The Lemurs of Madagascar

The Lemurs of Madagascar

Ring-tailed Lemur

Madagascar is known across the globe for its lemurs, which resemble a mix between a cat, a squirrel, and a dog. These species are only found on the island and exhibit a variety of fascinating habits, like singing like a whale (the Indri) and sashaying across the sand like a ballet dancer (the sifaka). More information on these interesting animals may be found here.

History of the lemur:

The primary kind of primate found across the world, and the Haplorhini suborder is absent from Madagascar (monkeys, chimps, gorillas, and Homo sapiens). Instead, the lemurs, an older group of primates, have stepped in to fill their need. Lemurs are members of the Strepsirhini suborder, like bushbabies, lorises, and pottos are nocturnal, insectivorous primates with a tiny bodies, long snouts, and big eyes, similar to the original lemurs. Lemurs have an intriguing evolutionary history, and Madagascar’s isolation is the sole reason they still exist today.

Madagascar was once part of the supercontinent Gondwanaland, which was connected to the African mainland until about 160 million years ago (formed of Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, India, and Madagascar). Madagascar migrated away from Africa when Gondwanaland disintegrated. Around 60 million years ago, the first lemur-like primates arrived in mainland Africa and moved over to Madagascar shortly after.

The island continued to move eastward, and by the time monkeys arrived 17-23 million years ago, Madagascar was completely cut off from the rest of the world. Monkeys, being extremely clever and adaptable primates, pushed the lemur lineage to extinction everywhere in the globe (a few Strepsirhines, such as bushbabies, lorises, and pottos, managed to cling on by preserving their nocturnal, solitary, and insectivorous characteristics).

Madagascar’s lemurs, cut off from the rest of the world’s evolutionary changes, spread into the huge island’s various niches with little competition or predation. Lemurs may now be found in almost every environment in Madagascar, and they share some of the social and behavioral traits of monkeys (i.e., forming social groups, eating fruit and vegetation, and being active during the day).

Upper primates did not arrive in Madagascar until some 2,000 years ago when they learned to cross the high seas and landed on boats. Humans immediately set to work on Madagascar’s lemurs, decreasing the island’s species count by at least 15%. The biggest species suffered the most, and the Indri, which would have been dwarfed by the gorilla-sized species previously prevalent on the island, is now the largest remaining lemur. Almost all lemur species are currently endangered, owing to habitat degradation (deforestation) and poaching.

Lemurs in the present day

There are around 110 species of lemurs in Madagascar, divided into five groups and 14 taxa, with sizes ranging from the 25-gram pygmy mouse lemur to the Indri. All of these species are native to Madagascar (although two lemur species have been brought to Comoros), giving Madagascar the distinction of having the most primate species (Brazil, which has 77 species but only two endemic genera and no endemic families, is second). And new species are continually being discovered: 39 new species were described between 2000 and 2008.

The importance of Madagascar’s lemurs on a global scale

According to Russell Mittermeier in The Eighth Continent, Madagascar «is only one of 92 countries with wild primate populations, but it is 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.


Non-scientists categorize lemurs according to whether they are active during the day or at night. Nocturnal lemurs are generally smaller and more solitary than diurnal lemurs. Brown lemurs and sifaka make grunts and curses, while mouse lemurs chirp and the Indri makes a strange, wailing call that has been compared as a mix between a police siren and the song of a humpback whale.