Madagascar is famous for its lemurs, mammals that resemble primates that existed millions of years ago. Lemurs are a diverse bunch, ranging from tiny mouse lemurs to child-sized, singing indri. Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) have “stink fights” in territorial disputes and Verreaux’s sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi) hop along the ground sideways like confused kangaroos. Only found in Madagascar and important as seed dispersers and pollinators, lemurs are facing major declines due to continued habitat loss and hunting. In fact, Madagascar tops the IUCN’s list of the “World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates“, with six species listed.
In the Masoala-Makira protected area complex in northeastern Madagascar, we were able to observe 12 lemur species in the wild, which are detailed below. Three of those were listed on the 25 Most Endangered Primate list—the red ruffed lemur, the silky sifaka and the indri—and we hope to provide information that will aid in their conservation at this study’s conclusion.
Mouse lemur (Microcebus spp.): Endangered (EN)
Recent research based on new genetic analyses suggests that there are 2+ species of mouse lemur in Makira: Mittermeier’s mouse lemur (Microcebus mittermeieri), MacArthur’s mouse lemur (Microcebus macarthurii), and a third, unnamed species. Mittermeier’s and MacArthur’s mouse lemurs are both listed as Endangered due to the size of their known ranges. Our study will be the first conducted on them in the wild since their classification.
Mouse lemurs in general are widespread and very common. They are probably the least sensitive of all the lemurs to habitat degradation. They can be commonly found in old plantations and eucalyptus groves. They are active at night, sleeping in tree holes and leaf nests (or even old bird nests) during the day, and foraging for fruit, insects, and nectar at night. They store fat in their tails for the austral winter (June-September), when they reduce their activity.
Dominant males may mate with several females in September and October, with females bearing 1-3 offspring a few months later. Babies use their mothers as jungle gyms as practice for when they are adults, crawling and jumping from branch to branch in search of food. They provide an abundant food source to native and exotic carnivores alike. Habitat loss is a threat, as is hunting by humans.
Hairy-eared dwarf lemur (Allocebus trichotis): Vulnerable (VU)
The hairy-eared dwarf lemur was described in 1875 and that was the last time it was seen in the wild…until 1989. Similar in size and looks to mouse lemurs, its long wavy ear fur-tufts are its distinguishing characteristic. Rarely seen and rarely studied, it is only recently that the IUCN was able to give it a status (instead of DD/data deficient). It seems to prefer undisturbed habitat, although it can tolerate some human activity and habitat disturbance.
Foraging at night in the forest’s lower levels, it subsists on nectar, fruit, gum, vegetation, and insects. It has been observed in pairs, with family groups sleeping together during the day in tree hollows. Like the mouse lemurs, it might reduce activity during the austral winter. It is thought to breed during November and December, with offspring born a couple months later.
Threats to this mysterious little lemur are habitat loss and hunting. It is thought that there are less than 1,000 individuals left in the world.
Dwarf lemurs (Cheirogaleus spp.): Data Deficient (DD)
Dwarf lemurs (Cheirogaleus spp.) are also currently undergoing genetic analyses to determine how many species there are. The species that live in Makira are the greater dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus major) and Crossley’s dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus crossleyi).
Dwarf lemurs don’t seem to be bothered by habitat disturbance and are said to be common in plantations. They are nocturnal, sleeping in nests high up in the trees during the day and foraging for fruits, flowers, nectar, and the occasional small vertebrate or insect, during the night.
They have been found sleeping in groups up to three adults. After storing excess fat in their tails all year long, they hibernate from April to September in tree hollows and holes. The breeding season occurs shortly after they awake from hibernation, with 2-3 offspring born in January. Records show that they are preyed upon by ring-tailed vontsira, but they might also be eaten by snakes, birds of prey and the fosa.
Sportive lemurs (Lepilemur spp.): Vulnerable/Endangered (VU/EN)
Like dwarf and mouse lemurs, sportive lemurs are also undergoing extensive genetic analyses to determine how many species there are. Of the 26 known species in Madagascar, the Masoala-Makira area is thought to be home to two: Seal’s sportive lemur (Lepilemur seali) and Scott’s sportive lemur in Masoala (Lepilemur scottorum).
A medium-sized lemur, sportive lemurs mostly eat vegetation, with the occasional fruit, flower and seed thrown in for variety. They are inactive most of the time, spending days resting in tree hollows and leafy nests. Unlike dwarf and mouse lemurs, when they do decide to move, they move by hopping sideways from one tree to another.
They seem to be solitary, although male and female territories will overlap. One offspring is born and clings to the mother for about a year, with sportive lemurs reaching sexual maturity around 2 years of age. Known threats to the sportive lemur include habitat loss and hunting.
