Lemurs (suborder: Strepsirrhini) are small primates found only on the island of Madagascar. Somewhat resembling a cross between a cat, a squirrel and a dog, there are over 30 species of lemurs that can only exist today because of the isolation of the island. It is theorized that lemurs were driven from mainland Africa millions of years ago by more intelligent primates such as monkeys and floated on “rafts” of vegetation to Madagascar.
Lemurs can range in size from the Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, which is the world’s smallest primate at only 1.1oz., up to 15-20lbs for larger varieties. Until recently lemurs weighing up to 440lbs existed on the island, but they have since gone extinct. Lemurs are natural jumpers and have been conditioned over generations to be able to make large leaps. Because of this specialized physiology, some lemurs are not able to walk normally on flat ground, instead hopping sideways with their arms out in what is referred to as a “dance-hop”.
Smaller lemurs are mostly nocturnal and eat primarily fruit and insects, whereas larger lemurs often feed during the day and eat mainly plants. However, there are exceptions to these traits and lemurs will often eat whatever is available if they are hungry, including other small animals. Lemurs rely more heavily on their sense of smell than other primates and have the ability to mark items using special glands located on different parts of their bodies depending on species. The lemurs use these scents as a form of communication between one another, especially at night. This technique is useful as lemurs do not generally have eyesight that is as well developed as other primates.
Lemurs are social animals and most live in groups called “troops”. These troops may include anywhere from 6 to 30 animals depending on species. Nocturnal lemurs usually spend their nights foraging for food alone and then nest with their troop during the day in tree holes or other cover. Larger lemurs who feed during the daytime tend to stay with their troop at all times, much like other primates such as monkeys. However unlike other primates, lemurs exhibit female dominance, often associated with feeding.
Small lemurs usually give birth to multiple offspring at once, whereas the larger species’ will normally birth only one baby. Once born, lemurs carry their offspring with them, either in their mouths or by having the baby cling to their backs. Other species will stash their young in a safe place while they forage for food. Properly fed (particularly in captivity), lemurs can live for more than 30 years.
- Some lemurs can leap up to 33 feet between tree trunks.
- During mating season, male lemurs use their scent-producing glands in “stink fights”, covering their tails with scent and waving them in the air for dominance.
- Some species will actually hibernate for short periods of time when food is scarce.