Lemurs of Madagascar
Madagascar is world-famous for its lemurs—primates that look something like a cat crossed with a squirrel and a dog. These animals are unique to the island and display a range of interesting behaviors from singing like a whale (the indri) to sashaying across the sand like a ballet dancer (the sifaka). Below you will learn more about these fascinating creatures.
Madagascar lacks the dominant form of primate distributed worldwide, those of the suborder Haplorhini (monkeys, chimps, gorillas, and Homo sapiens). Instead, their niche has been filled by an older group of primates, the lemurs. Lemurs belong to the sub-order Strepsirhini together with bushbabies, lorises, and pottos which—like the original lemurs—are nocturnal, insectivorous primates characterized by a small body, a long nose, and large eyes. Lemurs have an interesting evolutionary history and the only reason they still exist today is because of Madagascar's isolation.
Until around 160 million years ago, Madagascar was attached to the African mainland as part of the super continent Gondwanaland (formed of Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, India, and Madagascar). As Gondwanaland broke apart, Madgascar moved away from Africa. The first lemur-like primates on the fossil record appeared roughly 60 million years ago in mainland Africa and crossed over to Madagascar shortly thereafter.
The island continued to drift eastward and by the time monkeys appeared on the scene 17-23 million years ago, Madagascar was isolated from their arrival. As highly intelligent and adaptive primates, monkeys quickly drove the lemur lineage elsewhere in the world toward extinction (a few Strepsirhines—including bushbabies, lorises, and pottos—managed to hang on by retaining their nocturnal, solitary, and insectivorous traits).
Madagascar's lemurs—isolated from evolutionary changes of the world—radiated into the large island's many niches without much competition or predation. Today lemurs are found in virtually all of Madagascar's ecosystems and share some of the social and behavioral characteristics of monkeys (i.e., forming social groups, eating fruit and vegetation, and being active during the day).
Upper primates did not reach Madagascar until about they learned to navigate the high seas and arrived on boats roughly 2,000 years ago. Humans quickly went to work on the island's lemurs, reducing the number of species found in Madagascar by at least 15. The largest species suffered the most and today the largest remaining lemur is the Indri which would have been dwarfed by the gorilla-sized species once found on the island. Currently nearly all lemurs are endangered species, due mainly to habitat destruction (deforestation) and hunting.
Today Madagascar is home to over 110 species of lemurs across five families and 14 genera ranging in size from the 25-gram pygmy mouse lemur to the indri. All these species are endemic to Madagascar (two lemur species were introduced to the Comoros) giving the country the highest number of primate species (Brazil, which has 77 species but only two endemic genera and no endemic families, is second). And new species are still being discovered— between 2000 and 2008, 39 new species were described.
Global importance of Madagascar's lemurs
According to Russell Mittermeier in The Eighth Continent, although Madagascar "is only one of 92 countries with wild primate populations, it is alone responsible for 21 percent (14 of 65) of all primate genera and 36 percent (five of 14) of all primate families, making it the single highest priority" for primate conservation. "Madagascar is so important for primates that primatologists divide the world into four major regions: the whole of South and Central America, all of southern and southeast Asia, mainland Africa, and Madagascar, which ranks as a full-fledged region all by itself."
Non-scientists generally group lemurs by their primary time of activity: day or night. Nocturnal lemurs are typically smaller and more reclusive than their diurnal counterparts. Lemurs are vocal animals, making sounds that range from the grunts and swears of brown lemurs and sifaka to the chirps of mouse lemurs to the eerie, wailing call of the indri, which has been likened to a cross between a police siren and the song of a humpback whale.
Slash-and-burn farming eats away at a Madagascar haven for endangered lemurs, frogs
- The Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor (CAZ), a protected area in Madagascar, has experienced a surge in deforestation in the past five months, driven largely by slash-and-burn agriculture.
- The loss of forest threatens rare and endangered wildlife found nowhere else, including lemurs and frogs and geckos, conservationists say.
- Other factors fueling the deforestation include mining for gemstones and cutting of trees to make charcoal.
- The problem in CAZ is emblematic of a wider trend throughout the central eastern region of Madagascar, in both protected and unprotected areas, where 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of tree cover has been lost since 2001.
Top 15 species discoveries from 2020 (Photos)
- In 2020, Mongabay and others reported on several announcements of species new to science.
- Snakes, insects, many new orchids, frogs, and even a few mammals were named in 2020.
- In no particular order, we present our 15 top picks.
A Madagascar forest long protected by its remoteness is now threatened by it
- Satellite data show an increase in deforestation in Tsaratanana Reserve and the neighboring COMATSA protected area in northern Madagascar in recent years, and an uptick in the last few months.