Eastern woolly lemur (Avahi laniger): Vulnerable (VU)
The eastern woolly lemur (or avahi) is a medium-sized lemur that is restricted to the rainforests of northeastern Madagascar. Avahi are typically some of the easiest nocturnal lemurs to see, and have distinguishing white patches on their hind legs that allow them to be easily identified during night surveys.
They are able to tolerate some habitat disturbance, and might be more common in disturbed forests. Even when they are active (nighttime), they don’t move much. When they do move, they hop sideways like sportive lemurs. Their fare of choice is leaves, flowers, and fruits. Avahi typically live in what might be monogamous pairs, and have one baby in August and September. They are highly threatened by hunting, with an estimated 2,500-3,000 killed annually in Makira.
Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis): Endangered (EN)
An elongated middle finger used to sound for grubs, rodent-like teeth used to gnaw through wood and large bat-like ears to listen with…naturalists were initially baffled by the aye-aye’s highly distinctive appearance.
The largest nocturnal primate on earth, it is rarely seen in the wild, with its presence often assumed from characteristic tree hole marks it creates while grub-hunting. Widespread but uncommon, it occurs in undisturbed and disturbed forest and cultivated areas. Its home ranges are huge for a lemur (6+ km) and it spends a lot of its time moving, even traveling along on the ground.
Primary food sources includes the seeds of large trees such as Canarium and insects it detects and then fishes out of trees with its elongated finger. During the day it sleeps in communal nests that are used by different aye-ayes at different times (akin to a time-share). Although they seem solitary, some research suggets that they can have “friendships” with other same-sex individuals.
Sexual maturity is reached at 3-4 years of age, and females give birth to one baby every 2-3 years. They are hunted at unsustainable rates as food in certain parts of Makira and occasionally killed as a harbinger of evil. Habitat loss is a big threat to aye-ayes, as big trees with choice nuts are often cut down to make boats or houses.
Western lesser bamboo lemur (Hapalemur occidentalis): Vulnerable (VU)
The western lesser bamboo lemur ranges from the western deciduous dry forests to the northeastern rainforests. As long as there is bamboo in a forest, it is likely that there will be bamboo lemurs, as the majority of their diet consists of bamboo. No one is sure how bamboo lemurs survive their poisonous diet (their bamboo of choice has high amounts of cyanide).
The bamboo lemur is mainly active at night, although it can be active during the day. While foraging for food, they go from tree to tree and bamboo pole to bamboo pole by leaping much like sportive lemurs and avahi. Family groups consist of a male, a few females and, resulting offspring, which are born between September and January.
Eaten by snakes, birds of prey, and other carnivores, bamboo lemurs are also hunted for food and threatened by the continuous loss of their precious bamboo stands.
White-fronted brown lemur (Eulemur albifrons): Endangered (EN)
The white-fronted brown lemur is restricted to northeastern Madagascar, where it can be locally common. Usually, it will be the last of the medium-sized lemurs left in disturbed forest. Active both day and night, but mostly during the day, individuals form multi-male and multi-female groups that can be as few as 3 and as many as 12 individuals. The average rests around 5-7.
Only the males grow the characteristic white ruff. Capable of leaping long distances, they rove through the forest searching for fruit, mature leaves, flowers and insects. Like many lemur species, they occasionally come down to the ground for a delicious dessert of dirt. They communicate through soft, deep grunts and aren’t afraid to begin an alarm chorus while jumping above and gazing down on whatever caused their alarm.
Most females have one baby every year between September and October. Relatively long-lived (up to 20 years in the wild), these charismatic lemurs, although threatened by habitat loss like many lemurs, are probably more affected by extensive and intense hunting pressure.
Red-bellied lemur (Eulemur rubriventer): Vulnerable (VU)
Occupying much of the same range as the white-fronted brown lemur, the red-bellied lemur is as shy as the white-fronted is bold. Eschewing the lower altitudes, this lemur seems to prefer undisturbed forests high in the mountains, although it can be seen in slightly disturbed habitat. Much like the white-fronted, the red-bellied is active day and night and lives in groups that number up to 10 individuals. Unlike the white-fronted, these groups are not a bunch of swinging singles, but a responsible adult pair and their children.
Like the white-fronted, the female once again is rather dull in appearance, while the male gains white teardrop facial patches to contrast pleasingly with its rich chestnut-brown fur. They specialize in fruits, although they will also eat flowers, leaves and insects, and are important seed dispersers. While feeding, one group member takes up the title of sentinel, grunting when they observe terrestrial or aerial predators.
