Lepilemur dorsalis

Geographic Distribution and Habitat

Gray’s sportive lemurs, also known as gray-backed sportive lemurs or Nossi-bé sportive lemurs, are endemic to Madagascar and restricted to the northwestern Sambirano region of the island. The humid and sub-humid forests they inhabit are about 500 feet (155 m) above sea level and barely cover a 2.5-square-mile (4.5 square km) area. The number of Gray’s sportive lemurs is not yet known since the species hasn’t been extensively studied. However, despite the lack of data, it is probable that populations occur in protected forests such as the Manongarivo Special Reserve and the Tsaratanana Nature Reserve.

There is an ongoing debate regarding whether or not the populations found on the islands of Nosy Be and Nosy Koma should be included in the Gray’s sportive lemur species. Until scientists agree and genetic studies are done, the question will remain open. Thanks to phylogenetic studies, scientists demonstrated that the Gray’s sportive lemur species (Lepilemur dorsalis) is divided into two sub-clades—one from Ambania and Nosy Be and the other from Sahamalaza. They also think that Gray’s sportive lemurs from Nosy Be and Ambania form a sister clade to the Ankara sportive lemur. For this reason, scientists have proposed to break the Gray’s sportive lemur populations from Ambania and Nosy Be and the populations in Sahamalaza into two distinct species.

Gray's sportive lemur range, IUCN 2020

Size, Weight, and Lifespan

Gray’s sportive lemurs are among the smallest in the genus. Males and females are about the same size and only measure 9–10 inches (23–26 cm) long from head to toe. Their tail is 10–11 inches (26–28 cm). They are light, weighing on average between 17 and 26 ounces (500–750g).

It is estimated they can live up to 12 years.

What Does It Mean?

​Mitochondrial DNA:
Genetic characteristics passed on by the mother to her offspring.

Visit the Glossary for more definitions


Male and female Gray’s sportive lemurs look alike. They both have the same size with a short dense and wooly chocolate brown pelage. Their underparts are a slightly lighter color, especially on the throat. Their triangular face is gray—as if they were wearing a mask. Their ears are short and round; their muzzle is pointed with a wet nose. Their mouth is small and they have a tooth comb, which they use to groom and keep their fur free of parasites. Their light brown eyes are huge compared to the size of their head and are highlighted by a circle of delicate black skin. They have strong hind legs with wide thighs that allow them to perform long jumps. Their forelimbs are short. Both hind limbs and forelimbs have feet and hands with five digits. The digits have an opposable thumbs and are slender. Only the hand part is covered with fur; the digits themselves are bare and have rounded endings. Their long tail is rather large and covered in fur.


Gray’s sportive lemurs are mostly folivorous (leaf-eaters). Their diet consists of 90% leaves and 10% flowers, fruit, and perhaps some bark. Because they live in a limited geographic area where forest patches are small, it is likely their diet does not vary greatly throughout the seasons. The leaves they consume are high in cellulose and therefore difficult to digest. Their digestive system is adapted. Leaves initially pass through the digestive tract and are finally broken down by the bacteria found in the caecum—a pouch connected to the junction of the small and large intestines. This long digestive process requires a lot of energy. As a result, Gray’s sportive lemurs are often at rest.

There are reports of lepilemurs (sportive lemurs) re-ingesting their feces, which contain broken down cellulose, as a means of gaining more nutrients. Although not documented, it is possible this applies to Gray’s sportive lemurs as well.

Behavior and Lifestyle

Gray’s sportive lemurs live alone or as dispersed pairs. They are nocturnal; i.e., they are active at night and sleep during the day. In dense primary forests, they have been observed sleeping in tree holes 3 to 25 feet (1–8 m) off the ground. In deciduous forests, they rest curled up in thick vegetation tangles. Sleeping on a branch leaves them more vulnerable to natural predators, like boas and other snakes. They are also more easily hunted and, in areas close to human settlements, they may be killed by dogs.

These lemurs are arboreal. They travel on four legs, running or walking on branches. Sometimes they hop on their hind legs, leaping in an upright vertical posture, using the pads on their feet to cling to a branch while traveling from tree to tree. Their hind legs are very strong and allow them to perform leaps over 12 feet (4 m).

Fun Facts

The genus Lepilemur was first described by French zoologist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in 1851. He chose the Latin prefix “lepidus” which means “pretty.” It was erroneously transcribed as “lepi,” so the name became “lepilemur” instead of “lepidolemur” as was intended.

Lepilemurs were later described as “sportive lemurs” by Scottish explorer and ornithologist Henry Ogg Forbes in 1894 because of their innate agility.

Sportive lemurs are descendants of the Megaladapis, an extinct giant lemur, also known as the “koala lemur.”

Daily Life and Group Dynamics 

Gray’s sportive lemurs are reportedly territorial. A male’s territory usually overlaps the territories of several females—which he fiercely defends against intruders, especially during the mating season. Based on behavior observed in other sportive lemur species, it is likely that they spend about a third of their time feeding and two-thirds resting or grooming. Grooming and playing usually occur throughout the night between feeding bouts.


Sportive lemurs, as a genus, are generally widely distributed, but among the least known of lemurs. The river systems delimiting the forests in which they live act as natural barriers to individuals’ travel and, as such, limit the flow of genes between groups. However, it is difficult to clearly identify different species visually. So, in addition to mitochondrial DNA, one of the ways scientists are now using to more clearly identify species is the study of loud calls. This non-invasive research method also allows scientists to estimate and monitor populations of nocturnal animals that are difficult to otherwise observe. Although all species of sportive lemurs have elaborate vocalizations, recordings indicate that there two calls all sportive lemurs share: the “ouah” and “high-pitched” calls. The “ouah” calls are monosyllabic, whereas the high-pitched calls are harmonically structured and multi-syllabic sounds. Some syllables seem to be gender-specific. Loud calls are used for intragroup cohesion and intergroup spacing and are different for each sportive lemur species.

Besides vocalizations, Gray’s sportive lemurs also communicate using visual displays, chases, and scent-marking. 

Reproduction and Family

Male Gray’s sportive lemurs mate with multiple females. The breeding season occurs between the months of May and August and babies are born between August and November, after a gestation period of about 135 days. Females give birth to one offspring that they nurse for four months. They carry the baby and park it when they forage for food. Mother and child communicate while apart by making contact calls that sound a bit like a “kiss.” Once weaned, the youngsters remain with their moms until they become mature at 1.5 years old.

Since they live in small degraded forest patches that are subjected to the stresses of human encroachment and climate change, Gray’s sportive lemurs reproductive rate is low.

​Ecological Role

While eating foliage, Gray’s sportive lemurs break and remove branches and thereby contribute to tree pruning and forest clearing. They play a part in seed dispersal through their droppings and, as prey, they also feed other lifeforms.

Conservation Status and Threats

Gray’s sportive lemurs are classified as Endangered (IUCN, 2019) on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Madagascar, also known as the Great Red Island, is a country approximately 250 miles (400 km) off the coast of East Africa. It is the largest island in the world and an important biodiversity hotspot. Because the island has been isolated from other continents for 180 million years, endemic animal and plant species are found nowhere else on earth. With a population of almost 28 million people—more than a third of whom are under the age of 15—Madagascar is also one of the world’s poorest countries. This is why slash and burn agriculture, coffee and rice plantations, cattle ranching, mining, as well as illegal logging and hunting are prevalent and have unfortunately contributed to deforestation, soil erosion, and water pollution. Even protected areas are not spared because the country lacks the resources to effectively defend them. Since the 1950s, Madagascar has lost over 80% of its forest cover. Not only are forests shrinking, they are now so fragmented that they have become extremely vulnerable to climate events such as cyclones and wildfires. The lack of corridors between forest patches is also endangering the survival of many species that are unable to travel for safety or to find mates. Consequently, although population numbers are unknown, Gray’s sportive lemurs have been losing their natural habitat at a rate of about 30% every year—a rate that unfortunately is expected to increase unless drastic measures to stop habitat degradation are implemented immediately.

Conservation Efforts

Gray’s sportive lemurs are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix I. They are also listed in Class A of the African Convention and are protected by Malagasy law. This means that they may not be hunted, killed, captured, or collected without governmental authorization and only for national or scientific purposes.

In order to preserve as much biodiversity as possible, the government of Madagascar, its people, and several organizations are working towards a lofty project: to cover Madagascar in forests again. Although it will be impossible to restore the 17 million acres lost since the 1950s, the goal is to plant 60 million trees by 2024 and to demonstrate how trees can work in tandem with agriculture by regenerating the soil, protecting crops from the elements, and restoring biodiversity.

  • IUCN Red List 2020
  • Geographic Variation in Loud Calls of Sportive Lemurs (Lepilemur ssp.) and Their Implications for Conservation – Maria Méndez-Cárdenas, Blanchard Randiranambinina, Andriatahiana Rabesandratana, Solfonirina Rasoloharijaona, Elke Zimmermann
  • Lemurs of Madagascar and the Comoros – IUCN red book
  • Primate Adaptation and Evolution – The Prosimians: Lemurs, Lorises, Galagos and Tarsiers – John G. Fleagle
  • Vertical Clingers and Sleepers: Seasonal influences on the activities and substrate use of Lepilemur leucopus at Beza Mahafaly Reserve, Madagascar – Leanne T. Nash
  • ​Molecular phylogeny and taxonomic revision of the sportive lemurs (Lepilemur, Primates) – Nicole Andriaholinirina, Jean-Luc Fausser, Christian Roos, Dietmar Zinner, Urs Thalmann, Clément Rabarivola, Iary Ravoarimanana, Jörg U Ganzhorn, Bernhard Meier, Roland Hilgartner, Lutz Walter, Alphonse Zaramody, Christoph Langer, Thomas Hahn, Elke Zimmermann, Ute Radespiel, Mathias Craul, Jürgen Tomiuk, Ian Tattersall & Yves Rumpler

Written by Sylvie Abrams, December 2021