Lemurs are exceptionally strange yet equally fascinating animals. Appearing with huge reflective eyes, human-like hands, and long tails, you might have seen some species of lemur in a zoo or in a movie. Although Lemurs are primates and are related to monkeys and apes, they belong to an entirely different primate family tree.
Lemurs are the world’s oldest primates, having come to life more than 70 million years ago. Aside from humans, they are also the only primates that have blue eyes.
If you are further intrigued by these creatures, here is everything you need to know about the interesting species of lemurs:
Where are lemurs found?
The island country of Madagascar, located off the west coast of Africa, is the natural home of lemurs. Being the second-largest island country, Madagascar is the only wild habitat for lemurs.
Madagascar is classified as the world’s most important biodiversity spot. A large population of its wildlife cannot be found anywhere else on the planet, including lemurs. Some species of lemurs also live on the nearby Comoros Islands and other smaller islands around Madagascar.
Lemurs thrive in various habitats, depending on the species. These include dry deciduous forests, spiny forests, rainforests, mountains, and wetlands.
There are animals, such as the Sunda flying lemur, that live in Southeast Asia. But, even though they have lemurs in their names, they are not actual lemurs and do not belong to this primate family. True lemurs are only found in Madagascar and its neighbouring islands.
The total species of lemurs
With over 111 known species and the potential to discover more in the future, lemurs are the most diverse. The most common of all is the ring-tailed lemur, which is easily recognisable by the black rings on its white and fluffy tails.
The smallest of all the lemur species is Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur. They are also the smallest primate species in the world. These lemurs grow up to 4 inches, or 11 cm, long. Their tails add up to another 6 inches, or 14 cm, in length.
On the other hand, the largest lemur is the Indri, which grows anywhere between 24 and 35 inches, or 61 and 90 centimetres. All lemur species have tails, but interestingly, Indri does not have one.
Thousands of years ago, there were lemurs the size of gorillas that roamed the lands of Madagascar before they went extinct. Known as the giant sloth lemurs, they looked like present-day sloths, although lemurs are a separate group of animals. One of the giant lemur species, Megaladapis Edwardsi, went extinct approximately 500 years ago. According to research, this lemur weighed a staggering 200 pounds and was the size of a small adult human.
What do lemurs hunt and eat?
Lemurs are sometimes picky about what they eat. Although most of their diet comes from different tree species, it also depends on the lemur species. Generally, many lemurs are herbivores and feed on flowers, fruits, sap, and tree bark. The greater bamboo lemurs specialise in eating bamboo and often get their food from a single species of woody bamboo in Madagascar.
In contrast, a few of the lemurs are omnivores that eat insects and small vertebrates. For instance, the ring-tailed lemur will eat anything available to them, including chameleons, spiders, and even small birds.
Incidentally, lemurs play the most crucial role in maintaining forest diversity. Pollinator animals include hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies, but even lemurs, specifically ruffled lemurs, are considered the Earth’s largest pollinators.
These ruffled lemurs are seed dispersers, which is a process that involves carrying seeds in their stomachs after eating fruit. They deposit the seeds in a new region or area through their faeces. Moreover, there are many endemic plant and tree species that solely depend on lemurs.
The matriarchal Lemur society
Depending on the species, lemurs can be diurnal (active during the day), nocturnal (active during the night), or cathemeral (active during the day as well as the night). Diurnal lemurs are highly social and live among groups called troops.
The lemur society is largely run by female lemurs. Female dominance is rare in animals, but lemurs have consistently followed the matrilineal pattern. Although both male and female lemurs are the same size, the species is still dominated by females. Lemur females frequently show signs of aggression and dominance and even mark their territories like males.
Lemurs are smarter than you think
We tend to look at apes and gorillas as the most intelligent primates. But lemurs are very smart and perform various skills just by observing.
Lemurs can learn patterns and even have object discrimination skills. They also perform tasks that are too complex for monkeys, such as using trained tools and even solving simple arithmetic! Furthermore, a 2018 study suggested that the more a lemur performs a new skill, the more popular that lemur becomes in the troop.
How do lemurs communicate?
Aside from humans, no other primates sing, except lemurs. Indri lemurs are the only ones who perform a cappella in the eastern rainforests of Madagascar. Belting out these songs helps in group formation as well as defence from threats. Both male and female indri lemurs carefully coordinate the chorus by mimicking each other’s synchronising notes and rhythms.
Ring-tailed lemurs also have a unique way to communicate. They have scent glands on their chests and wrists that become very useful during the breeding season. To mark his territory, a male lemur will mix the secretions from his wrist and chest. They also indulge in something called ‘stink flirting’, wherein they use their scent to attract mates and other female lemurs.
Moreover, instead of resorting to violent physical fights to settle disputes, they lift their tails for a stink fight against a rival. They waft the smells into each other‘s faces, and the brawl comes to an end when one of them gives up.
Lemurs and superstitions
Out of all lemur species, the aye-ayes are the most unusual. This species also inspires various superstitions among the Malagasy people living in Madagascar. Appearing with a gremlin face and long, thin hands, they are known for their spooky features. But what’s more, their spindly fingers are creepy enough to scare anyone off.
But, despite their appearance, aye ayes are anything but evil. Their spindly fingers are the result of evolution, which helps them during percussive foraging. This technique involves aye-aye tapping on the tree bark and listening to the sounds of hidden insects. When they find one, they tear a hole in the wood with their sharp teeth and use their long fingers to reach inside.
But, among the local people, aye-ayes are considered monsters. Some superstitions suggest that when an aye-aye points towards someone with its fingers, death can occur. Their strange distinctiveness has unfortunately made this species endangered as humans actively kill them.
Lemurs are exceptional creatures, but they are also running out of time. Around 106 lemur species that are known today face the risk of extinction. The lemur population has reduced significantly due to reasons such as deforestation and hunting. More often than not, their habitat is destroyed for agriculture. Lemurs are also captured and traded illegally to be kept as exotic pets.
One way to help lemurs is by going on tours to see this species in the forests of Madagascar. As Madagascar is a poor island country, eco-tourism will not only benefit the Malagasy people, which will stop them from destroying the lemur’s habitats, but also save these primates’ lives.
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