Geographic Distribution and Habitat
The white-headed lemur, also known as the white-headed brown lemur, white-fronted brown lemur, or white-fronted lemur, is found throughout most of the remaining rainforest in northeastern Madagascar, from the Bemarivo River to the Masoala Peninsula. They were introduced to Nosy Mangabe Reserve and another isolated population occurs in the Betampona Nature Reserve. It is also possible that white-headed lemurs inhabit areas even further south, but it is difficult to confirm this because of the significant amount of hybridization with brown lemurs (Eulemur fulvus) that occurs further from their known range.
White-headed lemurs occupy tropical moist lowland and montane rainforests, which are recognized as particularly important centers of diversity within an already incredibly diverse island. The elevation of the moist forests within their range can span from sea level to around 2,624 ft (800 m), with a typical forest canopy height of 65–82 ft (20–25 m).
White-headed lemurs were previously considered a subspecies of brown lemurs, but they were elevated to a distinct species level in 2001. Because of this, information specific to the white-headed lemur is a bit sparse, but much can be assumed about their behaviors and lifestyle by reading about common brown lemurs.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
White-headed lemurs weigh around 5.7 lbs (2.6 kg) and have a body length of 15.7 in (40 cm), with a tail length greater than 19.6 in (50 cm).
It is likely that the lifespan of the white-headed lemur is between 20 and 25 years of age in the wild.
White-headed lemurs are medium-sized primates with a thick brownish-gray pelage covering their entire body, with the exception of their white head (any guesses on where their name comes from?). Their round, orange eyes are spaced widely apart and they have a protruding snout. Their long, furry tails assist them with maintaining their balance.
These lemurs are sexually dimorphic, with the biggest difference being the coloration between males and females—males have more gray pelage and a white head while females have more reddish-brown pelage with darker feet and a grayish head. Due to their coloration, males are much easier to distinguish as white-headed lemurs, while females can be difficult to distinguish from other similar species.
The white-headed lemur is an omnivorous frugivore. In addition to fruit (which comprises 69% of their diet), they also consume mature leaves, flowers, bark, sap, soil, insects, centipedes, and millipedes.
Females reportedly feed more heavily on flowers than males do during the dry season due to the abundance of resources; they are also more likely to give birth during this time.
Behavior and Lifestyle
White-headed lemurs are arboreal and they move quadrupedally throughout the forest canopy, so it is unlikely they descend on the ground very often, though they can be spotted leaping frequently whenever they do come down to earth. They are cathermeral, meaning they are active at varying times throughout the day and night; when they are active, they are very social primates, so they spend a great deal of time together in the treetops. As mentioned, white-headed lemurs leap often while they travel—either arboreally or terrestrially—so they are nicely equipped with long tails to assist with balance.
Daily Life and Group Dynamics
White-headed lemurs lives in multi-male, multi-female groups that can range in size from 3 to 12 individuals—the largest groups are more common within primary forest. Unlike most other members of this genus, female white-headed lemurs are not usually dominant to males.
The home range of a white-headed lemur is around 17–50 acres (7–20 ha).
As a form of tactile communication, white-headed lemurs establish and maintain social bonds through grooming, which is made easier by the presence of a tooth comb comprised of their six lower procumbent teeth.
White-headed lemurs also utilize olfactory and vocal communication, with scent glands that transmit physical state, location, and individual recognition, and multiple different vocalizations, respectively.
Vocalizations include an “ohn” call, which is used to maintain group cohesion, a “cree” high-pitched call used to announce territorial boundaries, and “crou,” an alarm call.
What Does It Mean?
Specific calls that individuals in a troop make to warn other members of their group of imminent danger, such as predators.
Physically adapted to living primarily or exclusively in trees.
The level of variation of life in an ecosystem, a biome, or the entire planet. Biodiversity is a measure of the health and function of an ecosystem.
Irregularly active during night or day, dawn or dusk, depending on environmental circumstances.
The permanent cutting, clearing, and removal of trees to convert forest land for other use, such as pasture, cropland, or plantations.
An animal who feeds on fruits.
Genus (plural, genera):
A biological classification, or ranking, of living beings that includes a group(s) of species that are structurally similar or “related” to one another through evolution.
The act or process of mating organisms of different varieties or species to create a hybrid.
Having only one sexual partner.
Multi-male multi-female group/unit (MMU):
A social group consisting of multiple adult males and multiple adult females
Having a diet that consists of food of both plant and animal origin.
The fur, hair, or wool of a mammal.
A mating system in which one male mates and lives with multiple females.
Using four limbs to move about. This word comes from the Latin meaning “four feet.”
When males and females have different characteristics (size, color, etc.) other than their reproductive organs.
The incisors on the lower front jaw of some animals are grouped as if to form a comb. The tooth-comb is used by these animals to groom and clean their fur or hair.
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Reproduction and Family
Unfortunately, there is not very much known about the mating habits of white-headed lemurs, but we can glean from what we know of other species in the Eulemur genus that they are likely monogamous or polygynous and that they likely reach sexual maturity between one and two years of age.
Their breeding season occurs in June and each female is only sexually receptive for a 24-hour period during that time. Females will give birth about three months later (September–October) to a single infant. That infant will firmly grasp onto its mother’s belly at all times, with the exception of nursing, for its first three weeks of life. After that time period, the infant will shift to being carried on her mother’s back, and then start to consume solid food. Nursing will continue, but with less importance and urgency. At 4 to 6 months, the infant is weaned.
Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and has been isolated for 150 to 180 million years from other land masses, which is why it has such a large amount of unique endemic species, like lemurs.
White-headed lemurs act as seed dispersers throughout the rainforest and they act as predators for certain populations of insects.
Conservation Status and Threats
White-headed lemurs are listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN, 2018). Their population is suspected to have declined by over 30 percent over a period of 24 years (three generations), due mostly to unsustainable hunting pressure and habitat decline. According to one study, it is estimated that there will be a 7.9% reduction in the white-headed lemur range from 2000 to 2080 solely due to climate change. White-headed lemurs are also negatively affected by habitat fragmentation and the hybridization with brown lemurs.
White-headed lemurs are the most heavily hunted of all lemur species—at least in the areas where hunting has been studied—and they are illegally sought after across their entire range, largely due to low food security in the region. During the winter, white-headed lemurs are trapped by snares when they visit fruiting trees, although they are also shot down closer to urban areas. The habitat fragmentation and deforestation within their range is primarily due to subsistence agriculture, quartz mining, and selective logging.
White-headed lemurs are also occasionally kept as pets in households and hotels throughout Madagascar.
White-headed lemurs are listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that trade in their species is permitted only in very exceptional circumstances. This lemur also inhabits protected areas like Mananara-Nord National Park, Marojejy National Park, Masoala National Park, Betampona Strict Nature Reserve, Anjanaharibe-Sub Special Reserves, and Nosy Mangabe Special Reserve. Even with these protections, the white-headed lemur desperately needs better hunting regulation and control within its range. In order to make a true effort to conserve white-headed lemurs—and all of Madagascar’s lemurs—there must be an effort to enhance protection of their habitat.
There are about 200 individuals in captivity at more than 40 zoos worldwide, and white-headed lemurs breed in captivity, which gives this species both visibility and a chance to thrive outside of their wild environment.
Written by Rachel Heim, January 2021