provides others with information about territoriality, and probably also about the individual that did the marking. Grooming allows the sifakas to create and cement bonds of friendship with each other. Body postures and vocalizations convey different messages, each adapted to individual circumstances. Vocalizations can be specific to the type of danger the group is facing, for instance the “shee-fak” alarm call is used to indicate the presence of ground level predators.

When they are aroused, they shrill. During encounters with outside groups—which are frequent due to the small size of their home range—stressed golden-crowned sifakas utter repeated grunts that sound like “churr.” Males are more aggressive toward males, and females are more aggressive toward females, but they rarely fight; instead, they actively scent mark, leap, and chase each other around, until the intruding group members depart.

Reproduction and Family
Golden-crowned sifakas come of age when they are 2 or 3 years old and they mate between the end of January and the month of March.  Males leave the group when they reach maturity, whereas females remain in their native groups with their kin. Females reproduce every other year and after a gestation of about 170 days, they give birth to one baby—hairless and weighing approximately 1.4 ounces (40g). Mothers carry their infants on their belly for the first three weeks, after which time the babies are strong enough to hang and ride on their mothers’ backs. Of course, this is dangerous and infant mortality from falls is unfortunately high.  

Infants nurse for about 5 months until they are able to start foraging on their own and eating solid food—which usually coincides with the arrival of the wet season when food is abundant.

It takes one year for juveniles to reach two thirds of their adult weight and size. Fathers do not play any role in the rearing of offspring.

Photo credit: Alex Chiang/Flickr/Creative Commons

Ecological Role
Golden-crowned sifakas likely contribute to seed dispersal as they consume some fruit and fertilize the undergrowth. Because they eat many leaves, they also play an important part in clearing and pruning trees.

Conservation Status and Threats
Golden-crowned sifakas are listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN, 2019). The number of mature individuals is estimated at fewer than 5,000 and the overall population between 10,000 and 12,000. The species has been declining steadily since it was first observed in the mid-1970s, and has dropped drastically (80%) since the late 1990s.

The main threats to the species are deforestation, slash-and-burn agriculture, charcoal extraction, gold mining, and precious woods extraction. Malagasy people do not hunt golden-crowned sifakas; however, non-local workers brought to Madagascar for road construction and mining do not abide by the Malagasy beliefs and lore that frown upon hunting sifakas.

Climate change (drought and heavy storms) is another major threat to Madagascar and specifically to the eastern forested areas.

Conservation Efforts
Golden-crowned sifakas are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

In the early 2000, the importance of preserving biodiversity in a region with great economic potential became clear to Fanamby and Conservation International. Together they worked to create the Loky-Manambato area, which gained its protected status in 2005.  Fanamby, a Malagasy NGO, and Madagascar’s Ministry of Water and Forests have been managing it ever since. Their focus is to grant varying degrees of protection to forest fragments, allowing greater human activity and disruption in areas of lesser conservation importance. Their work also includes reforestation efforts, sustainable agriculture, and education. However, there is still a lot of work to do. Stricter land and water management and programs to mitigate some of the effects of climate change are needed. So are species monitoring programs, because golden-crowned sifakas live in a very restricted geographic area. Indeed, their presence was recorded in only 44 out of the 75 forest fragments in the region. Monitoring is crucial at this time because new economic and agricultural projects such as the construction of a main paved road and gold mining, sponsored by the Chinese government, are under way.

Road improvement will probably bring revenue to the region by making it more easily accessible for eco-tourism. Until now, travelers could only find lodgings in the eight bungalows of Camp Tattersalli, which is located at the edge of the Andranotsimaty forest. Conversely, it will also bring more human disruption to an ecosystem already weakened by deforestation.  

Fortunately golden-crowned sifakas’ dispersal patterns do not appear to be dependent on canopy connectivity. In fact, they have been observed traveling on the ground as far as 600 feet (183 m) to reach new forest patches. This means that, even in a fragmented forest environment, and despite their limited geographic range, they are able to maintain a high level of genetic diversity, as evidenced by recent DNA surveys. Scientists are not certain that ground travel is a recent adaptation caused by habitat degradation because there is no data documenting the distance between forest patches pre-dating the 1950s. We can only hope that their habitat will receive sufficient protection so these beautiful creatures do not go extinct.

​References:

  • ​IUCN Red List
  • A Comparison of Activity Patterns for Captive Propithecus tattersalls and Propithecus coquereli – Gregory L. Wallace, Lisa B.Paquette, and Kenneth E. Glander
  • Genetic consequences of social structure in the golden-crowned sifaka – Barbara Parreira, Erwan Quéméré, Cécile Vanpé, Inês Carvalho, Lounès Chikhi
  • Lemur World website – Golden-crowned Sifaka – Lemur facts and Information
  • Landscape genetics of an endangered lemur (Propithecus tattersalls) within its entire fragmented range – Erwan Quéméré, Brigitte Crouau-Roy, Clément Rabarivola, Edward E. Louis Jr and Lounès Chickhi
  • madamagazine.com – Protected area Looks Manambato (Daraina) – Masika Spina
  • madamagazine.com – Secret Kings of the North: Golden Crowned Sifakas
  • animaldiversity.org
  • primatespark.com 
  • jungledragon.com

Written by Sylvie Abrams, May 2021