Genus and species: Lemur catta
Distribution and Habitat
Ring-tailed lemurs are found in the southwest portion of Madagascar. They live in arid, open areas and forests. Ring-tailed lemurs live in territories that range from 15 to 57 acres (0.06 to 0.2 km2) in size.
The average body mass for adult males is six to seven pounds (3 kg). Females are usually smaller.
Ring-tailed lemur backs are gray to rosy brown, limbs are gray, and their heads and neck are dark gray. They have white bellies. Their faces are white with dark triangular eye patches and a black nose. Their tails are ringed with 13 alternating black and white bands. This famous tail can measure up to two feet (61 cm) in length.
Unlike most other lemurs, ring-tails spend 40 percent of their time on the ground. They move quadrupedally (on all fours) along the forest floor.
Ring-tailed lemurs are found in social groups ranging in size from three to 25 individuals. The groups are composed of both males and females. Females remain in their birth group throughout their lives. Generally males change groups when they reach sexual maturity, at age three. Ring-tail groups range over a considerable area each day in search of food, up to 3.5 miles (6 km). All group members use this common home range. Groups are often aggressive towards other groups at the border of these areas.
Females are dominant in the group, which means they have preferential access to food and choice of whom to mate with. This, like the gibbons, is unusual in the primate world. Males do have a dominance hierarchy, but this does not seem important during mating season because even low-ranking males are able to copulate.
Females have been seen to have closer social bonds with other female relatives in a group than they do with unrelated females.
These social bonds are established and reinforced by grooming. Prosimians groom in a rather unique way, all prosimians have six lower teeth, incisors and canines, that stick straight out from their jaw, forming a toothcomb. This comb is used to groom their fur and the fur of the other members of their social group.
One of the most unusual lemur activities that ring-tailed lemurs participate in is sunbathing. The ring-tailed mob will gather in open areas of the forest and sit in what some call a yoga position facing the sun. They sit with their bellies toward the sun and their arms and legs stretched out to the sides. This position maximizes the exposure of the less densely covered underside to the sun. The temperature in the forest can be cold at night and this is a way to warm up before they forage.
As true with all lemurs, olfactory (smell-oriented) communication is important for ring-tails. Ring-tailed lemurs have scent glands on their wrists and chests that they use to mark their foraging routes. Males even have a horny spur on each wrist gland that they use to pierce tree branches before scent-marking them.
Ring-tailed lemurs communicate visually in a number of ways as well. When ring-tail troops travel throughout their home range, they keep their tails raised in the air, like flags, to keep group members together. They also communicate using facial expressions. Some examples:
Ring-tailed lemurs are one of the most vocal primates. They have several different alarm calls to alert members of their group to potential danger. Common calls include:
Reproduction and Development
Females usually produce their first offspring at age three, and annually thereafter. This can happen as early as 18 months in captivity.
In the wild, mating is extremely seasonal beginning in mid-April with infants being born in August and September. Gestation lasts four and a half months. Generally ring-tailed lemurs give birth to one offspring, but twins can be a frequent sight if food is plentiful.
Initially, infants cling to their mother's belly, but after about two weeks, they can be seen riding jockey style, on their mother's back. Infants begin sampling solid food after about a week and will become increasingly independent after about a month. They return to mom to nurse or sleep until they are weaned at about five or six months of age. All adult females participate in raising the offspring of the group.
Ring-tails can live 20 to 25 years.
Diet in the Wild
The main diet of ring-tails consists of leaves, flowers, and insects. They can also eat fruit, herbs, and small vertebrates.
Once a day, they are fed a mixture of fruits and vegetables and leaf-eater biscuits.
Each animal has a yearly physical, including a dental checkup. Fecals are checked for parasites every January and June.
The National Zoo's Ring-tailed Lemurs
The Zoo is not actively breeding lemurs. These animals have well represented genes and the SSP does not need them as part of the breeding population. The Zoo currently houses eight ring-tails, two males and six females. They arrived from the Duke Primate Research Center in September 2001.
Ring-tailed lemurs are endangered. The gallery forests of Madagascar that these lemurs prefer are rapidly being converted to farmland, overgrazed by livestock, and harvested for charcoal production. They are also hunted for food in certain areas of their range and are frequently kept as pets. Fortunately, ring-tails are found in several protected areas in southern Madagascar, but the level of protection varies widely in these areas, offering only some populations protection from hunting and habitat loss.
Ring-tailed lemurs breed very well in captivity, and more than 1,000 can be found at about 140 zoos around the world.