RED-TAILED SPORTIVE LEMUR
Geographic Distribution and Habitat
The red-tailed sportive lemur (Lepilemur ruficaudatus) is native to the west-central part of Madagascar, along the Mozambique Channel. Their habitats range from gallery forests to subtropical and tropical dry lowland deciduous forests.
Sometimes called red-tailed weasel lemurs, these prosimians (both males and females) keep home ranges of around 2.5 acres (1 hectare). Home ranges for adult pairs coincide and there is little overlap with neighboring pairs. Although adult pairs cohabitate, they rarely interact or spend time near each other.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
There is very little sexual dimorphism among red-tailed sportive lemurs. this means that males and females look alike. Adults weigh an average of 1.8 pounds (800 g) and their body size averages 11 inches (28 cm) long. Their tails are about 9.8 inches (25 cm) long. The estimated lifespan for red-tailed sportive lemurs is unknown, but similar sportive lemurs can live to about 12 years.
Red-tailed sportive lemurs are small prosimians with fluffy bodies that are about as long as the average Eastern gray squirrel. When you include their long thick tail, these lemurs nearly double in length. At 1.8 pounds (800 g), they weigh a little less than a quart- or liter-size carton of milk.
Like many other lemurs, red-tailed sportive lemurs have small pointed faces, big round ears, and bulging eyes. They have five digitals on their hands and feet, and their hands have opposable thumbs that help them grip on tree branches.
Their bodies are covered with wool-like fur that ranges in color from gray to brownish red, and the fur around their face is typically gray. Their tails are often dark red or reddish-brown, which is how these lemurs got their name.
Red-tailed sportive lemurs are folivores. Their diet primarily consists of leaves, but they will also snack on fruit when it’s available, especially during the summer when leaves are scarce. At night, they travel short distances by leaping from tree to tree in search of leaves.
Leaf-based diets are notorious for being low-energy. Red-tailed sportive lemurs have one of the lowest resting metabolic rates of any folivorous mammal. With the prevalence of logging destroying their habitats, it’s common for these lemurs to die simply because they lack the energy needed to travel to more plentiful trees.
Behavior and Lifestyle
Red-tailed sportive lemurs are nocturnal, monogamous, and folivorous. They’re also arboreal, spending most of their time among leafy tree branches. Males are not active parents and females are responsible for all child care.
Although males and females share a home range, red-tailed sportive lemurs are one of the only pair-living primate species that do not participate in bonding interactions, such as grooming and huddling, outside of the mating season.
The behavior among male red-tailed sportive lemurs changes dramatically right before and during the very short mating season. Males show increased activity levels and become more protective when guarding their mates. They are more aggressive when defending their territory against other males—but not other females. Since males are responsible for defending their home ranges, they come into contact with neighboring pairs more often than females do. Similarly, females become more dominant and aggressive during the birthing season, likely because of their protective motherly instincts.
Sometimes called red-tailed weasel lemurs, this species was named for its thick reddish tail and weasel-like pointed snout.
Red-tailed sportive lemurs are nocturnal. They are considered a relatively inactive species, as they only travel short distances between 330 feet (100 m) and 0.6 miles (1 km) a night. They reduce their nightly travels during the cold and dry seasons. During the day, they rest in tree holes and have been found sunbathing at the entrance of the hole.
Socialization among these lemurs is not common. Even though adult male and female pairs are monogamous and live in the same habitat, they rarely interact and body contact has only been observed during mating. This is known as dispersed pairing, which is characterized by low encounter rates in a common home range.
Sportive lemurs communicate by vocalizations, visual displays, and scent marking. They make chuckling and barking vocalizations that are believed to signal mating opportunities and territorial defense.
Communication habits specifically among red-tailed sportive lemurs are not widely known. However, they have been perceived to exhibit a low rate of mutual and uncoordinated vocal exchanges between pairs. This indicates that they use loud calls primarily to defend their territories, which is similar to the Sahamalaza sportive lemur (Lepilemur sahamalaza).
Red-tailed sportive lemurs do not have a strong internal threat detection system, which can make it difficult for them to communicate danger to others. However, they have developed a strong reactive escape system that makes it quick and easy for them to flee from danger.
Red-tailed sportive lemurs live in monogamous pairs. But despite sharing a home range and offspring, males and females rarely interact and fathers provide no child care. Extra-pair copulations (mating outside of a monogamous pair) may also occur but at very low rates.
Mating season occurs from May to June. After a four-month gestation period, females give birth to a single infant around the start of the rainy season, between September and November.
When foraging, mothers carry their infants in their mouths and will “park” them (set them down) safely in tree holes or camouflaged branches. Infants are dependent on mom until they are weaned at two months old.
Sportive lemurs have foliage-heavy diets. When foraging, they often break and remove branches which helps clear and prune the forests. They also contribute to seed dispersal thanks to their appetite for fruits.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists red-tailed sportive lemurs as Critically Endangered (IUCN, 2019), appearing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Lemurs are one of the world’s most endangered mammals, with 98% of species at risk of extinction and 31% considered Critically Endangered. Red-tailed sportive lemurs face several threats including habitat loss, hunting, agricultural shifts, and climate change.
Between 1973 and 2014, Madagascar lost 37% of its forest cover which includes habitats for many species of lemurs and other animals. In 2017 and 2018, a record number of catastrophic fires caused severe damage to Madagascar’s forests. It’s estimated that 46% of Madagascar’s forests are now located within less than 328 feet (100 m) from the forest edge.
Madagascar has shifted agricultural practices to corn and peanut cultivation, which has led to a decline in the size and quality of red-tailed sportive lemur habitats. The species is also heavily hunted for food.
Overall, red-tailed sportive lemurs are undergoing an extreme population decline of 80%, which researchers expect will continue to decline in the future. Because of these threats, red-tailed sportive lemurs are considered Critically Endangered.
Red-tailed sportive lemurs are listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement between governments whose goal is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Conservation efforts for red-tailed sportive lemurs and all lemur species are primarily focused on supporting the local Malagasy people and protecting lemur habitats. It is proven that improving the lives of the local people also helps wildlife. By working with local communities, conservation groups are able to build relationships to understand community needs and plan conservation goals.
The Lemur Conservation Network highlights specific efforts to help the Malagasy people like providing food and healthcare, creating income opportunities through jobs in conservation, offering education to support lemurs and local people, and ecotourism.
To support habitats and wildlife, Madagascar currently has 116 protected areas covering 25,000 sq. miles (6.5 million hectares) of land. There are also reforestation efforts in place to restore lemur habitats to promote future population growth.
Written by Maria DiCesare, April 2023