What loves to bask in the early sunlight, has sweat glands in their wrists, and is found only in Madagascar? If you said the lemur, then you guessed right. We will highlight what makes lemurs so fascinating and unique, explore why they need protecting, and share what you can do to help them.
1. Madagascar is the only place lemurs naturally call home.
Located 250 miles off the east coast of Africa is the island of Madagascar, the 4th largest island in the world, and the only habitat for all wild lemurs in the world.
Madagascar is classified as one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots! With a large proportion of its wildlife found nowhere else in the world, much of Madagascar’s wildlife is also threatened by human actions.
Interestingly, some lemur species—the brown lemur and mongoose lemur—were introduced by humans and now live on the Comoros islands, a volcanic group of islands located off the north west coast of Madagascar (1).
2. There are over 100 species of lemur, in all shapes and sizes.
With an estimated 112 species, lemurs come in all shapes and sizes. The smallest, Madame berthe’s mouse lemur, has an average body weight of 30g, and the largest, the indri, weighs about 6-9.5kg (that’s about the size of a human child!).
The indri is the largest of the living lemurs, however subfossil records show extinct lemurs as large as 85kg! Most notably, Megaladapis edwardsi that used to roam the island of Madagascar and was thought to be the size of a gorilla! (2).
The number of lemur species changes often due to new discoveries and genetic testing, leading to the scientific classification of new species!
3. Lemurs have a female-dominant society.
Who rules the world? Well, in lemur society the females rule! At the center of lemur society is a female leader who rises to the occasion of directing a social group. This happens quite rarely in mammals, where male dominance generally stands. Lemur females show signs of dominance in the way they mark their territories within the group. Another fact is that female lemurs snatch food away from the males, kick them out of sleeping spots, and show actual physical aggression (3, 4, 5).
4. Lemurs are legendary …
Lemurs play a significant role in culture to Malagasy people and are subject to many fady, or cultural taboos and traditions that originate from ancient folktales. Fady or taboos are passed on from generation to generation through stories and provide guidance on the do’s and don’ts for local people.
Many fadys involve lemurs. For example, the indri are fady for many Malagasy people. Old legends speak of the spirits of ancestors living on within these lemurs. Thus, people should not hunt, kill or eat indri.
Another lemur species at the center of many fady is the Aye-Aye. But unlike the indri, the Aye-Aye is thought to be associated with evil. It is believed that ill-fortune comes to any person who sees one. This has led to large scale persecution of the Aye-Aye across its range in Madagascar. Education programs run by LCN member Lemur Conservation Foundation tackle the perception surrounding the Aye-Aye.
5. As crucial seed dispersers, lemurs are “creators of the forests”.
Did you know that lemurs play a huge role in maintaining forest diversity, structure and dynamics through the movement of seeds? Some lemur species play a significant role in their ecosystem by being seed dispersers. But what does this actually mean?
Being a seed disperser means they aid in the process of moving seeds and/or pollen from one area to another. Ruffed lemurs, like the black and white ruffed lemur, is a prime example of a lemur species that acts as a key seed disperser.
Individual lemurs can get pollen or seeds stuck on their fur as they search for fruits and nectar. Then, they pass this pollen and seeds on to other flowers. Sometimes seeds even get dispersed to new areas when lemurs eat fruit because the seed passes through their digestive system and is excreted in their poop!
Many endemic flowering plants and tree species depend highly on lemur species, such as the ruffed lemurs, to disperse their seeds (6).
6. Besides humans, lemurs are the only primates that have blue eyes.
Primates have a variety of eye shapes and colors, but blue irises are rare in mammals. Other than humans, the only primates with naturally occurring blue eyes are the blue-eyed black lemurs, sometimes called Sclater’s lemurs. The blue-eyed black lemur is one of the most threatened lemur species, listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of threatened species, with numbers decreasing (6).
Lemur Conservation Network member AEECL supports conservation efforts for the blue-eyed black lemur both in their natural habitat and in zoos. See LCN’s blog post on How Zoos Support Wildlife Conservation to find out more.
