SAHAFARY SPORTIVE LEMUR
Geographic Distribution and Habitat
The Sahafary sportive lemur (Lepilemur septentrionalis), also known as the northern sportive lemur or northern weasel lemur, is, like all lemurs, endemic to the island of Madagascar. Specifically, they reside in the far northern reaches of the island, north of the Irodo River, at elevations between 525 and 1,760 feet (160–537 m) above sea level in dry deciduous and gallery forest fragments. Previously, they inhabited a wider range, although they have been extirpated from the western portions of their historic range. They currently are found in only one subpopulation in the region of Montagne des Français. They are known to be one of the most geographically limited and least protected of all lemurs.
Sahafary sportive lemurs belong to the genus Lepilemur, the genus of the sportive lemurs. There are 26 recognized species in the genus, of which more than three-quarters are Endangered or Critically Endangered.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
Sahafary sportive lemurs are among the smallest of the sportive lemurs, with their head and body averaging about 11 inches (28 cm) in length and their tail adding another 10 inches (25 cm). They weigh between 1.5 and 1.8 lbs (0.7–0.8 kg). The average lifespan in the wild for sportive lemurs is believed to be about 8 years, although they can live for up to 15 years in captivity.
Sahafary sportive lemurs are brownish gray in color, with darker coloration on the crown of the head and a gray underside. A dark gray dorsal stripe begins at the top of the head and runs down the spine. Their eyes are large, round, and brownish-orange. Long fingers and toes are tipped with thick pads that help them to grip branches.
When a species ceases to exist in a geographic area they once occupied.
The transfer of genes from one population into another through breeding.
A mating system in which one male mates and lives with multiple females.
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Sahafary sportive lemurs are folivorous, and they supplement their leafy diet with flowers and fruit. They are caechotrophs, which, in polite terms, means that they digest their food twice. In other words, they eat their own droppings! This is because their leaf-rich diet has a low energy value, so they digest it twice to break down the cellulose in the leaves as much as possible. Recent studies suggest that habitat degradation has forced Sahafary sportive lemurs to alter their lifestyle, including their diet, such as by incorporating more fruit and fewer leaves into their diet and spending more time foraging.
Behavior and Lifestyle
Not much is known about typical Sahafary sportive lemur behavior or lifestyle. They are nocturnal (active at night) and arboreal (tree-dwelling). Their primary mode of locomotion is leaping, which they perform by clinging to a tree in a vertical position then thrusting off using their powerful hind legs.
There are conflicting reports on how sportive lemurs got their name. Some say it’s due to their general agility and leaping abilities, and others claim it’s because of the boxer-like stance they sometimes adopt when confronted with a threat. Either way, these agile primates are true to their name!
Sahafary sportive lemurs spend their days sleeping in tree holes or amongst dense vegetation, usually about 20–26 feet (6–8 m) above ground, although sometimes lower. Males are solitary and maintain a territory, which can overlap multiple females’ home ranges. Males defend their territory aggressively. A closely related species, the white-footed sportive lemur (L. leucopus), has home ranges on average of 0.44 acres (0.18 hectares) for females and 0.74 acres (0.3 hectares) for males. It is likely Sahafary sportive lemurs have similar home range sizes. Recent studies suggest that they may adapt to habitat disturbance by increasing their home range sizes.
Sahafary sportive lemurs have two main vocal calls: a loud call and a contact rejection call. Their loud call has been described as “crow-like” and it is used for territory claims and to indicate their presence. Their contact rejection call is a series of hisses followed by a two-phrase vocalization. This is used when two individuals are close to each other. Other sportive lemurs are also known to use scent marking for communication, and this is likely also true of Sahafary sportive lemurs.
Male Sahafary sportive lemurs are polygynous, and their territory overlaps with one or more females. During the mating season, a male visits and mates with each female in his territory. After a 120–150 day gestation period, the female gives birth to her offspring, usually between September and December. The baby is nursed for four months before being weaned, although she may stay with her mother for up to a year. The male plays no part in rearing offspring, while the mother provides all the food and protection that her baby requires. She leaves her baby on a branch when she goes to forage. At about 18 months of age, the young become sexually mature.
