A branch of primates which have evolved from ancient times, Lemurs are beautiful mammals unique to the island of Madagascar, off shore of East Africa in the Indian Ocean. The group of primates they belong to are called prosimians (which means ‘before monkeys’) and their basic body design evolved about 40 to 50 million years ago. They had a complex brain and stereoscopic colour vision with hands that could grasp branches and an extensive parental care and social system involving scent and sounds systems that made them the latest in a range of tree living mammals to walk the earth. That was until around 35 million years ago when a newer ‘model’ evolved into monkeys. Monkeys were superior as they were faster, quicker thinkers and highly adaptable which drove the prosimians to extinction across most of the world. Just a few prosimians managed to take refuge in Madagascar which was never reached by more advanced primates until the recent arrival of humans. Now the Lemurs of Madagascar represent the results of 35 million years of having evolved leisurely from that single ancestral species to around 100 modern day varieties. They have all adapted to different vegetation and mountainous zones around the island and can be seen in a variety of parks and reserves. Some are nocturnal and there are a range of different diets and social systems.
Daytime Lemurs (diurnal) are the largest and easiest to see and usually live in groups of around 3-12 individuals. The Ring-tailed Lemur is probably the most easilly recognised and commonly found of the lemurs with it’s characteristic grey and white banded tail. They can live in large troops and are found in the south and south-west mostly in Isalo, Andohahela, Andringitra NP and Berenty Reserve (where they have been researched for decades).
The Ruffed Lemurs are large and difficult to see in the wild, they have thick fur and both species live in eastern rainforest areas. The Black & White Ruffed Lemur is sometimes seen in Mantadia and Ranoafana NP and Nosy Be and the Red-Ruffed Lemur is only found in Masoala.
The True Lemurs are about domestic cat sized with long nose shapes and arboreal. Males and females can be hard to identify as they often have different markings so can appear as different species. The Black Lemur is found in the northwest but only males are black, the females are chestnut brown. There are six species of Brown Lemurs which are hard to identify but they are found in different ranges and the local guides know them well!
Bamboo Lemurs are smaller with short muzzles and round faces and live in small groups where they cling to vertical branches feeding mainly on bamboo. The Grey Bamboo Lemur is found in several Eastern parks but the rare Golden Bamboo Lemur and Greater Bamboo Lemur are usually only seen at Ranomafana.
The largest lemur is the Indri and has practically no tail, making it look rather like a teddy bear! It is black and white and has an eerie wailing call and can be seen in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park.
Sifakas are a wonderful group of lemurs which have characteristic long back legs, some being better known as the ‘Dancing Lemurs’. They bound upright across the ground and leap large distances tree to tree. The most commonly seen are the mainly white Verreaux’s Sifaka which is found alongside Ring-tails in the South of Madagascar. The Coquerel’s Sifaka is found in Ankarafantsika in the northwest and has chestnut-maroon arms and legs. The gorgeous Diademed Sifaka is found in Mantadia and the rich chocolate Milne-Edward’s Sifaka habits Ranomafana.
Nocturnal Lemurs are usually smaller than the diurnal varieties and as they are active at night, much harder to identify. Night walks in the forests of Madagascar are perfectly safe and a great way to see these wonderful creatures. The smallest group are the Mouse Lemurs with the tiniest one weighing only 30 grammes, the Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur. There are around 18 Mouse Lemurs and the best places to see them include Andasibe-Mantadia and Ranomafana National Parks in the east and Ankarafantsika, Ankarana and Berenty Reserves in the drier areas.
Dwarf Lemurs are around the size of a squirrel and some even hibernate through winter. Some species have dark rings like spectacles around their eyes. Giant Dwarf Lemurs sometimes eat baby birds, lizards and frogs. Fork-marked Lemurs live high in the canopy so are very hard to see, one of the best places to try is the dry western forests of Kirindy and Zombitse. The dark face markings are distinctive.
Sportive Lemurs spend most of their daytime in holes in trees and the name seems to suggest they are energetic when actually they don’t seem to move much! There are around 25 species of these lemur and are fairly localised which is the best means of identification. Woolly Lemurs have round faces a bit like owls and cling upright to the trees they inhabit. There is a recently described species names after British actor John Cleese! The Cleese’s Woolly Lemur is found in Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park.
The strangest of all the lemurs has to be the Aye-Aye. For years, scientists thought it was an odd squirrel but is now classed in a family of it’s own. It has teeth of a rodent, ears of a bat, tail of a fox and hands of no living creature as the middle finger is like a skeleton, which it uses to wiggle under barks of trees to search for grubs. It is most easily seen in the reserve of Nosy Mangabe, but you still have to be patient – being rare, nocturnal, arboreal and mostly solitary, it’s not easy to see!
So, whatever type of lemurs you would like to see, get in touch for advice on what to see where and how best to plan your holiday to Madagascar taking in the various parks and forest reserves that are home to these amazing and unique creatures.