WHITE-FOOTED SPORTIVE LEMUR
Geographic Distribution and Habitat
White-footed sportive lemurs (Lepilemur leucopus) are medium-sized prosimians native to southern Madagascar, the fourth-largest island in the world located in the Indian Ocean. Madagascar is 250 miles (400 km) from the African continent, which keeps lemurs separated from the rest of Africa’s primate population.
White-footed sportive lemurs are also called dry-bush weasel lemurs and, in Madagascar’s official language Malagasy, they are called songiky. Their habitat is in the Didiereaceae Forest, also known as the Spiny Forest. Didiereaceae is a type of flowering plant and spiny-leaf succulents have adapted well to the tropical, dry climate. White-footed sportive lemurs live in the lower canopy of the gallery forests.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
They may look small to us, but white-footed sportive lemurs are actually medium-sized lemurs. They have long front and back limbs that are crucial for leaping and climbing through the canopy. Their head and body length ranges from 9.5 to 10.2 in (24–26 cm) and their tail from 8.3 to 10.2 in (21–26 cm). Their weight averages 1.2 lbs (0.54 kg).
To put their size in perspective, consider that the larger ring-tail lemur’s body length averages 17.75 in (45 cm), and their tails average 21.75 in (55 cm). A ring-tail lemur can weigh up to 7.5 pounds (3.4 kg), which is about 6 times the weight of a white-footed sportive lemur.
The life expectancy for these prosimians in the wild is unknown. White-footed sportives are highly sensitive to climate and diet changes and they struggle in captivity; the longest record is 2 years. We do know that the life expectancy for related prosimians is up to 10 years.
White-footed sportive lemurs are medium-sized lemurs with long limbs and tails. Large pads on their hands and feet help them cling to the trees while their fore and hind limbs aid in climbing and leaping through the canopy.
These prosimians are colored to blend in with the trees and vines in their habitat. Their belly area can range in shades from pale gray to creamy white and their backs are medium gray/brown. Their upper forelimbs, shoulders, and thighs are usually a dark brown color and their tails are a dark brown/gray color.
This lovable-looking species has large, alluring eyes that are a dark shade of orange with black outlines that make it look like they’re wearing heavy eyeliner. Like many other lemurs, their faces are short and pointed and they have large rounded ears.
White-footed sportive lemurs are folivores (leaf-eaters) and herbivores (plant-eaters). The mainstay of their diet are the leaves on the spiny Didiereaceae trees, and they also consume various vines, fruits, and flowers. They especially enjoy the leaves from Tamarindus indica and Euphorbia tirucalli plants. In the dry season, they supplement their food with more flowers from the spiny trees.
Because of their low-nutrient, leafy diet, white-footed sportive lemurs have a large caecum, a pouch that is considered to be the beginning of the large intestine, that aids in the digestion of high cellulose content.
Behavior and Lifestyle
Despite their name, white-footed sportive lemurs are far from sporty. Their low-quality diet does little for their activity levels, and they spend less than 10% of their energy on traveling between feeding areas. Most of their energy is put toward awareness of their surroundings and defending their resources.
White-footed sportive lemurs are nocturnal by nature. At night, they travel through the lower canopy to search for food sources. During the day, males and females sleep in cozy tree cavities or among woody vines known as liana tangles.
Their small territories are equally defended by both sexes. It’s estimated that their population density is several hundred individuals per 247 acres (1 sq km).
Many lemurs use scent to mark their territories—but not the white-footed sportive lemur. Instead they use vocalizations and sight surveillance to find food and avoid threats at night.
White-footed sportive lemurs are typically solitary. A male’s territory overlaps one or more female territories, with larger males encompassing up to five females’ territories and smaller males encompassing one or two. When a male matures, he disperses from his mother’s territory while mature females tend to stay in the same area.
Infants are highly vulnerable, so mothers take great care to keep them close by. When leaving their nest to forage at night, a mother transports her young in her mouth and places them in nearby branches while she eats.
Vocalizations and touch are the white-footed sportive lemur’s primary forms of communication. Both sexes emit contact-rejection calls in captivity and the wild, which are a series of hissing calls followed by a two-phase vocalization. When defending their territory, white-footed sportive lemurs have been observed hitting and biting each other while making high-pitched calls.
Males make loud, crow-like calls to announce their presence in their territory. Near the edges of their territory, males will also make “hien” calls followed by high-pitched “hee” calls. When foraging for food, females communicate with their young by making kiss-sounding calls. If an infant is distressed, they will call to their mother by making a long, woeful cry.
White-footed sportive lemurs also use physical contact to establish bonds and encourage mutual grooming. Nose-touching and social grooming are a way of greeting others, most commonly between a mother and her offspring or habitat mates.
Like many other lemurs, white-footed sportives are polygynous, meaning males mate with more than one female. Depending on the size of the male, he could have one to five females in his territory.
Mothers give birth to one offspring a year after a 4.5-month gestation period. Breeding happens between May and July, and births happen between September and November. Young white-footed sportive lemurs are born with their big eyes open and the ability to cling to branches. After about a month, they are able to climb and jump.
Considering the biology of other related species, it’s assumed that mothers wean their young at around 4 months. They reach sexual maturity at 18 months, which is when a male will choose to leave his mother’s territory while females tend to stay in the same area. Fathers are not known to play a role in the care of their young.
These leaf-hungry prosimians play a crucial role in maintaining the health of their habitats. By eating a heavy diet of leaves, more sunlight is able to enter the canopy. As light reaches the forest floor, it helps new plants grow.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the white-footed sportive lemur as Endangered, appearing in the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN, 2018).
The number of mature individuals is decreasing due to habitat loss and degradation. Primarily, their main threats are annual burning practices to create new pastures for livestock as well as tree harvesting for charcoal production, timber, and planks.
Climate change is also affecting this species. Southern Madagascar’s spiny forest is known as one of the driest and most unpredictable climates in all of Africa, making white-footed sportive lemurs’ habitats especially vulnerable to climate change. It’s estimated that there will be an 88% decrease in the range of white-footed sportive lemurs from 2000 to 2080.
White-footed sportive lemurs (Lepilemur leucopus) 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.
Populations of white-footed sportive lemurs are found in new protected areas in Nord-Ifotaka, Ankodida, Behara-Tranomaro, and Vohidava-Betsimalaho, Madagascar. They are not kept in captivity because of the difficulties and short lifespans they face when adapting to new environments.
Written by Maria DiCesare, July 2022