Come to the Reid Park Zoo and you will get to see something very special – a pair of Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, as well as their cousins the Ring Tailed Lemurs. Our Zoo is especially important to these furry primates. The Black and White Ruffed variety are nearly extinct in their home territory, so you are lucky to be able to see them right here, protected in a safe environment! Their natural habitat is in a lot of trouble.
Where they’re from, and how they got there
All lemurs in the wild are found only on the island of Madagascar, just off the southeastern coast of Africa, where they live in the island’s eastern rainforests. After the land mass we now know as Madagascar detached from what are now South America, Africa, and India to become a separate island, about 80 million years ago, it became a “biodiversity hotspot” that allowed the evolution of many types of animals that arose nowhere else on earth; over 90% of the wildlife species found on Madagascar, including lemurs, are unique to the island!
The evolutionary predecessors of lemurs arose in Africa. Some of them crossed the ocean channel to Madagascar, maybe on rafts of vegetation carried out to sea from a river. Once they arrived on Madagascar and were isolated from competition with other primates, these predecessors evolved into a wild variety of different types of lemurs.
They are Prosimians!
Lemurs are a category of primates. Lots of people know that humans are primates, but they aren’t sure which other animals are. The taxonomic order Primates includes two major divisions, Prosimians and Simians. Lemurs, along with tarsiers, bush babies, and lorises, are Prosimians. Prosimians are characterized by long snouts and an excellent sense of smell. Great apes (humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans) and monkeys are Simians, and are less heavily dependent on their sense of smell. You can learn more about categories and characteristics of Primates by following this link.
The Handsome Black and White Ruffed Ones
Black and white ruffed lemurs are one of the largest species of lemur, about 2 feet in body length plus a 2-foot-long tail and weighing about 8 pounds. Like other members of the lemur clan, they have a pointed snout and fairly large eyes, and their tail is not prehensile. Their fur has a characteristic pattern: black on the abdomen, tail, hands and feet, inner limbs, forehead, face, and crown; and white on the sides, back, hind limbs, and hindquarters. Because their coats have this patchwork of coloring, they are sometimes called “variegated” lemurs to distinguish them from more solidly colored species. Their eyes are usually bright yellow, and they are directed almost straight forward, giving them a wide field of binocular vision. Females and males are generally the same size and color. Like other primates, black and white ruffed lemurs have good eyesight, color vision, highly mobile shoulder joints, dexterous hands with five separate digits (fingers/toes), and nails on their digits rather than claws.
The “Music” in the trees
Black and white ruffled lemurs usually live in small groups of 2-6, but groups can be as large as about 15 animals. Individuals join or leave a group depending on the availability of food (more abundant food = larger groups). The females dominate socially, and they get first crack at new food. The animals warn each other of potential danger using loud roars that are sometimes called “shriek choruses.” Though the Lemurs at the Reid Park Zoo are not in danger, they occasionally enjoy this musical shrieking just to keep their skills sharp! Hear them communicating with each other this way just once, and you’ll understand why this sound is called a shriek – a very loud sound from some relatively small creatures!
When not “singing”
Most types of lemurs are nocturnal, but Black and White Ruffed Lemurs are diurnal. So how do they spend their days? They spend time foraging, on the ground and in the trees, and eating of course. Then there’s hanging upside down from tree branches – using their back feet and sometimes one or two hands – but never for more than 45 seconds at a time! They also scent mark their territories, and if necessary travel with the entire group (called a “conspiracy,” though it’s not clear what they may be plotting) in search of food and shelter in their shrinking natural habitats, That leaves lots of extra time for….resting.
Black and white ruffled lemurs are almost entirely frugivorous, that is, over 90% of their diet is fruit. One of their favorite foods is the fruit of the dragon’s blood tree. Yum!
Pairs of Black and White Ruffed Lemurs only mate once a year – and there’s no “mating for life” going on! Successful breeding leads to gestation, which lasts about 100 days, and most litters have 2-3 offspring. Females give birth up in trees, in nests that they line with their own fur, and the female guards her offspring constantly for the first 2 weeks after birth. After that, the male and female parents take turns guarding the young. The young lemurs mature and themselves begin to reproduce after 2-3 years. They typically live about 19 years in the wild and several years longer in human care in zoos.
At the Reid Park Zoo
The Reid Park Zoo has two Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, a male and a female. Look closely when you visit to see if you can tell them apart. The male’s tail is all black, while the female has some white extending onto her tail from her back. The animal care staff provides them with lots of enrichment for climbing and exploring to find food. They can even climb up to their special pass-through tube above the walkway and sit high above the American Alligator whenever they like, especially when the keepers put special treats there. So if you don’t see them immediately in their main habitat, look up and across.
The Reid Park Zoo expansion, the Pathway to Asia, will bring Siamang Gibbons to the zoo and give visitors even more opportunity to compare black and white ruffed lemurs with other members of their taxonomic order, the Primates.
Conservation – Zoos to the Rescue
The highly respected International Union for Conservation of Nature currently classifies Black and White Ruffed Lemurs as Critically Endangered, just one short step from “Extinct in the Wild.” Their natural habitat is disappearing, and their numbers in the wild have dropped by 80% in just 21 years! There is hope for these lemurs to continue in the wild in the future, though. Five black and white ruffed lemurs were recently reintroduced back to the wild from human care, and they are doing well! Cooperation among AZA-accredited zoos on Species Survival Plans (SSPs), like the one for black and white ruffed lemurs that Reid Park Zoo participates in, help to maintain genetic diversity among the animals that live in human care, in case those animals are needed for reintroduction into the wild. In this way, SSPs help to ensure the future of critically endangered species like the black and white ruffed lemur. And you help to support these SSPs whenever you visit or join the Reid Park Zoo!