Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) are the most intensely studied of all the lemurs. They’re also the most easily recognizable species of lemur, and the most common primates in captivity. 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.
Due to the large number of L. catta in captivity, the ring-tailed lemur Species Survival Plan 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.
Ring-tailed lemurs' 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.
During breeding season in the N.C. autumn (25% of ring-tailed lemur breedings occur in October and 50% occur in November), 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 are highly synchronized. All infants in a large troop may be born in a matter of days.
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 mothers’ 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-tails are the most terrestrial of all the lemurs. They spend more time on the ground (as opposed to in the trees) than any other lemur species — up to 50% of their day!
Ring-tail groups are larger than any other lemur group, containing up to 30 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. One of the most vocal primates, ring-tails have a large vocabulary of at least 28 different calls. These include several different types of alarm calls, which alert group members to potential danger.
Ring-tails bask in the sun in groups (sun worshipping), absorbing the warmth of the sun through their less dense belly fur.
Ring-tails can often be found combing each others’ fur. With the exception of the aye-aye, all lemurs’ bottom teeth form a special “toothcomb” structure, which they use for grooming themselves and other lemurs. Social grooming, seen in this video by DLC communications intern Laura Jones, is an instinctive social behavior that is not just hygienic, but also strengthens the social bonds within the group.
Male ring-tails are equipped with scent glands on their wrists which are used in stink fighting with rival males. 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, filmed by researcher Marni LeFleur.
In jump fights, males compete for females by leaping into the air slashing with their sharp canine teeth.
Six-year-old male ring-tailed lemur Jones (pictured above) may look like he is a lemur somewhat lacking in arms as he sniffs a sapling in Natural Habitat Enclosure #9, but rest assured, he is a well-armed male in the prime of life! His odd posture is due to the fact that, in typical male ring-tail marking behavior, he is mixing secretions produced by scent glands on the insides of his wrists (antebrachial glands) with stinky secretions produced by glands on his chest (brachial glands). When the two secretions are well mixed, Jones can proceed to mark his territory with his wrist glands (which he will wind up doing here) or, if he were facing a rival, thoroughly anoint his tail for a stink fight.
A ring-tailed lemur’s distinctive scent can communicate volumes about his genetics — which probably useful in avoiding aggression with closely related males, likely helps prevent inbreeding by signaling family relationships to females — and his fitness for breeding. Each lemur’s musky scent contains at least “203 different chemical compounds in a complex mix that has been found to vary not only by season, but by an individual’s genetics as well.” The scent can even change when a lemur is ill or socially stressed. (See Primate’s Scent Speaks Volumes about the research of Christine Drea, who studies scent in ring-tailed lemurs.)
Male ring-tails have scent glands on their wrists, chest, and scrotum — and each produces a different scent. Females have just one scent gland, which is located in the genital area. Drea has discovered that female ring-tails’ scent is more complex than the males’. Via scent, females may advertise not only their fertility, but the presence of a pregnancy and how far along it is. (See Primate’s Scent Speaks Volumes.)
When this photo of Jones was taken, peak breeding season (October-November in North Carolina) for ring-tailed lemurs was fast approaching. In preparation for facing rivals, males begin to significantly beef up in late summer (in more ways than by just putting on weight… !) and a close look at Jones will reveal that his time at the jungle gym has indeed been well spent, as he is in peak breeding season form! Alas for Jones, there were no ring-tailed lemur females designated for breeding at the DLC that fall, so he had to be content with just stinking up the place!
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.