Ring-tailed lemur

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Suborder: Strepsirrhini
Infraorder: Lemuriformes
Superfamily: Lemuroidea
Family: Lemuridae
Genus: Lemur
Species: L. catta

Other names: lémur catta (French); maki (Malagasy); lemur colianillado (Spanish); katta, kattlemur, or ringsvanslemur (Swedish)

Conservation status: please search the IUCN Red List.

Life span: 16 to 19 years (wild)
Total population: Unknown (wild), 2000 (captivity)
Regions: Madagascar
Gestation: 4.6 months (139 days)
Height: 425 mm (M & F)
Weight: 2.2 kg (M & F)


The conspicuous characteristic for which ring-tailed lemurs are known is their long tail, measuring about 60 cm (23.6 in), that has alternating bands of black and white rings (Mittermeier et al. 1994). The rest of their bodies are light reddish gray to dark red-brown with light gray to dark brown rumps and light gray to gray-brown limbs. They have white undersides, hands, and feet. They have white faces with dark brown or black triangular eye patches that look like a mask around their light brown eyes and they have black muzzles. Their ears are white and angular, similar to a cat’s. Male ring-tailed lemurs have darkly colored scent glands on the inside of their wrists with a spur-like fingernail, usually referred to as a horny spur, overlay on each. Males also have scent glands on their chests, just above the collarbone and close to the armpit. Both male and female ring-tailed lemurs have anogenital scent glands (Mittermeier et al. 1994; Rowe 1996; Groves 2001; Palagi et al. 2004). Males and females are about the same size, in the wild measuring about 42.5 cm (1.39 ft) from head to rump and weighing between 2207 and 2213 g (4.87 and 4.89 lb), on average (Mittermeier et al. 1994; Sussman 2000). In captivity, ring-tailed lemurs weigh slightly more than their wild counterparts with males weighing, on average, 2705 g (5.96 lb) and females average 2678 g (5.90 lb) (Kappeler 1991). Ring-tailed lemurs share unique dental characteristics with other members of the Superfamily Lemuroidea; they have specialized teeth in their lower jaw that form a dental comb. These long, narrow teeth project nearly straight forward from the jaw and this specialized dentition is thought to aid in grooming (Swindler 2002).

Ring tailed lemur body profile
Lemur catta

Ring-tailed lemurs are the most terrestrial of all lemurs, but they spend time in all layers of the forest. They move by walking or running quadrupedally, holding their tails almost completely vertically as they move, with the tip of the long tail curving away from the body forming the shape of a question mark (Mittermeier et al. 1994; Jolly 2003).

In the wild, it is rare for female ring-tailed lemurs to live past 16 years of age and the oldest known wild female was between 18 and 20 years old. Male life span is even less well-known, because of the social system, but have been recorded living to at least 15 years of age (Gould et al. 2003; Sauthers pers. comm). In captivity, life span has reached 27 years (Jolly 2003).



The only place where members of the Superfamily Lemuroidea, including ring-tailed lemurs, can be found in the wild is Madagascar. Situated to the southeast of Africa and separated from the continent by the 800 km-wide (497 mi) Mozambique Channel, the island of Madagascar is in the Indian Ocean and is the fourth largest island in the world (Swindler 2002). Ring-tailed lemurs are restricted to the south and southwestern portion of the island, reaching a northern limit near the town of Morondava on the west coast and the town of Ambalavao in the east. The southeastern limit is the town of Tolagnaro on the southern coast (Mittermeier et al. 1994; Jolly 2003). Ring-tailed lemurs are found in the vicinity of nine forests: Andohahela, Andringitra, Ankilitelo, Berenty, Beza Mahafaly, Isalo, Tsimanampetsotsa, Tsirave, and Zombitse (Godfrey et al. 1998).

Ring-tailed lemurs have also been introduced to the United States on St. Catherine’s Island, Georgia as part of a project to establish a free-ranging, breeding population that could be studied and in the future could potentially serve as a source to restock parks in Madagascar (Iaderosa & Lessnau 1995).

Most field studies of ring-tailed lemurs have been conducted at Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve and Berenty Private Reserve, a family-owned forest set aside in the 1940s (Sauther et al. 1999). They have also been studied at Andringitra National Park, Isalo National Park, and Andohahela Nature Reserve (Mittermeier et al. 1994). One particularly notable field researcher, Alison Jolly, has been conducting long-term ecological and behavioral research on ring-tailed lemurs at Berenty since the early 1960s and has contributed greatly to the knowledge of wild ring-tailed lemurs. Long-term studies have also been ongoing at Beza Mahafaly most notably conducted by Robert Sussman, Lisa Gould, and Michelle Sauther. Captive research has been conducted at the Duke University Primate Center in North Carolina since the mid-1980s and also has provided invaluable information about the species (Sauther et al. 1999).

