Crowned lemur. ©Getty Images

Crowned lemur. ©Getty Images

Black and white ruffed lemur ©Getty Images

Black and white ruffed lemur ©Getty Images

Lemurs are in the prosimian group of monkeys, part of the primate family. There are probably around 103 different species (kinds) of lemur (say lee-muh), and they are found only on the island of Madagascar, near Africa.

The smallest lemur is the 30g pygmy mouse lemur, and the largest lemur is the indri, weighing about 9 kg.  Both of these are classified as Critically Endangered.

Some lemurs are nocturnal, or active at night, while others are diurnal, or active during the day.  They are noisy animals that live in groups.  The group leaders are female.  

Lemur females give birth about 4-5 months after mating with a male of the same species. They usually have just one young each time, but when food is plentiful, twins are not uncommon.  At first, the young cling to their mothers, hanging on in front. After about two weeks they start riding on their mother's back. They begin to try solid food when they are just one week old. They spend increasing amounts of time away from their mother from about 4 weeks, returning to suckle her milk until they are finally weaned (no longer drink milk) at about 6 months of age.  

Baby ring-tailed lemur on its mother's back.

Baby ring-tailed lemur on its mother's back.

Ring-tailed lemur sunbaking. ©Getty Images

Ring-tailed lemur sunbaking. ©Getty Images

Ring-tailed lemur

The ring-tailed lemur spends almost half the day on the ground, unlike the other species, which are almost completely arboreal (living in the trees). The ring-tailed lemur, called maki by the Malagasy (which is what people of Madagascar are called), travels on all fours and can often be seen sunbaking, sitting with its tail used for balance, and with its arms either outstretched or placed on its knees.  

Its body is grey, with a long black-and-white striped tail.  It is about the size of a domestic cat: length of head and body is about 42.5cm long, black with a white striped tail about 60cm long, and weighing about 3.5kg.  Ring-tailed lemurs are found in groups of 3 - 25.  Like most lemurs, females remain for their whole life in the group into which they were born, and are the dominant animals over males. Males may change groups when they reach maturity.

Family group of ring-tailed lemurs ©Getty Images

Family group of ring-tailed lemurs ©Getty Images

The groups travel over a large area each day in search of food and are often aggressive towards other groups where their areas meet.  Like many lemur species, ring-tailed lemurs have scent glands on their wrists and chests and they use these to mark their territory. Males have a spur on each wrist that they use to pierce tree branches before scent marking them. When a ring-tailed lemur group travels through their territory, they keep their tails raised in the air like flags to help keep the group together.

Ring-tailed lemurs are found in south and southwestern Madagascar in arid, open areas and forests, and a small number is found near the mountains on the southeastern plateau. They eat fruit, leaves, flowers and other plant parts, occasionally insects and small vertebrates. They live for 20 - 25 years.

A coqueral sifaka lemur. ©Getty Images

A coqueral sifaka lemur. ©Getty Images

Sifaka lemurs

Sifaka lemurs are tremendously agile. There are several kinds of sifaka lemurs.

These arboreal lemurs stay very upright, and, standing on their strong back legs, can jump more than 9 metres from branch to branch or tree to tree. If they do go onto the ground to pick up fruit or cross open space, they leap sideways along the ground on hind legs with arms outspread for balance as though they are dancing.

They are named by the Malagasy for their loud cry, which sounds like shif-auk.  Sifaka lemurs are diurnal, or awake during the day. They mark their territory with scent, and will defend it if invaded by other sifaka lemurs, but not other species. They are a medium sized lemur, related to indri lemurs but with a longer tail. They live in large groups of up to 13.

A verreaux sifaka lemur dancing along the ground. ©Getty Images

A verreaux sifaka lemur dancing along the ground. ©Getty Images

Indri lemur, the largest lemur. ©Getty Images

Indri lemur, the largest lemur. ©Getty Images

Indri lemur

Indri lemurs are the largest of the lemurs, and the Malagasy believe this kind to be magical, a human that has changed into this form after death.  It only eats leaves, and it eats a large variety of different kinds of leaf in order to balance its diet.