- Though many of the island’s forests have been extensively cleared, these northern forests were relatively well protected until recently.
- The loss of these forests to make way for the illegal cultivation of marijuana, vanilla and rice threatens the region’s rich biodiversity and high endemism, conservationists say.
- Some experts argue that the legalization of marijuana would make it less likely that people would grow the crop in the remote forests of Tsaratanana.
As minister and activists trade barbs, Madagascar’s forests burn
- Forest fires are blazing across Madagascar, including in its protected areas, home to some of the world’s rarest species, from critically endangered lemurs to hundreds of endemic snails.
- In Manombo Special Reserve, known for sheltering more than 50 species of snails found nowhere else on Earth, woodland the size of 800 Olympic swimming pools went up in smoke last month.
- In nearby Befotaka-Midongy National Park, one of the largest stretches of evergreen forest in Madagascar, more than 1,000 fires were reported this year.
- A heated debate has erupted online about the fires, with some activists criticizing the environment ministry, while the ministry says the blame is shared by NGOs that manage most of the country’s protected areas.
Bug bites: Edible insect production ramps up quickly in Madagascar
- In the last two years, two insect farming projects have taken off in Madagascar as a way to provide precious protein while alleviating pressure on lemurs and other wild animals hunted for bushmeat.
- One program, which promotes itself with a deck of playing cards, encourages rainforest residents in the northeast to farm a bacon-flavored native planthopper called sakondry.
- Another program focuses on indoor production of crickets in the capital city, Antananarivo.
- Both projects are on the cusp of expanding to other parts of the country.
Podcast: Lemur love and award-winning plant passion in Madagascar
- We’ve got recordings of indri lemurs and the architect of 11 new protected areas that aim to protect Madagascar’s rich biodiversity of plant life on this episode of the Mongabay Newscast.
- We’re joined by Jeannie Raharimampionana, a Malagasy botanist who has identified 80 priority areas for conservation of plant life in her country and has already turned 11 of those areas into officially decreed protected areas.
- We’re also joined by Valeria Torti, who uses bioacoustics to improve conservation of critically endangered indri lemurs in Madagascar’s Maromizaha forest. She plays for us a number of recordings of the primates’ songs.
Lemurs might never recover from COVID-19 (commentary)
- This World Lemur Day, it is worth pointing out that the Covid-19 pandemic poses a threat to Madagascar’s endemic primates, which are some of the planet’s most endangered species.
- Almost all 115 species of lemurs are threatened with extinction and their habitats are rapidly disappearing on the island nation.
- The pandemic and the resulting economic crisis has emerged as a moment of reckoning for conservation efforts, exposing the risks of relying heavily on foreign revenue and not focusing enough on communities at the frontline of safeguarding biodiversity.
- This post is a commentary: the views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
How do red-fronted lemurs behave? Candid Animal Cam is in Madagascar
- Every Tuesday, Mongabay brings you a new episode of Candid Animal Cam, our show featuring animals caught on camera traps around the world and hosted by Romi Castagnino, our writer and conservation scientist.
Say hello to Madagascar’s newest mouse lemur, a pint-sized primate
- A new species of mouse lemur, considered the tiniest primates in the world, has been described from Madagascar.
- Microcebus jonahi is named for prominent Malagasy primatologist Jonah Ratsimbazafy, who has dedicated his life to studying and protecting Madagascar’s endemic lemurs.
- Scientists fear the species is already at risk of disappearing like almost all of the 107 other species of lemurs, primates that are native to Madagascar.
- Jonah’s mouse lemurs are found in an area half the size of Yosemite National Park, in a region where forests are fast disappearing.
Endangered and endemic: Madagascar’s lemurs susceptible to coronavirus infection
- Certain species of lemurs in Madagascar share a similar enzyme receptor to humans that could make them susceptible to contracting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, a study shows.
- Following calls from the scientific community both on the island and abroad, an emergency unit is being set up to strengthen the protection of lemurs in the face of the virus.
- To date, there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases in lemurs.
- The possibility of the virus spreading among lemurs, most of which are endangered species, worries researchers.
A third of Madagascar’s lemur species on the brink of extinction, IUCN warns
- Of the 107 lemur species, iconic primates that are endemic to Madagascar, 103 are threatened, with 33 of them now recognized as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
- Among those now considered critically endangered are the tiniest primate in the world, the Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur (Microcebus berthae), and the Verreaux’s sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi), a creature known for its peculiar sideways hop that gives the impression it is dancing.
- Half of the primate species of Africa are also under threat, including the eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei), the largest living primate.
