What is a lemur?
Lemurs are a clade of primates endemic to Madagascar. They are believed to have arrived on Madagascar 62 to 65 million years ago, which they reached on rafts of vegetation floating across the ocean. There are 103 species of lemur, and they show a great deal of diversity. When humans settled on Madagascar 2,000 years ago, the largest lemur was the now extinct Archaeoindris fontoynontii, which was the size of a male gorilla. The smallest species is Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur (Microcebus berthae), which is only 92mm (3.6in) long and weighs 30g (1.1oz).
Different groups of lemurs show different adaptations to a variety of lifestyles. Some lemurs mainly eat leaves, and have a large stomach and caecum to enable fermentation. Others have hind limbs that are longer than the forelimbs that allow them to leap long distances between trees. The aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is an excellent example of the diversity of lemurs. Unusually, it is nocturnal, and fills the same ecological niche as a woodpecker. It uses an elongated finger to pull grubs from under tree bark using a method called percussive foraging.
Lemurs usually live in groups of fewer than 15 individuals, although some species are “solitary but social”, sleeping in small groups but foraging alone. The multi-male system is the most common, which includes several males, females, and offspring, which is similar to many other primates. However, unlike many other primates, lemurs often display female social dominance, which may manifest itself in female aggression towards males at certain times. This may be due to the high cost of reproduction and the scarcity of food and other resources.
Photo: Coquerel’s sifaka (Propithecus coquereli) by Travis Steffens.