In the western Indian Ocean, just 250 miles from the east coast of Africa lies the fourth largest island in the world – Madagascar.
Like many of the islands to the east of the Indian Ocean, Madagascar is also home to it’s own unique members of the animal kingdom – animals found nowhere else. The most common and perhaps most famous exclusive residents of this island nation are the Lemurs.
Lemurs are part of the primate family known as prosimians. Prosimians are distinquished from other primates suchs as apes and monkeys and include lemurs, lorises, and bushbabies.
Lemurs are the most endangered primates in the world. In fact, they are the most threatened group of mammals on the planet. Currently 95% of lemur species are at risk of extinction.
There are more than 100 species of lemurs, including the red-ruffed lemur, the mongoose lemur, the mouse lemur (which is the smallest primate in the world), the indri, the sifaka and the aye aye. However the most recognizable and well-known of the species is the Ring-Tailed Lemur.
Ring tailed Lemurs are typically gray in body fur with white bellies. They have a dark gray head, a white face with dark triangular eye patches and a moist black nose and of course the recognizable ringed-tail. Males weigh up to 6 pounds while females are slightly smaller.
Ring-tailed lemurs live in southwestern Madagascar and while they are widely distributed across the arid, open areas and forests – some of the hottest and least hospitable forests in the country – Ring-tailed lemurs are found in only a few protected areas.
Lemurs are highly social animals, living in large groups. These social groups are led by a single alpha female who dominates all the other males and females – sometimes totalling as many as 30 individuals.
Female lemurs will live in the same family group their entire lives while mature males will migrate from group to group. The hierarchy among ring-tailed lemur females is not always consistent through birth however and daughters of the alpha female do not always assume the rank of their mothers. A group of lemurs is sometimes called a conspiracy, a troop or a mob.
Though all lemurs spend much of their lives in the treetops – where they move quite easily, often jumping from branch to branch, they also venture down to the ground to collect food.
Due to the harsh climate they live in – ring tailed lemurs feed on a variety of vegetation, including fruit, leaves, flowers, bark, and sap. They will also eat the occasional invertebrate they may uncover while foraging.
The ring-tailed lemur spends more time on the ground than any other species – up to 50% of their day they may be found on the forest floor where they walk on all fours – using both their hands and feet.
The most distinguishing feature of the ring-tailed lemurs is of course their 2 foot long tail that is marked with 13 distinct alternating white and black bands. While traveling, ring-tailed lemurs will keep their tails raised in the air – acting like flags to help keep group members together.
Ring-tailed lemurs also have scent glands on their wrists and chests that they use to mark their foraging routes. Males even have a horny spur on each wrist gland that they use to pierce tree branches before scent marking them.
During the breeding season, males compete for females by rubbing their tail with their wrist scent gland, and then wafting their tail towards their competitor. The winner of this “stink fight” is then able to mate with females.
Females usually give birth to only one young ring-tailed lemur at a time. The baby will initially cling to the mothers belly after birth, then at about two weeks old will transition and ride on her back.
Ring-tailed lemurs are very vocal animals – researchers have identified at least 28 different calls and alarms, making them one of the most vocal of all primate species.
In addition to their vocalizations, ring-tails will also utilize facial expressions to communicate with one another.
With the exception of the aye-aye, all lemurs’ bottom teeth form a special “toothcomb” structure, which they use for grooming. Ring-tails can often be found combing each others’ fur. This instinctive behavior that is not just hygienic, but also strengthens the social bonds within the group and is known as social grooming.
Another familiar sight involving the ring-tailed lemurs is a behavior called “sun worshipping.” The group will gather in open areas of the forest to sunbathe. They sit in what some call a “yoga position” with their bellies toward the sun and their arms and legs stretched out to the sides. This position allows them to absorb the warmth of the sun through their less dense belly fur.
In addition to their time in trees and foraging the ground for food, researchers have now discovered that some ring-tailed lemur groups will often spend each night inside of limestone caves. Over a six year study, the same group returned each night to the same location. This unique behavior likely provides some safety from potential predators, it is also believed that it provides the lemurs with access to water and nutrients and help to regulate their body temperatures during cold or hot weather.
While lemurs populate much of the island of Madagascar and have few natural predators – such as the fossa – they face many threats to their survival. Logging and charcoal production has destroyed much of their native habitats. All lemurs also face the human threat of the illegal pet trade.
