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Ring-tailed lemur
Lemur catta

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Conservation status:
Near threatened

Life span: 16 to 19 years (wild)
Total population: Unknown (wild), 2000 (captivity)
Regions: Madagascar
Gestation: 4.6 months (139 days)
Height: 425 mm (M & F)
Weight: 2.2 kg (M & F)

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TAXONOMY

Suborder: Strepsirrhini
Infraorder: Lemuriformes
Superfamily: Lemuroidea
Family: Lemuridae
Genus: Lemur
Species: L. catta

Other names: lémur catta (French); maki (Malagasy); lemur colianillado (Spanish); katta, kattlemur, or ringsvanslemur (Swedish)

MORPHOLOGY

The conspicuous characteristic for which ring-tailed lemurs are known is their long tail, measuring about 60 cm (23.6 in), that has alternating bands of black and white rings (Mittermeier et al. 1994). The rest of their bodies are light reddish gray to dark red-brown with light gray to dark brown rumps and light gray to gray-brown limbs. They have white undersides, hands, and feet. They have white faces with dark brown or black triangular eye patches that look like a mask around their light brown eyes and they have black muzzles. Their ears are white and angular, similar to a cat's. Male ring-tailed lemurs have darkly colored scent glands on the inside of their wrists with a spur-like fingernail, usually referred to as a horny spur, overlay on each. Males also have scent glands on their chests, just above the collarbone and close to the armpit. Both male and female ring-tailed lemurs have anogenital scent glands (Mittermeier et al. 1994; Rowe 1996; Groves 2001; Palagi et al. 2004). Males and females are about the same size, in the wild measuring about 42.5 cm (1.39 ft) from head to rump and weighing between 2207 and 2213 g (4.87 and 4.89 lb), on average (Mittermeier et al. 1994; Sussman 2000). In captivity, ring-tailed lemurs weigh slightly more than their wild counterparts with males weighing, on average, 2705 g (5.96 lb) and females average 2678 g (5.90 lb) (Kappeler 1991). Ring-tailed lemurs share unique dental characteristics with other members of the Superfamily Lemuroidea; they have specialized teeth in their lower jaw that form a dental comb. These long, narrow teeth project nearly straight forward from the jaw and this specialized dentition is thought to aid in grooming (Swindler 2002).

Lemur catta
Photo: Roy Fontaine

Ring-tailed lemurs are the most terrestrial of all lemurs, but they spend time in all layers of the forest. They move by walking or running quadrupedally, holding their tails almost completely vertically as they move, with the tip of the long tail curving away from the body forming the shape of a question mark (Mittermeier et al. 1994; Jolly 2003).

In the wild, it is rare for female ring-tailed lemurs to live past 16 years of age and the oldest known wild female was between 18 and 20 years old. Male life span is even less well-known, because of the social system, but have been recorded living to at least 15 years of age (Gould et al. 2003; Sauthers pers. comm). In captivity, life span has reached 27 years (Jolly 2003).

RANGE

CURRENT RANGE MAPS (IUCN REDLIST):
Lemur catta

The only place where members of the Superfamily Lemuroidea, including ring-tailed lemurs, can be found in the wild is Madagascar. Situated to the southeast of Africa and separated from the continent by the 800 km-wide (497 mi) Mozambique Channel, the island of Madagascar is in the Indian Ocean and is the fourth largest island in the world (Swindler 2002). Ring-tailed lemurs are restricted to the south and southwestern portion of the island, reaching a northern limit near the town of Morondava on the west coast and the town of Ambalavao in the east. The southeastern limit is the town of Tolagnaro on the southern coast (Mittermeier et al. 1994; Jolly 2003). Ring-tailed lemurs are found in the vicinity of nine forests: Andohahela, Andringitra, Ankilitelo, Berenty, Beza Mahafaly, Isalo, Tsimanampetsotsa, Tsirave, and Zombitse (Godfrey et al. 1998).

Ring-tailed lemurs have also been introduced to the United States on St. Catherine's Island, Georgia as part of a project to establish a free-ranging, breeding population that could be studied and in the future could potentially serve as a source to restock parks in Madagascar (Iaderosa & Lessnau 1995).

Most field studies of ring-tailed lemurs have been conducted at Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve and Berenty Private Reserve, a family-owned forest set aside in the 1940s (Sauther et al. 1999). They have also been studied at Andringitra National Park, Isalo National Park, and Andohahela Nature Reserve (Mittermeier et al. 1994). One particularly notable field researcher, Alison Jolly, has been conducting long-term ecological and behavioral research on ring-tailed lemurs at Berenty since the early 1960s and has contributed greatly to the knowledge of wild ring-tailed lemurs. Long-term studies have also been ongoing at Beza Mahafaly most notably conducted by Robert Sussman, Lisa Gould, and Michelle Sauther. Captive research has been conducted at the Duke University Primate Center in North Carolina since the mid-1980s and also has provided invaluable information about the species (Sauther et al. 1999).

