Ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta)

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Ring-tailed lemur with young on back
IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened NEAR
THREATENED

Top facts

  • The ring-tailed lemur is instantly recognisable due to its long, bushy, black-and-white ringed tail.
  • Moving about on all fours, the ring-tailed lemur spends more time on the ground than any other lemur species.
  • Male ring-tailed lemurs compete for females via ‘stink fights’, smearing scent on their tails and wafting the smell towards their opponent.
  • The name ‘lemur’ comes from the Latin word for ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’.
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Ring-tailed lemur fact file

Ring-tailed lemur description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderPrimates
FamilyLemuridae
GenusLemur (1)

Impossible to confuse with any other lemur species, the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) is a distinctive primate with a long, bushy, black-and-white ringed tail. A medium-sized lemur, it is the most terrestrial of Madagascar’s primates (2) (6).

The ring-tailed lemur’s dense fur is greyish-brown on the back and grey on the rump and limbs. The underparts are cream to off-white, and the neck and crown are dark grey. The ring-tailed lemur has a white face with large, dark triangular patches around the eyes, a dark snout, and large, white, well-furred ears (2) (6). Dark black skin is visible on the ring-tailed lemur’s nose, eyelids, lips and feet. This species’ distinctive tail is longer than the head and body, and is tipped with black. Male and female ring-tailed lemurs are similar in appearance and body size (6).

The only species in its genus, the ring-tailed lemur receives its genus name, Lemur, from the Latin for ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’, and its species name catta in reference to its cat-like form (6).

French
Lémur Catta, Maki Catta.
Spanish
Lemur Colianillado.
Size
Total length: 95 - 110 cm (2)
Head-body length: 38.5 - 45.5 cm (2)
Tail length: 56 - 62.5 cm (2)
Average weight: 2 - 2.4 kg (3) (4)
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Ring-tailed lemur biology

The ring-tailed lemur is a diurnal species (2) (6) and spends much of its time on the ground, although it is also able to move well through the trees (6). This lemur can often be seen sunning itself by sitting on its haunches and spreading its limbs in a yoga-like position, exposing its underside to the sun. The ring-tailed lemur often sleeps with its nose tucked between its hind legs and its long tail curled up over its back (6).

The diet of the ring-tailed lemur is quite varied, consisting of fruit, leaves, flowers, bark and sap (10), as well as large insects and even small vertebrates such as chameleons (9). This species usually feeds primarily on fruit, but the exact composition of the diet varies between habitats and seasons (2) (6). The ring-tailed lemur is also known to supplement its diet by consuming soil, possibly to increase its sodium intake (6).

A social species, the ring-tailed lemur occurs in larger groups than any other primate in Madagascar (2). Groups usually contain equal numbers of males and females, plus their young, and typically number between 3 and 25 individuals (2). Within the group, females are dominant over males (2) (6), with the ‘alpha female’ forming the focal point of the group as a whole (2). There are well-defined dominance hierarchies between group members (2).

Ring-tailed lemur groups are not strictly territorial, but do occupy preferred, overlapping home ranges and show strong territorial defence when they come into contact with another group. Territorial confrontations are generally dominated by females, and involve facing off against the opposing group, sometimes calling and alarm barking and occasionally fighting (2) (6). After such an encounter, the group will usually retreat towards the safety of the centre of its home range (2).

Both male and female ring-tailed lemurs use scent marks to mark their home range. Females use genital smears and males use scent from a wrist gland which has a horny pad that allows the male to gouge scent into bark (2). The ring-tailed lemur also communicates using a wide range of vocalisations (6).

Mating in the ring-tailed lemur is highly synchronous, taking place over a short period in mid-April (2) (6). The young are then born around September (2) (6) (9), after a gestation period of about 130 to 144 days (6), with this careful timing ensuring that the young lemurs are weaned just as food becomes most plentiful (2) (9). Male ring-tailed lemurs compete for access to females by daubing their tails with scent from their wrist glands and wafting this pungent odour towards their opponent (2) (6) (9). These ‘stink fights’ are usually sufficient to establish rank, but physical aggression can also occur (2) (9).

The female ring-tailed lemur occasionally gives birth to twins, but a single infant is more common. The young lemur clings to the female’s underside at first, but after two weeks or so it moves around to ride on the female’s back, and begins to explore its environment (2) (6). The ring-tailed lemur reaches sexual maturity at about 2.5 to 3 years old, and females usually give birth once a year (2) (6). Female ring-tailed lemurs rarely leave the group into which they were born, but males leave the group on reaching maturity, and will continue to move between groups every three to five years throughout their lives (2) (6) (9).

In the wild, the ring-tailed lemur is thought to live for up to 15 or 16 years (6). Predators of this species include the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), Madagascar harrier-hawk (Polyboroides radiatus) and Madagascar buzzard (Buteo brachypterus) (2) (6).

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Ring-tailed lemur range

The ring-tailed lemur is endemic to south and southwest Madagascar, where it is patchily distributed from Tolagnaro in the southeast to just south of Morondava on the west coast, and inland as far as Ambalavao (1) (2) (6) (7). An apparently isolated population occurs in the Andringitra Massif on the south-eastern plateau (8).

