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What are Lemurs?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Lemurs are primates native to the island of Madagascar, off the coast of Africa. In addition to being found on Madagascar, lemurs also roam on the neighboring Comoros Islands. These unique animals have survived on the island of Madagascar because they are cut off from the African mainland, where other primates eventually dominated, and as a result, lemurs are extremely vulnerable to human encroachment and habitat destruction, because they have led such sheltered lives historically.

At first glance, a lemur looks sort of like a squirrel, raccoon, or cat, but these animals really are primates, which means that they are closely related to humans. Lemurs are classified as prosimians, differentiating them from anthropoid primates, the group to which humans and monkeys belong. Prosimians evolved before their anthropoid cousins, and they possess a number of the traits associated with primates, but they look markedly different.

Lemurs presumably made their way to Madagascar after the island broke off from Africa, judging from fossil evidence, and then differentiated into an estimated 50 species, many of which are considered threatened today. These animals are primarily arboreal, preferring the safety of trees to the ground, and they are primarily 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, tapered muzzle, a long tail, and limber legs. The animals are adroit climbers, and they are also very flexible and acrobatic. They live in large social groups which are usually dominated by the 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 distinctively ringed tail, is probably one of the most famous of the lemur species, and it's the animal which springs to mind when people think about lemurs. However, these primates come in a range of sizes and colors, including tan, reddish, brown, gray, and black, and they can be quite small to very large. Many biologists are concerned about the diversity of lemur species, however, since so 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 native populations decline beyond hopes of natural recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly are lemurs, and where can they be found?

Lemurs are a unique group of primates known as prosimians, native to the island of Madagascar. They are characterized by their large eyes, long tails, and a reflective layer in their eyes that aids their night vision. Madagascar is the only place in the world where lemurs are found in the wild, with diverse habitats ranging from rainforests to dry deserts.

How many species of lemurs exist, and are they endangered?

There are over 100 known species of lemurs, and unfortunately, many are at risk. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), lemurs are considered the world's most endangered group of mammals, with over 90% of all lemur species classified as threatened or endangered due to habitat destruction and hunting.

What do lemurs typically eat?

Lemurs have a varied diet that primarily consists of fruit, which makes up about 50% of their intake. They also eat leaves, flowers, tree bark, and sap. Some species, like the aye-aye, have a specialized diet that includes insects and grubs, which they extract from trees using their elongated middle finger.

How do lemurs communicate with each other?

Lemurs have a complex system of communication that includes vocalizations, scent marking, and body language. They use different calls to alert others of danger, establish territory, or coordinate group movements. Scent glands on their wrists and bottoms allow them to mark their paths and territories with unique scents.

What is the social structure of lemur groups?

Lemurs live in social groups called troops, which can range from a few individuals to over 30 members, depending on the species. Most lemur societies are matriarchal, meaning females hold a higher rank and have priority access to food and mating partners. This social structure is relatively rare among primates.

How do lemurs contribute to their ecosystem?

Lemurs play a crucial role in their ecosystem as seed dispersers and pollinators. By consuming fruit and traveling long distances, they spread seeds throughout their habitats, aiding in plant regeneration and forest health. Some species, like the black-and-white ruffed lemur, are key pollinators for certain plant species, ensuring the continuation of Madagascar's unique biodiversity.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By BoatHugger — On Nov 07, 2010

@oceanswimmer: Typically, lemurs live to be around 18 years old. When lemurs are born, the mother carries the baby in her mouth until they are old enough to hang on to her fur by themselves.

By OceanSwimmer — On Nov 07, 2010

How long do lemurs live?

By momothree — On Nov 07, 2010

I found the lemur’s communication method very interesting. They use their sense of smell to communicate with one another. They have scent glands on their feet and on their bottoms that leave odors on the surfaces that they cross. When another lemur passes by, they smell the odor and can tell that a lemur has been there.

They also use their big, bushy tails for communicating. They will wave them back and forth in the air when in the presence of other lemurs.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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