RING-TAILED LEMUR Species Survival Plan
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The Natural History of Ring-tailed Lemurs (Lemur catta):

From its characteristic “raccoon look” to the lively social group dynamics, the ring-tailed lemur (lemur catta) is by far the most easily recognized and most popular of all the lemur species.
The ring-tailed lemur, first described in 1758 (Linnaeus) is one of only three monotypic (single type) prosimians species at the genus level.  In the wild, ring-tailed lemurs tolerate an array of extreme habitats and exhibit a patchy distribution throughout the southern and southwestern tropical dry forests and spiny forests of Madagascar.  Population densities are highly variable with highs being reported to be 100 individuals/km2 in dry forests and up to 250 – 600 individuals /km2 in gallery and secondary forests.  
Lemur catta are diurnal (active during the day), not much bigger than a house cat (approximately 3 kg or 6.5 pounds) and are the most terrestrial (ground dwelling) of all the lemurs. In the wild, the ring-tailed troops can range in size from 6 to 30 individuals. However in captivity, troop size is generally dependent on enclosure size and you typically see pairs, small family groups and only occasionally large groups of 25 to 30 animals. The ring-tailed lemur’s social group or troop consists of related adult females (who have a hierarchy and are dominant to males), unrelated adult males and a mixture of male and female offspring.  A young female will remain with her natal group (group she was born in) for her lifetime, however young males reaching sexual maturity (two to three years old) will transfer out and join other groups in search of unrelated females to mate with.
When young males transfer out of their natal group they will often travel in pairs or trios. They work together as a unit while searching for and eventually integrating into a new group. If they are successful finding a new group, the first order of business is to challenge the resident mature males for breeding rights with the new females. The lemur catta male performs a very unique behavior when challenging other males called “stink fighting”. Males utilize wrist and shoulder scent glands to mark their tails (bringing their tails between their legs and rubbing scent from their arms on the tail) and then quickly pull their tail back and throw it up and over their head – shaking it at the rival male. Males will also demonstrate a more violent challenge behavior termed “jump fighting”. This behavior is most often seen during the breeding season and involves high leaps into the air that are followed by full body aggressive contact with slashing bites from their incredibly sharp and long canines. Defeated males will migrate to another group and repeat the process. Through this emigration and immigration practice, genetic exchange occurs and inbreeding is avoided.   
In the wild, females are not sexually mature until three years of age. However in captivity females have been known to conceive as early as one year of age.  Mating season in the wild begins in mid-April however, in North America it begins in October. Mating activity is highly synchronous both in the wild and in captivity and often only lasts for a few weeks.  Infants are born, after a gestation period of approximately 135 days.    Single infants are most common, followed closely by twins when food is plentiful. Infants cling to the female’s abdomen for about two weeks before trying their luck with the jockey style position. Infants grow very quickly and by four weeks will venture off their mom and begin to explore their environment. Females with offspring form a very tight social unit.  They will interact and travel together as well as share babysitting duties, feed & sleep together.  The sleeping formation is another unique ring-tailed lemur behavior. Females and offspring will huddle together much like a football team would, but with tails that are intertwined and held over one another’s shoulder or back to form a “lemur ball”. All lemurs face inward with only the backs of the animals on the outer row exposed to the elements (rain or cold weather). Unfortunately, mature males are not invited to participate in the lemur ball and are expected to sleep on their own.
Ring-tailed lemurs also enjoy “sunbathing”. This behavior is not unique to lemur catta but they seem to perform it best! The early morning rays of the sun are sought out to begin warming themselves. Males, females and offspring will sit very still with perfectly straight backs while facing the sun. Their arms are positioned outward from each side of the body as if they were in a yoga pose. This posture permits maximum sunlight penetration to the black skin just under their dense hair, thus permitting the animals to warm themselves very quickly.
Ring-tailed lemurs are omnivorous and feed on fruit, leaves, flowers, herbs and other plant parts.  In the wild, the leaves and fruit of the tamarind tree (Tamarindus indicus) are favorite foods and can provide approximately 50% of the wild diet.  Ring-tailed lemurs will also supplement their diet with insects and small vertebrate prey if the opportunity presents itself. In captivity, ring-tailed lemurs are fed a commercial chow (nutrient rich biscuit) along with an assortment of fruits and vegetables. True to their wild cousins, even captive ring-tailed lemurs will supplement their diet with the opportunistic capture of “prey”!
Lemur catta groups live in home ranges varying in size from 6ha to over 30ha – depending on the season and type of habitat. Females and males define and defend their territory by scent marking the boundary limits of their home range. Males utilize their thorny forearm spur and wrist scent gland along with scrotal glands to embed scent into the bark of trees and shrubs while the females mark with scent from their vulva. Territorial disputes will occur when neighboring ring-tailed lemur groups meet at their range boundaries.
Lemur catta are extremely vocal and have unique calls for predator species and group communication such as for location, infant, feeding and lost calls. Vocalizations consist of meows, clicks, yaps, screams, purring and squeaks.  Ring-tailed lemurs also communicate visually with their tails. As the troop moves through an area, all tails are held up high and the characteristic black and white rings serve as “distance signals” keeping the group together as well as serving as a “presence signal” to warn off other groups.
Natural predators consist of raptors, fossa (a large civet like carnivore), Indian civets, ground boas and occasionally feral dogs and cats.

Further general reading:

Lemur Behavior: A Madagascar Field Study. 1966. Alison Jolly. 
Lords and Lemurs: Mad Scientists, Kings With Spears and the Survival of Diversity in Madagascar. 2004. Alison Jolly
Lemurs of Madagascar, CI Tropical Field Guide Series 2nd edition 2006. Mittermeier, et.al.
Mammals of Madagascar – A Complete Guide, 2007. Nick Garbut

For the enthusiast:

Ringtailed Lemur Biology: lemur catta in Madagascar. 2006. A. Jolly, R. Sussman, N. Koyama & H. Rasamimanana (Developments in Primatology: Progress and Prospects series).
The Natural History of Madagascar. 2003. Edited by S. Goodman and J. Benstead.



   Female lemur catta

© copyright 2009 LCF


ring-tail running

ring-tails walking down a path

scent glands

mother with baby on her back

male lemur catta

ring-tail sunning in tree photograph

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