Lemurs - A Little Background


Lemurs are, typically, small furry creatures with long tails and big eyes.

Lemurs are primates and the ancient relatives of the other three primates - Monkeys, Great Apes and Humans. 

The primates are believed to descend from an ancestor which was a small, insect eating, tree shrew like mammal living in forests 90-100 million years ago (the age of the dinosaurs). There are residual traits of this origin, even today, amongst primates. Lemurs, for example, still use scent-marking.

Forward facing eyes evolved allowing stereoscopic vision and claws evolved becoming more hand-like allowing clasping - both giving advantages when climbing.  The tail has evolved and adapted to assist living and climbing in trees.

The name, lemur, is derived from the Latin word, lemures, which means "ghost".  Lemurs are often nocturnal animals, and travel through the forests at dusk and dawn in search mainly of fruits, leaves and tree bark.  Lemurs seen in captivity have learnt that they are safe in their enclosures and can be active during daytime.

Lemurs live on Madagascar (or on the nearby Comoro Islands), both off the East coast of Africa.

Madagascar is the worlds fourth largest island. Its area is four times that of  England  and Wales. 50 million years ago Madagascar and Africa were joined. Monkeys apes and humans had not yet appeared on the Tertiary scene but lemurs had already evolved - the fossil records showing them existing in England ,France and North America - they were a relatively successful evolutionary group up to recent times.  

Some 20 million years ago Madagascar separated  from Africa, isolating Madagascar, leaving more highly developed primates to evolve elsewhere.

There are around 44 known species. Some of the many species are pictured below. Around 15 species are extinct. All species are threatened due to the destruction of their natural habitat.

In 1900, Madagascar was a lush tropical paradise with about 90 percent of the surface forested. Now only about 10 percent of the forests remain in inaccessible rugged terrain. If the current rate of habitat destruction due to deforestation continues,  and without protection, lemurs will cease to exist in the wild.

Sound communication travels well over very long distances amongst tree-tops and some lemurs have taken advantage of this, by becoming very vocal - with loud penetrating calls.

One of the best known species is the Ring-tailed lemur, which runs about with with its black and white ringed tail held vertically. Ring-tailed Lemurs are very social and travel in "troops".


Black & White Ruffed Lemurs (Jersey Zoo Art)

Black & White Ruffed Lemurs have black and white fur patterns, no two of which are alike.

Red-ruffed Lemurs are heavily hunted for their beautiful fur.

Coquerel's Sifakas travel upright by making two-footed kangaroo-like sideways hops. When they move fast with their arms outstretched,- they look like they're dancing.

Blue-eyed lemurs are the only non-human primates to have blue eyes

The Indri is the largest lemur. They can measure more than 23 inches in body length and 13 pounds in weight. The indris do not have tails. Villagers believe that the Indris are related to their ancestors, and must not be killed.

Species of Bamboo Lemurs are especially threatened because their habitat and special diet of bamboo is only found in a small area of South Eastern Madagascar.

Global warming is resulting in longer dryer spells in Madagascar which reduces or spoils the succulent fruits that lemurs eat. This  has an adverse effect on lemur populations by damaging their teeth or reducing the moisture they need to survive.

Aye-aye (Jersey Zoo Art)

.The unique and rare single species of Aye-aye is nocturnal and lives in trees. Aye-ayes use their relatively long and thin third digit to tap on trees trunks to locate wood-boring insects. They apparently listen for movement  inside with their large sensitive ears and probe around  with this finger to winkle out prey.

"In the gloom [the aye-aye] came along the branches towards me, it's round hypnotic eyes blazing, its spoon like ears turning to and fro independently like radar dishes, its white whiskers twitching and moving like sensors, its black hands, with their thin attenuated fingers, the third seeming prodigiously elongated, tapping deliberately as it moved like those of a pianist playing a complicated piece by Chopin. It looked like a Walt Disney witches black cat with a touch of ET thrown in for good measure. If ever a flying saucer came from Mars you felt that this is what would emerge from it. It was Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky, come to life, whiffling through the tulgey wood."

THE AYE-AYE AND I © Gerald Durrell 1992



The Descent of Man.


90-100 Million years ago

 Dinosaurs rule. Primitive, small, insect-eating, probably tree shrew like, mammal living in forest splits from other small mammals and evolves into the first lemurs

70 Million years ago

 Lorises split from Lemurs and, today, these relatives of lemurs are to be found in S.E. Asia

65 Million years ago

75% of the Earth's life forms including the large reptiles and dinosaurs disappear  allowing the smaller but more adaptable mammals to develop further. Large comets strikes or asteroid collision a likely cause.

35 Million years ago

 New World Monkeys isolated to South America

20 Million years ago

Old World Monkeys split away

20 Million years ago

Lemurs isolated to Madagascar

12 Million years ago

Gibbons split away

8 Million years ago

Orang Utans split away

5-4 Million years ago

Gorillas and chimpanzees split away. Australopithecines have evolved from apes in Africa and are intermediate between apes and people. Characterised by larger brains and walking upright on two legs


A male Crowned Lemur


White-fronted Brown Lemurs





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