One of the first species spotted by visitors to Safari West is our ring-tailed lemurs. Just west of the front office several of them leap, scamper, and sunbathe on their island home. The island is a fitting place for a ring-tail to live since all the wild lemurs in the world live on Madagascar, the fourth largest island on the planet.
In case you’ve never seen a ring-tailed lemur, imagine a fox-faced monkey with a long and thin, black-and-gray banded tail. Alternatively, you might imagine a very slender raccoon. They are relatively small, normally no more than 5-7 pounds in weight and behave much in the same way we think of monkeys or squirrels behaving. In the wilds of Madagascar, they are typically found in groups of five to maybe thirty individuals capering about on the ground or leaping through the trees. They are quick, agile, and able to disappear into the forest with relative ease. Though they have large, bulbous eyes, they are actually among the most scent-dependent of the lemurs and in fact sport specialized scent glands on their wrists and chests.
These scent glands come into play in disputes and ring-tails are famous for stink-fights in which the males will rub their scent glands along their long tails and then aggressively waft their personalized stinks at one another. The scent glands are also useful for marking territory although, oddly, ring-tails aren’t known to be all that territorial. While they do maintain home ranges, there is a large degree of overlap between lemur troops. It should be noted that the females are typically more territorial than the males; not surprising considering that these primates are fundamentally matriarchal.
Ring-tailed lemurs are the most famous but hardly the only species of lemur to be found in Madagascar. In fact, currently, there are roughly 100 or so lemur species scattered across the island. Though endemic to Madagascar and found nowhere else in the world, lemurs are a type of primate just like monkeys, tarsiers, apes, and of course, us. They’re known as “prosimians” and word which translates as “before apes” and are typically described as a more ancient order of primate. Don’t be confused into thinking that chimpanzees and humans evolved from lemurs, however, they’re more like our very distant cousins.
Madagascar has long been isolated from the rest of Africa, and indeed from anywhere else in the world. The current theory postulates that the earliest proto-lemur likely floated the several hundred miles from mainland Africa to Madagascar some 40-65 million years ago (the 25-million year margin of error is the result of competing theories and the difficulties of placing much of anything that far in the past). On the mainland, these proto-lemurs had to share the world and its resources with ancestral monkeys and apes. These simian competitors were apparently far more adaptable than the proto-lemurs and eventually drove (or at least helped to drive) them to extinction. The expatriate proto-lemurs that managed to establish themselves on far off Madagascar on the other hand, found themselves on an unexploited island ecosystem entirely free of their simian cousins. Settling in, this proto-lemur population thrived and grew. Had humans been present on Madagascar in this long-ago time, we may have considered the little creatures an invasive species. Over time the proto-lemurs began to radiate from their initial niche. They specialized, evolved, and eventually diversified into the many lemur species capering about the island today.
Part of the reason why the ring-tailed lemur is the most famous of the lemur species has to do with their social lives. No other lemur is found in groups rivaling the sizes of those among the ring-tails. This has resulted in highly structured social behaviors including complex vocalizations, dominance hierarchies, and communal grooming behaviors (they have a really cool “tooth-comb” used for grooming each other. Basically their four bottom incisors point forward and are uniformly spaced, like, well, a comb. Look it up, it’s pretty neat).
Another potential reason why we are so much more familiar with the ring-tails than any of their cousins may have to do with their role as ecological generalists. Unlike some of their more specialized relatives (The five species of bamboo lemur who like giant pandas, survive almost exclusively on a diet of nutrition-poor and cyanide-rich bamboo), ring-tails aren’t picky about what they eat. They are largely herbivorous, feasting on leaves, fruit, and other plant parts. That said, they are also known to snap up all manner of insects, lizards, and bird eggs. Using their nimble little hands they will snatch up spiders and aren’t above eating spiderwebs or even dirt when the impulse strikes.
Alongside their generalized diet, they also tend not to be too picky about where they live. The ring-tailed lemur can be found in gallery forests much like the rainforests you might find in other parts of Africa, however, they are also commonly found in the spiny forests of southern Madagascar. If you’ve never heard of a “spiny forest” basically imagine a cactus garden complete with 10-15 foot tall spiny trees called Alluaudias, Euphorbias, and giant baobob trees (big, barrel-shaped trees made famous in movies like The Lion King). Ring-tailed lemurs are as comfortable in ecosystems resembling the Congo as they are in desert-like regions of spiny forest and in fact, will move regularly between the two.
Madagascar today is a biosphere like no other and one in deep crisis. Thanks in large part to its isolation, the nation of Madagascar is among the poorest nations on Earth and the people who live there have few options when it comes to survival. Virtually every lemur species known is endangered to some degree and indeed, in 2014 the ring-tail was upgraded from near threatened to endangered; a bad sign indeed. The primary factors contributing to these plummeting populations are habitat loss and hunting.
Lemur habitat is disappearing in several ways, most of which are related to land conversion for human use. Fire is often utilized to clear ground for agriculture or to produce charcoal; both critical components of life in Madagascar. Likewise, mineral extraction is a growth industry and it’s virtually impossible to extract titanium or cobalt from the ground with the forest growing atop it. Among the people of Madagascar, known as the Malagasy, not only is slash-and-burn agriculture both common and necessary, subsistence hunting is as well. Lemurs are among the larger prey animals to be found on Madagascar and make for an excellent source of protein.
A typical stance to take among the conservation-minded is to establish protections for endangered species and their environments, but in the case of lemurs, the situation is complicated by the needs of the humans involved. In America and other industrialized nations, national parks can protect vulnerable ecosystems with only moderate costs to the surrounding human populations. That is certainly not the case in Madagascar. Learning how to work with local people to provide practical solutions to environmental problems will be key to the future not just of the ring-tailed lemur but to all the unique lemur species found on that island.
Since humans first arrived on Madagascar some 2,300 or so years ago, the forest has diminished by 80-90%. Some experts claim that the entire island will be deforested by the end of the next decade. These are grim predictions, but a great deal of work is being done to push back against this decline much of it sponsored by places like Safari West, organizations like the Lemur Conservation Foundation, and millions of caring supporters like you. Come to Safari West and meet the ring-tailed lemurs. Our four ambassadors of a fragile species are fascinating to watch, whether they’re posing like tiny Buddhas in the morning sun, calling from the tops of their island trees, or waving their long tails playfully at us and one another. One visit will make you a fan, and a strong network of supporters is what these animals truly need.