The ring-tailed lemur is a small, achromatic primate endemic to the island of Madagascar of the continent of Africa. Named for its long, thick tail with several distinctive black and white rings running along it from base to tip, this lemur is the only species of lemur that possess such a striped tail. These recognizable tails are used in communication, as well as other vocal and olfactory communications. The ring-tailed lemur is a highly social species and gathers in groups, called troops, that include 15-30 individuals. Within each troop rules a complex social hierarchy in which all female lemurs rank higher than their male counterparts.
The conspicuous characteristic for which ring-tailed lemurs are known and named after is their long, thick tail that has alternating well-defined bands of black and white rings from stem to tip. These tails range in length from 56-63 centimeters, but average 60 centimeters, or 23.6 inches. The ring-tailed lemur is the only species of lemur to possess a striped tail.
A ring-tailed lemur’s body is covered in a thick, dense fur and is a solid color ranging from a light reddish gray to dark red-brown with light gray to dark brown rumps and light gray to gray-brown limbs. They have a lighter colored underbelly, hands, and feet ranging from light gray or brown to white. Typically, individuals have a white face mask, with dark brown or black triangular patches outlining the eyes and nose. They have light brown eyes and black muzzles. Their ears are white and angular, similar to a cat’s (Felis catus).
Male and female ring-tailed lemurs average the same size in the wild, but males have darkly colored scent glands on the inside of their wrists with a spur-like fingernail, usually referred to as a horny spur, overlay on each. Males also have scent glands on their chests, just above the collarbone and close to the armpit. Both male and female ring-tailed lemurs have anogenital scent glands.
Ring-tailed lemurs have a body length ranging from 39 to 46 centimeters from head to rump and averaging 42.5 centimeters, or 1.39 feet. They have an average body weight of 2.2 kilograms, ranging between 2,207 and 2,213 grams (4.85-4.89 pounds). In captivity, ring-tailed lemurs weigh slightly more than their wild counterparts with males weighing, on average, 2,705 grams, or 5.96 pounds and females averaging 2,678 grams, or 5.90 pounds.
Ring-tailed lemurs have four thin fingers and a thumb on their upper and lower appendages, each ending in a dark colored nail. The thumbs on the upper appendages are not opposable as the joint is fixed. The first toe on the lower appendage is opposable and is used while climbing trees in the mid- and upper-level canopies.
Ring-tailed lemurs share unique dental characteristics with other members of the Superfamily Lemuroidea. They have specialized teeth in their lower jaw that form a dental comb. These long, narrow teeth project nearly straight forward from the jaw and this specialized dentition is thought to aid in grooming.
Ring-tailed lemurs typically live to be 16 years old and females typically live longer than males. The oldest known ring-tailed lemur was a female that lived to 33 years old in captivity. The oldest known wild ring-tailed lemur was a female that lived to between 18 and 20 years old. Because of the complex social hierarchy of the ring-tailed lemur, female lifespan is more well-known than males. Males have been recorded living to at least 15 years of age in the wild and 27 years in captivity. Limits to lifespan in the wild include habitat loss and limited resources.
SEXUAL DIMORPHISMMales with Wrist & Chest Scent Glands & Horny Spurs
BODY LENGTH39-46 cm. / 15-18 in.
TAIL LENGTH56-63 cm. / 22-25 in.
BODY MASS2.2-2.21 kg. / 4.85-4.89 lb.
DENTAL FORMULAI #, C #, P #, M #, ×# = ## ⁰⁄0 ¹⁄1 ²⁄2 ³⁄3 ⁴⁄₄ ⁵⁄5
GENERATION LENGTH12 yr.
The ring-tailed lemur belongs to Lemuridae, one of five lemur families, and is the only member of the Lemur genus.
Carl linnaeus first used the genus name Lemur to describe Lemur tardigradus, the red slender loris, now known as Loris tardigradus, in his 1754 catalog of the Museum of King Adolf Frederick. In 1758, his 10th edition of Systema Naturae listed the genus Lemur with three included species, only one of which is still considered to be a lemur while another is no longer considered to be a primate. These species include: Lemur tardigradus, Lemur catta (the ring-tailed lemur), and Lemur volans (the Philippine flying lemur, now known as Cynocephalus volans). In 1911, Oldfield Thomas made Lemur catta the type species for the genus, despite the term initially being used to describe lorises. On January 10, 1929, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) formalized this decision in its publication of Opinion 122.