There are almost 2000 ring-tailed lemurs in captivity (http://www.isis.org). The wild population is unknown (Harcourt and Thornback 1990).


ring tailed lemurs in the grass
Lemur catta

Madagascar is a 1650 km- (1025 mi-)long island divided by a mountain chain running the length of the island from north to south. This mountainous divide partitions Madagascar into eastern and western parts, each of which has distinctive climate, and vegetation (Jury 2003). Ring-tailed lemurs are found in the southeastern portion of the island at elevations from sea level to 2600 m (8530 ft) in a variety of habitat types including rainforests, subalpine, deciduous, gallery, and spiny bush forests (Goodman & Langrand 1996; Goodman et al. 2003). Much of their habitat has been altered by human impact through clearing for agriculture, burning for charcoal production, and deforesting areas to create settlements (Sussman et al. 2003). Ring-tailed lemurs require some forest cover and are not successful at resettling in secondary growth areas once they have been cleared therefore the total range occupied is large, but their distribution is patchy and dependent on forest cover (Jolly 2003).

In the southwestern part of the country, rainfall can be as little as 30 to 50 mm (1.18 to 1.97 in) per year and the habitat is mainly desert or thorny scrub with plants adapted to very low levels of rainfall. The driest and coldest times of the year last from May to September (winter) and the wetter and warmer months are from December to March (summer) (Jolly 1966; Jury 2003). Average temperatures in this area are about 30° C (86° F) during January and 24° C (75.2° F) during July (Jury 2003). Southwestern Madagascar is subject to periodic drought that can have serious impacts on the ring-tailed lemur and other mammalian inhabitants (Gould et al. 1999).

From west to east across Madagascar, rainfall increases and vegetation becomes lusher. Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve is composed of both xerophytic forests, characteristic of the extreme southwest, and greener gallery forests with taller, more densely forested areas along the banks and tributaries of the Mandrare River (Sussman 1991; Mertl-Millhollen et al. 2003; Sussman 2003). Gallery forests are found throughout southern and southwestern Madagascar along seasonally inundated rivers and their tributaries such as the Mangoky and Onilahy Rivers, as well as the Mandrare River (Sussman et al. 2003). Annual rainfall at Beza Mahafaly averages about 750 mm (2.46 ft), most of which falls during the rainy season that lasts from November to March. The temperatures in this part of the island average between 34° and 35° C (93.2° and 95° F) but can reach highs of 48° C (118.4° F). During the coolest months of the year, June through August, very little rain falls and temperatures average between 23° and 30° C (73.3° and 86° F), but can be as low as 3° C (5.4° F) at night (Sussman 1991).

Continuing eastward through their range toward the central highlands that run north to south on the island, elevation increases and ring-tailed lemurs are found at altitudes up to 2600 m (8530 ft). In these areas, subalpine forests, exposed rock, and savanna dominate the landscape. Temperatures can range between -7° to 26° C (19.4° to 78.8° F) and this area is considered the most meteorologically extreme site on the island (Goodman & Langrand 1996).


Ring tailed lemur sitting on ground
Lemur catta

Because of the highly seasonal environment in which they live, wild ring-tailed lemurs must exploit a wide variety of food sources throughout the year. They are best characterized as opportunistic omnivores and eat ripe fruits, leaves, leaf stems, flowers, flower stems, exudates, spiders, spider webs, caterpillars, cicadas, insect cocoons, birds, chameleons, cicadas, grasshoppers, and even dirt from termite mounds (Oda 1996; Sauther et al. 1999; Jolly 2003). One of the most important food sources for ring-tailed lemurs is the tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) which not only is abundant in gallery and more open forests away from rivers, but which produces fruits and leaves at alternating times of the year, providing a reliable, year-round food source for the lemurs (Jolly et al. 2002; Mertl-Millhollen et al. 2003). Tamarinds can provide up to 50% of the total food consumed during some times of the year and are considered a keystone resource for ring-tailed lemurs (Sauther 1998; Jolly 2003). In the driest parts of their range, water availability is a potentially serious issue. Ring-tailed lemurs are able to obtain water from succulent plants including aloe and prickly pear cactus as well as from dew and water that accumulates in crevices such as tree holes (Sauther et al. 1999; Jolly 2003). Vegetation availability is strictly linked to rainfall. During the rainy season, from roughly October through April, fruit and young leaves become available to ring-tailed lemurs. There are two peaks in fruit availability, from October to November and from March to April. During the dry season, the tamarind tree is one of the only sources of fruit (Sauther 1998). Flower availability peaks before the start of the rainy season and is another important food source. Throughout the dry season, even mature leaves can be scarce and ring-tailed lemurs eat dry, desiccated leaves, which are more difficult to digest. During this time of year, young leaves are found only on a few tree or shrub species and are distributed patchily. Flowers, fruit, and young leaves are at the lowest levels during June and July, when barely any rain falls. This is the period of highest nutritional stress for ring-tailed lemurs and they rely heavily on tamarind trees during this time of year (Sauther 1998).

