Friday, April 18, 2014

Madagascar's Favorite Fur Balls: Ring-Tailed Lemurs

Ring-tailed Lemurs forming a fur ball at the Oakland Zoo. 
Photo taken in October, 2006 by Treehgr

The Ring-Tailed Lemur (Lemur catta), popularized in the animated film series Madagascar and the Animal Planet film series Lemur Kingdom, is a fun-loving primate that lives on the island of Madagascar.

Ring-Tailed Lemur. Photo by Rvb, public domain.

In reality, the future of the lovable Ring-Tailed Lemur is threatened by habitat destruction, drought, and use as pets and food, but unlike other animals, it both reproduces, and survives, in captivity.

Anatomy of the Ring-Tailed Lemur

Ring-Tailed Lemurs are considered large strepsirrhine primates, though they are not as big as they look in pictures. In fact, they generally weigh 6 1/2 pounds, the same size as an average house cat. They have a gray outer coat and thin, white, underbelly. Their front legs are shorter than their hind legs. They have long, slender fingers and fingernails that resemble those of humans.

Ring-Tailed Lemur showing off its classic long, striped tail. 
Photo, in public domain, was taken by Barbary lion

The Ring-Tailed Lemur's most distinguishing physical characteristic is their exceptionally long, bushy, black and white ringed tail, which is used for both balance and communication with other troop members. Their muzzle is dark gray and their eyes are bright yellow or orange surrounded by black patches of fur. They are one of the more vocal primates, calling to each other with loud meows, screeches, purrs, and other sounds depending on the situation. They are also capable of using tools and believed to be capable of understanding basic mathematics.


Ring-Tailed Lemurs are diurnal, which means they are most active during the day. They eat fruit, flowers, occasional insects, herbs, and favor the Tamarind Tree. They spend most of their time on the ground in groups, called "troops," of 20 to 30. The troop has a female hierarchy. The females are dominant and related to each other and stay with their relatives their entire lives. Males in the group are either unrelated or youngsters who have not yet reached sexual maturity.

Ring-Tailed Lemur in Berenty, Madagascar. Photo by Hans Bernhard (Schnobby). 

The females share child care duties, provide food for each other and sleep huddled tight together with their tails flung across each other to form a giant fur ball, or "Lemur Ball." Since they are all facing inward, this sleeping technique protects them very well from bad weather. Males sleep separately. On warm, sunny days, Ring-Tailed Lemurs spend their afternoons lying on the beach on their backs with their arms spread wide, sunbathing.

In the Family Way

When a male Ring-Tailed Lemur reaches sexual maturity at two to three years of age, he leaves the troop in search of another. According to the Ring-Tailed Lemurs Species Survival Plan website, young males challenge dominant males for breeding rights through "stink fighting"--they rub their tails across scent glands between their legs and on their arms then fling their tails over their heads and shake them at rival males.

A family of Ring-Tailed Lemurs in Madagascar.

These encounters can also become violent as the males leap into the air, throw themselves at each other and slash at each other with their sharp teeth. Defeated males will often leave the troop in search of another troop. Females mature at three years old. Mating begins in Madagascar in mid-April and lasts a few weeks. Gestation is 135 days and single or twin births are most common. Babies cling to their mother's bellies for the first few weeks, then to their mother's backs for two more weeks.

Threats to Survival and Conservation Efforts

Threats to the Ring-Tailed Lemur include the Fossa, which is a cat-like native animal, raptors, civets, boas, and feral cats and dogs. However, pollution and loss of habitat are also affecting the survival of the Ring-Tailed Lemur and there are many organizations working to protect the animal habitats of Madagascar.

Ring-Tailed Lemurs in Berenty, Madagascar. Photo by David Dennis in public domain.

For instance, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) provides accreditation to organizations that certify forest production to prevent illegally farmed wood and encourage ecologically friendly products, thereby protecting the habitats of creatures like the Ring-Tailed Lemur. The Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG), an organization of zoos and other animal-focused institutions, educates local residents on the importance of the survival of these magnificent creatures as well as teaching sustainable agricultural practices to help protect the habitats of Ring-Tailed Lemurs.

Ring-Tailed Lemurs in Popular Culture

In 1996, Nature filmed a documentary titled A Lemur's Tale, filmed at Berenty Reserve, a privately-owned reserve and tourist attraction in Madagascar. The documentary followed a troop of Ring-Tailed Lemurs in a way similar to the popular Meerkat Manor. The 1997 John Cleese film Fierce Creatures also featured Ring-Tailed Lemurs. One of the Lemurs in Fierce Creatures is named after Cleese's character, Rollo. In 1998, Cleese hosted the BBC documentary In The Wild: Operation Lemur.

Ring-Tailed Lemurs in Berenty Reserve, Madagascar, 2009. 
Photo by Alex Dunkel (Visionholder).

Following the popular film series Madagascar, Ring-Tailed Lemurs once again became minor celebrities. Oxford Scientific Films produced two series--Lemur Kingdom shown in the United States and Lemur Street shown in Great Britain--for Animal Planet starting in November of 2007. Both shows also followed a troop of Ring-Tailed Lemurs.


  • "Primate Fact Sheet: Ring-Tailed Lemurs." Primate Info Net. Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  • "The Natural History of Ring-Tailed Lemurs." Ring-Tailed Lemurs Species Survival Plan. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
In the A to Z Bloggers Challenge M is for Madagascar's Ring-Tailed Lemurs!


Joyce Lansky said...

Cute little fellows.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

They area adorable. I do hope they manage to survive the loss of habitat. That seems to be one of the greatest threats to animals in Madagascar--habitat loss.