Ring-tailed Lemur

11th June 2010

King Julien XIII, from the popular animated film Madagascar, is a ring-tailed lemur. In the real Madagascar however, females are dominant. The leader should have been a queen, not a king!

Physical Description: Ring-tailed lemurs are mostly reddish-grey in colour with white undersides and ears. They have black rings around their eyes and distinctive black and white ringed tails (for which they were named). Ring-tailed lemurs also have a black muzzle, much like a dog. Wild male and female ring-tailed lemurs do not differ in size. Body length is 42.5 cm on average. Their trademark tails are about 60 cm long! Ring-tailed lemurs tend to weigh between 2,207 – 2,213 g. One special physical feature of male ring-tailed lemurs is a scent gland called a horny spur which is found on the underside of each wrist. Ring-tailed lemurs also have a special set of lower teeth called a dental comb which is used for grooming.

Habitat: Ring-tailed lemurs are only found in south and southwest Madagascar in the Andohahela, Andringitra, Ankilitelo, Berenty, Beza Mahafaly, Isalo, Tsimanampetsotsa, Tsirave, and Zombitse forests. Ring-tailed lemurs live in deciduous forest, gallery forest, rainforest, spiny bush forest and subalpine forest. Ring-tailed lemurs spend more time on the ground than any other lemur. They are quadrupedal and have a unique way of holding their tails in a “question mark” shape as they walk. Ring-tailed lemurs travel approximately 1,000 m each day. Home ranges vary from 0.1 to 0.35 km2. Ring-tailed lemurs living in dry habitats tend to be more spread out than those living in wet habitats. Predators may include raptors, snakes, fossas and domestic cats, although it is not known how many ring-tailed lemurs are lost to predation.

Diet: Wild ring-tailed lemurs have a seasonal diet due to the different forest types that they inhabit as well as the changing rain patterns. Ring-tails are omnivores. They eat ripe fruit, leaves, flowers, exudates, insects, birds and even dirt! Ring-tailed lemurs rely on the tamarind tree in particular for both fruit and leaves. They get water from aloe plants, prickly pear cactuses and places where water collects naturally.

Life History: Gestation in ring-tailed lemurs is 135 – 145 days. Wild females tend to give birth to a single infant. Captive females may also have a single infant but are more likely than wild females to have twins or triplets. Births occur every 1.2 years on average and in a given year three-quarters of a group’s females will have an infant. Wild births are seasonal, with most infants born in September when food tends to be more plentiful. Infant mortality varies between 37 – 80% depending on environmental conditions. Infants are carried ventrally (on the mother’s stomach) when they are first born. After a few days when they are stronger, they will be carried dorsally (on the mother’s back). They are carried dorsally exclusively from 1 month of age onwards. Around this time male and female group members begin to care for the infant in addition to the mother. Infants begin to play with other infants when they are about 1.5 months old. Weaning begins around 2 months of age. By 4 months, the infant is spending 85% of its time exploring away from the mother and is barely nursing anymore. Lifespan in the wild is unknown, but estimated to be about 16 years. In captivity ring-tailed lemurs can live as much as 10 years longer.

Associations: None, although the ring-tailed lemur shares its range with aye-ayes (Daubentonia madagascariensis), brown lemurs (Eulemur fulvus), fat-tailed dwarf lemurs (Cheriorgaleus medius), greater dwarf lemurs (Cheirogaleus major), lesser bamboo lemurs (Hapalemur griseus), red-tailed sportive lemurs (Lemur ruficaudatus), ruffed lemurs (Varecia variegata variegata), Verreaux’s sifakas (Propithecus verreauxi), and white-footed sportive lemurs (Lemur leucopus).

Social Structure: Ring-tailed lemurs live in multi-male/multi-female groups that can range in size anywhere from 4 to 35 individuals. If the group becomes too large, it will split into two groups, with dominant individuals pushing subordinate ones out. Females are dominant over males in ring-tailed lemurs. Thus females remain in the group and males emigrate. There is usually one top female in the group. Daughters must compete for rank and do not simply inherit the rank of their mothers as in other primate species. There is a hierarchy in males as well which is based on age and competition. There may be one, two or three top males in the group. The remaining males exist in the group’s periphery. Males transfer into new groups when they are 3 – 5 years old. Transfers often occur during the mating season. Males may transfer many times across their lifespan, although they will transfer less as they become older and more established.