Ring-tailed lemurs start their day waking before dawn and moving about in the branches of the group’s sleeping tree. One group splits into two sleeping parties each night, huddling together while sleeping (Jolly 1966; Sussman 2000). Between 5:30 and 8:30 a.m., ring-tailed lemurs move into the sun, away from the sleeping tree and onto exposed ground, and begin feeding and “sunning.” The “sunning” posture is distinctive and stereotyped; ring-tailed lemurs sit upright on their haunches, spread-eagle, and rest their forearms on their knees, exposing their undersides to direct sunlight. This behavior is probably linked to thermoregulation as it is often seen following cold nights or during cold mornings (Jolly 1966). The group moves again around noon and they settle in the shade for a brief rest period. They become active again in the early afternoon, foraging, feeding and traveling until the late afternoon. Depending on the time of year, they may take another rest in the mid-afternoon on particularly hot days. After intensely feeding in the late afternoon, the entire group travels back to the sleeping tree where as a group they remain for the rest of the night, but during which individuals may move about the tree, groom, and interact (Jolly 1966; Sussman 2000). About 70% of group travel is terrestrial. About 33% of an individual ring-tailed lemur’s average day is spent on the ground, the rest of its time is spent in mid- or upper-level canopy trees (23% and 25%, respectively), in small bushes (13%), or in the emergent layer of the canopy (6%) (Sussman 2000).

The average day range of ring-tailed lemurs is about 1000 m (.621 mi) and one group will use the same part of its home range for three or four days before moving to another part. The home range size varies, depending on habitat, and average size ranges from.1 to.35 km² (.039 to.135 mi²) (Sussman 2000). In drier or more disturbed habitats, home range sizes are larger, averaging.32 km² (.124 mi²) compared to wetter habitats where ring-tailed lemurs have home ranges averaging.17 km² (.066 mi²). Ring-tailed lemurs seasonally expand their home ranges; during the dry season they utilize larger areas because of the resource scarcity (Sussman 1991). The home ranges of multiple groups of ring-tailed lemurs overlap, and there are few areas that are exclusively used by only one group (Sauther & Sussman 1993; Sussman 2000; Mertl-Millhollen et al. 2003). Population density is also linked to habitat quality. In wetter, lusher areas, there are more ring-tailed lemurs per square kilometer, up to 350 per km² (135 per mi²), compared to dry or disturbed areas that can have densities as low as 17 per km² (6.56 per mi²) (Sussman 2000).

Ring-tailed lemurs are sympatric with nine other primates within their range including: Verreaux’s sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi), red-tailed sportive lemur (L. ruficaudatus), white-footed sportive lemur (L. leucopus), brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus), greater dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus major), fat-tailed dwarf lemur (C. medius), aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis), ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata), and lesser bamboo lemur (Hapalemur griseus) (Mittermeier et al. 1994). Research on competition for resources between Verreaux’s sifaka and ring-tailed lemurs reveals that there is little direct competition for food, even during the dry season when resources are limited. Though they naturally have overlapping ranges in other parts of Madagascar, at Berenty Private Reserve, brown lemurs were introduced in 1975 and they now compete with ring-tailed lemurs for access to food. The two species have high dietary overlap at Berenty and likely compete for similar foods during times of scarcity. The development of a tourist center at the reserve has decreased this competition because new opportunities for both water and food have been introduced via the establishment of watering troughs and the addition of cultivated and ornamental plants (Simmen et al. 2003). In the Antserananomby Forest, where brown and ring-tailed lemurs naturally occur together, niche separation is significant and daily activity patterns separate the two species, preventing direct competition for resources (Sussman 2000). Competition with the other sympatric species has not been recorded, likely because many of the other species are nocturnal.

Actual predation pressure on ring-tailed lemurs is unknown. However, some potential predators include raptors, cat-like carnivores such as fossas and civets, various snakes, and brown lemurs, which have been recorded capturing and eating infant ring-tailed lemurs. Domestic cats introduced to Madagascar also are responsible for predation losses (Goodman et al. 1993; Goodman 2003).

Content last modified: September 21, 2005

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Michelle Sauther.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 September 21. Primate Factsheets: Ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) Taxonomy, Morphology, & Ecology . <http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/factsheets/entry/ring-tailed_lemur/taxon>. Accessed 2020 July 10.


