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Ring-tailed lemur

Ring-tailed lemurs are found on the island of Madagascar. Thanks to its long ringed tail and its bright eyes, they are distinctive and the most known representatives of this primate group. They are mainly found in the southwestern part of Madagascar. Like all lemurs, ring-tailed lemurs are found only on Madagascar and increasingly suffer from habitat destruction and hunting, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), they are endangered.

Special features

A group of ring-tailed lemurs in the outdoor enclosure at the DPZ. Photo: Margrit Hampe
A group of ring-tailed lemurs in the outdoor enclosure at the DPZ. Photo: Margrit Hampe

The ring-tailed lemur is an average sized lemur. Their most striking feature is their long black and white ringed furry tail. The back and legs are grey to red-brown while the fur on the stomach and the mask-like face is covered with white fur. Very distinctive are their yellow to orange-red eyes encompassed by black borders to separate it from the rest of the face. On the second tow of each foot, the ring-tailed lemurs have what is known as a toilet-claw that serves as a grooming tool.

Diet

The diet of the ring-tailed lemurs consists mainly of fruits but they do eat other plant parts such as leaves, flowers, sprouts and bark. The long-tailed lemurs prefer the fruit and leaves from tamarind trees, which account for up to 50 per cent of their diet. Animal food sources are mainly insects and small vertebrates, such as lizards.

A ring-tailed lemur sunbathing in an enclosure at the DPZ. Photo: Margrit Hampe
A ring-tailed lemur sunbathing in an enclosure at the DPZ. Photo: Margrit Hampe

Habitat and lifestyle

Of all the lemurs, the ring-tailed lemur has the largest variety of habitats. They prefer dry deciduous, thorny and gallery forests but can also be found in the scrubland of the savannas and the rocky mountain terrains above the timberline, where they have to cope in part with large temperature fluctuations. In comparison to other lemurs, the ring-tailed lemur spends most of its time on the ground. At night, they sleep on trees or in caves. Their home ranges comprise an average of six to 23 acres and can be maintained over a long period. During the day, the groups roam around for up to one kilometer. Most of the time is spent for foraging and food intake as well as social grooming and sunbathing. When sunbathing, they have a typical posture. Sitting upright, legs apart and arms outstretched in order for the sun to shine on their bellies. For a long period of time, ring-tailed lemurs were considered exclusively diurnal animals. Recent studies have shown that some groups prefer a cathemeral lifestyle with no fixed day-night cycle and are thus active over an entire 24-hour cycle. The flexibility of their activity time is highly variable and can depend on the home range, the seasons, weather conditions and the respective food supplies. Lemurs mark their home range, through scent marks that they secrete from their glands. In addition to this olfactory communication, they often communicate through physical postures, gestures and glances. Very well researched are the phonetic communication forms of lemurs. In a study, 28 different vocalizations have been identified, with which the animals communicate with each other.

Social behavior and reproduction

Ring-tailed lemurs live in groups of 6 to 24 individuals. Photo: Christian Schlögl
Ring-tailed lemurs live in groups of 6 to 24 individuals. Photo: Christian Schlögl

Ring-tailed lemurs organize themselves in mixed-gender groups that average six to 24 individuals. Ring-tailed lemur females dominate their males and enforce this hierarchy in the group with blows and bites. While the males leave the birth group when they reach sexual maturity, the females remain and form the core of the unit. The group is led by a central female, that determines the direction and aggressively defends the group against foreign conspecifics. All other females also form a hierarchy, which is not inherited. The hierarchy of the males is established accordingly with the female and will be decided by so-called "stink fights". For this, the animals soak their tail tips in the secretions of their arm glands and wave them in the direction of the competitors. Higher ranked males are usually between six and nine years old, while subordinate males are often younger or older. Usually there are one to three senior males in the higher ranking of the group, while the others are ranked lower. The hierarchy of both sexes in the group is reflected in the marching order. Senior animals go to the front, and everyone else must follow. Also the access to food resources and to female that are ready to mate is regulated according to the ranking. 

An infant ring-tailed lemurs enjoying the benefits of infancy and taking a ride. Photo: Christian Schlögl
An infant ring-tailed lemurs enjoying the benefits of infancy and taking a ride. Photo: Christian Schlögl

The breeding season of the ring-tailed lemurs is between mid-April and mid-May. During this time the males fight for a higher position in the hierarchy in order to mate with females. The females first breed with males with high rankings but also with other males in descending hierarchy. After a pregnancy of 138 to 141 days, the female gives birth to an infant that initially is very helpless and weighs only 70 to 80 grams. The light blue eyes of the ring-tailed lemur infants, which turn orange when they reach adulthood are striking. During the first two weeks, the females carry the infants on her stomach and later on her back. As the infants get a little older, all the females of the group participate in rearing them and even males take care of the infants from time to time. From the eighth week the infants start to take solid food and are fully weaned at five months. In adapting to the difficult climatic conditions, ring-tailed lemur females only bear infants once a year of which up to 50 percent die in the first year and only 30 percent reach adulthood.

Dangers

According to the IUCN, ring-tailed lemurs are endangered. The foremost reasons are the increasing destruction of their habitat due to deforestation and fires. In contrast to other primates, ring-tailed lemurs do not adapt easily to the transformations of their habitat. They cannot survive where natural vegetation must give way to plantations and gardens for people. In addition, ring-tailed lemurs are hunted for their meat or kept as pets. According to the IUCN, the total population in the last three generations (about 24 years) has declined by 50 per cent.

Source: Handbook of the Mammals of the World: Primates (edited by Mittermeier, R.A., Ryland, A.B., Wilson D.E., published by Lynx Edicions, Conservation International, IUCN, 2013)

Distribution

Distribution area of ring-tailed lemurs on the island of Madagascar. Image: Sylvia Siersleben
Distribution area of ring-tailed lemurs on the island of Madagascar. Image: Sylvia Siersleben

Profile of the ring-tailed lemur

Scientific nameLemur catta
Taxonomy

Suborder:
Lemurs

Family:
Lemuridae

Genus:
Lemur

Species:
Ring-tailed lemur

DistributionSouth- und Southwest Madagascar
Head and body length39 - 46 cm
Tail length56 - 63 cm
Weight2,2 kg
Diet fruits, young leaves, blossoms, herbs, bark, plant juices, tamarind leaves and fruits, insects, small vertebrates
Lifestyle cathemeral & diurnal, live on the ground and on trees
Social organizationmixed-gender groups, female dominated
Mating systempolyandrous
Life expectancy (husbandry)up to 33 years
Status
(IUCN Red List)
endangered