Species: Ring-tailed Lemur (Lemur catta)
Favourite food: He likes all fruits and vegetables, but his favourites are grapes, kiwi and yam
How they got their name: He’s named after Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld, because he is so silly and comical
Natural behaviours: His jumping ability – He can jump several times his body length!
Favourite thing to do at the Earth Rangers Centre: Sunbathing outside or hanging out in the lobby greeting visitors
Here’s what Animal Trainer Meghan has to say about Cosmo…
Cosmo is a very relaxed lemur, and is content to just sit beside his trainers and hang out with them while watching all the activity around him. He is an amazing jumper, but he generally tends to save all his jumping for play time in our outdoor training centre.
- They may look like monkeys (simians), but lemurs are actually prosimians, which evolved separately from monkeys and apes!
- Like all lemurs, ring-tails can only be found on the island of Madagascar
- These lemurs are frugivorous, meaning they mostly eat fruit
- When babies are born, the whole troop or group of lemurs help raise them
- Their populations are threatened by habitat loss and hunting
Ring-tailed lemurs are easily the most recognizable species of the lemur family, probably because they are seen in zoos all over the world. While they might look a lot like monkeys, lemurs are actually members of a different family of primates, called prosimians. This family evolved separately from monkeys and apes, prosimians include lemurs, bushbabies, tarsiers and lorises.
Ring-tailed lemurs have fox-like faces and long hind legs, but perhaps their most famous feature is their long tail with black and grey rings. Did you know that their tails aren’t prehensile? This means lemurs cannot use their tails to hang from or grip onto branches. Instead, they use their tails for communication and balance when running or jumping.
Ring-tailed lemurs are covered in a thick coat of soft grey fur, which they spend a lot of time cleaning and keeping parasite-free. This requires constant grooming and lemurs will often rely on other members of the troop for help. Grooming each other, or allogrooming, is not only useful for staying clean, it also helps develop bonds among lemurs and reinforces the social structure of family groups that can number up to 30 members.
Ring-tailed lemurs communicate with each other through several different ways, including body postures, facial expressions, and a wide range of vocal calls. They also communicate through scent, which comes from a special spur on the inside of their wrists. This scent is used to mark the group’s territory, but also to have “stink fights”. These stink fights happen when two opposing lemurs will coat their tails with their scents and attempt to waft as much of their smell as possible towards each other.
Ring-tailed lemurs, like all lemurs, can only be found in Madagascar, an island found off the Eastern coast of Africa. Madagascar has one of the highest levels of endemism in the world, which means that many of the plants and animals that live on the island don’t exist anywhere else. In fact, almost 90% of all living things on Madagascar are endemic, making lemurs part of one of the most unique ecosystems in the world.
Ring-tailed lemurs are usually found on the Southern end of the island. Of all the different species of lemurs, Ring-tailed lemurs spend the most time on the ground, making them the most adaptable but also susceptible to predation by different kinds of predators. They can survive in some of the most extreme climates Madagascar has to offer, from the hottest and driest to the coldest. Madagascar has two main seasons: a warm, tropical rainy season (November-April); and a cool, dry season (May-October). Due to differences in elevation, however, high elevation areas can receive hail or snow.
Lemurs claim certain territories as a group. Territory size and location depend on nearby food and water. Their favourite spots are places like gallery forests, where the forest grows beside a river or stream. These forests have plenty of food, water and safe places to rest. These forests are very popular and are shared among many lemur groups, making each group’s territory very small. Other places, like open savannas, have less food, water or shelter available, so the territory has to be bigger so the lemurs can find what they need to survive. In some cases, a savanna territory can be three times as big as the territory in the forest.
Even though they have evolved in isolation from other primates for over 60 million years, Ring-tailed lemurs share many ecological characteristics of apes and monkeys. Unlike other prosimians, lemurs are diurnal, meaning they are most active during the day. Ring-tailed lemurs, like baboons or macaques found on mainland Africa, are social animals that are relatively adaptable to different habitats and rely heavily on fruit to make up most of their diet.
Ring-tailed lemurs play a very important part in keeping their habitat healthy as seed dispersers and pollinators. Seeds and pollen from plants can get caught in their fur. As they roam around their territory, seeds drop off and get mixed in with the soil, where a new plant starts to grow. This seed dispersal allows plants to reach places they couldn’t get to on their own and helps the population grow. As the lemurs brush up against flowers, pollen on their fur rubs off and helps pollinate plants.
Like with many other species, there are some predators that prey on Ring-tailed lemurs. Native predators include birds like the Harrier hawk and the Madagascar buzzard, as well as the cat-like Fossa. Human presence has added most predators to the mix, since domestic cats and dogs also hunt lemurs.
Ring-tailed lemurs love fruit! They are frugivorous, meaning they primarily eat fruit, but there are exceptions. For example, they will also eat leaves, flowers, sap and bark; Ring-tailed lemurs aren’t really that picky. Researchers have found that there are at least 109 species of plants in the Ring-tailed lemurs’ diet.
Where available, Tamarind trees are an important food source for the Ring-tailed lemur. They will eat its leaves, fruit and seedpods, and in return, the Ring-tailed lemur helps pollinate the Tamarind trees’ flowers and keep its population healthy.
During the dry season and in areas where there is little open water to drink, Ring-tailed lemurs will look for food and water in the most unlikely places. They will eat the leaves of fleshy succulent plants to get water. They have also been seen eating tree bark and decaying wood, as well as insects, cocoons, caterpillars and spiders. Like some other primates that eat a lot of leaves, Ring-tailed lemurs also have an odd habit of eating soil. Scientists think the lemurs supplement their diet with dirt to increase their intake of sodium (salt).
The breeding season of the Ring-tailed lemur is usually in the middle of spring. Breeding begins in April and usually ends in May, with one or two babies being born sometime between August and November. It isn’t long before these babies are active. Many will begin climbing branches and exploring on their own just two weeks after being born. They will also start eating solid food at about two months old. Being very social animals, Ring-tailed lemurs also start to establish their dominance with their peers at a young age. By the time they are four or five months old, juveniles start to play fight, which helps them move up the social ladder.
Raising young lemurs can be tough, but the mothers don’t have to do it alone. Other members of the group will help to raise the young together by grooming, carrying, feeding and playing. This shared care also helps the young develop social skills, and gives them extra protection when needed. At about 1.5 years old they are full grown, but don’t start their own families for another year.
- Near threatened (IUCN, 2008)
- Habitat loss is the principle threat, but they are sometimes also hunted by humans
Because these lemurs are seen in so many zoos and can be found in some of the most popular national parks in Madagascar, people might think that there are lots of Ring-tailed lemurs in the wild. This isn’t true. In fact, Ring-tailed lemur populations are getting smaller and smaller.
Their biggest threat comes from habitat loss. Controlled fires used to clear land for agriculture and over-grazing by livestock are decreasing dramatically the amount of bush and forest habitat available. Since Ring-tailed lemurs are endemic to the island, there is only a limited amount of space for them to share with people. These smaller habitats put lemurs at increased risk of being hunted, although hunting is illegal because lemurs are protected by national and international law. Ring-tailed lemurs are poached or hunted illegally in some areas for food, and are sometimes trapped to be sold as pets.
Luckily, Ring-tailed lemurs are good at adapting to environmental change. This adaptability has probably kept them from being designated by the IUCN as vulnerable or endangered, a status shared by other lemur species. As people continue to change the Madagascar landscape, Ring-tailed lemur survival is becoming more and more difficult. As one of the most recognizable faces of Madagascar, a hotspot for biodiversity, the Ring-tailed lemur has become a symbol of the need for species conservation worldwide.