The ring-tailed lemur shares many similarities with ruffed lemurs (genus Varecia) and true lemurs (genus Eulemur), and its skeleton is nearly indistinguishable from that of the true lemurs. Consequently, the three genera were once grouped together in the genus Lemur and more recently are sometimes referred to as subfamily Lemurinae (within family Lemuridae). However, ruffed lemurs were reassigned to the genus Varecia in 1962, and due to similarities between the ring-tailed lemur and the bamboo lemurs, particularly in regards to molecular evidence and scent glands similarities, the true lemurs were moved to the genus Eulemur by Yves Rumpler, Elwyn L. Simons, Colin Groves, and Robert H. Eaglen in 1988. In 1991, Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey H. Schwartz reviewed the evidence and came to a different conclusion, instead favoring to return the members of Eulemur and Varecia to the genus Lemur. However, this view was not widely accepted and the genus Lemur remained monotypic, containing only the ring-tailed lemur. Because the differences in molecular data are so minute between the ring-tailed lemur and both genera of bamboo lemurs, it has been suggested that all three genera be merged.
Because of the difficulty in discerning the relationships within family Lemuridae, not all authorities agree on the taxonomy, although the majority of the primatological community favors the current classification.
The ring-tailed lemur is the only species of lemur to possess a striped tail and is hence named after this conspicuous characteristic.
ALTERNATERing-Tail, Ring-Tail Lemur
The only place where members of the Superfamily Lemuroidea, including ring-tailed lemurs, can be found in the wild is Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world situated in the Indian Ocean to the southeast of Africa.
Madagascar is a 1,650 kilometer-, 1,025 mile-long island divided by a mountain chain running the length of the island from north to south. This mountainous divide partitions Madagascar into eastern and western parts, each of which has distinctive climate, topography, and vegetation.
Ring-tailed lemurs are restricted to the south and southwestern portion of the island, reaching a northern limit near the town of Morondava on the west coast and the town of Ambalavao in the east. The southeastern limit is the town of Tolagnaro on the southern coast.
Ring-tailed lemurs are found in the vicinity of nine forests: Andohahela, Andringitra, Ankilitelo, Berenty, Beza Mahafaly, Isalo, Tsimanampetsotsa, Tsirave, and Zombitse.
Ring-tailed lemurs have also been introduced to the United States on St. Catherine’s Island, Georgia as part of a project to establish a free-ranging, breeding population that could be studied and in the future could potentially serve as a source to restock parks in Madagascar.
Most field studies of ring-tailed lemurs have been conducted at Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve and Berenty Private Reserve, a family-owned forest set aside in the 1940s. They’ve also been studied at Andringitra National Park, Isalo National Park, and Andohahela Nature Reserve. One particularly notable field researcher, Alison Jolly, has been conducting long-term ecological and behavioral research on ring-tailed lemurs at Berenty since the early 1960s and has contributed greatly to the knowledge of wild ring-tailed lemurs. Long-term studies have also been ongoing at Beza Mahafaly most notably conducted by Robert Sussman, Lisa Gould, and Michelle Sauther. Captive research has been conducted at the Duke University Primate Center in North Carolina since the mid-1980s and also has provided invaluable information about the species.
Ring-tailed lemurs are found at elevations from sea level to 2,600 meters (8,530 feet) in a variety of habitat types including rainforests, continuous canopy, humid montane, subalpine, dry deciduous, gallery, mixed, dry brush, and spiny thorn scrub bush forests at temperatures of -12 to 48° Celsius.
Continuous canopy forests in this region are dominated by Tamarind trees (Tamarindas indica) and other large trees reaching 20-25 meters in height.
In the southwestern part of the country, rainfall can be as little as 30 to 50 millimeters (1.18 to 1.97 inches) per year and the habitat is mainly desert or thorny scrub with plants adapted to very low levels of rainfall. The driest and coldest times of the year last in winter, from May to September, and the wetter, warmer months are in summer, from December to March. Average temperatures in this area are about 30° Celsius (86° Fahrenheit) during January and 24° Celsius (75.2° Fahrenheit) during July. Southwestern Madagascar is subject to periodic drought that can have serious impacts on the ring-tailed lemur and other mammalian inhabitants.
From west to east across Madagascar, rainfall increases and vegetation becomes lusher. Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve is composed of both xerophytic forests, characteristic of the extreme southwest, and greener gallery forests with taller, more densely forested areas along the banks and tributaries of the Mandrare River, which ring-tailed lemurs especially prefer. Annual rainfall at Beza Mahafaly averages about 750 millimeters (2.46 feet), most of which falls during the rainy season that lasts from November to March. The temperatures in this part of the island average between 34° and 35° Celsius (93.2° and 95° Fahrenheit) but can reach highs of 48° Celsius (118.4° Fahrenheit). During the coolest months of the year, June through August, very little rain falls and temperatures average between 23° and 30° Celsius (73.3° and 86° Fahrenheit), but can be as low as 3° Celsius (5.4° Fahrenheit) at night.