Territorial Marking: Both males and females scent mark. Females only have scent glands in the anogenital region whereas males have additional scent glands on their chests and wrists. Both sexes mark areas on the boundaries of their territory, especially in regions that overlap with other groups. Ring-tailed lemurs scent mark by standing on their hands and rubbing their genitals onto the object (e.g. tree or branch). Males have two very interesting scent marking behaviours. The first is called “spur marking” and involves the scent glands on their wrists. The male will use its sharp nail or “spur” to make a cut into the tree to deposit its scent. Spur marking increases during the mating season. The second behaviour is known as a “stink fight”. In a stink fight males take their tails and rub them against their chests and wrists. Once they are sufficiently stinky, they will brandish their tails against another male. This male may then counterattack with his own stinky tail or simply run off. These stink fights can last up to an hour!

Communication: Ring-tail lemur vocalisations have been extensively studied. There are 28 different vocalisations including 6 which are only used by infants. These include contact calls, predator response calls and calls which facilitate communication within the group. Examples of vocalisations include “meows” (given during excitement), “purrs” (given during grooming), “yips” (given by a subordinate animal to a dominant animal), and “yaps” (given when mammalian predators are mobbed by the group). These sounds seem as if they should belong to a cat or dog! Like cats and dogs, ring-tailed lemurs rely heavily on olfaction, or their sense of smell. Ring-tailed lemurs use olfactory cues to identify individuals as well as to denote their territory. Ring-tailed lemurs also use postures as visual cues to communicate. These include the “threat stare” (declares dominance; may start a fight), “pulled-back lips” (submissive facial expression), “jump-fighting” (jumping around another individual on hind legs with arms outstretched) and the classic “stink fight” (see section on territorial marking).

Mating: Ring-tailed lemurs become fully-grown around 3 years of age and begin mating between 2.5 to 4 years of age. Ring-tailed lemurs in captivity or very favourable environments may mature and begin mating earlier. Females are only sexually receptive for a day, maybe two, out of the entire year. This period of receptivity may last just 6 hours! All of the females in the group become sexually receptive relatively within the same time period. The breeding season may last anywhere from 7 to 21 days. Ring-tailed lemurs are not monogamous and may have several mates during the short breeding season. High-ranking males are the first to mate with females. Both males and females can try to initiate mating. Males will sniff the genitals of a female. This ends poorly if the female is not receptive, as she will become very aggressive. Aggression also occurs between males during the mating season over competition for females. Females solicit mating by approaching a male, then presenting their rumps and lifting their tails.

Other Behaviour: Ring-tailed lemurs enjoy the sun! Although they don’t “tan”, they like to spend some time “sunning”. Ring-tailed lemurs sit on their back legs and turn their arms out so that the undersides are exposed to the sun. The exact function of this behaviour is unknown but it may be involved in regulating body temperature. Ring-tailed lemurs often sit in the sun when temperatures are colder.

Conservation: Ring-tailed lemurs are classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN. This means that they are at high risk of extinction. The total number of wild ring-tailed lemurs is unknown but estimated to be 10,000 – 100,000. Madagascar is known as a conservation “hot spot” because of the high number of threatened species that can only be found on an island roughly half the size of South Africa and more than twice the size of the United Kingdom. Like many species in Madagascar, ring-tailed lemurs are severely threatened by habitat loss. They need some forest cover to survive. They do not do well in areas where the forest has grown back after a disturbance. Slash-and-burn agriculture and wood mining for fuel, construction, and industry are major contributors to forest loss. Ring-tailed lemurs are also hunted for food and kept as pets. Ring-tailed lemurs are protected to varying degrees in different reserves in Madagascar and also in forest patches considered to be sacred by local people. A research centre has been established at Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve, providing instruction and conservation education to local and international students as well as tourists.

Outside of Madagascar, ring-tailed lemurs do extremely well in captivity. There are approximately 2,000 ring-tailed lemurs in zoos and other breeding programs such as the Lemur Conservation Foundation (USA, http://www.lemurreserve.org) which could be used for future reintroduction programmes. A group of captive-bred ring-tailed lemurs was successfully introduced to St. Catherine’s Island (USA) but ring-tailed lemurs have not been reintroduced to Madagascar as of yet.

Did You Know? All of the ring-tailed lemurs in a group (males and females) help care for infants. The group will even adopt and raise orphans! Occasionally this goodwill goes too far and a female “kidnaps” an infant and will not return it to its mother.

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