Ring-tailed Lemur

The ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) is a large prosimian, a lemur belonging to the family Lemuridae. The ring-tailed lemur is the only species within the monotypic genus Lemur. It is found only on the island of Madagascar.

Although threatened by habitat destruction and therefore listed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, the Ring-tailed Lemur is the most populous lemur in zoos worldwide. They reproduce readily in captivity.

Physical description

Mostly grey with white underneath, the ring-tailed lemur has a slender frame. Their narrow face is white with black lozenge-shaped patches around the eyes. It has a black vulpine muzzle. The lemur’s trademark is the long, bushy tail. It is ringed in black and white. Like all lemurs, the ring-tailed lemur has hind limbs longer than their forelimbs. The palms and soles are padded with soft, leathery skin. Their fingers are slender and dexterous with flat, sharp nails. The ring-tailed lemur has claws on the second toe of the hind limb specialized for grooming purposes.

The very young animals have blue eyes. The eyes of adults are all a striking yellow. Adults may reach a body length of (18 inches) 46 cm and a weight of (12 pounds) 5.5 kilograms. Their tails are longer than their bodies, at up to 22 inches (56 cm) long.

Habitat and diet

It is found in the southwest of Madagascar and ranging further into highland areas than any other lemur. The ring-tailed lemur inhabits deciduous forests with grass floors, or forests along riverbanks. Some may also inhabit dry, open brush where few trees grow. The ring-tailed lemur is thought to require forest that have been undisturbed by humans, in order to survive. These forests are now being cleared at a troubling rate.

While primarily fruit-eating, the Ring-tailed Lemur will also eat leaves, seeds, and the odd insect.

Behavior and reproduction

The ring-tailed lemur sleeps at night. It inhabits both the ground and the trees, and forms troops of up to 25 individuals. Social hierarchies are determined by sex. Females have a distinct hierarchy but males have a non-linear hierarchy with occasional to frequent rank reversals. The females socially dominate male in all circumstances, including feeding priority. Males tend to be marginalized from group activity, and will alternate between troops approximately every 3.5 years. Ring-tailed Lemur troops claim sizable territories, which may overlap with those of other troops. Up to 3.5 miles (5.6 km) of this territory may be covered in a single day’s foraging. Despite being a good tree dweller, they spend more time on the ground than any other living lemur.

Both vocal and olfactory signals are important to the Ring-tailed Lemur’s communication. They have fifteen distinct vocalizations that are used to maintain group cohesion during foraging. They alert group members to the presence of a predator. Male and female lemurs scent mark with their genital regions. Males engage in a social display behavior called “stink fighting,” which involves impregnating their tails with secretions from the ante brachial and brachial glands. Then they wave the scented tail at male rivals. Males will also occasionally wave their scented tails at females as a form of sexual overture. This usually results in the female cuffing or biting the male, and elicits subordinate vocalizations from the would-be paramour.

The breeding season runs from April to June. The female is in menstrual cycle for approximately 24-48 hours. Gestation lasts for about 146 days, resulting in a birth of either one or two offspring. The young lemurs begin to eat solid food after two months and are fully weaned after five months. Males reach sexual maturity at 2.5 years and females at just 19.5 months.

When threatened, the Ring-tailed Lemur has been known to strike out with its short nails in a behavior termed ‘jump fighting’. This action is extremely rare outside of the breeding season when tensions are high and competition for access to mates is intense. Only one attack on a human by a Ring-tailed Lemur has ever been documented in America.