- Also in danger of extinction: one of the largest whales species, the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), the European hamster (Cricetus cricetus) and the world’s most expensive fungus, the caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis).
In Madagascar’s dry forests, COVID-19 sparks an intense, early fire season
- Though Madagascar officially has just under 1,800 reported infections and 16 deaths from COVID-19, the pandemic’s socioeconomic effects will be catastrophic for the country, the U.N. has warned.
- One tangible impact has been the fire season, which has started early and is likely to be fiercer this year as rural residents deprived of tourism revenue, employment opportunities and access to food markets turn to the forest to survive.
- The environment ministry registered 52,000 forest fire incidents from January until the start of June, with the western flank of the country, which hosts its unique dry forests, being the worst-affected.
- A reduction in NGOs’ and state agencies’ field activities has made forest patrols more challenging and affected the critical task of creating fire breaks.
One-two punch of drought, pandemic hits Madagascar’s poor and its wildlife
- Because of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time in years poverty is rising in Madagascar, already one of the poorest countries in the world.
- Near Tsimanampesotse National Park in the southwest of the country, the loss of tourists has coincided with a disastrously dry rainy season, and restrictions associated with the pandemic are adding to rural distress; an estimated half a million people will need food aid in the coming months.
- Erratic rainfall patterns and food scarcity don’t just affect humans but also the lemurs living in the park, according to Lemur Love, a nonprofit that works in Tsimanampesotse National Park.
- The hunger crisis created by the drought and compounded by the pandemic could force people to lean even more heavily on nature; to impinge on forests and consume more wild meat to survive.
Marijuana cultivation whittling away Madagascar’s largest connected forest
- Northern Madagascar contains the largest block of connected forest left in the country.
- Tsaratanana Reserve is supposed to protect a large portion of this forest. However, satellite data and imagery show Tsaratanana is being cleared at a rapid rate.
- Local officials say slash-and-burn agriculture for marijuana cultivation is to blame. The Madagascar National Parks agency helped organize military deployments to the Tsaratanana area in 2014 and 2017, and is planning another intervention this year.
- Scientists say that if this deforestation continues, it will fragment the reserve’s well-connected forests and threaten the animals that live there — many of which are found nowhere else in the world.
As visitors vanish, Madagascar’s protected areas suffer a ‘devastating’ blow
- The country has lost half a billion dollars in much-needed tourism revenue since the start of 2020 because of the COVID-19 crisis, according to official estimates.
- Tourism contributes toward funding conservation efforts in Madagascar’s network of protected areas; those protected areas that rely heavily on foreign visitors have been hit worst by the crisis.
- There are also fears that international funding, the primary support for conservation efforts in Madagascar, could be jeopardized as big donors face economic crises in their home countries.
- Greater impoverishment could hurt communities living near the protected areas and lead to even more unsustainable exploitation of forests and natural resources.
Ring-tailed lemurs ‘stink flirt’ (it’s not as bad as it sounds)
- During the mating season, male ring-tailed lemurs rub secretions from glands on their wrists onto their tails and wave them at female lemurs.
- These chemical secretions, identified by researchers at the University of Tokyo, have emerged as the first pheromone candidates to be identified in a primate.
- Pheromones, chemical compounds that animals secrete, can signal more than sexual availability; they can also communicate danger or mark trails.
- For the ring-tailed lemur secretions be recognized as real sex pheromones, the scientists will have to show that they are used to communicate only within the species and that they influence mating behavior.
National parks in Africa shutter over COVID-19 threat to great apes
- Wildlife authorities in some parts of Africa have effectively locked down parks that are home to gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, amid concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic could make the jump to great apes.
- Humans and great apes share more than 95% of the same genetic material, and are susceptible to many of the same infectious diseases, ranging from respiratory ailments to Ebola.
- Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo shut its doors to tourists this week, while in Rwanda all parks hosting gorillas and chimpanzees were also shut; Uganda is considering doing the same, with its parks de facto closed because of a drop in tourist arrivals.
- Even if the apes avoid COVID-19, the loss of tourism revenue for the parks and potential loss of income for people who work to protect these species could cause enduring damage to conservation efforts, experts say.
Global consumer demands fuel the extinction crisis facing the world’s primates
- Alejandro Estrada of the Institute of Biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Paul A. Garber of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois-Urbana argue that human consumption patterns are driving primates to the brink of extinction.
- Commodity production, extraction, and consumption are taking a heavy toll on key primates habitats around the world.
- This post is a guest analysis. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
Madagascar’s bold reforestation goal lacks a coherent plan, experts say
- Madagascar’s president is pushing an ambitious plan to plant trees on 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) of land every year for the next five years.