Ring tailed lemur group marching down trail
Lemur catta

Ring-tailed lemurs live in multi-male/multi-female groups of about 11 to 17 animals but which range in size from six to 35 at Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve and four to 31 at Berenty Private Reserve (Sussman 1991; Hood & Jolly 1995; Sauthers pers. comm.). Ring-tailed lemurs exhibit female philopatry and the core of the social group is the dominant matriline (Jolly 2003). Because females almost always remain in their natal groups while males emigrate into a new group, ring-tailed lemur social groups are centered around a group of related adult females and their offspring. There is usually a single, top-ranking female that initiates the direction of the group and is the focal point of the rest of the group (Jolly 1966; Sauther & Sussman 1993). Often there is more than one matriline in a social group, and pairs of closely related females (mother-daughter and sister-sister) exhibit friendly social interactions including maintaining close spatial proximity and grooming each other frequently while distantly related or unrelated females are more likely to have aggressive encounters (Taylor & Sussman 1985; Sauther & Sussman 1993; Nakamichi & Koyama 1997). There is a dominance hierarchy among females according to matriline and adult females are always dominant over adult males, reinforcing their dominance through agonistic encounters including lunging, chasing, cuffing, grabbing, and biting males. Submissive responses to these aggressive behaviors include jumping away, fleeing, and squealing (Jolly 1966; Taylor & Sussman 1985; Sauther et al. 1999). The hierarchy among ring-tailed lemur females is not linear; daughters do not always assume the rank of their mothers. One explanation for this pattern is that ring-tailed lemur mothers do not support their daughters in agonistic social interactions therefore the daughters do not inherit the rank but fight to achieve their own rank (Nakamichi & Koyama 1997).

There are usually one to three central, or high-ranking, adult males in a ring-tailed lemur social group and several peripheral males. Rank among males is correlated with age (Sussman 1992). The central males are usually in their “prime,” estimated to be between six and nine years of age based on dental wear, while the peripheral males are usually recently transferred males, old males, or young adult males that have not yet left their natal group (Sussman 1991; 1992; Gould 1996; Sauther et al. 1999). Males have a separate dominance hierarchy from females and the central males are dominant over the peripheral males, reinforcing the hierarchy through agonistic interactions (Jolly 1966; Sussman 1992). The males are referred to as central and peripheral not just because of their relationships with females, but also their spatial proximity within the group. When a group of ring-tailed lemurs moves from one location to another the highest-ranking females, juveniles, and dominant males lead the procession, while the lower-ranking males lag behind. Once the group has reached its destination and either rests or forages, the low-ranking males continue to remain on the periphery of the group, foraging alone or resting together (Jolly 1966).

Ring tailed lemurs group hug on ground
Lemur catta

One of the benefits to being a high-ranking male is increased social interaction with the high-ranking females which may confer benefits such as decreased risk of predation, increased access to food resources, and increased access to reproductively receptive females (Sussman 1992; Gould 1996). Males achieve high-ranking status when they transfer into a group and fight for dominance with the resident males. Young ring-tailed lemur males leave their natal groups in pairs or trios between three and five years of age. The pair will attempt to join a group together, but full assimilation into the group may take many months as group members of both sexes constantly challenge them. Once a young male has successfully joined a group, he remains peripheral and low-ranking (Sussman 1992). Males between the ages of three and four years transfer on average once every 1.4 years while older males, in their prime, settle down and transfer once ever 3.5 years (Sussman 1992). Regardless of how often they transfer, males consistently immigrate into new groups during the six-month period between December and May, and transfers are especially concentrated during the two- to three-week breeding season in April (Sauther 1991; Sussman 1992; Jolly et al. 1993).

When immigration and recruitment causes a ring-tailed lemur social group to get too large, usually greater than 15 to 25 animals with eight to 10 females, the group breaks apart and forms new, smaller groups (Hood & Jolly 1995; Jolly et al. 2002; Gould et al. 2003). In a dramatically seasonal environment with large variation in available resources, large group size can be detrimental to individuals within the group; by splitting into smaller groups, there is less direct competition for resources and the fitness of each individual increases (Hood & Jolly 1995). When groups split, members of the dominant matriline evict members of a subordinate matriline by targeting severe aggression at lower-ranking females and their offspring. Members of the subordinate matriline eventually are pushed out of the group and either start a new group or, very rarely, join a new social group (Sussman 1991; Hood & Jolly 1995). These newly-formed groups have fewer members, which puts them at a disadvantage. Larger groups can displace smaller groups from food patches, have higher protection from predators, and are more likely to dominate in intergroup encounters (Hood & Jolly 1995). When ring-tailed lemur groups encounter each other, a frequent occurrence given their highly overlapping home ranges, the females of each group face each other and confrontations can involve intense staring and glaring, or can escalate to lunging, cuffing, and biting. When these confrontations intensify, they can result in serious injuries or even death (Jolly et al. 1993). At the end of intergroup encounters in the area of home range overlap, both groups retreat to the center of their respective home ranges (Jolly et al. 1993).


