Geographic Distribution and Habitat
The ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) is endemic to the island country of Madagascar, the only place wild ring-tailed lemurs can be found. Their territory lies in the southern region. They are highly adaptable to different ecosystems, particularly the area’s spiny forests, gallery forests, and dry deciduous forests. That being said, ring-tailed lemurs tend to be found in Madagascar’s drier climates.
Their habitat is characterized by harsh, arid environments with extreme seasonal variations in temperature and rainfall. The lemurs are often found in territories ranging from sea level to high-altitude forests, up to 8,530 feet (2,600 meters).
The lemurs’ preferred forests are typically composed of a mix of dense, thorny vegetation and more open, rocky areas. This type of landscape provides the lemurs with both shelter and open spaces for sunbathing—a behavior unique to this species. Their habitat is often marked by rugged terrain with steep cliffs and river valleys. Ring-tailed lemurs tend to stick to one territory, which can be anywhere from 15 to 57 acres (0.06 to 0.2 square kilometers) in size.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
Ring-tailed lemurs are medium-sized. Their body length typically ranges from 15.4 to 18.1 inches (39 to 46 cm), and their long tails add on about 22 to 24.4 inches (56 to 62 cm) in length. Adults typically weigh between 4.8 to 7.7 pounds (2.2 to 3.5 kg). Males and females are generally similar in size and weight.
In the wild, ring-tailed lemurs have a lifespan of 16 to 19 years. However, in captivity, they can live beyond 20 years. This is thanks to being safe from predators, having reliable food and water sources, and receiving medical care from veterinarians.
Ring-tailed lemurs are some of the most recognizable primates in the world. They are known and named for their boldly patterned tails, which feature alternating rings of black and white. Their tail is not prehensile, meaning it can’t be used to grab and hold on to objects. In addition to assisting in balance, the tail is used for visual signaling within their groups, known as “mobs”.
Their body’s fur is dense and silky. It is primarily gray in color, but some have soft reddish-brown patches on their backs or rumps. On their bellies, their fur is pure white.
The ring-tailed lemur’s face is marked by an iconic black mask around the eyes, contrasting with white fur that extends to tufts on their ears. Bright, amber-colored eyes stand out in sharp contrast. This combination of features enhances their facial expressions, which are crucial for their social interactions.
Ring-tailed lemurs are elegant creatures with delicate builds. Their arms and legs are slender and roughly equal in length, providing agility both in trees and on the ground. Their hands and feet are dexterous; they are equipped with opposable thumbs and toes that give the lemurs finer motor skills. Their long and leathery palms are fitted with dermal ridges. These traits help them grip branches, handle food, and groom each other’s fur.
Like all prosimians, these lemurs are outfitted with a specialized grooming claw located on their index finger. The grooming claw is longer than the other nails on their hands. Their lower teeth form what is known as a “toothcomb”, forming the perfect tool to brush through fur.
They are quadrupedal, typically walking on all fours. However, their back legs are particularly strong for leaping from branches.
Ring-tailed lemurs primarily eat leaves, flowers, fruits, and insects. They are known to feed on up to 50 plant species, including figs, bananas, fig thistles, grasses, and ground plants. Sometimes they have been seen eating soil, likely for its mineral nutrients. Lemurs have even been observed eating chameleons!
Across the species, their guts have very diverse microbiota, meaning that they can have many different kinds of good bacteria that help them to digest a variety of foods. This is a result of adapting their feeding habits to whatever foods are available in their habitat at a given time.
However, they do have their preferences. Scientists have discovered that the lemurs really love their carbs! A study published in 2020 examined the food preferences of ring-tailed lemurs living in zoos. It found that these lemurs clearly preferred certain foods over others—mainly those high in carbohydrates and sucrose. Apples and sweet potatoes were at the top of their favorites list. In the wild, about half of their foraging time is spent feeding on the seed pod of the Tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica), an evergreen tree in the pea family that produces fruits high in carbohydrates and sugars.
Behavior and Lifestyle
Ring-tailed lemurs are diurnal, that is, active during the daylight hours. This sets them apart from some other lemur species, which are nocturnal. Their daytime activity is characterized by foraging, socializing, and resting.
They spend a significant portion of their day foraging, both on the ground and in trees. That is somewhat unique among lemurs, who are generally more tree-dwelling (arboreal). Their feeding sessions usually occur in the early morning and late afternoon, with rest and socialization taking place in the middle of the day. Between foraging sessions, ring-tailed lemurs spend time resting, often huddling together. This resting period is essential for digesting their food, particularly during times when their diet is high in fibrous material.
As mentioned previously, ring-tailed lemurs are known for their love of sunbathing. The whole group will gather together in a sunny spot, where they each sit up tall and spread their arms, exposing as much of their body as possible to the warmth of the sun’s rays. They will often close their eyes as they relax, evoking the image of a meditating Buddha. It’s not uncommon for them to become so soothed by the sensation that they lie back and fall asleep.
