Coquerel’s sifaka (Propithecus coquereli) are delicate leaf-eaters from the dry northwestern forests of Madagascar. The sifaka of Madagascar are distinguished from other lemurs by their mode of locomotion: these animals maintain a distinctly vertical posture and leap through the trees using just the strength of their back legs. Their spectacular method of locomotion is known as vertical clinging and leaping and their long, powerful legs can easily propel them distances of over 20 feet from tree to tree. On the ground, the animals cross treeless areas just as gracefully, by an elegant bipedal sideways hopping.
The Malagasy name ‘sifaka’ comes from the distinct call this animal makes as it travels through the trees: “shif-auk.”
Coquerel’s Sifaka feed on young leaves, flowers, fruit, bark and dead wood in the wet season, and mature leaves and buds in the dry season. Leaves make up a significant portion of the sifaka diet both in the wild as well as in captivity. In fact, the digestive system of these folivorous primates requires that a certain percentage of the diet be in the form of browse. As many as 98 different plant species have been recorded in their diet. However, only 12 of these plants make up two thirds of the diet. Foraging activities occupy between 30 and 40% of the day.
During the warmer months, sifakas at the Lemur Center receive a daily selection of fresh browse harvested from nearby fields and forests. This browse consists of a variety of some of the ten different species of North Carolina leaves the sifakas enjoy. In the fall, six chest freezers are each filled with packages of sumac leaves, so that our sifakas have leaves to eat during the winter months.
In the wild, female Coquerel’s sifaka give birth to one offspring in mid-summer, after a gestation period of approximately 162 days. Infants cling to their mothers’ bellies for the first three to four weeks of life. Then, the young sifaka will begin spending a gradually increasing amount of time riding, jockey style, on mom’s back. Infants continue to ride their mother’s back, if allowed, during times when they feel threatened until they are five months old. However, by the time the infants are three or four months old, mothers will begin to nip at them to encourage the infants to find an alternate method of transportation! Infants begin to sample solid foods and leaves at three or four weeks, and might begin to take a few tentative steps away from their mothers at this time. Nursing continues, in a steady decline in importance in the infant’s diet, until it is weaned at approximately 5 – 6 months of age.
Young become sexually mature at around the age of 3.5 years. At this point at the DLC, they might be removed from their family groups to form a new breeding pair.
Coquerel’s sifaka live in social groups of between 3 and 10 individuals, and age and sex composition of the groups vary widely. Females are dominant to males, which gives them preferential access to food and the choice of with whom to mate. A home range of between 10 and 22 acres (4 – 9 ha) is maintained by the wild groups. However, within this area, a core territory of two to three hectares is utilized over 60% of the time.
At the Lemur Center sifakas are maintained in family groups of up to six members. Breeding occurs in late summer to early fall and single infants are born in late winter to early spring.
Habitat and conservation
The Lemur Center’s colony of Coquerel’s sifaka is the most successful breeding colony in the world of this species or any species of sifaka. The Center owns and manages every individual in captivity, a total of 60 animals. Twenty-eight sifakas live on-site at the DLC (15 males, 13 females) and the remainder live at several zoos throughout the USA.The Lemur Center has been successful enough with our breeding program to send animals to other zoological institutions. The Los Angeles Zoo has a breeding group of four animals (an adult pair and their offspring), the Philadelphia Zoo has a sibling pair, and the St. Louis Zoo has a breeding group along with 6 other institutions in the USA. Many of these facilities have seen their own breeding success based on DLC husbandry guidelines.
Coquerel’s sifaka are threatened with increasing habitat destruction and the erosion of social customs against hunting this species. It is found only in the Ankarafantsika Nature Reserve and the Bora Special Reserve, and these have both been damaged by yearly fires set by nearby farmers. Hunting of these animals by locals might occur in some areas, although in many parts of its range it is protected by taboo or fady.