7. Lemurs self-medicate, and some get high off of millipedes.
Who needs a pharmacy when you live in the forest?! Various lemur species use the forest to self medicate, acting as their own personal pharmacy. Red-fronted brown lemurs eat millipedes to get rid of gastrointestinal parasites, such as worms. It is thought that the toxins within the millipedes kill the parasites that set up home in the lemurs’ guts (7).
8. Some lemurs sing a capella. Others communicate with stink!
In the rainforests of east Madagascar you will often hear the songs of the indri. Indri are a talented a capella group of the animal kingdom, with both the males and females singing, and often in sync with each other. The function behind this singing is complex and can vary depending on location and the animal hearing it. One reason behind the indris song is to mark its territory and to let others know ‘Hey, this is my space. Find your own!’ (8).
Ring-tailed lemurs also communicate and mark their territory in a unique way. They have scent glands on their wrists and chest, which become particularly useful during the breeding season. A male will mix secretions from his wrist and chest glands to mark his territory, and even lift his tail to be ready for a ‘stink fight’ against a rival. The dispute ends only when one gives up as they waft the strong smells into each other’s faces with their tails! (9)
9. Lemurs are the world’s oldest living primates.
A fact that few people know is that lemurs are classified as the world’s oldest primates! The story of lemurs begins over 70 million years ago, long before humans. This was a world when lemur-like animals, the planet’s first primates, roamed Africa along with the dinosaurs. Scientists think that around 65 million years ago, lemurs rafted across the Indian Ocean to the island of Madagascar on floating vegetation. Over the next tens of millions of years, the lemurs evolved and diversified on Madagascar to the 112 species that we see today.
10. Protecting lemurs benefits the Malagasy people.
The protection of lemurs not only benefits lemurs themselves but also the Malagasy people. Many conservationists believe that ecotourism is the number one way to ensure the future survival of the lemurs of Madagascar.
Tourists visiting Madagascar to see lemurs in the wild brings money, which in turn boosts the local economy and brings much needed revenue. This also shows local people that lemurs are more valuable alive than dead. Madagascar’s government sees tourism as a real priority, has drastically increased funding to promote the island as an ecotourism destination. Ecotourism could mean millions of dollars for Madagascar’s economy, and lead to the future survival of lemurs.
Lemurs are fascinating creatures, unique in many ways. But they are at risk and have an uncertain future. A recent IUCN Red List update showed that a staggering 98% of lemur species are threatened with extinction. That’s around 103 species! A further 33% are categorized as Critically Endangered, the highest threat level.
About the Authors
This post was co-authored by Coral Chell and Rachel Hudson. Coral has a BSc (Honors) in Zoo Biology and an MSc in Endangered Species Recovery and Conservation, with a keen interest in anything lemur, conservation and/or Madagascar related. She is currently a Higher Education Lecturer at a college in East Yorkshire, UK. She is also working on a variety of research projects in Madagascar looking at the Coquerel’s sifaka and Ring-Tailed lemurs, and is hoping to work towards a PhD in the next few years focusing on lemurs. Rachel (Rae-Rae) is a freelance writer, entrepreneur and big fan of animals.
- Mittermeier et al. (2010). Lemurs of Madagascar. 3rd Edition. Conservation International.
- Kappeler, P.M. (1990). Female dominance in Lemur catta: more than just female feeding priority?. Folia Primatologica, 55(2), pp.92-95.
- Volampeno, S., Randriatahina, G., Schwitzer, C. & Seiler, M. (2020). Eulemur flavifrons. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T8211A115563094. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-2.RLTS.T8211A115563094.en
- Peckre, L.R., Defolie, C., Kappeler, P.M. and Fichtel, C., (2018). Potential self-medication using millipede secretions in red-fronted lemurs: combining anointment and ingestion for a joint action against gastrointestinal parasites?. Primates, 59(5), pp.483-494.
- Pollock, J.I. (1986) The song of the Indris (Indri indri; Primates: Lemuroidea): Natural history, form, and function. International Journal of Primatology. 7, 225–264
- Stankiewicz, J., Thiart, C., Masters, J.C. and De Wit, M.J., (2006). Did lemurs have sweepstake tickets? An exploration of Simpson’s model for the colonization of Madagascar by mammals. Journal of Biogeography, 33(2), pp.221-235.