King Julien ran the colony in the film Madagascar, but in reality he wouldn’t even be a contender for the crown — ring-tailed lemurs are all about girl power
There are over 100 species of lemur, all found only on the island of Madagascar. Lemurs are primates, but they belong to a lineage (the Strepsirrhines) that split from the ancestors of monkeys and apes (Haplorhines) about 60 million years ago. Today, lemurs range from the tiny mouse lemur to the nine-kilogram (19.8-pound) indri, and the ring-tailed lemur is probably the best-known of the bunch. Most of a ring-tailed lemur is grey or brown with white patches, but it’s the stripy tail as long as its body that makes it hard to miss.
Some species of lemur are nocturnal and stick to the trees, but ring-tailed lemurs are most active during the day and, despite their strong climbing abilities, spend about a third of their time on the ground. Each day begins with basking in the morning sunshine to raise their temperature ready for activity. They travel together in search of leaves, flowers, sap, insects and bark, and they have many ways of communicating with their troop.
In a lemur troop it’s the females who call the shots. Groups are made up of members of both sexes, but adult females form the core and always rank higher than males. Lemurs are often observed grooming each other and playing together. Multiple breeding females can live in the same group, and the ladies even help each other out with childcare; they engage in a behaviour called allomothering, taking turns to care for offspring that aren’t their own. Males, on the other hand, tend to drift between groups, either through choice or because they’re forced to leave.
As well as their vision and sense of hearing, lemurs rely heavily on smell for information. Smell is especially important in breeding season, when males engage in stand-offs known as ‘stink fights’. There’s a hierarchy among males mostly based on age, and rivals of a similar rank square up to each other to decide who will have access to the females. All ring-tailed lemurs have scent glands near their genitals, which they use to alert other troops to their presence and mark their territory, but males also have glands on their wrists and shoulders. Competing for dominance, opponents wipe their tails over the glands and position them over their heads. The males then stare at each other and wave their tails to waft the smell until one admits defeat, backs down and flees.