Pet lemurs are actually illegal in Madagascar and anyone caught removing lemurs from the forest, selling them, or keeping them without a government permit can be fined and sentenced to time in jail. But the laws are difficult to enforce, especially in remote villages, where rural poverty is common and law enforcement personnel may be few.
Many pet lemurs are captured as babies, separated from their mothers and sold to local hotels and restaurants to lure tourists, who pay to touch the animals and have their photo taken with them. A practice that many people participate in, while unknowingly leading the ring-tailed and other lemur species into extinction.
To help preserve the world’s lemur population and raise awareness of these endangered animals – many accredited zoos such as the Akron Zoo and the Naples Zoo plus conservation organizations including the Duke Lemur Center, Lemur Love and the AZA certified Lemur Conservation Foundation all partner to form the Lemur Conservation Network and on the last Friday of October each year celebrate World Lemur Day.
Both on the ground and in the trees, few animals can keep up with the speed and agility of Madagascar’s famous resident primates. Unfortunately for the lemurs – their primary predator has no such difficulty.
Said to resemble a small puma both in color and appearance, measuring up to 6 feet long including their 30 inch tail and weighing nearly 20 pounds this animal is Madagascar’s largest native carnivorous mammal – it is not a cat, it is not a mongoose – it is the Fossa!
Legends of fossa have long been a part of the Malagasy culture. Myths once claimed that the fossa would creep into homes and steals babies from their cribs, another tale said that the mere scent of a fossa would kill poultry.
With a slender, long and muscular torso – the Fossa can move swiftly across the ground. With bare foot pads and 5 semi-retractable claws on each foot – aided by their long tail for balance they move just as quick among the trees.
The fossa (foos-uh), also sometimes pronounced as the “fah-sah” or “foosh”, is a unique animal found today mostly in the interior forest regions of Madagascar. Though they do live in a variety of forest types: from rain forest, humid and mountainous ranges and even spiny desert forests.
These various habitats provide plenty of options for their diet. Fossa primarily feed upon the many lemur species on the island as well as rodents, reptiles, and insects. They are known to consume not just the meat but also the internal organs of their prey.
Unfortunately, in areas near human settlements, fossa also feed on domestic livestock such as chickens. This has resulted in them being hunted, not only for bush meat but as a nuisance animal – where they are often killed indiscriminately.
Currently fossa are listed as vulnerable – but their numbers are decreasing, as few as 2,500 may remain in the wild.
Fossa are active both day and night – though they are less active around midday. In some areas closer to human residences – fossa tend to be mostly nocturnal.
Thought to be a distant relative of the mongoose, the possess a similar shaped head and eyes that appear as orange circles with a vertical slit. Their teeth resemble those of many cats and their long whiskers (or vibrissae) are similar to those of an otter.
Fossa are very nimble and move almost effortlessly among treetops. They can even move while suspended underneath a tree branch. The possess “reversible” ankles on each hindfoot, which allows them to move both up and down the tree trunks head first, giving them an advantage when they are on the prowl. On the ground, they walk flatfooted on the soles of its feet like a bear. Fossa are capable of covering great distances in their regions, sometimes traveling as much as 16 miles in a day.
Males and females will occupy territories defined by scent marking. Male fossa’s will often overlap in their home ranges and even sometimes live in small groups and hunt cooperatively for larger prey such as sifaka. Several females will often inhabit the same area as a male though females remain solitary in their range, except when caring for young.
During breeding season from September to November, a single female will occupy a tree, and males will congregate below. Though normally silent, during this time females will mew to attract males, and the males will howl and yowl while competing for the female. Over a one-week period, the female will mate with up to six different males. Once this is done, a new female will arrive, replacing the first female to mate with the gathered males.
Fossa typically give birth to 2 – 4 babies inside a den – which is often a hollowed out tree or empty termite mound. The newborns are born toothless and their eyes remain closed for up to 15 days. The mother is the exclusive caregiver for her offspring who may remain with her up to 20 months.
Fossa have no natural predators – but the human conflict and deforestation
which continues to destroy their native habitats pose the greatest threat to their survival.
It is unknown how long the fossa may live in the wild, but many have lived up to 20 years in managed care where accredited zoological facilities continue to ensure that the fossa continue to thrive for generations to come.
