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Ring-tailed Lemurs (Lemur catta)
Ring-tailed Lemurs (Lemur catta)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Suborder: Strepsirrhini
Infraorder: Lemuriformes
Gray, 1821
Superfamilies and Families

Lemurs make up the infraorder Lemuriformes and are members of a class of primates known as prosimians. This type of primate was considered the evolutionary predecessor of simians: monkeys and apes, however this classification is not phylogenetically 'valid'. Three of the four prosimians are in the suborder Strepsirrhini, which is not the same suborder as monkeys and apes, suborder Haplorrhini. The term "lemur" is derived from the Latin word lemures, meaning "spirits of the night," or "ghost(s)" and likely refers to the large, reflective eyes which many of the nocturnal lemur species have. The term is generically used for the members of the four lemuriform families, but it is also the genus of one of the lemuriform species, the Ring-tailed Lemur (Lemur catta). The two so-called flying lemur species are not lemurs, nor are they even primates.


Lemurs are found naturally only on the island of Madagascar and some smaller surrounding islands, including the Comoros (where it is likely they were introduced by humans). Fossil evidence indicates that they made their way across the ocean after Madagascar broke away from the continent of Africa.[2] While their ancestors were displaced in the rest of the world by monkeys, apes, and other primates, the lemurs were safe from competition on Madagascar and differentiated into a number of species. These range in size from the tiny 30 gram (1 oz) Pygmy Mouse Lemur to the 10 kilogram (22 lb) Indri. The larger species, some of which weighed up to 240 kg[3], have all become extinct since humans settled on Madagascar, and since the early 20th century the largest lemurs reach about 7 kilograms (15 lbs). Typically, the smaller lemurs are active at night (nocturnal), while the larger ones are active during the day (diurnal).

The small cheirogaleoids are generally omnivores, eating a variety of fruits, flowers and leaves (and sometimes nectar) as well as insects, spiders and small vertebrates. The remainder of the lemurs, the lemuroids are primarily herbivores, although some species supplement their diet with insects.

Lemurs have opposable thumbs and long grasping toes, but their tails are not prehensile. Lemurs have nails rather than claws. All lemur species have a tapetum, the reflective layer over the retina.[3] Lemurs are thought to have limited color vision.[3] Lemurs depend quite heavily on the sense of smell and have large nasal cavities and moist noses.[3]

Unlike most other primates, lemur species that live in groups have a Matriarchal society (i.e. females are dominant over males). Most lemur species are primarily arboreal and traverse the canopy by vertical clinging and leaping or quadrupedalism, with the notable exception of the Ring-Tailed Lemur (Lemur catta) which spends a considerable amount of time moving about on the ground.

Endangered species

File:Black Lemurs-in Madagascar.JPG


All lemurs are endangered species or threatened species. Many species went extinct in the last centuries, mainly due to habitat destruction (deforestation) and hunting. Although conservation efforts are under way, options are limited because of the lemurs' limited range and because of Madagascar's economic situation. There are 85 living lemur species accounted for in current publications,[4][5][6][7], with more documentation currently awaiting publication. Indigenous superstitions that strepsirrhines like the nocturnal Aye-aye are omens and harbingers of bad fortune motivate some locals in remote areas to post hunting traps.

One of the foremost lemur research facilities is the Duke University Lemur Center.


File:Wiki ringtailed lemur.jpg

Thermographic image of a Ring-tailed Lemur in the morning sun.

As shown here, the four families of lemurs are split into two superfamilies. The Cheirogaleidae have a pedal structure, similar to the other strepsirrhine families and the haplorrhines, suggesting they split off from the other lemurs first. As such, the Cheirogaleoidea are a sister clade to the Lemuroidea.

In popular culture

Lemurs are not as commonly seen as other primates in pop culture settings, but they have recently gained in popularity due to greater exposure.

  • The novella Ghost of Chance by William S. Burroughs, set in Madagascar, initially focuses on a character named Captain Mission, who looks after and cares for lemurs. The book is described on the back cover of the 1995 edition as being "an important story about environmental devastation."
  • A Ring-tailed Lemur starred in the 1997 movie Fierce Creatures written by John Cleese.
  • Zoboomafoo, an educational PBS Kids television program, features a Coquerel's Sifaka who is also the show's namesake.
  • The Disney film Dinosaur (2000) features sifakas raising a dinosaur hatchling.
  • In the television program Fat Actress, Kirstie Alley keeps a pet lemur who is never seen but referenced in conversations; a recurring gag involves the proper preparation of yams for its meals.
  • Madagascar, a computer-animated film produced by DreamWorks Animation in 2005, prominently features a group of singing and dancing lemurs.
  • The Katurran Odyssey book written by David Michael Wieger and created and illustrated by Star Wars creature designer Terryl Whitlatch has a ring-tailed lemur protagonist, and other lemur characters on his native island.
  • In the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang keeps a 'winged lemur' named Momo for a pet. Momo mostly resembles a Verreaux's Sifaka, although his appearance was actually based off a Ring-Tailed Lemur mixed with a Spotted bat.
  • In Cartoon Network's The Life and Times of Juniper Lee, the titular character is transformed into a Ring-tailed Lemur in the episode, "The Great Escape."
  • The American rock group The Mars Volta used a lemur in their logos, and one is used as the principal character in the video for their single Televators[1]
  • Lemurcon is a roughly annual late summer/early fall get-together of lemur enthusiasts at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina. Very roughly, this can be traced to the Usenet mailing list.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Groves, Colin (16 November 2005). Wilson, D. E., and Reeder, D. M. (eds) Mammal Species of the World, 3rd edition, 111-121, Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-801-88221-4.
  2. "What's A Lemur?". URL accessed on 2006-04-19.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Strier, Karen B. (2000). Primate Behavioral Ecology, 49, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  4. Mittermeier, Russell A., Konstant, William R., Hawkins, Frank , Louis, Edward E., and Langrand, Olivier (2006). Lemurs of Madagascar, 2nd edition, Conservation International. URL accessed 2006-10-29.
  5. Andriaholinirina, N., Fausser, J., Roos, C., Rumpler, Y., et al (2006 February 23). Molecular phylogeny and taxonomic revision of the sportive lemurs (Lepilemur, Primates). BMC Evolutionary Biology 6: 17. #REDIRECT Template:Doi.
  6. Edward E. Louis, Jr., Shannon E. Engberg, Runhua Lei, Huimin Geng, Julie A. Sommer, Richard Randriamampionona, Jean C. Randriamanana, John R. Zaonarivelo, Rambinintsoa Andriantompohavana, Gisele Randria, Prosper, Boromé Ramaromilanto, Gilbert Rakotoarisoa, Alejandro Rooney, and Rick A. Brenneman (2006). Molecular and morphological analyses of the sportive lemurs (Family Megaladapidae: Genus Lepilemur) reveals 11 previously unrecognized species. Texas Tech University Special Publications (49): 1-49.
  7. Olivieria, G., Zimmermannb, E., Randrianambininab, B., Rassoloharijaonab, S., Rakotondravonyb, D., Guschanskia, K., Radespiela, U. (2006-10-26). The ever-increasing diversity in mouse lemurs: three new species in north and northwestern Madagascar. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. #REDIRECT Template:Doi.

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