Lemurs: Lemuridae

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LEMURS: Lemuridae



Lemur males and females are about the same size. Lemurs weigh 4.4 to 10 pounds (2 to 4.5 kilograms), depending on species, with the mongoose lemur being the smallest. Adult head and body length is 11 to 22 inches (28 to 56 centimeters). Thickly furred lemur tails are from 11 to 22.5 inches (28 to 65 centimeters) long.

For jumping ease, lemurs have strong hind or back limbs which are longer than their forelimbs, or front legs. For better branch hold, thumbs and big toes are set at an angle to the other digits, or fingers and small toes. The palms of the hands and soles of the feet are deeply ridged, or creased, adding to strong branch grip. A clawlike grooming nail is present on the second toe of each hind foot. It is used to clean their fur.

Lemurs have foxlike heads with long muzzles, or nose areas. Large, round, owl-like eyes can be bright red, orange, yellow, or blue. Ears are medium size. Special comb-shaped front teeth are used for grooming in addition to the grooming nail. Lemurs lick their noses to keep them clean and damp. This helps with odor sensing.

Lemurs can be brown, gray, black, and reddish, often with mixed colors. For example, the ruffed lemur is black and white, and the red ruffed lemur is flame-red with a black face and a white neck patch. Lemur fur is thick and soft. Males and females may look alike, or quite different, depending on the species.


Lemurs are found in Madagascar and the Comoros Islands.


Lemurs live in tropical forests, or warm damp forested areas, plus subtropical areas located near tropical areas. These include dry scrub, dry tropical deciduous forests where leaves fall off during winter months, and occasionally grassy areas.


Lemurs eat plant foods, including flowers, plant juices, fruits, leaves, seeds, and seedpods. Occasionally some feed on insects, small vertebrates such as lizards, and bird's eggs. Bamboo lemurs prefer young bamboo shoots and leaves.


All lemurs are arboreal, living in trees. Some species also spend time on the ground. When in trees, lemurs walk and run on all fours. They also leap between trees. Their tail helps in balancing and steering during these leaps.

Lemurs are social, living in groups of two to twenty members, depending on species. Large groups break up into smaller groups to look for food, then rejoin at night. Within each group, lemurs groom each other. This is a very important lemur activity, reinforcing group bonding.

Most lemurs search for food during the day, although some species, like the mongoose lemur, may feed in the day or evening. They are territorial, each group claiming a certain feeding area. When groups meet at territory boundaries, or edges, they get quite upset. Alarm calls and branch shaking are used to get another group to move away. Besides different alarm calls, there are sounds for greeting, meeting other lemurs, and threat calls.


When ringtailed lemur mating occurs in April, males begin fighting over females. These fights involve lots of loud noises, and "stink fights." The wrists of male ringtailed lemur have scent or stink glands. Males pull their long tail between their wrists, picking up the smell. Males then stand face-to-face, shaking their stinky tail in the direction of their enemy. As yet, no one is sure how a winner is declared.

Females often supervise lemur groups. A dominant, or stronger, female in each group leads males and other females in searching for food and shelter. Females have first food choices, with males waiting their turn. Females also choose their mating partners. Females are ready to have young at two to three years old.

After mating, females are pregnant about four months. They usually give birth when the monsoon, or rainy season, starts. There are usually one or two infants each birth, although the ruffed lemur may have up to six infants.

At first, a newborn lemur rides under its mother's body, clinging onto her fur. At a month old, it begins riding on its mother's back. Shortly after, the young lemur starts wandering on its own. It is weaned, or taken off breastmilk, by five months.


People hunt and trap lemurs for food. Some lemurs are kept as pets. Others are shipped overseas for the illegal pet trade. Sometimes lemurs are killed if they're blamed for feeding on food crops. However, ecotourism (travelers coming from abroad to see local wildlife) is helping lemurs to survive. Ecotourism brings in a lot of money, so it is hoped that local people will benefit and aid world efforts to keep lemurs from becoming extinct, dying out.


Madagascar is the only place where lemurs are found. Animal grazing, farming, tree cutting for fuel and brush fires decrease habitat, or living areas. Since only 10 to 15 percent of Madagascar's forests remain, all lemur species are threatened or could become threatened. Two species are Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild; one species is Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction; and five species are Vulnerable, facing high risk of extinction.


