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Zoo-Ology: Ring-tailed lemurs show family ties

Aug. 21, 2011 at 3:21 a.m.

A group of ring-tailed lemurs.

By Judie Farnsworth

Visitors to The Texas Zoo are sometimes greeted with wildly raucous whoops and shrieks.

After the initial shock, curiosity leads to finding the source - the ring-tailed lemurs (primates related to monkeys and apes).

They're native to gallery forests (along riverbanks) in southern Madagascar and are endangered due to loss of habitat.

These lemurs evidently have lots to say with 28 identified vocalizations. A few are used only by infants and others for group cohesiveness, alarm, contentment, excitement and just about any situation in-between. They bark like a dog or purr and meow like a cat.

Adult males are more apt to do the howling. It may be about their lot in life.

Females are dominant in lemur troops. If there's a disagreement, the female always wins. In a territorial dispute with another troop, the females are the front line. The males, not so much - they stay out of the way.

A troop of lemurs may average 20 individuals. Females remain with their natal (birth) groups throughout their lives. The core group is a dominant female, her natal group and their young.

The rest of the troop may be related females (auntie, grandma), immature males and a few unrelated males. If troops get too large, they will divide.

At maturity, males leave their natal group to join with other troops. They fight to establish rank and show their rank with a head up, tail up strut.

Life becomes easier, but there's a limit to the hospitality - the core group always gets the best feeding place and eats first.

Food is mostly berries, fruits and plants with occasional insects or a bird.

Ring-tailed lemurs spend more time on the ground than other lemurs, but move easily through trees using hands and feet only. Their tails don't grip.

They're very social creatures, often resting together in a lemur ball. Their bonds are strengthened by mutual grooming within their troop.

Six lower teeth, incisors and canines, stick straight out in a tooth or dental-comb. There is also a toilet-claw on the second toe for grooming, gripping and scraping before scent marking (a primary sensory tool) Powerful scent glands and a unique odor is more than a territorial indicator. It's weaponry.

During mating season, males may cover their long tails with smelly secretions and wave them around in stink fights. I'm not sure how they determine who out stinks who, but it might explain why the females are so testy and often react with a bite or cuff.

Sunbathing is a unique activity among ring-tailed lemurs, especially in the mornings, when a troop gathers in a sunny place. They sit in a rather yoga-style position with arms and legs outstretched and bellies toward the sun. This may be a form of thermo-regulation, warming their bodies when it's cool. It's also a social occasion.

Then it's off to find breakfast. While foraging, tails are held high, like a flag, to help keep track of each other.

After sunbathing and foraging, a group siesta is in order.

Our Texas Zoo ring-tailed lemurs are such great fun to watch. They're also available for adoption, which helps feed and care for them for a year - and no cleaning up. What a deal.

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.

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