Verreaux's sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi)

French: Propithèque De Verreaux
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderPrimates
FamilyIndriidae
GenusPropithecus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 40 – 47.5 cm (2)
Tail length: 50 – 60 cm (2)
Weight3 – 3.5 kg (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix I of CITES (3).

Known for the remarkable way it moves, whether making impressive leaps between tree trunks or gracefully bounding across the ground with its arms held high, Verreaux's sifaka has an equally eye-catching appearance. This lemur has long, thick, soft hair that is mostly white with a dark brown crown that extends down the back of the neck. It has a dark grey or black face which contrasts with its large, bright, yellow eyes (2). The fur is thinner on its chest, belly and underarms allowing the grey skin to show through, and male Verreaux's sifakas may also have a faint reddish-brown area on the chest, caused by a gland at the base of the throat (2). However, whilst this is the typical appearance, there is also much variation, with some individuals having dark brown areas on the back, chest, upper arms, thighs, and tail, and others being almost entirely white (2). Like other sifakas, its arms are short, and somewhat limited in their movements; however, their hind limbs are large and strong (4), providing the power for them to leap from tree to tree (2). The name of the sifaka comes from the sharp, piercing call that this primate makes, which sounds like shi-fahk (5).

Like all lemurs, Verreaux's sifaka occurs only in Madagascar. Its range curves around the south-west corner of the island; from Tsiribihina River in central western Madagascar, south to the Andohahela region (2).

Verreaux's sifaka is found in a range of habitats; from tropical dry lowland forest, to montane forestat 1,300 metres above sea level, and lowland, humid rainforest in the south-east of its range (1) (2).

Verreaux's sifaka lives in multi-male, multi-female groups that typically consist of four to eight individuals, but may be as large as 14. Each group has a home range that is marked with scent. The group moves around each day, foraging and resting, the pattern of activity depending on the season and habitat type (2). It searches for leaves, fruits and flowers on which to feed, leaping up to nine metres between vertical trunks and occasionally descending to the ground to cross an open space (2) (6). On the ground it bounds along on its hind legs, with its arms held out and above the head for balance, in the manner of a graceful dancer (2). Importantly for a species living in a frequently dry habitat, Verreaux's sifaka seems able to tolerate conditions of drought; it gains moisture from eating the succulent leaves of certain plants (Didiereaceae species) and will also lick dew from its coat to gain extra water (2).

The mating season takes place in January and February, typically the only time that aggression may be observed as males compete for a receptive female (2) (4). After a gestation period of 162 to 170 days, a single young is born in July or August. At first, the young sifaka will stay with its mother, clinging to her belly, but at the age of one month, it will usually move around to travel on its mother’s back as she moves through the trees. This time is highly dangerous for the small infant, which has a number of predators in the forests of Madagascar. Verreaux's sifaka has a system of different calls that signal the presence of either an aerial or ground predator to the rest of the group, but still 30 percent of each year’s young are thought to be lost to the carnivorous fosa (Cryptoprocta ferox) (2). The sifaka is independent at just six months old, and is sexually mature between three and five years of age. Adult females will spend the life in the group in which they were born, while males leave their family and eventually establish themselves in a neighbouring group. Males do not remain in this new group permanently, but may move between groups several more times within their lifetime (2).

Over the past 30 years, numbers of Verreaux's sifaka have declined as its habitat is destroyed for timber, firewood and charcoal (1). Hunting is also a threat to this threatened lemur; whilst hunting of Verreaux's sifaka is considered taboo by many tribes living within its range, other tribes and people immigrating into the region do carry out hunting (1) (2).

Madagascar is well renowned for its unique biodiversity, and thus has been the focus of major conservation efforts over the years. Numerous conservation organisations work alongside the country’s government, striving to protect the island’s fauna and flora (7). As a result, there are numerous protected areas (7), nine of which contain populations of Verreaux's sifaka (1), and there were plans to triple the protected area coverage (7). However, unfortunately, the future of these conservation efforts now hang in the balance; March 2009 saw Madagascar’s government forced out after a military-backed coup. Amid this political turmoil, international agencies pulled out of the country as armed groups entered protected areas, illegally harvesting valuable hardwoods and killing lemurs that were then sold to restaurants in towns as ‘delicacies’ (8). Only time will tell if the newly-formed government will continue to protect the country’s unique and valuable biodiversity.

To learn more about conservation in Madagascar see:

 

Authenticated (07/10/09) by Nick Garbutt, zoologist and author.

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2009)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Garbutt, N. (2007) Mammals of Madagascar: A Complete Guide. A&C Black, London.
  3. CITES (September, 2002)
    http://www.cites.org
  4. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker's Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  5. Ankel-Simons, F. (2000) Primate Anatomy: an Introduction. Academic Press, San Diego, California.
  6. Marshall Cavendish Corporation. (2001) Endangered Wildlife and Plants of the World. Marshall Cavendish Corporation, New York.
  7. Mittermeir, R.A., Tattersall, I., Konstant, R., Meyers, D.M. and Mast, R.B. (1994) Conservation International Tropical Field Guide Series: Lemurs of Madagascar. Conservation International, Washington DC.
  8. Butler, R.A. (2009) Appalling photos reveal lemur carnage in Madagascar. Online Article, WildMadagascar.org. Available at:
    http://news.mongabay.com/2009/0820-lemurs.html