- But conservation experts point to shortcomings in the plan, including the use of disincentives and imposition of targets to compel NGOs and other organizations to get on board.
- There’s also the very real risk that in racing to meet the target, fast-growing non-native species will be prioritized, including acacia and pine, over slow-growing endemic species.
- Conservationists have called for a more collaborative approach to the replanting initiative to seek community buy-in and ensure the long-term effectiveness of the program.
What makes community ecotourism succeed? In Madagascar, location, location, location
- For the past two decades, donors and international NGOs have worked with the Malagasy government to create thousands of local associations to manage and conserve parcels of forest.
- Ecotourism ventures, along with farming support, are often presented as an important way to overcome the loss of income that usually accompanies new restrictions on how local people can use their land.
- Successful ecotourism ventures are few and far between, but a common factor is also something that’s hard to replicate: proximity to highways and other tourist destinations.
Lemur species counts for selected parks
|Bay de baly||6|
Please note: a number of lemur species have been described since this list was published.
|Family||Common name||Scientific name||Local name||Active||Pictures|
|Cheirogaleidae||Mouse and Dwarf lemurs||Nocturnal|
|Cheirogaleidae||Hairy-eared Dwarf Mouse-lemur||Allocebus trichotis||Nocturnal|
|Cheirogaleidae||Southern Fat-tailed Dwarf Lemur||Cheirogaleus adipicaudatus||Matavirambo||Nocturnal|
|Cheirogaleidae||Furry-eared Dwarf Lemur||Cheirogaleus crossleyi||Matavirambo||Nocturnal|
|Cheirogaleidae||Greater Dwarf Lemur||Cheirogaleus major||Matavirambo||Nocturnal||+|
|Cheirogaleidae||Western Fat-tailed Dwarf Lemur||Cheirogaleus medius||Matavirambo, Kely Be-ohy, Tsidy, Tsidihy||Nocturnal|
|Cheirogaleidae||Lesser Iron Gray Dwarf Lemur||Cheirogaleus minusculus||Matavirambo||Nocturnal|
|Cheirogaleidae||Greater Iron Gray Dwarf Lemur||Cheirogaleus ravus||Matavirambo||Nocturnal|
|Cheirogaleidae||Sibree's Dwarf Lemur||Cheirogaleus sibreei||Matavirambo||Nocturnal|
|Cheirogaleidae||Gray Mouse-lemur||Microcebus murinus||Tsidy, Koitsiky, Titilivaha, Vakiandri, Pondiky||Nocturnal||+|
|Cheirogaleidae||Pygmy Mouse-lemur||Microcebus myoxinus||Tsidy||Nocturnal|
|Cheirogaleidae||Golden Mouse-lemur||Microcebus ravelobensis||Tsidy||Nocturnal|
|Cheirogaleidae||Red Mouse-lemur||Microcebus rufus||Anakatsidina, Tsidy, Tsitsidy, Tistsihy||Nocturnal||+|
|Cheirogaleidae||Giant Mouse-lemur or Coquerel's Mouse-lemur||Mirza coquereli||Tsiba, Tilitilivaha, Siba, Setohy, Fitily||Nocturnal||+|
|Cheirogaleidae||Amber Mountain Fork-crowned Lemur||Phaner electromontis||Tanta, Tantaraolana||Nocturnal|
|Cheirogaleidae||Masoala Fork-crowned Lemur||Phaner furcifer||Tanta, Tantaraolana||Nocturnal|
|Cheirogaleidae||Western Fork-crowned Lemur||Phaner pallescens||Tanta, Tantaraolana, Vakivoho||Nocturnal|
|Cheirogaleidae||Sambirano Fork-crowned Lemur||Phaner parienti||Tanta, Tantaraolana||Nocturnal|
|Daubentoniidae||Aye-aye||Daubentonia madagascariensis||Aye-aye, Ahay, Itay-hay, Aiay||Nocturnal|
|Indridae||Woolly lemurs and allies||Diurnal|
|Indridae||Eastern Avahi||Avahi laniger||Avahina, Avahy, Ampongy, Fotsifaka||Nocturnal||+|
|Indridae||Western Avahi||Avahi occidentalis||Fotsife, Tsarafangitra||Nocturnal|