There are almost 2000 ring-tailed lemurs in captivity (http://www.isis.org). The wild population is unknown (Harcourt and Thornback 1990).

HABITAT

Madagascar is a 1650 km- (1025 mi-)long island divided by a mountain chain running the length of the island from north to south. This mountainous divide partitions Madagascar into eastern and western parts, each of which has distinctive climate, topography, and vegetation (Jury 2003). Ring-tailed lemurs are found in the southeastern portion of the island at elevations from sea level to 2600 m (8530 ft) in a variety of habitat types including rainforests, subalpine, deciduous, gallery, and spiny bush forests (Goodman & Langrand 1996; Goodman et al. 2003). Much of their habitat has been altered by human impact through clearing for agriculture, burning for charcoal production, and deforesting areas to create settlements (Sussman et al. 2003). Ring-tailed lemurs require some forest cover and are not successful at resettling in secondary growth areas once they have been cleared therefore the total range occupied is large, but their distribution is patchy and dependent on forest cover (Jolly 2003).

In the southwestern part of the country, rainfall can be as little as 30 to 50 mm (1.18 to 1.97 in) per year and the habitat is mainly desert or thorny scrub with plants adapted to very low levels of rainfall. The driest and coldest times of the year last from May to September (winter) and the wetter and warmer months are from December to March (summer) (Jolly 1966; Jury 2003). Average temperatures in this area are about 30° C (86° F) during January and 24° C (75.2° F) during July (Jury 2003). Southwestern Madagascar is subject to periodic drought that can have serious impacts on the ring-tailed lemur and other mammalian inhabitants (Gould et al. 1999).

From west to east across Madagascar, rainfall increases and vegetation becomes lusher. Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve is composed of both xerophytic forests, characteristic of the extreme southwest, and greener gallery forests with taller, more densely forested areas along the banks and tributaries of the Mandrare River (Sussman 1991; Mertl-Millhollen et al. 2003; Sussman 2003). Gallery forests are found throughout southern and southwestern Madagascar along seasonally inundated rivers and their tributaries such as the Mangoky and Onilahy Rivers, as well as the Mandrare River (Sussman et al. 2003). Annual rainfall at Beza Mahafaly averages about 750 mm (2.46 ft), most of which falls during the rainy season that lasts from November to March. The temperatures in this part of the island average between 34° and 35° C (93.2° and 95° F) but can reach highs of 48° C (118.4° F). During the coolest months of the year, June through August, very little rain falls and temperatures average between 23° and 30° C (73.3° and 86° F), but can be as low as 3° C (5.4° F) at night (Sussman 1991).

Continuing eastward through their range toward the central highlands that run north to south on the island, elevation increases and ring-tailed lemurs are found at altitudes up to 2600 m (8530 ft). In these areas, subalpine forests, exposed rock, and savanna dominate the landscape. Temperatures can range between -7° to 26° C (19.4° to 78.8° F) and this area is considered the most meteorologically extreme site on the island (Goodman & Langrand 1996).

ECOLOGY

Lemur catta
Photo: Michelle Sauther

Because of the highly seasonal environment in which they live, wild ring-tailed lemurs must exploit a wide variety of food sources throughout the year. They are best characterized as opportunistic omnivores and eat ripe fruits, leaves, leaf stems, flowers, flower stems, exudates, spiders, spider webs, caterpillars, cicadas, insect cocoons, birds, chameleons, cicadas, grasshoppers, and even dirt from termite mounds (Oda 1996; Sauther et al. 1999; Jolly 2003). One of the most important food sources for ring-tailed lemurs is the tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) which not only is abundant in gallery and more open forests away from rivers, but which produces fruits and leaves at alternating times of the year, providing a reliable, year-round food source for the lemurs (Jolly et al. 2002; Mertl-Millhollen et al. 2003). Tamarinds can provide up to 50% of the total food consumed during some times of the year and are considered a keystone resource for ring-tailed lemurs (Sauther 1998; Jolly 2003). In the driest parts of their range, water availability is a potentially serious issue. Ring-tailed lemurs are able to obtain water from succulent plants including aloe and prickly pear cactus as well as from dew and water that accumulates in crevices such as tree holes (Sauther et al. 1999; Jolly 2003). Vegetation availability is strictly linked to rainfall. During the rainy season, from roughly October through April, fruit and young leaves become available to ring-tailed lemurs. There are two peaks in fruit availability, from October to November and from March to April. During the dry season, the tamarind tree is one of the only sources of fruit (Sauther 1998). Flower availability peaks before the start of the rainy season and is another important food source. Throughout the dry season, even mature leaves can be scarce and ring-tailed lemurs eat dry, desiccated leaves, which are more difficult to digest. During this time of year, young leaves are found only on a few tree or shrub species and are distributed patchily. Flowers, fruit, and young leaves are at the lowest levels during June and July, when barely any rain falls. This is the period of highest nutritional stress for ring-tailed lemurs and they rely heavily on tamarind trees during this time of year (Sauther 1998).