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Ring-tailed lemur habitat

The ring-tailed lemur is found in a broader range of habitats than any other lemur species, and can tolerate a variety of extreme environments that other lemurs cannot (9), including some of the hottest, driest and coldest in Madagascar (1). It is commonly found in spiny forest, lowland gallery forest, dry scrub, dry deciduous forest and even rock canyons (1) (2) (6) (9).

Although the ring-tailed lemur generally occurs at low elevations (2) (9), the population in the Andringitra Massif is found at higher elevations, occurring above the tree line at around 2,600 metres in one of the most climatically extreme areas in Madagascar. Its habitat there includes exposed rock, low bushes and subalpine vegetation (8).

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Ring-tailed lemur status

The ring-tailed lemur is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix I of CITES (5).

IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened

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Ring-tailed lemur threats

Despite being a well-studied species and an iconic symbol of Madagascar (9), the ring-tailed lemur is thought to be at serious long-term risk of extinction (2). The greatest threat to this species comes from widespread habitat loss, with its bush and forest habitats being reduced by a combination of burning, overgrazing and wood harvesting for charcoal production (1) (2) (6).

The ring-tailed lemur is also hunted for food in many areas, and individuals are often trapped and kept as pets (1) (2) (6).

Unfortunately, despite being protected by national and international law, the ring-tailed lemur is still at risk from illegal hunting and from the effects of habitat loss. It is commonly kept in captivity and is seen in many zoos around the world, as well as being a common sight in some of Madagascar’s most visited reserves, but this may give the public a false impression of its abundance (6).

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Ring-tailed lemur conservation

The ring-tailed lemur is found in a number of protected areas across its range, including six national parks, and many of the best remaining patches of forest within its range are found on sacred lands (1). International trade in the ring-tailed lemur is banned under its listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (5).

The isolated population of ring-tailed lemurs in Andringitra occurs within the Andringitra National Park. Further surveys of this population have been recommended, together with the development of a system to control the fires that threaten the habitat of this iconic Madagascan primate (8).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

Find out more about the ring-tailed lemur and about lemur conservation:

More information on conservation in Madagascar:

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Authentication

Authenticated (06/09/12) by Dr Michelle Sauther, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado, and Co-director of the Beza Mahafaly Lemur Biology Project.
http://www.colorado.edu/anthropology/lemur/

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Glossary

Deciduous forest
Forest consisting mainly of deciduous trees, which shed their leaves at the end of the growing season.
Diurnal
Active during the day.
Endemic
A species or taxonomic group that is only found in one particular country or geographic area.
Gallery forest
Forest growing along a river or stream.
Genus
A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
Gestation
The state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
Gland
An organ that makes and secretes substances used by the body.
Home range
The area occupied by an animal during routine activities, which is not actively defended.
Subalpine
Of or relating to the higher slopes of mountains, just below the tree line.
Territorial
Describes an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
Tree line
The upper limits of tree growth in mountains or at high latitudes.
Vertebrates
Animals with a backbone, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Garbutt, N. (1999) Mammals of Madagascar. Pica Press, East Sussex.
  3. Dutton, C.J., Junge, R.E. and Louis, E.E. (2003) Biomedical evaluation of free-ranging ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) in Tsimanampetsotsa Strict Nature Reserve, Madagascar. Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, 34(1): 16-24.
  4. Sauther, M.L., Fish, K.D., Cuozzo, F.P., Miller, D.S., Hunter-Ishikawa, M. and Culbertson, H. (2006) Patterns of health, disease, and behavior among wild ringtailed lemurs, Lemur catta: effects of habitat and sex. In: Jolly, A., Sussman, R.W., Koyama, N. and Rasamimanana, H. (Eds.) Ringtailed Lemur Biology: Lemur catta in Madagascar. Springer, New York.
  5. CITES (September, 2012)
    http://www.cites.org/
  6. Wilson, D.E. and Hanlon, E. (2010) Lemur catta (Primates: Lemuridae). Mammalian Species, 42(854): 58-74. Available at:
    http://www.mammalsociety.org/uploads/Wilson%20and%20Hanlon%202010.pdf
  7. Goodman, S.M., Rakotoarisoa, S.V. and Wilmé, L. (2006) The distribution and biogeography of the ringtail lemur (Lemur catta) in Madagascar. In: Jolly, A., Sussman, R.W., Koyama, N. and Rasamimanana, H. (Eds.) Ringtailed Lemur Biology: Lemur catta in Madagascar. Springer, New York.
  8. Goodman, S.M. and Langrand, O. (1996) A high mountain population of the ring-tailed lemur Lemur catta on the Andringitra Massif, Madagascar. Oryx, 30(4): 259-268.
  9. Garbutt, N. (2007) Mammals of Madagascar: A Complete Guide. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  10. Simmen, B., Sauther, M.L., Soma, T., Rasamimanana, H., Sussman, R.W., Jolly, A., Tarnaud, L. and Hladik, A. (2006) Plant species fed on by Lemur catta in gallery forests of the southern domain of Madagascar. In: Jolly, A., Sussman, R.W., Koyama, N. and Rasamimanana, H. (Eds.) Ringtailed Lemur Biology: Lemur catta in Madagascar. Springer, New York.
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Ring-tailed lemur with young on back  
Ring-tailed lemur with young on back

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