As the December summer sun rises over the lush forests in Southern Madagascar, a group of two dozen Ring Tailed Lemurs descends from the trees to begin their morning ritual of sunbathing. Scattered about the forest floor, each individual assumes the same position: body erect with hind legs bent and feet flat on the ground, cream-colored underside facing toward the sunlight. While most maintain this meditative poses perfectly, a few friendly females move about to groom each other, using their tongues, toothcombs, and toilet-claws to clean coats of dense brownish-gray fur. Like most species of lemur - but in stark contrast to almost all other primates - females rank as the dominant gender, with a matriline at the heart of each troop.
With morning turning into afternoon, the group begins to mobilize for a day of feeding and frolicking. Roving around on the ground with all four limbs, proceeding in an almost perfect single file line, the endemic Malagasy primates display their distinctive black-and-white ringed tails held upright in the air. Significantly longer than the body - 64 centimeters (25.2 inches) attached to 42 centimeters (16.5 inches) - these bushy tails boast nearly thirty bands, always ending in a black tip, and contribute to balance and communication.
While tempers stay tame on this day, males will often use their tails as the primary weapon when engaging in stink fighting - a form of combat where Ring Tailed Lemurs saturate their bushy banded fur with a powerful stench excreted from scent glands on the inner forearms and genitals, then wave their odorous extensions in the direction of opponents competing for territory or mates. Considering the creature's keen sense of smell, this strategy usually suffices to resolve controversy. When emotions escalate to particularly amorous levels, however, passive aggressive sensory squabbling turns into nonviolent animated bouts of intimidation. Leaping into the air, flashing their sharp canine teeth and nails, male Ring Tailed Lemurs rarely resort to jump fighting outside of mating season.
As the troop travels across the forest floor, new mothers carry small passengers with them throughout the day; the smaller infants cling upside-down to their mothers' undersides, while the larger offspring hitch literal back-seat rides. Devoted and doting caretakers, mothers make parenting a community activity, forging playgroups and alternating babysitting responsibilities.
Aside from facilitating fun for their highly social and playful young, mothers must always remain wary of potential predators from above and below; the Malagasy species of buzzard and harrier hawk will occasionally launch aerial attacks on the small primates, while domestic pets, ground boas, and the fossa - a carnivorous mammal exclusive to Madagascar, closely resembling and related to a mongoose - present terrestrial threats. If parents sense danger overhead, an alarm of shrieks alerts the troop to duck for cover in nearby bushes. If parents spot danger on the ground, the combination of barking, clicking, and staring keeps predators at bay. Despite these protective measures, however, infant mortality rate remains high; between 30% and 50% of Ring Tailed Lemurs die in their first year.
Those infants who survive maintain several distinguishing physical characteristics throughout their lives, aside from their namesake tails. Surrounding the nose, mouth, genitalia, and palms and soles of limbs, black skin remains completely furless. Equally dark triangular patches of fur surrounding each eye, creating a kind of black mask on the creature's otherwise white face. No feature appears more striking, however, than the eyes. Ranging from shades of radiant orange to bright yellow, these arresting eyes possess an adaptive reflective layer of tissue behind the retina - the tapetum lucidum - that serves to enhance night vision.
Returning to the arboreal canopy, the troop forages for Kily - the Malagasy name for fruit from the Tamarind Tree, a dietary staple and favorite. Grasping the elongated fruit with slender, semi-dexterous fingers, Ring Tailed Lemurs break through the hard brown exterior with their sharp teeth, then lick and chew off juicy chunks of acidulous pulp that provide crucial nutrients and a delicious meal. During the drier winter months of July and August, Kily can comprise up to 50% of the primate's diet. In the summertime, Ring Tailed Lemurs will supplement smaller helpings of Kily with other species of fruit, leaves, sap, bark, the occasional insect, and flowers from Alluaudia trees in Madagascar's spiny forests. Gingerly maneuvering around tree trunks and branches entirely surfaced with sharp thorns and needles, Ring Tailed Lemurs use their snouts to skillfully remove petals and leaves budding between the prickly points.
As night descends on the world's fourth-largest island, the troop huddles together for warmth, creating a "lemur ball." With limbs curled closely into their chest and tails wrapped around their back, Ring Tailed Lemurs also reaffirm their social bonds by bunching up into this thermal mass of fur. While home ranges are temporary makeshifts - spanning from anywhere between 6 and 35 hectares and lasting no longer than a week at a time - troops are extremely territorial and once again rely on smell to keep potential intruding groups of lemurs from trespassing. Males take charge of establishing the perimeter, scraping thorny spurs on their inner wrists against tree bark to create grooves, then filling the shallow indentation with scents from their antebrachial glands.
While this practice known as "spur marking" has a high success rate in deterring boundary disputes between troops within the species, it has no effect on helping to halt human expansion into Ring Tailed Lemur habitat. As farmers and coal miners continue to destroy forests for livestock and new excavations, the Ring Tailed Lemur has experienced a steep decline in population with the decimation of vast vegetative expanses. Nearly one-quarter of the species disappeared over the past quarter-century, and numbers continue to shrink along with the habitat. Despite the species' capacity to thrive in a diverse range of environments - from deciduous forests to savanna to spiny thickets to rock canyons - the only truly protected areas lie in the boundaries of numerous wildlife preserves. While extinction is not an imminent possibility, the Ring Tailed Lemur will need a more sustainable solution to survive long-term in the wild.
An adult Ring-Tailed Lemur is shown up in the branches of a spiny Alluaudia tree in the spiny desert forests of southern Madagascar. The Lemur will feed both upon the flowers and young leaves of this plant. Ninety-five percent of the plants in the spiny forest are endemic, like the Lemur itself, meaning they are found only in Madagascar.
Hira (Malagasy name), Maki (French)
39-46 centimeters (1.4 feet)
2.3-3.5 kilograms (5-7.7 pounds)
16-19 years in the wild; 27 years in captivity
Forests, savanna, and canyons in southern Madagascar
Fruits (particularly Kily from the Tamarind Tree), leaves, flowers, bark, sap
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Scientists created the name "lemur" from the Madagascar primate's unique calls, which evoked the cries of lemures - spirits of the dead in Roman mythology.
Madagascar hosts 5% of Earth's wildlife, 80% of which is endemic to the island. While monkeys and humans inhabit continental Africa, lemurs are the only endemic primate to Madagascar, suggesting a distinctive evolutionary experience. Some scientists predict that lemurs originated from a single, small group of ancestors that traversed the Mozambique Channel between 50 and 80 million years ago.
Despite the species' small brain, research at the Duke Lemur Center and Myakka City Lemur Reserve has indicated the Ring Tailed Lemurs have the capacity to organize sequences and understand basic arithmetic operations.
Spending one-third of each day living on terra firma, the Ring Tailed Lemur is the most terrestrial of all lemur species.
Ring Tailed Lemurs are the only member of the Lemur genus.