10 Facts About Lemurs

Hannah Champion

29 oct. 2015

The World Lemur Festival

The World Lemur Festival starts today, Thursday the 29th October culminating with World Lemur Day on the 31st. 

The festival started last year with the objective of raising awareness worldwide both of lemurs and their home Madagascar, a country with one of the largest variety of endemic species, but also one that suffers from extreme poverty, and recently, political strife. The Malagasy people can barely sustain themselves from the crops grown on the island, forcing them to encroach further into the forests to create more farm land. Only 10 percent of the island’s original forests and vegetation remains now. Lemurs are still hunted today as a needed source of protein. Fish farms are being built to try and combat this problem. In 2009 a coup resulted in a corrupt government and the ensuing chaos was very destructive to the environment, particularly with the illegal logging trade. Thankfully, in 2013, a new democratically elected government was formed, with a president who is enthusiastic about conservation and understands the unique biodiversity of Madagascar is its greatest asset.

Tourism helps local communities and by extension the lemurs. Of the 105 remaining lemur species, 23 are critically endangered and 52 are endangered.

Some are on the very brink of extinction with population numbers below 100. Improving the island’s tourism industry, employing local people and instilling in them a passion for conservation is the best chance the lemurs and other Malagasy wildlife have for their continued survival.

10 Facts About Lemurs

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Ring-tailed lemurs are the most abundant and adaptable of the species. Found in almost every ecosystem on the island, they are one of Madagascar’s most iconic images and exhibit some curious behaviour. In the morning hours they are usually found sunbathing, sat in a very human-like pose similar to the lotus position in Yoga. They also conserve heat by sometimes forming ‘lemur balls.’ Similar to emperor penguins huddling together, the lemurs form a furry mass where often the only distinguishing sign of how many animals are involved, is the number of striped tails wrapped around the formation. Male ring-tailed lemurs, when involved in disputes, will settle the argument over a ‘stink war.’ They rub their tails against the scent glands located on their wrists and proceed to flick the odorous appendages towards one another. It is the human equivalent of two grown men wafting their armpit odour at each other.

4. Lemurs have developed specialised grooming tools unique to their species. Their front bottom dental structure consists of a row of long thin teeth with fine even spaces in between, resembling a comb. This formation is aptly named the ‘tooth comb,’ and is ideal for grooming fur. Lemurs also have a toenail known as the ‘toilet claw.’ This is longer, more curved and attached at a steeper angle than the other nails, and is also used for raking through fur to clean and maintain it.

5. The aye-aye  (pictured above) is one of the strangest looking lemurs and is the world’s largest nocturnal primate. For a while it was considered to be part of the rodent family due to their gnawing, continuously-growing front teeth that are also characteristic of rats and mice. These teeth however are just part of their specialised adaptation, filling an ecological niche usually occupied by woodpeckers. They are mainly insectivores and are particularly fond of grubs. The aye-aye has a very long, thin, third finger with a hooked nail on the end and large sensitive ears.  How these lemurs obtain their food is a fascinating demonstration of the scope of evolutionary traits. They will move up a tree trunk tapping it with their middle finger up to 11 times a second, using echolocation to find small hollows housing grubs. Once they find one, they gnaw a hole using their front teeth and then probe the opening with the specialised elongated finger, finally pulling out the grub.

6. The aye-aye is critically endangered. Unfortunately, this is mainly due to superstition. The Malagasy people viewed the bizarre looking animal as an evil omen, believing that, should someone be pointed at by its long sinister finger, then that person was marked for death. Another myth that existed was similar to the western belief involving black cats crossing your path; if an aye-aye crossed in front of a person, it was believed that person would be cursed. The method for counteracting this supposed curse was to kill the creature immediately. With these cultural beliefs and the aye-aye’s tameness, often walking through villages instead of avoiding them, it’s easy to see how this animal became vulnerable.

7. The golden bamboo lemur (pictured below) is another critically endangered resident of the island. This lemur has suffered population decline almost entirely due to habitat loss. People are unlikely to have hunted it for food because of the amount of cyanide they ingest every day. As their name suggests, bamboo lemurs feed on bamboo. There are three species living together in the same forests, feeding on the same bamboo plants. There isn’t competition between them however since they each eat separate parts of the plants. The golden bamboo lemur prefers to feast upon the shoots, which are heavily laced with cyanide. They will, on average, eat 500g of this toxic vegetation every day which is 12 times the lethal dose for an animal of its size. How it survives, let alone enjoys this diet is still a mystery.

8. Mouse lemurs are the world’s smallest primates weighing only 30g. They are the only primates known to hibernate, which only the females do when food is scarce, as a means of conserving energy. They are also the only primates other than humans who can develop Alzheimer’s. Even more curious is that they only develop the disease when in captivity. Ongoing research is being conducted to try and understand the reason for this.

9. The northern giant mouse lemur has giant testicles for which the human equivalent would be two grapefruits! This is thought to be a result of their promiscuous lifestyle. Unlike other lemurs which mate once a year at most, the northern giant mouse lemur is sexually active all year round mating with multiple partners.

10. 17 species and 8 genera of lemur are believed to have become extinct since humans arrived on Madagascar 2000 years ago. Among these was Archaeoindris Fontoynontii, a giant lemur similar in size to a gorilla. Its extinction is believed to be due to habitat loss and being hunted, although, it is thought to have already been rare on the island when humans arrived.

Fancy seeing lemurs in the wild? Contact us to find out more... 

Comments

Des Harrold

6/11/2015 12:00 PM

Interesting and well written - the Malagasy people should take note of this natural asset.

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