Lemurs will usually sunbathe in the mornings to help them warm up for the day’s activities. This is especially important for those who live in arid climates, where night-time temperatures can drop to quite chilly lows.
Lemur, the genus name, means “ghost” in Latin. This name was chosen because of the sound of their calls. Madagascar’s first explorers heard these howling calls as they made their way through the forests and believed them to be the voices of haunting spirits.
Groups, also known as “mobs”, “troops”, or “conspiracies”, can range anywhere from 3 to 30 members. Having high group numbers can be beneficial when it comes to defending resources or keeping watch for predators. However, lemurs in large groups tend to suffer from more stress when food is scarce or mating season arrives because the members must then compete against each other.
Their groups have a hierarchical structure typically dominated by females. This matriarchal system dictates access to food resources and mating opportunities.
Although female lemurs tend to stay with their birth-group for life, males will join another group once they become sexually mature. Young ring-tailed lemurs face challenges when trying to fit into new groups. The process often takes several months. They must carefully learn the group’s social dynamics and establish their place within the existing hierarchy. When older, more dominant males join a new group, the social status of the existing males is often shifted downward.
Social interactions play a crucial role in the daily life of ring-tailed lemurs. Grooming is a very important social activity, essential for maintaining social bonds within the group. Ring-tailed lemurs will groom each other daily, helping to remove parasites, reinforce social bonds, and mend tensions between individuals.
Juveniles and sometimes adults engage in play, which includes chasing, play fighting, and other interactive behaviors. Play is crucial for the development of social and physical skills in young lemurs.
Usually, groups will spend several days in one area of their home range before moving on to another. Home ranges of groups 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.
At night, ring-tailed lemurs sleep in trees to avoid ground predators, huddling together for warmth. They prefer sleeping sites that are safe, such as high, dense canopies. They tend to choose sleeping spots within their home range that offer protection and proximity to their feeding areas. Almost always, they will choose to sleep in different trees every night.
Communication in ring-tailed lemurs is complex and varied. They are one of the most vocal primates, using numerous vocalizations. These calls include alarm calls to warn of predators, calls to maintain group cohesion, and calls during social interactions.
Cat-like purrs express contentment. Mouth clicks will draw attention to a particular foraging location, while a sequence of closed- and open-mouth clicks and yaps encourage fellow troop members to mob together against a potential predator. Babies will make crying sounds known as “whits” to convey distress. During mating, moans and high-pitched wails are emitted to communicate arousal.
Their communication also includes distinct facial expressions and body postures. When they encounter predators, they will try to intimidate them by staring with an open mouth. They can be seen baring their teeth when signaling submission or fear.
Ring-tailed lemurs are highly territorial and use scent-marking to establish and maintain territories. It is especially important during the breeding season. Both male and female ring-tailed lemurs are equipped with powerful scent glands, and each sex has scent glands in their genital areas. Females use genital smears to mark their home range. They will sometimes use urine as well, but this is more common among males, as is scent-marking in general.
Males have darkly colored scent glands on the inside of each wrist with a spur-like fingernail, referred to as a horny spur. This spur 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.
Ring-tailed lemurs use their eye-catching tails for communication and group cohesion. By holding their tails erect for other members to see (like a big striped flag), they ensure that everyone in the troop is in sight and stays together.
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. They will continue to move between groups every 3 to 5 years throughout their lives.
Female ring-tailed lemurs have a strict breeding season that occurs in mid-April. During this time, competition among males for mating opportunities can be intense…and stinky!
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.
A male competing for mating rights will soak his tail with the pungent secretions from the scent glands in his wrists. This unpleasant odor is then wafted over to his male adversary, who responds in kind. The ensuing “stink war” is typically decided by whichever male “out-stinks” the other. Eventually, one male will retreat, defeated by his enemy’s superior funk.
Sometimes, these stink wars will escalate to physical fighting. Males have even been observed trying to slash each other with their sharp canine teeth.
Understandably, this tense atmosphere can get a bit overwhelming! Fortunately, female lemurs have evolved to keep things from getting too chaotic by staggering the time that they are ready to mate. Each one comes “into heat” on a different day during the breeding season, with a window of only 36 hours. This prevents all-out war from breaking out. Females may mate with multiple males, including those from neighboring troops.
Once a lucky male manages to impregnate a female, it takes a few months before a baby is born. Ring-tailed lemurs have a gestation period of about 135 days, meaning most births will happen around September. Female ring-tailed lemurs typically give birth once a year to a single infant, although twins are sometimes seen.
At birth, infants weigh less than 3 ounces (85 grams). Newborns are highly dependent on their mothers. For their first 2 weeks of life, they cling to her chest, then transition to riding on her back. From this safe place, they’ll begin exploring their environment. Infants begin eating solid food after 2 weeks; however, they are not considered fully weaned until 5 months of age. Their weaning is timed to finish when their habitat is most abundant in food sources, giving the young lemurs the best chance at survival.