|Indridae||Indri lemur||Indri indri indri||Babakoto, Amboanala||Diurnal||+|
|Indridae||Indri lemur||Indri indri variegatus||Babakoto, Amboanala||Diurnal||+|
|Indridae||Coquerel's Sifaka||Propithecus coquereli||Ankomba malandy, Sifaka, Tsibahaka||Diurnal|
|Indridae||Crowned Sifaka||Propithecus deckenii coronatus||Tsibahaka, Sifaka||Diurnal|
|Indridae||Decken's Sifaka||Propithecus deckenii dekenii||Tsibahaka, Sifaka||Diurnal||+|
|Indridae||Silky Sifaka||Propithecus diadema candidus||Simpona, Simpony||Diurnal|
|Indridae||Diademed Sifaka||Propithecus diadema diadema||Simpona, Simpony||Diurnal||+|
|Indridae||Milne-Edwards's Sifaka||Propithecus edwardsi||Simpona, Simpony||Diurnal||+|
|Indridae||Perrier's Sifaka||Propithecus perrieri||Radjako, Ankomba Job||Diurnal|
|Indridae||Tattersall's Sifaka||Propithecus tattersalli||Ankomba malandy, Simpona||Diurnal|
|Indridae||Verreaux's Sifaka||Propithecus verreauxi||Sifaka||Diurnal||+|
|Lemuridae||White-fronted Lemur||Eulemur albifrons||Varika||Diurnal|
|Lemuridae||White-collared Lemur||Eulemur albocollaris||Varika||Diurnal|
|Lemuridae||Red-collared Lemur||Eulemur collaris||Varika||Diurnal||+|
|Lemuridae||Crowned Lemur||Eulemur coronatus||Varika||Diurnal|
|Lemuridae||Brown Lemur||Eulemur fulvus||Varikamavo, Komba||Diurnal||+|
|Lemuridae||Black Lemur||Eulemur macaco||Ankomba, Komba||Diurnal||+|
|Lemuridae||Blue-eyed Black Lemur||Eulemur macaco flavifrons||Ankomba, Komba||Diurnal||+|
|Lemuridae||Mongoose Lemur||Eulemur mongoz||Komba||Diurnal|
|Lemuridae||Red-bellied Lemur||Eulemur rubriventer||Varikamena||Diurnal|
|Lemuridae||Red-fronted Lemur||Eulemur rufus||Varika, Varikamavo||Diurnal||+|
|Lemuridae||Sanford's Lemur||Eulemur sanfordi||Ankomba, Beharavoaka||Diurnal|
|Lemuridae||Alaotran Gentle Lemur||Hapalemur alaotrensis||Bandro||Diurnal|
|Lemuridae||Golden Gentle Lemur||Hapalemur aureus||Varibolomena, Bokombolomena||Diurnal|
|Lemuridae||Gray Gentle Lemur||Hapalemur griseus||Varibolomadinika||Diurnal||+|
|Lemuridae||Sambriano Gentle Lemur||Hapalemur occidentalis||Bekola, Kofi, Ankomba valiha||Diurnal|
|Lemuridae||Ring-tailed Lemur||Lemur catta||Maki, Hira||Diurnal||+|
|Lemuridae||Broad-nosed Gentle Lemur||Prolemur simus||Varibolomavo, Vari, Varikandra||Diurnal|
|Lemuridae||Red Ruffed Lemur||Varecia rubra||Varimena||Diurnal||+|
|Lemuridae||Black-and-White Ruffed Lemur||Varecia variegata||Varijatsy||Diurnal||+|
|Megaladapidae||Back-striped Sportive Lemur||Lepilemur dorsalis||Apongy||Nocturnal|
|Megaladapidae||Milne-Edwards's Sportive Lemur||Lepilemur edwardsi||Boenga, Boengy, Repahaka||Nocturnal||+|
|Megaladapidae||White-footed Sportive Lemur||Lepilemur leucopus||Songiky||Nocturnal||+|
|Megaladapidae||Small-toothed Sportive Lemur||Lepilemur microdon||Trangalavaka, Kotrika or Kotreka, Fitiliky, Itataka, Varikosy||Nocturnal|
|Megaladapidae||Mitsinjo Sportive Lemur||Lepilemur mitsinjonensis||Kotrika, Varikosy||Nocturnal|
|Megaladapidae||Weasel Lemur||Lepilemur mustelinus||Trangalavaka, Kotrika, Fitiliky, Itataka, Varikosy||Nocturnal|
|Megaladapidae||Red-tailed Sportive Lemur||Lepilemur ruficaudatus||Boenga, Boengy||Nocturnal|
|Megaladapidae||Ankarana Sportive Lemur||Lepilemur septentrionalis ankaranensis||Mahiabeala, Songiky||Nocturnal|
|Megaladapidae||Seal's Sportive Lemur||Lepilemur seali||Songiky||Nocturnal|
|Megaladapidae||Northern Sportive Lemur||Lepilemur septentrionalis septentrionalis||Mahiabeala, Songiky||Nocturnal|