Geographic Distribution and Habitat
Ring-tailed lemurs are found in the wild only on the geographically isolated African island of Madagascar, along with other lemur species and animals found nowhere else on earth. They are far more ecologically flexible than other lemur species and can tolerate a variety of extreme environments and drastic temperature ranges. Their diverse range of habitat includes deciduous forests to arid bush forests, rocky outcrop vegetation, spiny forests, and rock canyons. However, the preferred habitats of these cat-like primates are the gallery forests and Euphorbia bush of southern Madagascar.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
About the size of a domesticated house cat, head and body length of ring-tailed lemurs is 17.75 inches (45 cm); tail length adds another 21.75 inches (55 cm). They weigh between 5 and 7.5 pounds (2.3 to 3.4 kg). Males and females are relatively the same size and have slender frames.
In the wild, ring-tailed lemurs can live 16 to 19 years; in captivity, ring-tailed lemurs (popular zoo inhabitants) can live up to 27 years.
The species takes its name for the striking black and white rings encircling its long and bushy tail, which is most often held erect like a proud cat, and curled at the tip like a hook. Eliciting further feline comparison, the ears of ring-tailed lemurs are a wide triangle. Tufts of white hair accent the shape of the ears. Black rings surround their yellow eyes, like thick theatrical makeup, in contrast to their narrow white faces. Dark black skin is visible on the ring-tailed lemur’s fox-like muzzle, eyelids, lips, and feet. Light reddish gray to dark red-brown pelage covers their torsos, and the rumps of ring-tailed lemurs are covered with light gray to dark brown hair. The hair on their limbs is light gray to gray-brown, and their underside is white.
Ring-tailed lemurs feed primarily on fruit and have a particular fondness for figs; however, their diet varies depending on habitat and season. As such, they also eat flowers, leaves, tree bark, tree sap, hard-coated fig-thistle (another favorite meal), along with large insects and small vertebrates such as chameleons. They are known to supplement their diet by consuming soil, a practice that wildlife biologists believe may help increase their sodium intake (like humans grabbing the salt shaker at the dinner table?).
Behavior and Lifestyle
A diurnal species (active during daylight hours), ring-tailed lemurs spend much of their time foraging on the ground (meaning that they are mostly terrestrial), which is not as common in other lemur species. They are quadrupedal; that is, they typically walk on all fours. However, ring-tailed lemurs are also capable of leaping easily from tree to tree. Their long and leathery palms are fitted with dermal ridges that help them grip. But unlike some other primates, their tails are non-prehensile; that is, not capable of gripping. Instead, ring-tailed lemurs use their tails for balance, communication, and group cohesion. By holding their tails erect for other members to see (like the tour guide who extends a closed umbrella into the air for her group to follow), they ensure that everyone in the troop is in sight and stays together. When sleeping, they curl their iconic tail over their backs and tuck their nose between their hind legs.
Lemur, the genus name, means “ghost” in Latin.
The species name, catta, refers to the ring-tailed lemur’s cat-like appearance.
Speculation is that lemurs floated to the island of Madagascar eons ago on “rafts” of vegetation and that the species evolved in isolation over many centuries.
Highly social animals, ring-tailed lemurs live in groups, known as troops, of up to 30 individuals. Members typically include an equal number of males and females, along with their young. Well-established hierarchies exist among group members, with females assuming dominance over males. A troop’s alpha female leads the troop.
Sunbathing is a favorite pastime of ring-tailed lemurs, who assume a yoga-like position when basking in the sun’s rays. This is often a group activity, particularly on cold mornings when the primates seek to warm themselves. At night, troop members huddle closely together for warmth.
Personal grooming is assisted by the primates’ “toilet claw,” a specialized claw that allows them to rake through their dense coats.
Home ranges of ring-tailed lemur troops tend to overlap, inspiring occasional confrontations. These “face offs” with other troops, accompanied by alarm calls by troop members, sometimes lead to skirmishes led by the dominant females. When the drama has passed, troops retreat to the center of their respective home ranges.
Both male and female ring-tailed lemurs are equipped with powerful scent glands which they use to mark their territory. Each sex has scent glands in their genital areas. Females use genital smears to mark their home range. (Occasionally, females use urine marking to define a territory.) Males have darkly colored scent glands on the inside of each wrist with a spur-like fingernail, referred to as a horny spur, which allows them to gouge their scent markings into the bark of trees (known as spur-marking). Males also have scent glands on their chests, just above the collarbone and close to the armpit.
In addition to using their scent glands to convey messages, ring-tailed lemurs communicate through a wide range of simple-to-complex vocalizations that help maintain group cohesion and alert one another of danger.