Ring tailed lemurs play
Lemur catta

The reproductive success of ring-tailed lemurs is highly dependent on environmental conditions. In exceptionally good years in the wild, age of maturation is earlier and birthrate and infant survival are much higher compared to years with severe environmental conditions such as drought (Gould et al. 2003; Jolly 2003). In normal years, males and females reach adult size until three years of age, and do not reproduce until between 2.5 to four years of age (Jolly 1966; Gould et al. 2003). Female ring-tailed lemurs at Berenty Private Reserve are more likely to mature and give birth at an earlier age compared with those found at Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve. At Berenty, the lemurs live in a slightly richer environment due to supplemental feeding, the presence of introduced fruit trees, and water provisioning (Gould et al. 2003). Female ring-tailed lemurs in captivity consistently give birth at two years of age (Sussman 1991).

Females are sexually receptive for one to two days each year, and estrus may be as short as six to 24 hours (Van Horn & Resko 1977; Sauther et al. 1999). They exhibit ovarian synchronicity so that all of the adult females in a forest are in estrus at roughly the same time. In the wild, the breeding season lasts between seven and 21 days in May and both males and females have multiple mates (Pereira 1991; Sauther 1991; Sussman 1991). During these few weeks, males approach females to inspect their genitals and attempt mating. Females that are not receptive will act aggressively toward the males, cuffing or chasing them away (Koyama 1988; Sauther 1991). High-ranking males are able to maintain close proximity to females during the breeding period and approach, sit near, and rest or sleep in contact with females throughout the day (Sauther 1991). Estrous females actively approach males for mating by orienting their backsides to a male, lifting their tail, and looking over their shoulder at him. The order of mating reflects the male dominance hierarchy , the highest-ranking, central male is the first male to successfully approach and mate when a female becomes receptive. He is followed by the second-ranking male and then by transfer males or non-troop males. Females reject the mating attempts of related males and sometimes seek out males from other troops, though other males attempt to disrupt these extra-group copulations (Sauther 1991). Aggressive encounters between males increases greatly before and during the breeding season as they fight for access to receptive females (Jolly 1966; Koyama 1988; Sauther 1991).

Ruffed lemur perched on branch
Lemur catta

Because of the harsh environments in which they live, ring-tailed lemurs have high fecundity. Gestation lasts from 135 to 145 days and females in the wild almost always give birth to singletons (Sauther 1991; Koyama et al. 2001; Gould et al. 2003). In captivity the rates of multiple births, including twins and triplets is higher than in the wild (Sussman 1991). Between 75 and 80% of the adult females in the population give birth each year and the average interbirth interval is 1.2 years (Koyama et al. 2001; Jolly et al. 2002; Gould et al. 2003). Having such high rates of reproduction allows ring-tailed lemur populations to rebound after years of high mortality associated with environmental stress. For example, in years of drought, infant mortality can be as high as 80% while normal infant mortality within one year after birth is around 37% (Gould et al. 1999; Koyama et al. 2001; Jolly et al. 2002).


Ring-tailed lemurs are strict seasonal breeders and give birth to coincide with the end of the dry season and the beginning of the wet season, with the most number of births occurring in September (Koyama et al. 2001). By timing births during periods of high food abundance, some of the physical stress of nursing and weaning an infant may be minimized (Sauther 1998). For the first three weeks of life, the mother is the primary caregiver to her new infant, but she is tolerant of other females in the group, especially siblings of the infant and other mothers (Hosey & Jacques 1994). In the first days of life, infant ring-tailed lemurs cling ventrally to the mother, but by day three, they are able to move actively on her body and can climb onto another grooming female (Jolly 1966). By the age of one month, infant ring-tailed lemurs ride dorsally on their mothers and begin to explore their surroundings independently, spending about 16% of their time off of their mothers. At this age, they do not venture further than .5 m (1.64 ft) from their mothers (Gould 1990). These short stints off of the mother usually involve briefly hopping from her back onto the ground and immediately hopping back onto her. After three weeks, the time spent off of the mother continuously decreases such that by week 16, 85% of the infant’s time is spent independently exploring the environment, manipulating objects in the environment, locomotor explanation, and independent foraging (Gould 1990). Because of the timing of births, there are many playmates within the group for infant ring-tailed lemurs. Social play with peers begins around week six and includes such behaviors as chasing, play biting, jumping on, and wrestling with one or more partners (Gould 1990). As the infant matures, it spends less time nursing and more time foraging . Weaning begins at week eight and the mother begins to reject dorsal riding during week 12. By week 16, infant ring-tailed lemurs only nurse about 8% of their total time (Gould 1990).

