10 Facts about Lemurs
The word lemur comes from the Latin ‘Lemures’ meaning spirit, spectre or ghost. In ancient Rome they would hold the Lemuria festival which involved exorcisms. Lemurs were given this name due to nocturnal habits and slow movements. When viewing the white coloured silky sifaka sitting up a tree or hearing the strange whale like call of the indri, it certainly stirs a sense of being in a haunted forest.
160 million years ago, Madagascar was part of a prehistoric super continent known today as Gondwanaland. This huge land mass consisted of Madagascar, Africa, South America, Antarctica, Australia, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Subcontinent. As the continent broke up, Africa and South America split first, drifting westward. Madagascar separated from the remaining block mainly made up of Antarctica and India around 60 million years ago. Since then, the island has been in isolation from the rest of the world, providing a unique evolutionary development. It is believed that lemurs first came to the island around 25 to 60 million years ago, via means of random ‘rafting events.’ This is when animals are stranded on rafts formed from vegetation and by chance end up in new ecosystems where they need to adapt to survive. And lemurs have certainly adapted to Madagascar; boasting 105 endemic species and subspecies, not counting the extinct ones, covering every part of the island and every ecological niche. That is, before their habitats were subjected to logging and ‘slash and burn’ methods for clearing land for agriculture. The local forest dwelling wildlife now occupies only 10 percent of the island.
It is believed that lemurs, which originated from Africa around 60 to 65 million years ago died out there due to competition with monkeys, apes and other arboreal mammals. On Madagascar, they flourished without this competition. So why did other primates never make it to the island? The answer lies in oceanic currents and plate tectonics. Madagascar was situated 1000 km to the south of its current position, 60 million years ago, where the currents would have facilitated the rafting events thought to have occurred. Around 25 million years ago the island had drifted too far north for any wildlife to feasibly make the crossing. Since monkeys and apes developed around 20 million years ago, this was too late to colonise Madagascar.