Madagascan Marvel, the Ruffed Lemur

Ever since the release of the film Madagascar, lemurs have been a staple of pop culture. Most people conjure of an image of a ring-tailed lemur when they hear the word, but that is only a single species. There are over well over 100 different kinds of lemurs, ranging in size from the one-ounce mouse lemur to the extinct Archaeoindris fontoynontii which was the size of a gorilla. Of all lemur species, perhaps none hold quite a place in the human heart as does the ruffed lemur.

How are lemur different from other primates?

It was once believed that lemurs were the evolutionary predecessors of monkeys and apes, only surviving extracting thanks to being isolated on Madagascar. It has since been shown that these primate lineages arose independently. However, lemurs do posses some features in common with more primitive primates. They belong to the strepsirrhine group, meaning they have a wet nose with a rhinarium. Lemurs rely more on smell than other primates, as is evidences by their pronounced muzzles. Some species have specialized adaptions for grooming, including a toilet-claw and a toothcomb. Contrary to popular belief lemur tails are not prehensile but used solely for balance.

What is a ruffed lemur?

Ruffed lemurs belong the genus Varecia and consist of two species, the black-and-white ruffed lemur (V. variegata) and the red ruffed lemur (V. rubra). Other than the color of the fur, the two species are very similar in appearance and behavior. Named for the distinctive ruff around their faces, they are among the largest extant lemur species, growing nearly four feet long including the tail and weighing up to nine pounds. Ruffed lemurs are diurnal and highly vocal, communicating with each other with a variety of calls. 

Where do ruffed lemurs live?

Like all lemurs, ruffed lemurs can only be found on Madagascar. They are arboreal animals that rarely come down from the rainforest canopy. Most of their time is spent 50 to 65 feet above the ground, sometimes climbing nearly 80 feet high. Ruffed lemurs are accomplished leapers and often climb using vertical jumps. They are known to move between tree by first looking over their shoulder and then twisting mid-jump to land belly-first on a new tree. While they move over the tops of branches to get around, ruffed lemurs suspend themselves using their strong grips and quadrumanous feet while feeding.

What do ruffed lemurs eat?

The ruffed lemur is the most frugivorous of all lemurs. Between 75 and 90 percent of their diet consists of just a handful of plant species. They are particularly partial to figs and in some parts of their range this may make up almost 80 percent of their diet. Ruffed lemurs serve as important seed dispersers. After fruit the next most important part of the ruffed lemur’s diet is nectar, although they will also consume leaves, flowers, fungi, and even soil. They appear to have a very close evolutionary relationship with the traveler’s tree (Ravenala madagascariensis); thanks to their long snouts, ruffed lemurs are able to reach into the tree’s flowers without destroying them to feed on the nectar, coating itself in pollen during the process.

Do ruffed lemurs have any predators?

Because they live so high up in the canopy, ruffed lemurs are out of the reach of carnivorans like fossas and mongooses. Even birds of prey only rarely take them. They only real threat they face comes from humans. Both humans and ruffed lemurs prize the same hardwood trees, so the species is particularly vulnerable to logging and other deforestation efforts. Slash-and-burn agricultural practices and overgrazing prevent the rainforest from regrowing, creating permanent habit degradation. Ruffed lemurs are also the sought by hunters, both for the meat and to be sold as exotic pets. As a result of all of these threats, both black-and-white and red ruffed lemurs are classified as critically endangered. However, both species have be the subject of successful captive breeding programs and several groups of black-and-white ruffed lemurs have been reintroduced into the wild.


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