Spotlight: Ring-Tailed Lemurs

Ring-Tailed Lemurs are so cute they’re the stars of animated movies!   They’re popular pets (though this is illegal).   They are adaptable to many different climates, so they live in zoos everywhere, including at the Reid Park Zoo.  In fact, they seem to be everywhere except where they ought to be. 

Where are they, then?

These amazing and appealing primates are conspicuously missing from the forest canopy of southwestern Madagascar.  Why?  Because the combination of climate change, illegal poaching,  habitat fragmentation, and the illegal pet trade have reduced the Ring-tailed Lemurs’ numbers in the wild by an alarming 95% just since the year 2,000.   They’re now on the list of the 25 most endangered primates on the planet.

What is it about the Ring-Tailed Lemur that makes it so vulnerable?   First of all, they live in a relatively small, isolated area of an isolated island, and so have evolved in a unique way.   Unfortunately for them, this uniqueness is very appealing to humans who like to own small, exotic pets with quizzical faces, distinctive tails, and incredible agility.     Ring-Tailed Lemurs are small, and the males only weigh about six pounds (and females are smaller).     Though their bodies aren’t large, their distinctive striped tails can be as long as 2 feet.  

The good, the bad, and the stinky

The tails have thirteen alternating bands of black and white, and though they are not prehensile, they do serve purposes besides being incredibly cute and distinctive, especially for males.   Have you ever seen those tour-group leaders who carry little flags so that everybody in the group can always follow easily?  Well, troops of traveling Lemurs (who unlike other kinds of lemurs, spend about 40% of their time on the ground)  stick those marvelous tails straight up in the air in order to keep a troop moving together.  

There’s another tail behavior, and it’s a good reason to NOT have a Ring-Tailed Lemur for a pet.   Like many animals in the wild, scent marking is very important to mating and to general claiming of territory and hierarchy within a troop of these primates.    The lemurs have scent glands on their chests and legs, and they use these to mark their foraging routes.   They also use the scent glands for something called “stink battles,” where they coat their tails in the pungent secretions and then flick their tails, kind of like snapping somebody with a wet beach towel, at other individuals; this habit is politely called wafting.   The “fragrance” (not one we humans appreciate) is often enough to establish dominance among males and also to discourage encroaching troops of other lemurs from entering a certain territory.  

Females run the show

But speaking of dominance, Ring-Tailed Lemur troops, which can range from 3 to 30 individuals, are controlled by females.  Dominant females get their first choice of food (they like to eat fruit, flowers, leaves, herbs, small vertebrates – in other words, they’re omnivores) and mates.    In terms of breeding, timing is everything, because the females are only receptive to males once a year – and the invitation to mate lasts only from 6 to 24 hours altogether!   Females generally give birth to just one infant, who will cling to their mother’s belly or back for the first 5-6 months of life.  After a young one is weaned, he or she will be cared for by all the females in the troop.   By the time a male reaches puberty – which is about at the age of 3 years, he’s got to leave and make his way in some other territory.   Females, though, generally stay with a given troop throughout their lives.

The Bad News

So how did native populations of Ring-Tailed Lemurs disappear so dramatically and quickly?  The usual causes – climate change, hunting, habitat fragmentation, and the pet trade all contributed to this decline, but because the Ring-Tailed Lemurs seemed to be so numerous where they didn’t really belong, like in people’s houses, or in animated movies, it took conservationists some time to notice that it was very difficult to find any of them in the wild anymore.     

The Good News

But there’s hope on the horizon.   First of all, once again ecotourism presents a great opportunity to bolster local economies as travelers eagerly anticipate seeing  these appealing creatures in  their natural habitats . Also, in the meantime zoos like the Reid Park Zoo are working steadily on increasing numbers, by participating in a Species Survival Plan for them.    There are also conservation organizations such as the Lemur Conservation Foundation, the Lemur Conservation Network (concentrating on  protecting habitat), and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, all working hard to learn more about  Ring-Tailed Lemurs and keep them alive and well for future generations!

By the way, you can go to the Reid Park Zoo’s website (https://reidparkzoo.org) and take a peek at the ZOO CAM that’s monitoring the troop of three Ring-Tailed Lemurs who call Tucson home! 

(The Reid Park Zoo Expansion website is not produced by the Zoo – we’re a group of Tucsonans who want you to know about the current and future animals that our Zoo is working to save).

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