Their repertoire includes purrs, used to express contentment (another similarity to cats!); mouth clicks to draw attention to a particular foraging location, a sequence of closed- and open-mouth clicks and yaps to encourage fellow troop members to mob together against a potential predator; a “whit,” emitted by infants, to convey distress; moans to indicate low-to-moderate arousal; and early-high wails to indicate moderate-to-high arousal.
Besides vocalizations, ring-tailed lemurs communicate through postures. During aggressive displays, they will rear up and stand on their hind legs, using their tail to help balance. They will also jump through the air, striking out with their claws and sharp fangs in a behavior known as “jump fighting.” Such an exhibition is usually restricted to the breeding season, however, when tensions between males are high and competition for females is intense.
“Threat-stares” are used to intimidate or to start a fight. To indicate submissiveness, ring-tailed lemurs pull back their lips.
For male ring-tailed lemurs, their scent glands are more than weapons of territorial intimidation; they are weapons of love. Or at least, lust and procreation. In competing for the attention of a female’s love interest, a male will soak his tail with the pungent secretions from his wrist glands and then waft the unpleasant odor to his male adversary. The ensuing “stink war” is typically decided by whichever male “out-stinks” the other. Eventually, one male will retreat. On occasion, however, physical aggression may accompany these stink wars in determining which male is granted the privilege of breeding with a female. However, females mitigate the situation by staggering their receptivity so that each one comes “into heat” on a different day during the breeding season, reducing competition for male attention.
Breeding season occurs in mid-April. Female ring-tailed lemurs typically give birth once a year to a single infant, though occasionally to twins, around September after a gestation period of 130 to 144 days. By the time young lemurs are weaned, food sources are most plentiful.
At birth, infants weigh less than 3 ounces (85 grams). For their first two weeks of life, they cling to their mother’s chest, then transition to ride on her back and begin exploring their environment from this secure vantage point. At two weeks, infants begin eating solid food; however, they are not considered fully weaned until 5 months of age.
Ring-tailed lemurs attain sexual maturity at about 2.5 to 3 years old. Female ring-tailed lemurs rarely leave the group into which they were born; however, males leave their natal (birth) group upon reaching maturity and continue to move between groups every three to five years throughout their lives.
Ring-tailed lemurs have an important role as seed dispersers in Madagascar’s rainforests. As frugivores, they swallow large seeds that are later excreted onto the forest floor. Thus, this lemur is responsible for distributing seeds around the rainforest and contributing to its growth.
The ring-tailed lemur is listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, 2018), appearing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Its conservation threat has steadily increased over the years, as its population continues to decrease, primarily due to loss of habitat. Despite their large range and flexibility, population density is often very low and populations are largely restricted to isolated fragments throughout the geographical range. Habitat loss, hunting, and live-capture for the illegal in-country pet trade are the greatest causes of concern for the future of this charismatic species.
Slash-and-burn agriculture has transformed key ring-tailed lemur habitats into pastureland for grazing livestock (according to WildMadagascar.org, each year as much as one-third of Madagascar burns!), and forests have been razed for charcoal production.
Unsustainable hunting has also had a drastic impact on the population, and capture for the illegal pet trade is another threat.
Predators of this species include mongoose-like animals (known as fossas), Madagascar harrier hawks and buzzards, the Madagascar ground boas, civets, and domestic cats and dogs
International trade of ring-tailed lemurs is banned under its listing 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.
Ecological and behavioral research on ring-tailed lemurs has been conducted at Madagascar wildlife reserves, contributing to the knowledge of the species. Additionally, ring-tailed lemurs whose habitat range happens to fall within Madagascar’s six national parks are afforded some protections.
In the United States, The Lemur Conservation Foundation is an organization “dedicated to the preservation and conservation of the primates of Madagascar through managed breeding, scientific research, education, and art.” Established in 1996, the foundation operates its 120-acre Myakka City Reserve in Manatee County, Florida. This reserve encompasses two fenced forests that include a population of ring-tailed lemurs, along with five other lemur species.
Another U.S.-based organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, introduced the species on St. Catherine’s Island, Georgia, in 1984.The impetus of this project was to study troop behavior and establish a free-ranging breeding population that could potentially be reintroduced to the island of Madagascar. These original primates were obtained from various zoos. As of February 2013, 83 ring-tailed lemurs inhabited St. Catherine’s Island.
Captive research on ring-tailed lemurs has been conducted at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina since the mid-1980s.
Written by Kathleen Downey, August 2016