Gallery forests are found throughout southern and southwestern Madagascar along seasonally inundated rivers and their tributaries such as the Mangoky and Onilahy Rivers, as well as the Mandrare River.
Continuing eastward through the ring-tailed lemur’s range toward the central highlands that run north to south on the island, elevation increases and the lemurs are found at altitudes up to 2,600 meters (8,530 feet). In these areas, subalpine forests, exposed rock, and savanna dominate the landscape. Temperatures can range between -7° to 26° Celsius (19.4° to 78.8° Fahrenheit) and this area is considered the most meteorologically extreme site on the island.
FORESTSubtropical/Tropical Dry, Subtropical/Tropical Moist Montane
ROCKY AREASInland Cliffs, Mountain Peaks
CAVES & SUBTERRANEANCaves
Ring-tailed lemurs are social and live in groups of 15 to 30 individuals called troops. These expansive troops are the largest groups of any lemur species. These troops are highly social with complex interactions. All females are dominant over all males as the lowest ranking female is still higher in the social hierarchy than the highest ranking male. Hierarchy is typically established in a lemur’s youth through rough-and-tumble play. Females stay with the same troop they were born into, while the males will typically move between troops every 2 to 5 years.
Ring-tailed lemurs are diurnal and start their day waking before dawn and moving about in the branches of the group’s sleeping tree.
In the early mornings, usually between 5:30 and 8:30 a.m., ring-tailed lemurs move into the sun, away from their sleeping trees and onto exposed ground. There, they begin feeding and sunning. The sunning posture is distinctive and stereotyped. Ring-tailed lemurs sit upright on their haunches, spread-eagle, and rest their forearms on their knees, exposing their undersides to direct sunlight. This behavior is probably linked to thermoregulation as it is often seen following cold nights or during cold mornings.
After spending the early morning feeding and sunning on the exposed ground away from the sleeping tree, the ring-tailed lemur group moves again around noon and settles in the shade for a brief rest period. They become active again in the early afternoon, foraging, feeding and traveling until the late afternoon. Depending on the time of year, they may take another rest in the mid-afternoon on particularly hot days. After intensely feeding in the late afternoon, the entire group travels back to the sleeping tree where, as a group, they remain for the rest of the night. One group splits into two sleeping parties each night, huddling together while sleeping. Throughout the night, individuals may move about the tree, groom, and interact.
Ring-tailed lemurs are nomadic and travel daily in search of food. They have a daily home range of 1,000 meters, or 0.621 miles from where they awoke as they slowly meander from just before dawn until dusk. One group will use the same part of its home range for three or four days before moving to another part. The home range size of the ring-tailed lemur varies, depending on habitat, and average size ranges from 0.1 to 0.35 kilometers², or 0.039 to 0.135 miles². In drier or more disturbed habitats, home range sizes are larger, averaging 0.32 kilometers², or 0.124 miles², compared to wetter habitats where ring-tailed lemurs have home ranges averaging 0.17 kilometers², or0.066 miles². Ring-tailed lemurs seasonally expand their home ranges. During the dry season they utilize larger areas because of the resource scarcity. The home ranges of multiple groups of ring-tailed lemurs tend to overlap, and there are few areas that are exclusively used by only one group.
Population density is also linked to habitat quality. In wetter, lusher areas, there are more ring-tailed lemurs per square kilometer, up to 350 per kilometers² (135 per miles²), compared to dry or disturbed areas that can have densities as low as 17 per kilometers², or 6.56 per miles².
Ring-tailed lemurs are the most terrestrial of all lemurs, but they spend time in all layers of the forest. About 70% of ring-tailed lemur group travel is terrestrial and about 33% of an individual lemur’s average day is spent on the ground. The rest of its time is spent in mid- or upper-level canopy trees (23% and 25%, respectively), in small bushes (13%), or in the emergent layer of the canopy (6%.)
Ring-tailed lemurs move by walking or running quadrupedally, holding their tails almost completely vertically as they move, with the tip of the long tail curving away from the body forming the shape of a question mark.
