Ring-Tailed Lemur

Ring-Tailed Lemur

[ Lemur catta ]

Quick Facts

BODY LENGTH: 17 inches
TAIL LENGTH: 24 inches
WEIGHT: approx. 8 pounds
WILD DIET: fruit, leaves, flowers, herbs, small animals, and insects
ZOO DIET: nutritionally complete primate biscuit, sweet potato, carrots, and fruit mix
DISTRIBUTION: Madagascar (in the south and southwestern parts of the island)
HABITAT: forested areas called “gallery forests” along rivers, and in dry open forest; in trees and on the ground; much of the gallery forest of Madagascar is disappearing due to overgrazing by cattle and tree-cutting for charcoal production

A Primate of a Different Stripe

Island isolation

On the island of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa, live a group of primates that are distinctly different from primates like monkeys and apes. They are called lemurs, and their differences are due to long-term isolation on Madagascar, which separated from Africa millions of years ago. With few predators and little competition for food from other primates, lemurs flourished. Over millions of years, dozens of different species of lemurs evolved, and today, more than twenty still survive on their island home.

All lemurs are not alike
Among lemurs, ring-tailed lemurs are unique. With a two-foot long black-and-white striped tail waving in the air, there’s no mistaking these lemurs. Ring-tailed lemurs are about the size of a domestic cat, with dense gray to rosy-brown fur on their backs, and a touch of deep gray on the legs. A mask of black fur surrounds their round, light brown eyes. They have a roundish head that slopes into a pointed, doglike muzzle, tipped with sensitive whiskers and a black nose.

Ring-tailed lemurs are different in other ways, too. Most lemurs spend the majority of the day in trees, but ring-tailed lemurs are land-loving primates. For about forty percent of the day they are on the ground searching for food in their home range, which can cover about 50 acres. Although they’re good climbers, ring-tailed lemurs prefer trees with big, horizontal limbs on which to move around.

They are also diurnal (active during daylight), whereas other lemur species take refuge in trees when the sun is up. Ring-tailed lemurs start their day warming themselves in the sun at the tops of trees. Later, they take to the ground in search of fallen fruit, leaves, and small animals to eat. As the sun sets, they return to the safety of the trees for the night.

Strong smells and tall tails
Ring-tailed lemurs live in groups of three to 25 individuals. Each group has a home range they defend from other lemurs. With large social groups and a home range to patrol, it is no wonder lemurs have several ways of communicating. Males wave their elaborate tails at each other when there is a dispute. To reinforce the tail waving, males will rub their tails down with a strong scent secreted from glands on their wrist. These “stink fights” are a way to avoid actual fights.

Lemurs have a series of vocalizations, including an alarm call, a separate call for land predators and aerial predators, and a meow-like cohesion call that means the troop is getting ready to move.

Females rule!
For all their tail-waving bravado, males are not the bosses in lemur society. Females are dominant over males, and have first choice of food and mates.

Ring-tailed lemurs at Brookfield Zoo
Brookfield Zoo features ring-tailed lemurs
along with mongoose lemursin Hamill Family Play Zoo.

Get Involved

Conservation Fund of the Chicago Zoological Society