Lemurs: A diverse group of endangered primates

Lemurs of Madagascar come in many shapes and sizes.

Ring-tailed lemurs sitting in tree in Isalo National Park, Madagascar.

Lemurs are a unique group of primates native to Madagascar, an island off the coast of east Africa. Although they are related to monkeys and apes, lemurs make up a separate branch of the primate family tree and are classified as a superfamily, made up of five individual lemur families and more than 100 different species.

Lemurs have pointed snouts with wet noses and rely more on their sense of smell than monkeys do, according to the Lemur Conservation Foundation. The lemur superfamily includes ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) popularized by the “Madagascar” film franchise, and the peculiar aye-ayes (Daubentonia madagascariensis) — previously described by Live Science as “so ugly it’s cute.” Lemurs’ appearance, diet and habitat vary between the different species, but each one plays a role in the rich and varied ecosystems of Madagascar.

There are 113 known lemur species, according to the IUCN, with the potential for more to be discovered. Indri (Indri indri) is the largest lemur species, and can grow to between 24 and 35 inches (61 and 90 centimeters) long and can weigh up to 22 lbs. (10 kilograms), according to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Lemurs often have long tails, but indris are the only species to not have one at all.

The smallest lemurs are Madame Berthe’s mouse lemurs (Microcebus berthae), which are also the smallest primates in the world. These lemurs grow to just 3.5 to 4 inches (9 to 11 cm) long excluding their tails, which add another 5 to 6 inches (12 to 14 cm) to their length. The tiny lemurs only weigh an average of 1 ounce (30 grams), according to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web (ADW).

Giant lemurs, some the size of gorillas, roamed Madagascar just a few thousand years ago. These included giant sloth lemurs, which had long limbs and hooked fingers like the claws of a modern sloth, although they were lemurs and not sloths, which are a separate group of mammals. Giant sloth lemurs were still living in Madagascar until at least 1,000 years ago, as evidenced by a single cave drawing of a giant sloth lemur being hunted by humans with dogs, according to The Natural History Museum in London.

Size is not the only way to tell lemur species apart — they are often also very unique in appearance. Ring-tailed lemurs are easily recognized by the black rings on their white, fluffy tails. Blue-eyed black lemurs (Eulemur flavifrons) are striking, as they are the only primates other than humans to have blue eyes, according to the San Diego Zoo. Aye-ayes have perhaps the strangest appearance of all lemurs and primates in general, with tiny, bulging eyes, enormous ears and fluffy, long tails. These nocturnal lemurs also have long, skinny fingers that they tap on branches to locate and collect grubs for food.

All lemurs are found on Madagascar, an island country off the west coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. Populations of mongoose lemurs (Eulemur mongoz) and brown lemurs (Eulemur fulvus) also live on the nearby Comoros Islands, between Madagascar and Mozambique, but they were almost certainly introduced to these islands by humans, according to the IUCN.

Lemurs occupy many different habitats on Madagascar, including rainforests, dry deciduous forests, spiny forests, wetlands and mountains. For example, Sibree’s dwarf lemurs (Cheirogaleus sibreei) live in rainforests at altitudes above 4,590 feet (1,400 meters), and white-collared lemurs (Eulemur cinereiceps), also known as gray-headed lemurs, live in a thin strip of tropical, moist lowland forest from sea level up to 2,950 feet (900 m). Lemur habitat is disappearing due to deforestation and their ranges are often highly restrictive.

Some animals, such as Sunda flying lemurs (Galeopterus variegatus) from Southeast Asia, have lemur in their name but are not actually lemurs. True lemurs are only found on Madagascar and nearby islands.

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