Lemurs possess arguably the most complex scent marking behavior of all primates. Ring-tailed lemurs use scent in a variety of social contexts, including territorial defense, mate evaluation, and intrasexual competition. Both sexes of the ring-tailed lemur do a handstand to place genital marks on substrates at lemur nose height. They also engage in stink battles with one another where secretions from scent glands are rubbed onto the tail, then wafted at opposing animals. Males arm-mark plants with metacarpal spurs and glandular secretions from the wrist and armpit, leaving both visual and olfactory signs, often on top of genital marks. Senders of scent signals cannot control who receives them, similar to a bulletin board. As such, lemurs transmit signals without a particular intended recipient. Individuals may therefore obtain an advantage in advertising their scent by choosing particular plant species or substrates that improve a mark’s attractiveness or stability.
Visual communication signals, such as body postures and facial expressions are used by ring-tailed lemurs in addition to vocal communication and scent marking.
Tactile communication is important between mothers and their young, as well as between mates. This includes grooming, play, and mating.
Because of the highly seasonal environment in which they live, wild ring-tailed lemurs must exploit a wide variety of food sources throughout the year. They are best characterized as opportunistic omnivores and will eat whatever is easily available to them.
Ring-tailed lemurs have been known to eat ripe fruits, leaves, leaf stems, flowers, flower stems, exudates, (such as resin, latex and sap,) spiders, spider webs, caterpillars, cicadas, insects and their cocoons, small birds, chameleons, cicadas, grasshoppers, and even dirt from termite mounds.
One of the most important food sources for ring-tailed lemurs is the tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) which can provide up to 50% of the total food consumed during some times of the year and are considered a keystone resource for the lemurs. The tamarind tree is found in every habitat where the lemurs are known to live, but is abundant in gallery and more open forests away from rivers. It can reach 20-25 meters tall and produces fruits and leaves at alternating times of the year, providing a reliable, year-round food source for the lemurs. During the dry season, the tamarind tree is one of the only sources of fruit for the ring-tailed lemur.
In the driest parts of the ring-tailed lemur’s range, water availability is a potentially serious issue as vegetation availability is strictly linked to rainfall. The lemurs are able to obtain water from succulent plants, including aloe and prickly pear cactus, as well as from dew and water that accumulates in crevices such as tree holes.
During the rainy season, from roughly October through April, fruit and young leaves become available to ring-tailed lemurs. There are two peaks in fruit availability, from October to November and from March to April. Flower availability peaks before the start of the rainy season and is another important food source.
During the dry season, the tamarind tree is one of the only sources of fruit. Throughout this time, even mature leaves can be scarce and ring-tailed lemurs eat dry, desiccated leaves, which are more difficult to digest. During this time of year, young leaves are found only on a few tree or shrub species and are distributed patchily. Flowers, fruit, and young leaves are at the lowest levels during June and July, when barely any rain falls. This is the period of highest nutritional stress for ring-tailed lemurs and they rely heavily on tamarind trees during this time of year.
Ring-tailed lemurs begin mating in April.
Female ring-tailed lemurs typically mate with more than one male during estrous, so males will compete amongst themselves for the right to mate with the females.
After a gestation period of 130 to 144 days, females will give birth beginning in August and finishing in September. They typically give birth to one or two offspring, but more commonly will only have one child.
Care of ring-tailed lemur young lies solely with the mother, with males in the group having little to no impact on raising young. Females are responsible for grooming, feeding, weaning, and teaching their young. Females in the troop have even been frequently observed caring for other female’s offspring as well as babysitting, feeding, and grooming.
Newborn ring-tailed lemurs spend their first two weeks of life riding on the underbellies of their mothers. After the first two weeks, the young ride on the backs of their mothers and begin to explore their surroundings.
The young are weaned starting at eight weeks of age. Until fully weaned at five months, all nutrition is obtained from the lemur’s mother.
There is a high infant mortality rate in ring-tailed lemurs. 30 to 50% of lemur infants do not make it through their first year of life. This mortality rate decreases if the mother is older in age, at about 3 to 4 years of age, or has previously given birth.
Female ring-tailed lemurs are not reproductively active until 2.5 years of age, and females of 3 to 4 years of age have a higher chance of success conceiving and giving birth to healthy offspring than younger females.
PARENTAL INVESTMENTCooperative Breeding, Maternal
SEXUAL MATURITY2-4 Years
Ring-tailed lemurs contribute to the ecosystem by spreading seeds through their feces. They also contribute to other food webs as a food source for animals such as birds, civets, cats, snakes, and other lemurs.
