Most people probably think of ring-tailed species when they hear “lemur”.
Lemurs are primates native to the island of Madagascar, off the coast of Africa. In addition to being found in Madagascar, lemurs also roam the neighboring Comoros Islands. These unique animals have survived on the island of Madagascar because they are isolated from the African continent where other primates have come to dominate, and as a result lemurs are extremely vulnerable to human encroachment and habitat destruction because they have led protected lives historically.
Lemurs likely arrived in Madagascar after the island broke away from Africa.
At first glance, a lemur looks like a squirrel, raccoon or cat, but these animals are actually primates, meaning they are closely related to humans. Lemurs are classified as prosimians, differentiating them from anthropoid primates, the group to which humans and apes belong. Prosimians evolved before their anthropoid cousins and have several traits associated with primates, but they are very different.
Lemurs presumably arrived in Madagascar after the island broke away from Africa, judging by fossil evidence, and later differentiated into around 50 species, many of which are considered endangered today. These animals are mostly arboreal, preferring the safety of trees to the ground, and are mostly nocturnal, which can make them very difficult to study. The name “lemur” comes from the Latin lemures, which means “ghosts” in Latin, a reference to the nocturnal habits of these creatures.
A typical lemur has a long, tapering snout, a long tail, and flexible legs. The animals are skilled climbers, but also very flexible and acrobatic. They live in large social groups that are usually dominated by females, in an interesting reversal of the norm seen in most other primate groups, and they communicate with a variety of calls and scent marks.
The ring-tailed lemur, with its huge eyes and distinctly ringed tail, is probably one of the most famous of the lemur species, and it’s the animal that comes to mind when people think about lemurs. However, these primates come in a variety of sizes and colors, including tan, reddish, brown, gray, and black, and can be very small to very large. Many biologists are concerned about the diversity of lemur species, however, as many are endangered and threatened, and attempts are being made to establish captive breeding colonies of lemurs for potential re-release back into the wild if the native populations decline beyond natural hopes for recovery.