One infant is born each year; whether it survives is a 50/50 shot. The babies attach to their mothers and fathers, switching completely over to their father when their mother refuses to carry them anymore after a month or so. Preyed on by fosa and raptors, the red-bellied lemur is threatened by habitat loss, hunting, and predation by domestic dogs and cats.
Indri (Indri indri): Critically Endangered (CR)
The indri, the largest living lemur, is also well-known for it’s haunting gibbon-like calls. These calls are used for communication between family groups, with topics ranging from territorial boundaries to reproductive status. The calls are a family affair, with every member (except the very young) setting the stage with a “roar” sequence, which is then followed by a song duet between the adult pair that lasts for a couple minutes.
Indri can be found in disturbed and undisturbed habitat. In undisturbed forest, indri groups are smaller and have wider home ranges. In contrast, indri groups in disturbed forest consists of multiple generations, with younger individuals having nowhere suitable to disperse to. The adult pair is monogamous, only seeking a new partner after the death of their old partner.
Active strictly during the day (although they can begin singing as early as 4 am at the height of austral summer), indri sing and groom each other in between bouts of foraging for tender leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds. In contrast to the ethereal beauty of their singing, they will also make startlingly loud goose-like honks to warn of predators like fosa or humans. Sexual maturity is reached at 7-9 years of age, with one infant being born every 2-3 years. Because of their slow reproductive rate, they are in danger of being hunted out by locals, especially in Makira where hunting rates are unsustainable. It is thought that there are no more than 10,000 indri left in the world.
Silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus): Critically Endangered (CR)
One of the rarest mammals on earth, it is believed that there are no more than 250 adult silky sifaka left in the world. This sifaka is known for its silky white fur. Found in undisturbed rainforest high in the mountains, the silky sifaka lives in groups of 2 to 9 individuals. These individuals might be a male (distinguished by a discolored brown chest patch) with multiple females, or a bonded pair and their offspring.
Females lead daytime foraging excursions, searching for leaves and seeds, fruits and flowers. Females only go into heat one day out of the year, and have only one baby every two years. This infant is pampered by all of the individuals in the group. The only known predator of the silky sifaka is the fosa, although sifakas also make alarm calls in response to the shadows of birds of prey. Hunted for their meat and threatened by habitat loss, research conducted by Dr. Erik Patel, Director of the Duke Lemur Center’s SAVA Conservation project, has helped to provide information needed for the conservation of this unique lemur.
Black-and-white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata): Critically Endangered (CR)
A large lemur with a dog-like muzzle, the black-and-white ruffed lemur is highly uncommon and patchily distributed. There are three subspecies, with Makira being home to Varecia variegata subcincta. This lemur is active early in the morning and late in the afternoon. A canopy-dweller, it likes forests with tall fruiting trees. Picky eaters of fruits, seeds, leaves and nectar, this lemur seems to have co-evolved with the traveller’s tree (Ravenala madagascariensis), acting as its pollinator.
The black-and-white ruffed lemur defends large home ranges in small groups that sometimes meld into larger groups. Loud raucous calls (a mix of dog snarling and short screams) that can carry for kilometers are used to communicate territorial boundaries. Females are dominant in the ruffed lemur hierarchy, gaining access to choice fruits and leaves. Twins or triplets are born in September and October in well-hidden nests made specifically for the purpose. Only a few live past three months, and at four months they begin to act like adults, foraging independently.
Because of their need for tall, fruiting trees, black-and-white ruffed lemurs are especially sensitive to habitat loss. They are also hunted throughout their range. It is thought that there are less than 10,000 black-and-white ruffed lemurs left in the world, and their loss can lead to unforeseen consequences for fruit tree regeneration in Madagascar.
Red ruffed lemur (Varecia rubra): Critically Endangered (CR)
Like it’s black and white cousin, the red ruffed lemur is highly threatened. Found only on and around the Masoala peninsula, this ruffed lemur also prefers undisturbed forest with plenty of tall fruit trees and participates in a female-dominated, fission/fusion social system, with large groups of 5 to 31 individuals breaking apart into smaller sub-groups and then merging back together in response to available resources.
A high canopy dweller, litters of 2 or 3 babies are born in September to early November. Infant mortality is high and babies are born only every other year. Adults reach sexual maturity after 2 years and can live up to 20 years in the wild, if they aren’t killed by fosa or large birds of prey. Like the black-and-white, the red ruffed lemur is an integral part of its ecosystem, dispersing seeds and pollinating plants. However, it is threatened by habitat loss, hunting and the intense cyclones that can hit the Masoala peninsula every year.