The ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) is one of the most iconic and beloved of all lemur species. Endemic to the island of Madagascar, these charismatic primates are easily recognized by their vividly striped black-and-white tails.
Ring-tailed lemurs exhibit several unique behaviors and adaptations that allow them to thrive in the harsh, arid environments of southern and southwestern Madagascar. Read on to learn 10 fascinating facts about these captivating creatures!
1. Lemurs are the most terrestrial lemurs
Unlike most lemurs, ring-tailed lemurs spend a significant amount of time on the ground. Up to 40% of their day may be spent foraging terrestrially, making them the most ground-dwelling of all lemur species. When on the ground, ring-tailed lemurs move quadrupedally and can run swiftly if needed. Their terrestrial habits likely help them cover more areas when searching for food in sparse environments.
2. They live in large, female-dominated troops
Ring-tailed lemurs have a complex social structure. They live in troops that can contain up to 30 individuals, making their groups larger than those of any other lemur species. Troops usually average around 17 members.
The ring-tailed lemur society is female-dominant. The highest-ranking female leads the troop and has priority access to food and mates. Females remain in their natal troop their whole lives, while males leave their birth troop when they reach maturity.
3. Lemurs are very vocal
Ring-tailed lemurs use a diverse repertoire of vocalizations to communicate with their troops. They have several different alarm calls to alert group members about potential predators, including a unique call that begins with grunts and turns into loud barks.
Lemurs also purr, moan, wail, and emit a sequence of clicks to maintain troop cohesion while foraging. Their loud territorial calls can be heard over half a mile away!
4. They have a very distinctive tail
The ring-tailed lemur’s striped tail is its most recognizable feature. The tail has 13 or 14 black rings and an equal number of white rings, ending in a solid black tip. The alternating color pattern mimics the look of a banded raccoon tail.
Ring-tailed lemurs hold their tails up while traveling to help troop members keep visual contact with each other. They also use their tails for balance and to signal warnings or other messages.
5. Scent marking is important
Like many lemur species, ring-tailed lemurs rely heavily on their sense of smell. They have scent glands on their wrists and chests which they use to “mark” their territory by depositing odor secretions.
Males participate in “stink fights” during mating season, coating their tails with secretions from wrist and chest glands and wafting the scent at rivals. Females will also scent marks and may compete for mating rights.
6. They are sun worshippers
Ring-tailed lemurs will stop to “sunbathe” during their daily activities, sitting upright on the ground facing the sun. They often stretch their arms out to the side, resembling the lotus position in yoga.
This sunbathing behavior allows lemurs to warm up in the morning and may strengthen social bonds, since troops will sunbathe communally. Their light bellies and dark backs may also facilitate heat absorption.
7. Lemurs diet is very varied
Ring-tailed lemurs are opportunistic omnivores. Their diet consists primarily of fruit, leaves, flowers, tree bark, sap, and herbs, but they will also eat insects, spiders, chameleons, small birds, and other small vertebrates.
This dietary flexibility likely helps ring-tailed lemurs survive in harsh habitats where food can be scarce. The tamarind tree is a favorite food source.
8. Females are dominant breeders
The ring-tailed lemur breeding system is polygynandrous, meaning both males and females have multiple mates. However, the dominant female in a troop has priority access to breeding.
Subordinate females may only get a chance to breed if the dominant female cannot suppress their estrus cycles. Dominant females will aggressively block mating attempts by lower-ranking females.
9. Infants ride on their mother’s belly and back
Female ring-tailed lemurs can start breeding at just three years old and will give birth to one infant per year. Newborns have very strong grips and will cling tightly to their mother’s belly for the first 1-2 weeks.
After that, infants ride on their mother’s back, gripping her fur as she travels and forages. They begin eating solid foods at 2 weeks old but continue to nurse until weaned at 5-6 months.
10. They are endangered due to habitat loss
Despite being one of the more widespread and abundant lemur species, ring-tailed lemurs have experienced significant population declines in recent decades. Habitat loss and fragmentation due to deforestation, overgrazing, and conversion to farmland are the biggest threats.
Ring-tailed lemurs are now listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, with an estimated population of between 2,000-2,400 mature individuals in the wild 1. Ongoing conservation efforts aim to protect their remaining gallery forest habitat.
In summary, ring-tailed lemurs are fascinating primates that exhibit many unique behaviors and adaptations. Their terrestrial habits, complex social structure, scent-marking rituals, vocalizations, and sun-worshipping posture are just some of the captivating traits that make them stand out in the lemur world. Sadly, habitat destruction has led to alarming declines, but increased conservation initiatives provide hope for the future of these iconic lemurs.