Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) are the most intensely studied of all the lemurs: they are also the most easily recognizable lemur and the most common in captivity. They are also the most terrestrial of all the lemurs. Although widely distributed throughout the dry forests of southwestern Madagascar (some of the hottest, driest and least hospitable forests in the country), they exist in only a few protected areas.
Unfortunately, the sparse, level forests inhabited by ring-tails are easily felled by even the most primitive of tools. Hence ring-tailed lemur habitat is shrinking at an alarming rate. In fact, satellite images suggest that ring-tailed lemur habitat is vanishing at an even greater rate than forest habitat in other parts of Madagascar.
Male ring-tails are equipped with scent glands on their wrists which are used in “stink fighting” with rival males. Here, two males stand facing each other a few feet apart and, repeatedly drawing their tails through these glands, proceed to wave the tails over their heads, all the while staring in a hostile fashion at their rival. Eventually, one of the males will break down and run away. Want to see it for yourself? Watch this video of ring-tail lemurs stink fighting in Madagascar in this video by researcher Marni LeFleur.
During breeding season in the N.C. autumn, competition between the normally “laid back” males becomes fierce as they fight for the right to breed. Like the other diurnal lemurs, ringtails are seasonal breeders, and their matings and births (which occur in the fall and spring) are highly synchronized. All infants in a large troop may be born in a matter of days.
Due to the large number of L. catta in captivity, the ring-tailed lemur SSP calls for only a few breeding pairs of animals each year so that precious captive breeding space can be occupied by the rarer species of lemurs.
Their diet consists of fruit, leaves, flowers, bark, sap and the occasional invertebrate. Due to the fact that vegetation in forests inhabited by these lemurs is sparse and non-continuous, they are often found traveling on the ground. As an adaptation to survival in a harsh climate, ring-tails range far and feed from a wide variety of vegetation.
Ring-tailed females usually give birth first at three years of age and produce offspring annually thereafter. In the wild, mating begins in mid-April with infants born in August and September. Single infants are most common, but twins are a frequent sight in ringtail troops when food is plentiful. Initially, infants cling to their mother’s bellies, but can be seen riding, jockey style, on their backs after approximately three weeks. Infants begin to sample solid food after their first week, and will take their first steps away from mom at 3 – 4 weeks. Over the next five months, infants will spend increasing amounts of time on their own, returning to mom to nurse or sleep, until they are finally weaned at 5 – 6 months of age.
Ring-tail groups are larger than any other lemur group, containing up to 24 animals. The DLC has two large free-ranging groups of these animals, each containing about ten individuals.
There is a well-defined hierarchy within each group. Females are dominant over all males with the alpha female forming the focal point for the group as a whole. Females live in one group their entire lives, while males migrate from group to group.
When ring-tailed troops travel throughout their home range, they keep their tails raised in the air like flags to keep group members together. Constant vocalizations among members also keep the group together. Ring-tailed lemurs are one of the most vocal primates. They have several different alarm calls to alert members of their group to potential danger.
Habitat and conservation
Ring-tailed lemurs are found in south and southwestern Madagascar, from Fort-Dauphin west and as far north as Morandava on the west coast. A small additional population lives near the mountains of Andringitra on the southeastern plateau.
The gallery forests that ring-tailed lemurs prefer are rapidly being converted to farmland, overgrazed by livestock, and harvested for charcoal production. Ring-tailed lemurs are also hunted for food in certain areas of their range and are frequently kept as pets. Fortunately, ring-tails are found in several protected areas in southern Madagascar, but the level of protection varies widely in these areas, offering only some populations refuge from hunting and habitat loss.
Ring-tailed lemurs breed very well in captivity, and over 1000 can be found at approximately 140 zoos around the world. The Duke Lemur Center currently houses 35 animals – 15 males and 20 females – with two breeding groups.