Indri, Indri indri

The indri (Indri indri) is also commonly known as the babakoto. It is related to the sifakas, and as with all lemurs, is native to the island of Madagascar. The range of this lemur begins along the eastern shores of Madagascar, from the Réserve Spéciale d’Anjanaharibe-Sud south to the Mangoro River. However, its range does not extend through the Marojejy National Park or the Masoala Peninsula, although these areas do connect to forests where indris reside 24 miles away.

It is thought that the most likely origin for the indri’s name is from the Malagasy term endrina, which means “animal”. Another story suggests that the name comes from the Malagasy term indry, which translates to either “there” or “there it is”. This story says that a French naturalist who described the indri, Pierre Sonnerat, took the term indry to be its name when a Malagasy native pointed at the creature, but this story is thought to be incorrect. The Malagasy word for indri, babakoto, commonly translates to “father” or “ancestor”, but many translations are probable. In many Malagasy myths, the image of a father and son appear, so when the term baba translates to “father” and koto to “son”, it is a fitting name.

The indri is one of the largest lemurs in existence, second to the diademed sifaka. Its average body length can be up to 2.36 feet, and when its legs are extending, it can reach a length of up to 3.9 feet. Typically, indris will weigh between 13 to 21 pounds. The fur is black, with white spots appearing on the neck, limbs, lower back, and crown. The ears are large and fuzzy, and the face is dark. Its lean, muscular legs are used to lift it up trees, as it climbs vertically. The tail is the least developed of all lemurs.

Coloring can vary between species, from nearly all black in northern individuals to a pale color in southern individuals. Because of this, a scientist named Colin Groves classified the darker Indri indri indri and the more pale Indri indri variegatus as subspecies of the indri. Some do not recognize this classification, and recent studies suggest that the color variations are simply differences within individual groups and locations.

The indri prefers to live in small groups, consisting of a male and female monogamous pair and their growing young. The mates will not seek other mates, unless one of them dies. In some cases, where their habitat is fragmented, the indri will live in groups of multiple generations. This occurs because it is difficult for the indri to leave the group from an isolated area. Typically, a group of indris will move between .18 miles and .43 miles a day, searching for food to eat. The longest movements occur during midsummer.

The group usually separates at night, sleeping either alone or in pairs. They rest in trees at a height of up to 98 feet, and during this time of rest, young females or adult females can be seen play fighting. Members from one group will all defecate at the same time, in a chosen area within the group’s territory.

Indris reach the age of sexual maturation quite slowly compared to other creatures, and can mate at seven to nine years of age. After a pregnancy that lasts up to 150 days, one baby is typically born during the months of May to June. It is usually dark or all black in color, and will not show white spots until around four months of age. Although the parents are monogamous, the mother is the chief caregiver. The baby clings to mother’s belly until the age of four to five months, where it then moves to the mother’s back. At eight months of age, a young indri begins to show signs of independence, but it is not ready to leave until the age of two years.

The indri is known to make distinctive calls or songs, lasting between 45 seconds to three minutes. Sometimes these vocalizations vary from group to group, but they usually adhere to a three-part pattern. The song begins with a roar like sound, of which all the members of the group take part, except the younger indris. The adult pair will then emit a longer note sequence that can last up to five seconds. The third part of the song consists of the pair often coordinating their calls, using a high-pitched wail that deepens in pitch as it continues. This call can reach as far as 2.4 miles away, once the indris have moved into the tops of the trees.

Using these songs, groups will often communicate with one another. It is though that the vocalizations include information about reproductive capabilities, warnings, territories, and habitat conditions. Often times, indri will sing after a loud commotion such as the passing of a plane, thunder, or other lemur calls. The indris can sing up to seven times a day, and will do so at least once every day, and this occurrence increases during the breeding season between the months of December and March. Typically, the singing occurs between seven to eleven in the morning.

Indris will emit many other common vocalizations, depending on the situation. The “roar” that begins singing sessions is sometimes used as a defensive warning to let others know that an aerial predator, such as a hawk, is near. A honking or hooting noise can be heard when a land moving predator is near. Vocalizations like the “kiss”, hum, wheeze, and grunt do not have an understood purpose.

The diet of the indri consists mainly of young leaves, but it can also contain fruit, flowers, and seeds. Female indris prefer young leaves more than males do, and will spend more time searching through vegetation for them. They eat using both their hands, pulling the branches closer to their mouths, and using their teeth to rip the leaves off. Laurel tree material makes up the majority of the diet, and indri will rarely eat non-tree materials.

Among the people of Madagascar, there are many myths that help to protect the indri from human actions. The legends create a reverence of the lemur. In one myth, a young boy went out to collect honey. He climbed into a tree, and as he was collecting the honey, bees stung him and he fell. It is said that an indri caught him and brought him to safety. This legend is not typical to most of the myths that suggest a closer bond between the indri and a human.

One legend states that two brothers lived in the forest. One of the brothers decided to leave the forest and cultivate the land. This brother became the first human, while the brother who remained became the first indri, and the indri mourned the loss of his brother. The term babakoto is also an image of mourning in some legends, as the call of the indri sounds like a father calling for his son.

In another myth, there is a strong father son dynamic. A father goes into the forest to hunt, and when he does not return his son goes out looking for him. When the son did not return, the remaining villagers went into the forest looking for them, but found only two indris perched in the trees. It is said that the father and son duo transformed into indri, although in some regions only the son changes into an indri and the waling calls of the indri represent the father’s loss.

In these legends, there is almost always a direct correlation between the indris and humans. It is not surprising, since the indris have long legs, an upright position when climbing trees, many vocalizations, and a social structure resembling primitive human’s qualities. The indri, like the sifaka, has been known to partake in sunbathing as well. Some call this behavior sun-worshipping and many Malagasy people believe that the indri is actually worshipping the sun. The indri will sit facing the sun as it rises, sitting on its knees with its legs crossed, arms down, and palms out. It will gaze at the sun with eyes half closed. Scientists do not prefer to recognize this as sun worshipping as that is strictly a human trait.

Despite its protected reverence among the Malagasy people, the IUCN has given the indri a conservation status of “Endangered”. There small numbers occurred due to habitat loss by human actions that occur even in protected areas, and hunting.  It is thought that migration and cultural depreciation is the cause of the taboos and myths losing their protective value. In some areas, indri meat is a delicacy. Some people may only adhere to part of the taboo, only consuming the meat or merely selling the fur of the indri. Unfortunately, conservation efforts to keep indri in captivity to help restore them have not been successful, and only one indri has lived in captivity for over year. Breeding has not occurred among captive indris.

Image Caption: Indri (Indri indri) in Madagascar. Credit: Erik Patel/Wikipedia(CC BY-SA 3.0)