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.