Other female members of the group, including those with their own new infants, are attracted to newborns and approach mother-infant pairs frequently, attempting to lick or groom infants, especially in the first month of life (Jolly 1966; Gould 1990; Nakamichi & Koyama 2000). These interactions are characterized as affiliative and may serve to increase group cohesiveness. Males within the social group interact with mother-infant pairs much less frequently compared to females, though they are sometimes seen approaching and licking infants. New mothers do not allow strange or newly transferred males to approach them and are extremely aggressive toward any unfamiliar or peripheral males (Nakamichi & Koyama 2000).

Ring tailed monkey leaping to nearby branch
Lemur catta

In addition to licking and grooming new infants, members of the social group provide varying degrees of infant care for the mother in a behavior called alloparenting (Jolly 1966; Gould 1992). In ring-tailed lemurs, all age- and sex-classes are seen caring for new infants in some capacity. Mothers permit alloparenting by group members because both they and their infants benefit; mothers are allowed time to rest and can forage and travel more efficiently if another ring-tailed lemur is carrying their infant while infants gain valuable social skills, receive additional protection from predators or conspecifics from other groups, and potentially can gain relationships with adult females that will influence their future rank in the group (Gould 1992).

The alloparents also benefit. Adult males gain social access to adult females, potentially securing their position as a mate in the future, nulliparous females gain valuable experience in infant handling and other parental skills, and relatives of the mother and infant increase their inclusive fitness by contributing to the survival of the infant (Gould 1992). Alloparenting is so pervasive that if an infant is orphaned before it is weaned , group members will adopt and provide care for it, including carrying and nursing it (Gould 2000). Incidences of kidnapping have also been seen among ring-tailed lemurs. An adult female, acting as an alloparent , keeps the infant and, with other females, prevents the mother from retrieving it. In some instances, the kidnapper adopts the infant as their own while in other instances, they simply prevent the mother from retrieving it, give the infant no care, and the infant subsequently dies (Koyama et al. 2001).


Olfactory, visual, and vocal communication are important to ring-tailed lemurs. As members of the Order Prosimii, they rely more heavily on olfactory communication than most anthropoid primates, but compared to nocturnal prosimians, visual and vocal signals also play a larger role in social interactions (Gould et al. 1999). Ring-tailed lemurs have 28 distinct call types, 22 of which are used by adults, six of which are particular to infants (Macedonia 1993). Some predominant vocalizations include affiliative vocalizations such as “moans,” contact calls used in conditions of low or moderate arousal, “meows,” heard as contact calls in situations of moderate arousal or excitement and which are thought to increase group cohesion, and “wails” which are the highest arousal contact calls and are heard when a group member is separated from the social group. “Howls” are given only by non-infant males and are used to contact and advertise presence of the group to other groups in the area and can be heard between 750 and 1000 m (.466 and .621 mi), “purrs” are heard during grooming and thought to be a sign of contentment, and “chirps” are given to elicit group movement from one location to another (Jolly 1966; Macedonia 1993). Agonistic vocalizations include “yips,” given by subordinate animals when approaching or when approached by a dominate individual, “squeals” are given by males during displays to assert status over other males or when soliciting females, and “chutters,” given when a dominant individual lunges at a subordinate individual ( Macedonia 1993). Ring-tailed lemurs also have specialized antipredator vocalizations that elicit responses from the rest of the group when they are given. For example, “gulps” are heard when a carnivore, raptor, or rapidly moving human are perceived and are generalized group alert vocalizations, “shrieks” are heard in response to large, low-flying birds, “clicks” are heard in situations of curiosity but wariness, and “yaps” are heard during mobbing of mammalian predators (Sauther 1989; Macedonia 1993).


Ring tailed lemur vocalizing
Lemur catta

In addition to vocal communication, ring-tailed lemurs have an array of visual signals including postures that serve to communicate dominance status. A simple visual signal used to intimidate another individual or to start a fight is a “threat stare.” The first animal stares at another and the second animal either looks away or will approach and fight. Another visual signal is the “pulled-back lips,” done in submission (Jolly 1966; 2003). Jump-fighting is another social interaction involving two animals displaying. This aggressive action involves a ring-tailed lemur standing on its hind legs with arms outspread and jumping or hopping around the other animal involved. This usually occurs on the ground and can escalate, causing serious injury (Jolly 1966). The other typical display seen only among male ring-tailed lemurs is the “stink fight,” which involves ritualized posturing (the tails are held over the head and waved back and forth) as well as chemical communication (Jolly 1966).