Alloparenting is common in ring-tailed lemur groups. This is a behavior wherein group members work together to care for newborn offspring. Lemurs from various age groups and both sexes will participate. By cooperating in this way, the group enhances their fitness by allowing mothers to rest and ensuring young are always cared for.
The ring-tailed lemur plays a crucial role in the ecology of its native habitat in Madagascar. Known as the “gardeners of the forest,” these primates help to distribute seeds and pollinate plants within their ecosystem.
As they forage, they consume a diverse array of fruits and flowers. Fruit seeds enter their stomachs and are later pooped out at a different location, with plenty of fertilizer for a new fruit tree to grow. Sticky flower pollen will cling to their long snouts while they feed, brushing onto other flowers, and completing the pollination process. This pollination activity is vital for maintaining the biodiversity of their habitat.
Their adaptability to a range of habitats, including the dry and open landscapes of southwestern Madagascar, highlights their importance in these ecosystems. They help maintain the health and diversity of their habitats, which are often threatened by human activities such as deforestation and agriculture.
Lemurs compete for resources against many species of bats, such as the Madagascan flying fox, who eat many of the same foods, such as fruit, nectar, and sap. However, the lemurs avoid too much competition by foraging during the day. Sticking to this ecological niche helps to maintain balance among all of the animals in the ecosystem.
Many terrestrial (land-based) and aerial (flying) predators depend on ring-tailed lemurs as their own sources of food. These include Madagascar harrier hawks, buzzards, and ground boas, as well as fossae, and civets. Unfortunately, domestic cats and dogs also pose a threat. Their presence throws off the natural balance of the lemur’s ecosystem, introducing more predatory pressure than there would be without human settlements nearby.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the ring-tailed lemur as Endangered (IUCN, 2018), appearing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Despite their adaptability, ring-tailed lemurs are seriously affected by the ongoing deforestation in Madagascar. Much of this is resulting from increased sapphire mining activity, which requires clearing vast areas of land.
The reduction of forested areas has confined them to isolated patches, something known as “habitat fragmentation”. Being cut off from resources and fellow lemur groups significantly contributes to their status as an endangered species.
Local humans are unsustainably hunting these lemurs for bushmeat. This is partly a result of Madagascar’s extreme poverty since many people cannot afford to buy their own food or raise their own livestock. One study found that in households that hunted lemurs, all of the children were malnourished. Conservationists say that protecting lemurs from hunting will require providing poor Malagasy families with the resources they need to keep children healthy and well-fed.
However, many of Madagascar’s wealthier people also eat lemur meat. They even prefer, favoring the wild-caught protein as more “natural”. Researchers have discovered that there is a large supply chain that illegally transports the meat of ring-tailed lemurs and other endangered species into cities, where it is then sold in restaurants, stores, and open-air markets.
Many people trap these lemurs to illegally sell them as pets. Ring-tailed lemurs have always been highly sought out for their extraordinary appearance, but recent appearances in social media videos and popular movies has driven up demand. After the release of the animated film “Madagascar”, which features singing and dancing ring-tailed lemurs, many more people wanted to own these creatures as exotic pets. This problem shows how important it is to love wildlife responsibly, by letting them continue to be wild.
There are currently only 8 known populations that contain more than 100 individuals. Other populations are smaller. Mature adults are particularly declining within the ring-tailed lemur’s population, reducing the number of individuals capable of reproducing. In 2016, scientists estimated that the population would drop by more than 50% within just three generations (each generation spanning 12 years).
Scientists predict that the ring-tailed lemur species will soon collapse entirely. This forecast is extremely concerning for Madagascar’s wildlife as a whole because conservationists have long considered them to be far more stable than other species who are less adaptable to different habitats and conditions. Increased conservation efforts are urgently needed to preserve the remaining habitats and ensure the survival of this iconic Malagasy primate, as well as fellow members of its ecosystem.
The ring-tailed lemur is 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.
Conservationists have worked hard to expand nature reserves within Madagascar’s most vulnerable habitats. Consequently, several ring-tailed lemur ranges lie in protected areas. These include the Isalo, Andringitra, Andohahela, and Tsimanampetsotsa National Parks, as well as the Berenty and Beza Mahafaly reserves, among others.
Ring-tailed Lemurs once had healthy populations in other protected areas, such as the Kirindy Mitea National Park, Ranobe PK-32 Protected Area, and Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park. Sadly, they have now become very rare here as a result of overhunting.
Although their numbers in the wild are dwindling, the species is fortunately abundant in captivity. In fact, they are the most popular primate within zoos and captive reserves, numbering over 2,500 individuals.
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.
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Written by Amanda Riley, January 2024