Ring-tailed lemurs are some of the most unique creatures on the planet. They are part of an entire species that can only be found on one island. That made for some crazy variation in the population. Lemurs are not only fascinating but they are absolutely gorgeous animals. Some of the many fascinating topics relating to ring-tailed lemurs would include their classification, habitat, physical description, adaptations, survival status, current research, and some special cultural information about the species.
Lemur catta is the scientific name given to the ring-tailed lemur. It has this name because it resembles and purrs like a cat (Owens 2012, 3). The name lemur comes from a word in the language of madagascar,called Malagasy, meaning ghost (Anonymous C 2012, 10). In Malagasy they are known as a Maky or Hira (Owens 2012, 3). The classification of a ring-tailed lemur consists of the Kingdom: Animilia, Phylum: Chordata, Class: Mammalia, Order: Primates, Family: Lemuridae, Genus: Lemur, and Species: Lemur catta (Kennedy 2012, 1). The isolation on Madagascar has caused numerous variations to occur in the lemur population. Some of the lemurs closely related to the ring-tailed lemur are the gentle lemur, the golden baboon lemur, the grey gentle lemur, and the broad nosed gentle lemur. Although they are part of the Order Primate they are also classified under the sub-order Strepsirrhini which split from primates around 63 million years ago (Kennedy 2012, 2).
Lemurs are restricted to a very limited habitat due to geographic isolation. The ring-tailed lemur is located exclusively on the southwestern portion of Madagascar (Sondgeroth 2007, 1). They may have arrived there by floating upon rafts of vegetation which would eventually reach the coast (Anonymous A 2012, 1). Their habitat includes anything from canopy gallery forests to open brush forests (Mowry 2012, 12). Lemur catta can be found at elevations from sea level up to 2600 m (Lang 2005, 7). Due to human variables much of the Lemur's habitat has been altered. Lemurs need some forest cover, and are unsuccessful at resettling elsewhere. Therefore there range is large but they are distributed in patchy areas (Lang 2005, 8).
As shown in the pictures above, ring-tailed lemurs can be recognized by several blatant physical features. Most striking are their black and white striped tails. These tails can measure on average 22 to 25 inches, compared to its body length which is a mere 15 to 18 inches. In total, a ring-tailed lemur's body from snout to tail can measure from 27 to 43 inches, and they weigh on average 2.2 kilograms (Owens 2012,1, 2). Another unique trait of Lemur catta is their gorgeous coat. Underneath, ring-tailed lemurs have dark black skin. Their fur is mostly grey however, they have white fur patches on their face, ears, and underbellies (Kennedy 2012,9). Fur colors can also include light reddish grey and dark reddish brown (Lang 2005, 14). Their eyes are a stunning amber color surrounded by black mask-like skin. They have black fox-like snouts with whiskers, and a moist nose at the very end. They are quadrupeds and therefore possess two hind legs and two "hands". Each appendage has either finger nails or toe nails. They also possess opposable thumbs, an adaptation possessed by many primates (Kennedy 2012, 9).
Every species has to possess certain adaptations for the sake of their survival. Ring-tailed lemurs are no different. How else would they climb trees? Or warn each other of a predator? Many years of evolution have helped them solve all these problems and more. One of their most important adaptations is their scent glands. Males have dark colored scent glands on their wrists, their upper chest, and both males and females have anogenital scent glands (Lang 2005, 15). Lemur catta are able to use this scent as a way of recognition of individuals. In order for this to occur one individual has to send out a "cue", another has to pick up the cue, and then the receiver has to have a response to it (Palagi 2006, 1). These glands can also be used as a warning tool. ring-tailed lemurs use this to mark their territory along the foraging routes. Males also use this as a form of showing dominance. During the mating season males will participate in "Stink Wars". During this time the males will rub the secretion from their scent glands all over their tails. Once that has been done they wave their tails high in the air. This establishes who gets the rights to the breeding females (Anonymous C, 11).
Another unique adaptation of Lemur catta is their teeth. They share this unique trait with many of the members of the Superfamily Lemuroidae. The teeth on their lower jaw form a sort of tooth comb. The teeth protrude straight out and are thought to aid in grooming (Lang 2005, 16). If in fact a lemur wants to be groomed it will expose a body part to another individual. Then the partner will begin licking and scraping the fur with its tooth comb. Normally, this is done mutually with both individuals grooming each other at the same time (Kennedy 2012 9).
Ring-tailed lemurs are very social creatures, and have developed many behavioral adaptations to be as such. They travel in "troops" which consist of about 15 individuals (London 2006, 1). In many species the males tend to be superior to the females, hence the phrase "alpa-male". But, in the Lemur catta the roles have been reversed and there are instead alpha-females! In many troops the females are superior to males and juveniles (Mowry 2012, 3). Troops partake in "latrine behavior". The whole troop will do their buisness in the same general area. By doing so they avoid each others droppings and reduce the chance of contracting diseases and parasites (London 2006, 2). There are also several signs used by the lemurs to signal the group. Their tails are a useful tool for locating one another. When in the long grasses of the Madagascan jungles, Lemur catta will stick its banded tail into the air thus signaling all others of its location. Vocalization is also of great use to the ring-tailed lemur. They use this as a warning sign for possible predator threats, and even have different calls for different predators (Owens 2012, 4). Lemurs are very routine creatures, and tend to stick to a daily routine. This routine includes: waking up from the previous night, sun bathing where they lie outstretched in the sun for periods of time, they then wake for their morning feeding before again resting (Kennedy 2012, 3).
Ring-tailed lemurs have developed a diet specifically acclimated to their own habitat. Their teeth have adapted in yet another way to help them eat. They possess two pairs of incisors, one pair of canines, three pairs of premolars, and three pairs of molars. That formula is replicated on both the top and lower jaws (Mowry 2012, 5). Lemurs fall into the category of "opportunistic omnivores", meaning they will eat whatever is available to them at the moment. Their main diet however includes: ripe fruits, leaves, leaf steams, flowers, flower stems, exudates, spiders, spider webs, caterpillars, cicadas, insect cocoons,birds, chameleons, grasshoppers, and occasionally dirt. The tamarind tree is an extremely important part of a ring-tailed lemur's diet. Tamarinds can account to as much as 50% of the lemurs diet. During dry seasons tamarinds become one of Lemur catta's only sources of food. Water is another area where ring-tailed lemurs had to get creative. In the driest parts of their habitat water is scarce. They obtain it from plants such as aloe and prickly pears as well as from dew and water accumulated in crevices like tree holes (Lang 2005,10).
Ring-tailed lemurs reach sexual maturity at around two and a half years old (Anonymous C 2012, 6). The breeding season for ring-tailed lemurs begins in April. Males have to compete for dominance over the breeding females. One way to show dominance is "Cuffing". Cuffing describes males swatting at each others faces, however this can escalate into scratching and pulling of fur. Males may also take part in "Jump Fighting" where they stand on their hind legs to intimidate one another and then jump from above and grab each other. If that fails to scare one of them off they may slash into their partner with their canines resulting in injury. Lastly they may perform stink fights (described in previous paragraph) (Kennedy 2012, 6, 7). After breeding rights have been established breeding will commence. The mother will carry the baby from anywhere between 134-138 days. Most babies are born between August and September. There is usually only one offspring, however twins are not unheard of (Anonymous C 2012, 7). At birth infants weigh three to four ounces, are about 10 cm long, and already posses those characteristic bands on their tails (Anonymous C 2012, 7; Kennedy 2012, 8). Females care for the babies carrying them on their backs and grooming babies who may not even belong to them (Kennedy 2012, 8). Babies nurse for about five months before they can begin to digest solid food. They can walk at about 4 weeks, but do not become independent from their mothers until six months. Once independent, females stay with the group, while males move among different troops (Anonymous C 2012, 7).
Sadly, the ring-tailed lemurs as a species are being severely threatened by our new industrial society. Ring-tailed lemurs are now considered an endangered species due to the clearing of trees and the destruction of their habitat (Kennedy 2012, 10). Although they are endangered, they still have the largest population of all lemurs with 2,000 individuals. Its only possible for the population to increase a few percent each year due to their small litter size, and if they are not treated with more care, their population may continuously decrease until they become extinct (Owens 2012, 6 7). Lemurs are also being threatened on a local level. Because of the negative legends associated with them, many villagers will trap and kill lemurs. Villagers have literally made killing lemurs into a market, allowing hunters from around the world the chance to kill one for themselves (Anonymous B, 3).
Recently scientist have conducted a study on the glucocorticoid levels in ring-tailed lemurs. If high glucocorticoid levels are present it can be a sign of environmental stress on the organisms. In order to test this the scientist followed around 93 ring-tailed lemurs at the Berenty Reserve in Madagascar. He collected fecal samples from the specimens for a period of two years. He then compared the amount of glucocorticoids to their survival status. He found that individuals with higher glucocorticoid levels had a higher morality rate then their counterparts with lower levels. The test founds that in fact glucocorticoids can be used as a reliable indicator of survival of wild populations (Pride 2005, 1 2 3).
Another study conducted on Lemur catta revolved around their ability to fight off illness. Scientists were looking to find antibodies for West Nile virus(WNV), simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), and herpes simplex virus type-1 (HSV-1). They took samples from 50 ring-tailed lemurs at the Beeza Mahafaly Special Reserve in Madagascar. Out of the 50 individuals 47 out of 50 had antibodies for WNV, 10 out of 50 had them for lentiviral antigens, and none had antibodes for HSV-1. This research is important for the conservation of the ring-tailed lemurs. With this knowledge scientist can know take steps towards the preservation of wild and captive populations of ring-tailed lemurs (Sondgeroth 2007, 1),
Ring-tailed lemurs have a very negative reputation with the natives of Madagascar. Many consider seeing a lemur an omen that something terrible will happen to the people. Also in Roman mythology they are seen as restless spirits of the undead. Also due to their nocturnal nature they are seen as spirits good and bad. On the positive side some see their presence as great spirit guides for people. On the more negative side they may also be seen as grim spirits, and when anything bad happens in a village it is automatically linked to the presence of lemurs. There are other stories saying that lemurs are the physical form of angry gods, and anyone who dreams about them must beg the gods for forgiveness (Anonymous B, 1). Another legends tells of the original origins of the ring-tailed lemur, as well as sifaka. The legend says that a husband first gave his first wife a radiated tortoise. Out of jealousy his second wife beat the first with a wooden spoon until she was transformed into a ring-tailed lemur. Then the first wife in the form of a ring-tailed lemur beat the first with the same spoon, and the other wife was transformed into a sifaka. Local legends say that both these species were originally human beings and therefore killing or harming them is forbidden and is believed to bring bad luck to the individual who has committed the act.
In the end ring-tailed lemurs are not only well know for their striking appearance but also for their amazing ability to adapt to their vanishing environment. Whether it is sun bathing, feeding, or finding water in the crevices of a tree, they have developed unique abilities to combat all the challenges presented to them in the wild and in captivity. However, with all there experience combating hardship, the problems being forced on them by human beings may be too much for them to handle, and in the course of years Lemur catta may be a thing of the past.
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