Ring-tailed lemurs start their day waking before dawn and moving about in the branches of the group's sleeping tree. One group splits into two sleeping parties each night, huddling together while sleeping (Jolly 1966; Sussman 2000). Between 5:30 and 8:30 a.m., ring-tailed lemurs move into the sun, away from the sleeping tree and onto exposed ground, and begin feeding and "sunning." The "sunning" posture is distinctive and stereotyped; ring-tailed lemurs sit upright on their haunches, spread-eagle, and rest their forearms on their knees, exposing their undersides to direct sunlight. This behavior is probably linked to thermoregulation as it is often seen following cold nights or during cold mornings (Jolly 1966). The group moves again around noon and they settle in the shade for a brief rest period. They become active again in the early afternoon, foraging, feeding and traveling until the late afternoon. Depending on the time of year, they may take another rest in the mid-afternoon on particularly hot days. After intensely feeding in the late afternoon, the entire group travels back to the sleeping tree where as a group they remain for the rest of the night, but during which individuals may move about the tree, groom, and interact (Jolly 1966; Sussman 2000). About 70% of group travel is terrestrial. About 33% of an individual ring-tailed lemur's average day is spent on the ground, the rest of its time is spent in mid- or upper-level canopy trees (23% and 25%, respectively), in small bushes (13%), or in the emergent layer of the canopy (6%) (Sussman 2000).

The average day range of ring-tailed lemurs is about 1000 m (.621 mi) and one group will use the same part of its home range for three or four days before moving to another part. The home range size varies, depending on habitat, and average size ranges from.1 to.35 km² (.039 to.135 mi²) (Sussman 2000). In drier or more disturbed habitats, home range sizes are larger, averaging.32 km² (.124 mi²) compared to wetter habitats where ring-tailed lemurs have home ranges averaging.17 km² (.066 mi²). Ring-tailed lemurs seasonally expand their home ranges; during the dry season they utilize larger areas because of the resource scarcity (Sussman 1991). The home ranges of multiple groups of ring-tailed lemurs overlap, and there are few areas that are exclusively used by only one group (Sauther & Sussman 1993; Sussman 2000; Mertl-Millhollen et al. 2003). Population density is also linked to habitat quality. In wetter, lusher areas, there are more ring-tailed lemurs per square kilometer, up to 350 per km² (135 per mi²), compared to dry or disturbed areas that can have densities as low as 17 per km² (6.56 per mi²) (Sussman 2000).

Lemur catta
Photo: Herbert Gustafson

Ring-tailed lemurs are sympatric with nine other primates within their range including: Verreaux's sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi), red-tailed sportive lemur (L. ruficaudatus), white-footed sportive lemur (L. leucopus), brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus), greater dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus major), fat-tailed dwarf lemur (C. medius), aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis), ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata), and lesser bamboo lemur (Hapalemur griseus) (Mittermeier et al. 1994). Research on competition for resources between Verreaux's sifaka and ring-tailed lemurs reveals that there is little direct competition for food, even during the dry season when resources are limited. Though they naturally have overlapping ranges in other parts of Madagascar, at Berenty Private Reserve, brown lemurs were introduced in 1975 and they now compete with ring-tailed lemurs for access to food. The two species have high dietary overlap at Berenty and likely compete for similar foods during times of scarcity. The development of a tourist center at the reserve has decreased this competition because new opportunities for both water and food have been introduced via the establishment of watering troughs and the addition of cultivated and ornamental plants (Simmen et al. 2003). In the Antserananomby Forest, where brown and ring-tailed lemurs naturally occur together, niche separation is significant and daily activity patterns separate the two species, preventing direct competition for resources (Sussman 2000). Competition with the other sympatric species has not been recorded, likely because many of the other species are nocturnal.

Actual predation pressure on ring-tailed lemurs is unknown. However, some potential predators include raptors, cat-like carnivores such as fossas and civets, various snakes, and brown lemurs, which have been recorded capturing and eating infant ring-tailed lemurs. Domestic cats introduced to Madagascar also are responsible for predation losses (Goodman et al. 1993; Goodman 2003).

Content last modified: September 21, 2005

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Michelle Sauther.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 September 21. Primate Factsheets: Ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) Taxonomy, Morphology, & Ecology . <http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/factsheets/entry/ring-tailed_lemur>. Accessed 2014 August 22.