Lemur Catta – the ring-tailed lemur

Did you know that lemur catta is the scientific name for the “ring-tailed” lemur? Did you know that the word lemur means “ghost” in the native Madagascan tongue? The lemur catta (or you can call it the ring-

tailed ghost if you want) is one of about sixty species of lemurs, and all species live only on the island of Madagascar. Lemur catta are very social animals, and they are very easy to identify. With long arms and legs, flexible fingers and toes, extremely long, and easily identifiable black and white tails, large, black outlined eyes, there is nothing in the world that closely resembles a ring-tailed lemur. These lemurs have very limited eye movement, and have to completely move their head if they want to look to the side. Ring-tailed lemurs grow to about 17 inches and to about a maximum of 9 pounds. (Fleagle, 1988) The ring-tailed lemur is a terrestrial quadruped, which means all four feet are specialized for walking, and the animal spends most of it’s time on the ground. Lemurs live in groups of about ten to twenty animals, and these groups are mixed male and female. (Sauther, Sussman, Gould, 1999)

The ring-tailed lemur is part of the sub-order prosimii (prosimians), along with the lorises and tarsiers. Prosimians are much smaller than their relatives, anthropoids, with the ring-tailed lemur not usually growing over 10 pounds or 20 inches. (Fleagle, 1988) The lemurs are a part of the infraorder lemuriformes, because they are only found in one place in the entire world, a small island off the coast of Southeastern Africa, Madagascar. (Pastorini, Thalmann, Martin, 2003) There are about 60 different types of lemurs, with some being extremely alike, and some being drastically different.

The ring-tailed lemur is part of the genus lemur, and there are no other types of this genus found in Madagascar. The ring-tailed lemurs are the only species in this genus, because of odd scent glands found on the wrist and close to the arm pits. Because the ring-tailed lemur is so unique, there are no other sub-species of it. The ring-tailed lemur, as mentioned earlier is a very unique lemur, because of the similarities the lemur’s hands have with human hands. Lemurs don’t have claws, they have nails, and their grasping ability is just like that of a human, with opposable thumbs.

Ring-tailed lemurs, as it has been stated over and over, are native and confined to Madagascar, and they are found nowhere else in the world. However, lemur catta are mainly found in dry woody areas in the south to the southwest, and there are even some found in the southeast near the Andringitra. (Yoder, Irwin, Goodman, 2000) These areas are extremely dry, and because of that the trees are very bare. Lemur catta is a highly terrestrial quadruped, and mainly feeds on the ground. In fact, it is observed on the ground over 65% of the time. (Sauther, Sussman, Gould, 1999)

Ring-tailed lemurs are herbivores, eating plants, flowers, and fruits; however, these lemurs sometimes try and expand the horizons, with the occasional insect or small mammal. Obviously they are not only specialized to being ONLY a herbivore, but ring-tailed lemurs only eat insects and mammals when it is needed. (Simmen, 2003) Lemurs do not have many specializations to help them hunt during the day; in fact, some of their characteristics will hurt them in hunting. Lemur catta lack trichromatic color vision, which most other primates have. This will largely affect them in hunting small prey, and is likely the main reason why they rarely do.

Mating for ring-tailed lemurs is seasonal, and it starts in mid-April. In the fall, females produce only one offspring, and the gestation period for that female is almost 5 months. However, twins and triplet occur when there is an abundance of food; however, this is an very rare sight. Directly after birth, the young lemur catta cling to the mother’s bellies, only to switch and cling to the back after about two weeks. They can climb after about 3 weeks, and become totally independent from their mothers after about 6 months. The ring-tailed lemurs become sexually mature at about 18 months, but don’t start mating until they are about 2-3 years old.

When thinking about all of the mentioned aspects, the ring-tailed lemur is an extremely rare species, and it is only found on one small part of one small island in the entire world. It is very easily identifiable, however, and there is almost nothing else in the world that could pass for one of these, not even another lemur. They have very unique characteristics, and they are even very much different than the other 60 species of lemurs, in their diet, gestation periods and maternity habits, just to name a few. But the thing that sets them apart from all the other lemurs, and the reason they are in their own genus, is because they have unique sensory glands on their wrists and in the armpits, which helps them mark their surroundings. So, when talking about lemurs, there is nothing that is at all like the ring-tailed ghost.

1. Fleagle, J. G. 1988. Primate Adaptation and Evolution. Academic Press
2. Sauther, M.L., Sussman, R.W., Gould, L. 1999. Wiley-Liss, Inc: 120-132
3. Pastorini, J, Thalmann, U, Martin, R.D. PNAS, May 2003; 100: 5879 – 5884
4. Ward, S.C., Sussman, R.W. 2005. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 575- 90
5. Yoder, A.D., Irwin, J.A., Goodman, S.M. 2000. Journal of Zoology 252: (1), 1–9.
6. Simmen, B. 2003. International Journal of Primatology 24: 949-968