Madagascar is known for its population of lemurs – found no where else in the world. While lemurs range in size from 3 inches tall to 3 feet tall – most lemurs are similar in appearance. However, one species is rather unique. Traditional legends among local villagers claimed the glance or point of this creature meant bad luck resulting in your ultimate and soon demise.
One of the strangest primates on the planet – it is the mischievous Aye-Aye.
The aye-aye has a bizarre appearance compared to most lemurs. With large eyes, bat-like ears, rodent-like teeth, wirey long guard hairs and fur, and a long, thin middle finger on each hand that resembles a that of a skeleton.
Despite weighing around five pounds and measuring up to 16 inches long, the aye-aye is the largest nocturnal primate in the world.
Males and females look relatively identical other than size, males being slightly larger. When threatened or excited, aye-ayes will raise their long, white guard hairs that cover their body, making them look twice as big – and even more haunting.
The aye-aye’s tail has the longest hairs of any prosimian at over 9 inches, and like many lemur species is typically longer than their body.
Fast and stealthy – these black-furred animals roam the forest at night searching for food. Like other lemurs, they are agile in the trees and quick on the ground.
Aye-ayes are well equipped to hunt one of their preferred prey – insect grub.
The ears of the aye-aye are extremely large and moveable, to assist in locating larvae in wood cavities through a hunting technique known as percussive foraging.
Using their elongated, clawed fingers and tapping on the branches and logs,
aye-ayes utilize their excellent hearing to locate insects living within the wood. Some researchers believe however, percussive foraging may in fact rely more on touch than sounds.
The aye-aye possesses large, front teeth that continue to grow throughout their lifetime – a unique ability not seen in other primates. These strong front teeth allow them to puncture small holes in the wood, then using their very long and thin middle fingers – which are capable of indepedent movement from their other fingers – they are able to extract their prey from inside.
Aye-ayes also eat seeds, fruits and nuts. Using their rodent-like teeth they will gnaw at nuts and some hard-shelled fruits and use their fingers to scoop the flesh out of coconuts and other fruits.
Their specialized middle fingers have a ball and socket joint located at the first knuckle that allows it to move almost 360 degrees. In addtion to hunting and grooming, these special digits are also often used when drinking.
By quickly moving the finger back and forth between their mouth and the liquid, they can acquire liquids not normally accessible by their tongue alone. Aye-ayes have been recorded moving their third finger from a food source to their mouth as quick as 3 strokes per second.
The Aye-Aye is very adaptive despite its specialized food and feeding techniques. This flexibility is why its distribution in Madagascar is larger than any other lemur species.
Once thought to be rather rare, recent studies have shown however that they are located in a number of different regions and habitats across the island – though the total population numbers are smaller than many other lemur species.
Aye-ayes are found primarily along the east coast and the northern forest. Unlike most lemur species, aye-ayes are not very social and only come together during courtship or when a mother is raising her young. During these interactions, females are considered to be dominant over males.
Males are known to claim a very large home range, sometimes with overlap with other males that may lead to hostile encounters. Females maintain their own non-overlapping home ranges though it is usually shared is that of at least one male. Aye-ayes sleep in elaborate tree nests during the day, with different animals possibly using the same nest on different days.
With their taste for fruits – they have been known to raid coconut plantations and they have been observed eating other plantation crops such as mangoes.
This activity has created some human conflict – and despite the former myths of being an omen of death – today they are often killed as an agricultural pest. Still, like all lemurs on the island of Madagascar – the greatest threat is loss of habitat due to deforestation.
Few accredited facilities around the world are home to the aye-aye. Today these include the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, the Denver Zoo, Omaha’s Henrly Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and the Philadelpha Zoo.
The leading center for aye-ayes is the Duke Lemur Center, the only aye-aye in human care first arrived there in 1987. The first birth of an aye-aye in human care occured at the Duke Lemur Center in 1992 – this historic aye-aye was named – the Blue Devil. Today, most of the aye-ayes found in zoos around the world are offspring from the original eight animals that call Duke Lemur Center home.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens
Duke Lemur Center
Lemur Conservation Foundation
National Primate Research Center
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
San Diego Zoo Global Library
Smithsonian’s National Zoo
For original wildlife artwork and more amazing animal facts visit: