Geographic Distribution and Habitat
As one of the world’s rarest lemurs and most threatened primates, Perrier’s sifaka makes its home on the island of Madagascar, the only place on the planet where the remaining few hundred individuals of this Critically Endangered species can be found.
Situated off the coast of East Africa, the island of Madagascar stands as a treasure trove of evolutionary biodiversity. In fact, most of Madagascar’s flora and fauna are endemic to the island, including all the world’s lemurs.
One of nine species of sifaka (Propithecus) on Madagascar, Perrier’s sifakas make their home in the northeastern part of the island, where tropical riparian forests give way to dry forests with low and open canopies. Today, these lemurs are found in a restricted and shrinking region between the Irodo and Lokia rivers. The limestone and sandstone soils in the region support a unique array of plant life, and researchers have noted that Perrier’s sifakas are twice as likely to be found in the areas with sandstone soils. The total region spans only 116 square mi (300 km²) and includes the Analamerana Special Reserve and the Andrafiamena Hills. It once also included parts of the Ankarana Special Reserve, but Perrier’s sifakas have not been seen there in recent years.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
Weighing about 10 lb (4.5 kg), Perrier’s sifakas grow as tall as 18 in (47 cm), with a long tail of about the same length. Very little sexual dimorphism is seen between the sexes, although researchers note that females appear to be slightly larger than their male counterparts.
Little is known about the longevity of these sifakas in the wild. The oldest Perrier’s sifaka in captivity lived to 36 years old. The better studied and closely related diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema) lives to about 15 years old.
Perrier’s sifakas have a coat of dense, silky black fur and a long, bushy tail. Their faces are black and hairless, with nearly hidden ears and eyes that glow a burnt orange-red. Like other sifakas, they have long, powerful legs that allow them to move through the trees while keeping their body upright—a special type of locomotion known as vertical clinging.
The Perrier’s sifaka likes a varied folivorous (leaf-based) diet. He will eat from a menu of plants, leaves, fruits, and flowers, which together comprise a dozen or more varieties of plants from nine different families. On rare occasions, he’s been seen eating dirt.
Behavior and Lifestyle
Perrier’s sifakas are in need of deeper study, as much is not known about the particulars of this lemur’s lifestyle. However, researchers agree that Perrier’s sifakas form small groups, ranging in size from about two to six individuals. They are diurnal and primarily arboreal, and their ability to remain upright distinguishes them from other lemurs on the island.
Gesundheit! Sifakas have earned their name from the “shee-fak” call used to maintain contact within their group, but those who have been lucky enough to hear it say the call sounds more like a sneeze!
A day in the life of a Perrier’s sifaka begins at dawn, when she sets out to forage for food. Staying in contact with her group with quiet calls, she’s an expert at navigating the canopy. She powers between trees by leaping from her hind legs, sometimes jumping as far as 30 feet (9.1 m) at a time.
When needed, she will descend to the forest floor for a drink of water or to reach other parts of the forest or a riverbank. In these cases, her striking black fur makes her highly visible and vulnerable to predators, such as feral dogs and fossas (Cryptoprocta ferox), but she can move quickly on her hind legs by using a distinctive two-legged sideways hop.
When a human or other predator is spotted, she’ll issue an alarm call, heralding all members of the group to rapidly gather in the surrounding trees until the threat passes.
Sifakas have earned their name from the distinctive “shee-fak” call used to maintain contact within their group, but these lemurs are reported to be very quiet primates. Other forms of communication include visual cues to suggest sexual readiness, such as genital swelling in both males and females. Grooming is often a bonding behavior.
Much of what is thought to be true about the Perrier’s sifaka’s reproductive life is based on observations of the diademed sifaka, of which Perrier’s sifakas were once thought to be a subspecies.
Diademed sifakas have several different mating systems (monogamous, polyandrous, polgynous, and polygynandrous) that can occur depending on group size and structure. For this species, females become sexually mature at about four years old, with males following at about five years old.
After mating in the summer, a female will give birth to one offspring about five to six months later. She is the primary caregiver of her offspring. The baby clings to her belly for the first few weeks of life, but will show some independence by three to four weeks of age. Soon the offspring begins to play and groom with others in the group. Weaning by five months, a diademed sifaka stays under her mother’s watchful eye until she’s about two years old.
With a fruit-laden diet, Perrier’s sifakas play a role as seed dispersers. As heavy folivores, they also may have an impact on vegetation.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed the Perrier’s sifaka as Critically Endangered since 1996 (IUCN, 2018). The Perrier’s sifaka is also included in Primates in Peril: The World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates, 2016-2018, a report published by the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group.
With an estimated 500 individuals remaining in the wild today, the Perrier’s sifaka is in an extreme battle for survival. Current research suggests that there are only about 125 mature individuals ready for breeding, a factor that puts the long-term genetic health and viability of the species into question. No Perrier’s sifakas exist in captivity.
As is the case with many of Madagascar’s primates, hunting and habitat loss represent the greatest threats to this species. More specifically, these sifakas are threatened by ongoing slash-and-burn activities that continue to dwindle their forest habitat in northern Madagascar. Additional threats include clear-cutting of trees to produce charcoal and forest destruction caused by small-scale gemstone miners.
Also endemic to Madagascar, fossas are a natural predator of sifakas. These carnivores occur in high densities in northern Madagascar and are adept at traveling on both land and from tree to tree.
Although hunting sifakas was once considered taboo in many parts of Madagascar, an influx of immigrants who don’t hold such beliefs has contributed to an increase in the hunting of these lemurs.
Today, Perrier’s sifakas live in the Analamerana Special Reserve, a somewhat protected area, but conservationists say this reserve does not provide nearly enough protection. According to the IUCN, there exists an “urgent need for a full-time, long-term scientific presence in the Analamerana Special Reserve, as well as an expansion of this protected area” to include surrounding forests. The IUCN is calling for an effort that includes an education campaign in the region and surveys in nearby forest patches to look for any other populations.
In addition, conservationists insist research into sifakas in captivity is needed, as is special focus on protecting habitats with sandstone soils, which Perrier’s sifakas appear to prefer.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Floral (CITES) includes the Perrier’s sifaka on Appendix I, its listing of most endangered wildlife. In addition, two non-government organizations, Monaco-based Act for Nature and Groupe d’Etude et de Recherche sur les Primates de Madagascar, have been working to secure this species’ future.
- “Perrier’s Diademed Sifaka (Propithecus diadema perrieri).” Beacham’s Guide to International Endangered Species, vol. 1, Gale, 2008. Science in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CV2644500389/GPS?u=mlin_c_stevens&sid=GPS&xid=10357440. Accessed 26 June 2018.
- “SEDUCED BY SIFAKAS – On a quest for images of some of Earth’s rarest primates, two wildlife photographers journey to the remote island of Madagascar.” National Wildlife, June-July 2002. General OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A89436318/GPS?u=mlin_c_stevens&sid=GPS&xid=c57d5fd8. Accessed 26 June 2018.
Written by Christine Regan Davi, June 2018