Sahafary sportive lemurs are preyed upon by Madagascar tree boas (Sanzinia madagascariensis), which take individuals from their sleeping holes during the day. They are likely also preyed upon by predatory birds. In general, they avoid many potential predators due to their agility and nocturnality.
Sahafary sportive lemurs are considered Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), appearing on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, with a mere 50–70 individuals remaining in the wild (IUCN, 2018). They have experienced a dramatic population loss of over 80% over the last 21 years, or three generations, and currently exist in only a single subpopulation. The primary threats against Sahafary sportive lemurs are habitat loss and degradation, as well as exploitative hunting. Their habitat is also severely fragmented, which limits migration and gene flow of the current population, another significant threat.
Sahafary sportive lemurs’ decline reflects the loss of habitat on Madagascar. The island lost more than a third of its forest cover between 1973 and 2014, with a deforestation rate of 1.1% per year between 2010 and 2014. Almost half of Madagascar’s forests are located less than 100 meters from the forest edge, indicating that the forests are extremely fragmented. A main reason for deforestation in the Sahafary sportive lemurs’ range is illegal charcoal and firewood production. This industry supports the nearby city of Antsiranana, whose human population tripled between 1993 and 2018, significantly adding to the pressure on this already imperiled species. The charcoal industry is massive in this region. One survey of people living in and around Montagne des Français found that 78% were involved in charcoal production. Sahafary sportive lemurs are hunted for food incidentally within and around these operations.
Sahafary sportive lemurs are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). They have the unfortunate designation as one of the least protected of all lemurs. The sad truth is that they are teetering on the very edge of extinction, and drastic action is needed to have a chance of saving them. The most important last-ditch effort to save the species would be to protect what little remains of their habitat in Montagne des Français. The area was designated as protected in 2015, although illegal deforestation activities are still common and the forest is still highly fragmented and degraded. Corridors need to be put in place to connect patches of habitat. There are ongoing efforts to patrol the forests to help deter illegal tree felling. While captive breeding programs would normally help, Sahafary sportive lemurs are known to be difficult to keep, and especially to breed in captivity, largely due to their complex diet and strict energy budget. Another major need for the species is more research. Specifically, there is a lack of baseline ecological data, such as long-term studies to understand seasonal variations in their diet and studies investigating their habitat requirements, such as sleeping site availability and forest composition needs. Without this information, it is impossible to estimate the minimum viable population size of the species, and whether they are already below it.
Conservation of Sahafary sportive lemurs requires balancing the needs of the species with the energy demands of the local city of Antsiranana. One interesting approach to conservation in Madagascar is an effort to introduce small, fuel-efficient “Rocket Stoves” to Malagasy people. Because these stoves use much less fuel to produce the same amount of heat compared to open fires, their use can lower the demand for charcoal and firewood, hopefully reducing deforestation to provide these products. In addition, efforts are being made to supply biofuel briquettes made from local waste materials such as grass clippings, sawdust, and paper scraps. This also provides jobs to the local people and reduces family expenses for fuel, which can consume half of a family’s income, while at the same time being a much more sustainable resource.
- Bailey, C. A., T. M. Sefczek, B. Robertson, L. Rasoamazava, V. F. Rakotomalala, J. Andriamadison, F. Randrianasolo, A. Andriajaona, E. E. Louis. 2020. A Re-evaluation of the Northern Sportive Lemur (Lepilemur septentrionalis) Population at Montagne des Français, and a Review of Its Current State of Conservation in the Protected Area. Primate Conservation 2020 (34): 53-59.
- Dinsmore, M. P., K. B. Stroer, E. E. Louis. 2021. Anthropogenic Disturbances and Deforestation of Northern Sportive Lemur (Lepilemur septentrionalis) Habitat at Montagne des Français, Madagascar. Primate Conservation (35).
- Rowe, A. K. and M. E. Donohue. 2020. Lemurs: Madagascar’s Endemic Primates. Reference Module in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences. Elsevier.
Written by K. Clare Quinlan, November 2021