Indri lemurs live in small family groups of 2-6, and make incredibly loud noises that can be heard 2-3 km away. The calls unite the family and also warn others about their territory. They are diurnal, or active in the day, and herbivorous, which means they eat plants. Their diet is largely from trees, mostly a variety of leaves, but also fruits, seeds and flowers.

Indri lemurs are listed as Critically Endangered.

Bamboo lemur

Few animals eat only bamboo. ©Getty Images

Few animals eat only bamboo. ©Getty Images

Bamboo lemurs are so named because bamboo forms a large part of their diet. There are three different bamboo lemurs: the grey, the greater and the golden, which is extremely rare. They occupy different habitats in Madagascar.The largest of the bamboo lemurs, the greater bamboo lemur, has distinctive white ear tufts. It was first written about in 1870, and by the early 20th century it was believed to have become extinct. It was rediscovered in 1972.

Only very few mammals specialise in eating bamboo. Bamboo is very tough and takes lots of energy to digest, so bamboo lemurs are not very active animals. Bamboo is not very nutritious, and bamboo lemurs must spend a great deal of time eating in order to get enough nutrition. As with many animals that are so specialised in what they eat, bamboo lemurs are unable to adapt to a rapidly changing habitat. Widespread clearing of the rainforest habitat has left small groups isolated in a few patches of forest where bamboo grows.

Aye-aye

The aye-aye ©Getty Images

The aye-aye ©Getty Images

The aye-aye is a species of lemur, known by the Malagasy as hay-hay, ahay or aiay. They are rare, and are quite unlike other members of the primate or even lemur families.  The body of the aye-aye is about 40 cm long, with a bushy tail about the same length as the body. The dark brown fur is long and woolly, which gives the animal a rather shaggy appearance. They have large, naked ears and large eyes with yellowish brown irises.

The aye-aye is the largest nocturnal primate.  Large eyes help the aye-aye find its way about at night,  travelling and feeding, hardly stopping to rest. Each aye-aye has a home range through which they travel. For males it is an area of between 100 and 200 hectares, and for females about 35-40 hectares. Aye-ayes are solitary, which means they live alone. Sometimes pairs are seen, but basically little is known about their lives. They do not leap and cling to trees like other primates. They move about on all four legs. They occasionally make brief cries but are usually silent.  Grubs that live inside dead wood form the largest part of the aye-aye diet, as well as fruit, eggs and bamboo shoots.

The aye-aye has two features are not found in other lemurs, so it is in an animal group on its own.

The long third finger makes the aye-aye unique. ©Getty Images

The long third finger makes the aye-aye unique. ©Getty Images

  • The front feet of the aye-aye are unique.  All the toes are long and thin, but the third is exceptionally long. The aye-aye taps on the tree trunk and listens for movement as it searches for places where burrowing insect grubs might be located. It gnaws at the tree to make holes, then it uses its long third finger to probe inside the holes and hook out grubs deep in the bark.
  • They aye-aye's front teeth grow continuously and are worn down by its gnawing at bark in search of grubs. 

Conservation Status and Threats

3 week old black lemur, the only primate with blue eyes. ©Getty Images

3 week old black lemur, the only primate with blue eyes. ©Getty Images

Of the 103 species of lemur, 23 are classified as Critically Endangered, 52 are Endangered, 19 are Vulnerable, and 2 are Near Threatened.  

Among those classified as Critically Endangered is the aye-aye and the blue-eyed black lemur,  the only primate with blue eyes. The most rare lemur of all is thought to be the northern sportive lemur because there are only 18 known to exist. More than half the forests of Madagascar are gone, so habitat loss is a major factor for the lemur populations. Increased poverty among the Malagasy people has caused an increase of hunting.

The fossa is the main predator of lemurs. ©Getty Images

The fossa is the main predator of lemurs. ©Getty Images

The fossa is their main predator. This rather cat-like animal is the largest mammal carnivore on Madagascar.

Read more about lemurs:

Read the kidcyber page about primates, the family to which lemurs belong.