AppearanceThe ring-tailed lemur is a relatively large lemur. Its average weight is 2.2 kilograms. Its head–body length ranges between 39 and 46 cm, its tail length is 56 and 63 cm, and its total length is 95 and 110 cm.
Other measurements include a hind foot length of 102 and 113 mm, ear length of 40 and 48 mm, and cranium length of 78 and 88 mm.
The species has a slender frame and narrow face, fox-like muzzle. The ring-tailed lemur's trademark—a long, bushy tail—is ringed in alternating black and white transverse stripes, numbering 12 or 13 white rings and 13 or 14 black rings, and always ending in a black tip. The total number of rings nearly matches the approximate number of caudal vertebrae. Its tail is longer than its body and is not prehensile. Instead, it is only used for balance, communication, and group cohesion.
The pelage is so dense that it can clog electric clippers. The ventral coat and throat are white or cream. The dorsal coat varies from gray to rosy-brown, sometimes with a brown pygal patch around the tail region, where the fur grades to pale gray or grayish brown.
The dorsal coloration is slightly darker around the neck and crown. The hair on the throat, cheeks, and ears is white or off-white and also less dense, allowing the dark skin underneath to show through.
The muzzle is dark grayish and the nose is black, and the eyes are encompassed by black triangular patches. Facial vibrissae are developed and found above the lips, on the cheeks, and on the eyebrow.
Vibrissae are also found slightly above the wrist on the underside of the forearm. The ears are relatively large compared to other lemurs and are covered in hair, which has only small tufts if any. Although slight pattern variations in the facial region may be seen between individuals, there are no obvious differences between the sexes.
Unlike most diurnal primates, but like all strepsirhine primates, the ring-tailed lemur has a tapetum lucidum, or reflective layer behind the retina of the eye, that enhances night vision.
NamingAlthough the term "lemur" was first intended for slender lorises, it was soon limited to the endemic Malagasy primates, which have been known as "lemurs" ever since. The name derives from the Latin term ''lemures'', which refers to specters or ghosts that were exorcised during the Lemuria festival of ancient Rome. According to Carl Linnaeus' own explanation, the name was selected because of the nocturnal activity and slow movements of the slender loris.
StatusIn addition to being listed as ''Endangered'' in 2014 by the IUCN, the ring-tailed lemur has been listed since 1977 by CITES under Appendix I, which makes trade of wild-caught specimens illegal. Although there are more endangered species of lemur, the ring-tailed lemur is considered a flagship species due to its recognizability.
BehaviorTroops are classified as multi-male groups, with a matriline as the core group. As with most lemurs, females socially dominate males in all circumstances, including feeding priority.
Dominance is enforced by lunging, chasing, cuffing, grabbing and biting. Young females do not always inherit their mother's rank and young males leave the troop between three and five years of age.
Both sexes have separate dominance hierarchies; females have a distinct hierarchy while male rank is correlated with age. Each troop has one to three central, high-ranking adult males who interact with females more than other group males and lead the troop procession with high-ranking females.
Recently transferred males, old males or young adult males that have not yet left their natal group are often lower ranking. Staying at the periphery of the group they tend to be marginalized from group activity.
For males, social structure changes can be seasonal. During the six-month period between December and May a few males immigrate between groups. Established males transfer every 3.5 years, although young males may transfer every 1.4 years. Group fission occurs when groups get too large and resources become scarce.
HabitatThe ring-tailed lemur is diurnal and semi-terrestrial. It is the most terrestrial of lemur species, spending as much as 33% of its time on the ground. However it is still considerably arboreal, spending 23% of its time in the mid-level canopy, 25% in the upper-level canopy, 6% in the emergent layer and 13% in small bushes. Troop travel is 70% terrestrial.
Endemic to southern and southwestern Madagascar, the ring-tailed lemur ranges further into highland areas than other lemurs.
It inhabits deciduous forests, dry scrub, montane humid forests, and gallery forests. It strongly favors gallery forests, but such forests have now been cleared from much of Madagascar in order to create pasture for livestock. Depending on location, temperatures within its geographic range can vary from −12 °C at Andringitra Massif to 48 °C in the spiny forests of Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve.
ReproductionThe ring-tailed lemur is polygynandrous, although the dominant male in the troop typically breeds with more females than other males. Fighting is most common during the breeding season. A receptive female may initiate mating by presenting her backside, lifting her tail and looking at the desired male over her shoulder. Males may inspect the female's genitals to determine receptiveness. Females typically mate within their troop, but may seek outside males.
The breeding season runs from mid-April to mid-May. Estrus lasts 4 to 6 hours, and females mate with multiple males during this period. Within a troop, females stagger their receptivity so that each female comes into season on a different day during the breeding season, reducing competition for male attention. Gestation lasts for about 135 days, and parturition occurs in September or occasionally October. In the wild, one offspring is the norm, although twins may occur. Ring-tailed lemur infants have a birth weight of 70 g and are carried ventrally for the first 1 to 2 weeks, then dorsally .
The young lemurs begin to eat solid food after two months and are fully weaned after five months. Sexual maturity is reached between 2.5 and 3 years.
Male involvement in infant rearing is limited, although the entire troop, regardless of age or sex, can be seen caring for the young. Alloparenting between troop females has been reported. Kidnapping by females and infanticide by males also occur occasionally.
Due to harsh environmental conditions, predation and accidents such as falls, infant mortality can be as high as 50% within the first year and as few as 30% may reach adulthood.
The longest-lived ring-tailed lemur in the wild was a female at the Berenty Reserve who lived for 20 years. In the wild, females rarely live past the age of 16, whereas the life expectancy of males is not known due to their social structure. The longest-lived male was reported to be 15 years old. The maximum lifespan reported in captivity was 27 years.
FoodThe ring-tailed lemur is an opportunistic omnivore primarily eating fruits and leaves, particularly those of the tamarind tree , known natively as ''kily''. When available, tamarind makes up as much as 50% of the diet, especially during the dry, winter season.
The ring-tailed lemur eats from as many as three dozen different plant species, and its diet includes flowers, herbs, bark and sap. It has been observed eating decayed wood, earth, spider webs, insect cocoons, arthropods and small vertebrates . During the dry season it becomes increasingly opportunistic.
PredatorsThe ring-tailed lemur has both native and introduced predators. Native predators include the fossa, the Madagascar Harrier-Hawk, the Madagascar Buzzard and the Madagascar ground boa. Introduced predators include the small Indian civet, the domestic cat and the domestic dog.
EvolutionAll mammalian fossils from Madagascar come from recent times. Thus, little is known about the evolution of the ring-tailed lemur, let alone the rest of the lemur clade, which comprises the entire endemic primate population of the island. However, chromosomal and molecular evidence suggest that lemurs are more closely related to each other than to other Strepsirrhine primates.
For this to have happened, it is thought that a very small ancestral population came to Madagascar via a single rafting event between 50 and 80 million years ago. Subsequent evolutionary radiation and speciation has created the diversity of Malagasy lemurs seen today.
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