Ring-tailed lemurs travel in groups of 15-20 individuals, known as troops, to deter predators that hunt singular prey. Actual predation pressure on the ring-tailed lemur is unknown, however, some potential predators include raptor birds; cat-like carnivores, such as fosas (Cryptoprocta ferox); African civets (Civettictis civetta); various snakes; and even brown lemurs, which have been recorded capturing and eating infant ring-tailed lemurs. Domestic cats (Felis catus) introduced to Madagascar are also responsible for predation losses.
Ring-tailed lemurs are sympatric with nine other primates within their range including: Verreaux’s sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi), red-tailed sportive lemur (Lemur ruficaudatus), white-footed sportive lemur (Lemur leucopus), brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus), greater dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus major), fat-tailed dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus medius), aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis), black-and-white ruffed lemurs (Varecia variegata), and lesser bamboo lemur (Hapalemur griseus).
Research on competition for resources between Verreaux’s sifaka and ring-tailed lemurs reveals that there is little direct competition for food, even during the dry season when resources are limited.
Though they naturally have overlapping ranges in other parts of Madagascar, at Berenty Private Reserve, brown lemurs were introduced in 1975 and now compete with ring-tailed lemurs for access to food. The two species have high dietary overlap at Berenty and likely compete for similar foods during times of scarcity. The development of a tourist center at the reserve has decreased this competition because new opportunities for both water and food have been introduced via the establishment of watering troughs and the addition of cultivated and ornamental plants. In the Antserananomby Forest, where brown and ring-tailed lemurs naturally occur together, niche separation is significant and daily activity patterns separate the two species, preventing direct competition for resources.
Competition with the other sympatric species has not been recorded, likely because many of the other species are nocturnal.
Ring-tailed lemurs have improved the economy of Madagascar. Ring-tailed lemurs are a common draw for ecotourism in the southern and southwestern portion of the island country.
PETS/DISPLAY ANIMALS, HORTICULTURENational
Madagascar’s lemurs, including the ring-tailed lemur, are now deemed the most endangered group of mammals and represent the highest primate conservation priority in the world.
The ring-tailed lemur is listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species and now occupies primarily fragmented forest habitats. Due to anthropogenic disturbances, an estimated 10% of Malagasy forest cover remains.
Due to ongoing anthropogenic threats faced by ring-tailed lemurs, continued conservation and research initiatives are imperative for long-term viability of the species.
There are almost 2,000 ring-tailed lemurs in captivity, but the wild population is unknown.
Because much of the ring-tailed lemur’s habitat has been altered by human impact through clearing for agriculture, burning for charcoal production, and deforesting areas to create settlements, the total range occupied by the lemurs is large, but their distribution is patchy and dependent on forest cover.
Ring-tailed lemurs require some forest cover and are not successful at resettling in secondary growth areas once they have been cleared, therefore troops will have larger home ranges if their habitats have more sparse resources.
Habitat loss, hunting, and live-capture for the illegal in-country pet trade are the greatest causes of concern for the ring-tailed lemur.
The ring-tailed lemur has a strong preference for gallery forests for Euphorbia bush, and rocky outcrop rupicolous forest, but these habitats are already restricted in southern and south-central Madagascar and continue to diminish due to annual burning practices that help create new pasture for livestock. Subsequent over-grazing and harvesting of Euphorbia for livestock, and the felling of trees for charcoal production further impact wild populations.
This species is also hunted for food in certain areas and frequently wild-captured and kept as a pet.
Furthermore, due to more frequent droughts in the southern regions compared with past decades, this species is increasingly threatened. It’s been predicted that a mean temperature increase of 2.6°C will occur in southern Madagascar in the 21st century, and that arid regions in southern Madagascar will become further desiccated, which will have important and largely negative biological consequences for flora and fauna inhabiting this geographic area. Cyclones, severe storms and flooding also affect this species.
Moreover, range shift predictions based climatic models for Madagascar suggest that ring-tailed lemurs will experience a net loss of 63% of available habitat simply due to climate change alone.
AGRICULTURE & AQUACULTURELivestock Farming & Ranching
BIOLOGICAL RESOURCE USEHunting & Trapping Terrestrial Animals, Logging & Wood Harvesting
NATURAL SYSTEM MODIFICATIONSFire & Fire Suppression
CLIMATE CHANGE & SEVERE WEATHERHabitat Shifting & Alteration, Droughts, Temperature Extremes, Storms & Flooding
Along with other species of lemurs, ring-tailed lemurs are responsible for several wildlife reserves being put into place. These reserves help preserve the environment and protect all other plant and animal species in the area.
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