While males have scent glands on their wrists, on their chests, and in the genital area, females only have anogenital scent glands used for marking (Kappeler 1990; Oda 1999). During a “stink fight,” males anoint their tails by rubbing the ends of their tails on the inside of their wrists and on their chests. They then arch their tails over their bodies and wave them at their opponent. The male toward which this is directed either responds with a display of his own, physical aggression, or flees. “Stink fights” can last from 10 minutes to one hour (Jolly 1966). Olfactory communication is also used as a form of intragroup communication as well as intergroup information transfer as ring-tailed lemurs can differentiate between the scents from individual animals. For example, both males and females mark horizontal and vertical substrates at the overlap of their home ranges using their anogenital scent glands (Mertl-Millhollen 1988). In order to mark a vertical substrate such as a tree trunk, they stand on their hands, grasping as high up on the substrate as possible with their feet, and rub their anogenital scent gland along the object (Jolly 1966). Males also leave visual and scent markings using the glands on their inner forearms. This is called “spur marking.” They grasp the substrate, usually a small sapling, and drag the thorny nail which overlays the scent gland, cutting into the wood and spreading secretions (Jolly 1966; Mertl-Millhollen 1988). When on the ground, ring-tailed lemurs preferentially mark small saplings and when high in the trees they usually mark small vertical branches (Mertl-Millhollen 1988). Scent markings are left in the area of the home range that overlaps with other groups’ home ranges. This area of overlap is where groups are most likely to encounter each other, and since scent marking behavior occurs frequently during intergroup encounters, one function may be to reinforce the boundaries established during confrontations (Mertl-Millhollen 1988). Males “spur mark” more frequently during mating and migration seasons possibly to inform other males of their presence and to deter new males from entering an area to mate with females or to dissuade them from attempting to immigrate into the group. Direct male-male competition is high during the mating season and fights can result in serious injuries, therefore scent marking during the mating season and when new males are likely to enter the social group serves to advertise a male’s presence to other nearby males decrease the chances of direct confrontation or dangerous fighting (Gould & Overdorff 2002).

Content last modified: September 21, 2005

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Michelle Sauther.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 September 21. Primate Factsheets: Ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) Behavior . <http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/factsheets/entry/ring-tailed_lemur/behav>. Accessed 2020 July 10.


For individual primate species conservation status, please search the IUCN Red List.
Also search the current scientific literature for primate conservation status (overall as well as for individual species), and visit CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Conservation information last updated in 2005 follows, for comparison:

Ruffed lemurs napping on branch
Lemur catta

Madagascar is often considered the single highest priority conservation area on Earth. The only other island with more endemic species is Australia, which is 13 times the size of Madagascar (Mittermeier et al. 1994). While ring-tailed lemurs are not the most threatened prosimians in Madagascar, they certainly are among the most recognizable and preserving them is necessary because of their role as a flagship species (Mittermeier et al. 1992). The threats facing ring-tailed lemurs in the wild are not unique, like many other threatened primates, habitat destruction and hunting are causing the wild population to dwindle (Mittermeier et al. 1994).


Threat: Human-Induced Habitat Loss and Degradation

Since the arrival of humans on Madagascar approximately 2000 years ago, roughly 80% of the total forest cover has been lost due to extraction of precious hardwoods, fuelwood and other products as well as to clear land for agricultural and grazing lands (Mittermeier et al. 1994). Specifically, in the southwest, forest loss can be attributed to supplying urban centers with fuel wood, charcoal, and construction wood for the quickly growing human population (Fenn 2003). Forests are also destroyed by fires ignited to clear grasslands (Harcourt and Thornback 1990). At higher elevations, where the soil quality is much better, the forests on which ring-tailed lemurs depend are threatened by slash-and-burn agriculture, fires that burn uncontrollably, and exploitation of firewood (Mittermeier et al. 1992). Ring-tailed lemurs depend on gallery forests and open forests with tamarind trees to survive the harsh seasonal environmental conditions (Jolly et al. 2002; Mertl-Millhollen et al. 2003). Population density is directly linked to habitat quality, and as these forests are destroyed, ring-tailed lemurs are unable to recover efficiently (Sussman 1991; Sussman et al. 2003). Focusing on conserving these resources is necessary because if they are altered too drastically or destroyed completely, ring-tailed lemurs are not likely to survive (Mittermeier et al. 1994).

Potential Solutions

Ring tailed lemur head profile
Lemur catta

Fortunately, ring-tailed lemurs occur in all of the protected areas within their range. Many of these preserves offer differing levels of protection, though, and focused conservation efforts should revolve around increasing awareness of the seemingly common species that is in reality, threatened (Mittermeier et al. 1994). Another important conservation strategy has been undertaken at Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve. Authorities there, with the help of Yale University, have worked to develop and promote the site as a research and training center for international students as well as local people. They also collaborate with local communities to ensure long-term conservation of the unique fauna and flora. Everyone from school children to college students and professionals have been trained in research activities at Beza Mahafaly, focusing on applied field biology as well as management of natural resources (Ratsirarson 2003). In the peripheral zones of the reserve, livestock breeding and management occurs, alleviating some of the pressure of traditional patterns of clearing land and grazing. Furthermore, Beza Mahafaly is being developed to attract tourists interested in enjoying the regions unique flora and fauna, bringing economic opportunity to the people living near and within the reserve. Empowering local communities to become actively involved in conservation of this and other reserves are driving forces in maintaining habitat for ring-tailed lemurs and other Malagasy primates (Ratsirarson 2003).