Physical characteristics: Ringtailed lemurs are about the size of a cat. Males and females look alike. Adult weight is 6.5 to 7.75 pounds (3 to 3.5 kilograms). Head and body length is 15 to 18 inches long (39 to 46 centimeters). These lemurs are gray with white undersides. Black eye-rings in a white fox-like face surround bright orange eyes. They have a very long, black-and-white ringed tail, which is held straight up in the air as they walk.

Ringtailed lemurs have scent glands on their inner wrists and armpits. These glands give off a stinky substance, or liquid. Ringtailed lemurs use this to mark their feeding areas.

Geographic range: Ringtailed lemurs are found in Madagascar.

Habitat: Ringtailed lemurs live in dry brush forests and dense forests near riversides. There is a separate ringtailed lemur population living on rocky areas and cliffs within in a national Madagascar park.

Diet: Ringtailed lemurs eat flowers, leaves, some tree sap, and fruit. Tamarind tree seedpods are a favorite food.

Behavior and reproduction: Ringtailed lemurs live in groups of fifteen to twenty-five members. There are males and females in each group. The strongest female leads each group. Female ringtailed lemurs have first food choice, and may slap males on the nose and take food from them.

Ringtailed lemurs are diurnal, searching for food during the day. They spend half their food-seeking time on the ground, walking on all four limbs. Powerful hind legs permit easy leaps into nearby trees.

When ringtailed lemurs meet, they tap noses. At night, groups go to sleep under big trees. Before falling asleep, there is often a shrill group whoop-like call. Group members huddle together for warmth, sometimes making a purring sound. In the morning, before food searching, ringtailed lemurs sit upright on the ground. The sunlight warms them up. Ringtailed lemurs also like to sunbathe during the day.

Mating occurs in April. The female gives birth to one or two young. At first they are carried everywhere by the mother. By three months old, while still carried about, they are playing with other young ringtailed lemurs. Youngsters are weaned, or stop nursing, by six months old. Females in ringtailed lemur groups often have "aunt behavior." They help take care of infants and watch over the young when they play.

Ringtailed lemurs and people: Ringtailed lemurs are hunted for food and sold in the illegal pet trade. However, they are increasingly important in ecotourism.

Conservation status: The ringtailed lemur is considered Vulnerable due to hunting, fires, and tree removal for farm land, all of which destroy lemur habitat. ∎


Physical characteristics: The crowned lemur has a contrasting color, or "crown," on the top of its head. Males have brownish fur with orange fur encircling a whitish face. Their crown is a black fur patch between the ears. Females have short, gray-brown body hair with a red-orange patch on their crown. Both males and females have round orange eyes.

Adult crowned lemurs weigh 4.5 pounds (2 kilograms). Head plus body length is 13.4 inches (34 centimeters) long, with a 17.7-inch (45-centimeter) tail. They have scent glands on various parts of their body.

Geographic range: Crowned lemurs are found in Madagascar.

Habitat: Crowned lemurs live in dry to moist forests.

Diet: Crowned lemurs prefer fruit, but also eat flowers, flower pollen, and leaves.

Behavior and reproduction: Crowned lemurs live in groups of about six members. Within a group, communication is by various vocalizations, or sounds, as well as bonding through mutual grooming, or fur cleaning. Crowned lemurs are mainly diurnal, feeding in the daytime, with an afternoon rest. However they may feed for a few hours at night. They search for food at all tree levels, as well as on the ground.

Crowned lemur males and females live together in social sleeping groups. Females are in charge, with the strongest one leading the entire group. Mating takes place at twenty months old. One to two offspring are born each time.

Crowned lemurs and people: Poachers, or illegal hunters, kill crowned lemurs for food, and local people may kill them if lemurs take food from their farms.

Conservation status: Crowned lemurs are considered Vulnerable due to poaching, brush fires, farming, and logging. ∎



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Powzyk, Joyce A. In Search of Lemurs. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 1998.

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Banks, Joan. "Living On the Edge Lemurs: On the Verge of Extinction, Do Lemurs Have a Fighting Chance?" National Geographic World (January– February 2002): 12–17.

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Web sites:

Animal Facts. "Ring-tailed Lemur." http://www.chaffeezoo.org/animals/ringTailedLemur.html (accessed on July 5, 2004).

The Lemur Database. "Crowned Lemur." http://www.stormloader.com/lemur/crowned.html (accessed on July 5, 2004).

The Lemur Database. "Ring-Tailed Lemur." http://www.stormloader.com/lemur/ringtailed.html (accessed on July 5, 2004).

Lemurs. "Lemur catta." http://bibliofile.mc.duke.edu/gww/Berenty/Mammals/Lemur-catta/index.html (accessed on July 6, 2004).