Ringtailed lemur

Lemur catta

TAXONOMY

Lemur catta Linnaeus, 1758, Madagascar. OTHER COMMON NAMES

French: Maque, maki mococo, maki; German: Katta; Spanish: Lemur colianillado.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Adult head-and-body length of 15-18 in (39-46 cm), tail length of 22-24 in (56-62 cm), and adult body weight of 6.5-7.75 lb (3-3.5 kg). People without foreknowledge of lemurs, on seeing ringtailed lemurs in zoos or pictures, may regard them as some sort of aberrant raccoon, suggested by the overall shape and especially by the bandit-masked faces and vividly striped tails.

The pelage is dense and soft. The main body color is light gray to gray-brown on the flanks, rump, and limbs, light reddish-brown along the back, and dark gray on the crown and back of the neck. The head is the least monkey-like feature, with its long, foxlike muzzle. The triangular ears are covered with white fur. The forehead, bridge of the snout and proximal half of the muzzle and face are white. The distal half of the muzzle is dark gray or black. The eyes, each encircled by a prominent black ring, are bright red-brown or orange, with less of the "dead fish" stare common among lemur species. The most arresting feature is the tail, as long as the head and

torso, and emphatically striped bright white and jet-black, with 13 or 14 black rings. Hindlimbs considerably longer than the forelimbs, giving the animals a somewhat hunched, leaning-forward look as they stand on all fours or locomote.

Individuals are equipped with scent glands on wrists (carpal or antebrachial glands), arms (brachial glands), and chests with which they mark territory and foraging routes with exhuda-tions. Males' wrist glands are further gifted with small, horny, thornlike outcrops with which the males gouge scars into tree trunks and branches to add a visual component to their scent markings.

DISTRIBUTION

Ringtailed lemurs live throughout southern Madagascar, from Tolanaro (Fort-Dauphin) on the east coast and as far north as Morandava on the west coast, with a separate population in Andringita Natioanl Park in south-central Madagascar.

HABITAT

Ringtails are comfortable in several types of indigenous forest, from dry scrub forest to dense, closed-canopy gallery (riverside) forest. They also reside in (or at least take excursions into) indigenous, dry-adapted spiny forests, which are extensive in the south of Madagascar. A separate population has taken to living in dry, rocky, treeless areas in Andringitra National Park in south-central Madagascar, perfectly at home on rocky outcrops and vertical cliffs. These ringtails differ from the general run in having darker pelts and fewer rings on their tails. They have created and colonized their own unique ecological niche and are the only living lemur species to have adapted to a treeless environment in the wild.

BEHAVIOR

Lemur catta is among the most adaptable lemur species and the one that spends the most time on the ground, although they are just as comfortable in the trees. Ringtails live in groups of 5-25 individuals, an average being 14. Larger groups form a core group of adult females and infants, juveniles, and one or more high-ranking males. Females dominate males, thereby getting first pick of food and mating partners, but there is not always a single, individual leader for the entire group. A female remains within the group in which she was born, while males tend to wander among groups.

A ringtailed lemur group forages in a range of 15-22 acres (6-9 ha) in densely forested areas and up to 57 acres (23 ha) in scrub. Ringtailed lemur territories border on one another without overlap.

Ringtailed lemurs are diurnal, starting the day with a "sun-worship" posture, sitting upright on the ground, arms held out from the sides and resting on the knees, palms open. This gesture is seen in other lemur species and serves to soak up sunlight and thus warm the body in the cool mornings. As the day warms, the troop goes searching for food and forages until noon, when the group naps in trees or on the ground during the hottest part of the day. In the afternoon, they rouse and forage again before nightfall, at which time they take to the trees for sleeping.

In-group disputes are common and may culminate in "stink-fights" between rival males. One male positions his wrist glands close together and drags his tail between them, coating the tail fur with his scent. Then he flicks and waves the tail at the rival, who may respond in kind or back off.

Ringtailed lemurs have a range of identification and alarm calls. The most often-heard sounds are a very cat-like meow for group cohesion, though the sound is a little more high-pitched and songlike. The animals also make rapid, high-pitched yapping or barking sounds for threat or alarm.

Although arboreal animals, ringtail lemurs walk and run quite comfortably and efficiently on the ground. When a ringtail troop travels on the ground, the members keep their tails raised straight into the air, like flags, for group cohesion.

FEEDING ECOLOGY AND DIET

The ringtailed lemur diet is varied but primarily vegetable, including fruit, leaves, flowers, herbs, tree sap, bark, and other plant parts, although they may at times supplement their diets with insects and small vertebrates. A favorite fruit, when in season, are the seed pods of the tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica). The only edible parts are the sticky, sweet-tart arils, or coatings on the seeds.

REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY

Females reach sexual maturity at two years of age, birth their first young at three years and follow with annual births. Males reach sexual maturity at two and a half years old, but must contend with older, dominant males who may curtail any mating moves on the part of young males.

Mating begins in mid-April. During the mating season, females enter estrous for only a few hours of a single day, although all the females of a group will enter estrous within two weeks of one another. The males, driven by hormones, fight madly among themselves for mating privileges during that narrow time window. Females typically mate with more than one male, often with one of the males being from another troop. The young are born in August and September. One or sometimes two are born, depending on food abundance.

The newborn at first clings to the fur of its mother's underside, but in three days it begins moving about on its mother's body, still grasping the pelt. By two weeks of age, the youngster is riding stomach-down on the mother's back. By two and a half months it leaves the mother to play with other young, explore and sample solid foods, though it is still carried by the mother whenever the group moves. The youngster spends more time per day on its own, eating more solid food and taking less milk until final weaning at 5-6 months of age.

Females in a group with newborns show considerable "aunt behavior," handing infants about, even nursing other females' infants, and attending groups of young as they play.

CONSERVATION STATUS

Vulnerable. Multiple threats include deforestation and hunting for food and the illegal pet trade.

SIGNIFICANCE TO HUMANS

Ringtailed lemurs are readily visible in several protected areas in southern Madagascar and have thereby become a banner species for ecotourism. In Berenty Reserve, near Fort Dauphin, at least one troop of ringtails has become so tame that visitors can follow the group about its business throughout the day. Ringtailed lemurs have become reliable ecotourism magnets and thereby bring visitors, cash, and business into Madagascar. ♦

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