Threat: Harvesting (hunting/gathering)

In some regions, ring-tailed lemurs are hunted with dogs for food. They are also kept as pets (Mittermeier et al. 1992).

Potential Solutions

Though the more serious threat to ring-tailed lemurs is human-induced habitat loss, the success of captive breeding programs could be important to restocking forested areas if hunting pressure becomes too great and ring-tailed lemur populations drop significantly. Easily bred and raised in captivity, there are about 2000 ring-tailed lemurs in zoos around the world (http://www.isis.org). This large population can serve as source lemurs to be reintroduced if necessary. Experimental release programs on St. Catherine’s Island, Georgia reveal that captive ring-tailed lemurs released into a natural environment readily adapt to their new environment and begin to exhibit the broad repertoire of behaviors seen in wild ring-tailed lemurs (Keith-Lucas et al. 1999). At this time, release programs are not part of the conservation plan for ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar , but knowing how captive animals will adapt to natural conditions maintains release as a future option, if necessary.

Threat: Natural Disasters

Drought is a periodic but serious concern in southern Madagascar. Where rainfall levels are scarce in normal years, in years of drought, the near absence of rain has had serious consequences for ring-tailed lemurs (Gould et al. 1999). From 1991 to 1992, a severe drought was responsible for higher than normal mortality rates among females and infants and changed the demographic make-up of the subpopulation at Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve. Two years after the end of the drought, the adult population of ring-tailed lemurs had decreased by 31%, but within four years, the population seemed to be recovering. Decreases in food resources and subsequent malnourishment are thought to be the primary cause of population decline during and after a drought (Gould et al. 1999).

Potential Solutions

While nothing can be done to prevent a naturally occurring drought, researchers at Berenty Private Reserve noted that during the same time period, ring-tailed lemurs were not as adversely affected because of provisioning practices. At Berenty, where tourism is the major source of income, ring-tailed lemurs have access to introduced fruit trees and ornamental vegetation in addition to watering troughs (Simmen et al. 2003). Researchers must make a difficult choice in the future whether or not to allow the natural population fluctuations caused by severe drought to occur or to supplement populations suffering from inadequate resources as was done at Berenty. Ring-tailed lemurs have high levels of fecundity and their reproductive patterns probably evolved because of the harsh environment in which they live (Jolly 2003). Unless there are serious concerns for the survival of the population, it is likely that nothing will be done to interfere with natural catastrophes such as drought.

Threat: Intrinsic Factors

When small subpopulations are isolated from one another because of some sort of barrier, limited dispersal can lead to inbreeding and a host of associated problems (Sussman et al. 2003). Additionally, natural disasters may have more serious effects on small populations (Gould et al. 1999). Maintaining gene flow between subpopulations of ring-tailed lemurs is necessary to ensure their long-term viability in the wild and their ability to deal with the harsh environment of southern Madagascar.

Potential Solutions

The forest cover remaining in southern Madagascar is patchy, at best. Many forest patches have been protected because of their sacred spiritual value to local peoples (Sussman et al. 2003). These have no official government protection, but they exist, undisturbed, and are often quite good habitat for ring-tailed lemurs. Focusing conservation efforts on reconnecting these 1400 forest patches and making the most of their cultural status could be one way to preserve more land for ring-tailed lemurs and create contiguous corridors between patches to stimulate gene flow.





Content last modified: September 21, 2005

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Michelle Sauther.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 September 21. Primate Factsheets: Ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) Conservation . <http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/factsheets/entry/ring-tailed_lemur/cons>. Accessed 2020 July 13.

The following references were used in the writing of this factsheet. To find current references for Lemur catta, search PrimateLit.


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ring tailed lemur artwork
Lemur catta

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Content last modified: September 21, 2005



Lemur catta
Photo: Herbert Gustafson
Lemur catta
Photo: Herbert Gustafson
Lemur catta
Photo: Herbert Gustafson
Lemur catta
Photo: Herbert Gustafson
Lemur catta
Photo: Herbert Gustafson
Lemur catta
Photo: Herbert Gustafson
Lemur catta
Photo: Herbert Gustafson
Lemur catta
Photo: Herbert Gustafson
Lemur catta
Photo: Herbert Gustafson
Lemur catta
Photo: J. Stephen Gartlan
Lemur catta
Photo: Michelle Sauther
Lemur catta
Photo: Primates in Art & Illustration Collection
Lemur catta
Photo: Roy Fontaine
Lemur catta
Photo: Roy Fontaine
Lemur catta
Photo: Roy Fontaine
Lemur catta
Photo: Roy Fontaine

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