The lemur looks a bit like a cross between a monkey, a squirrel and a cat, and most are undeniably cute. Native to the African island of Madagascar, lemurs have been the subject of intense scrutiny by primatologists, as well as crucial conservation efforts to help preserve their dwindling numbers. Here are 10 things you didn’t know about the unique and fascinating lemurs of Madagascar.
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This article originally appeared on AFKInsider.com.
Lemurs may still exist only due to Madagascar’s isolation
It is thought that lemurs arrived on the island of Madagascar via rafts of vegetation about 65 million years ago, carried by ocean currents. They survived the trip, and survived well. Their intelligent and aggressive nature allowed them to flourish, and they adapted quickly to the unique Madagascar environment. Before the arrival of more highly adapted monkeys, lemurs had few mammalian competitors.
The term “lemur” was originally intended to refer to another species
Though “lemur” was initially meant to refer to the slender loris, it is now exclusively used to describe the Malagasy primate. The term comes from the Latin word “lemures,” referring to ghosts that were exorcised during the Lemuria festival of ancient Rome.
Lemurs include some of the smallest primates in the world, and, until fairly recently, some of the largest
The wide range of lemur species (about 100) includes primates on both ends of the scale. The smallest, known as Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, weighs 30 grams (1.1 ounces), while the largest, the Indri or Diademed Sifaka species, is seven to nine kilograms (15-20 pounds). The extinct giant sloth lemur, however, could reach sizes similar to that of a gorilla — up to 160-to-200 kilograms (350 to 440 pounds).
At least 15 lemur species became extinct in the last 2,000 years
When “upper primates,” (humans), arrived on Madagascar 2,000 years ago after learning how to navigate the high seas, habitat destruction and hunting greatly reduced the number of lemur species on the island. The largest species suffered the most due to their high meat yield. Most are extinct.
Madagascar is classified as its own region when it comes to primatology
As Madagascar is the only place in the world to study lemurs, it has earned one of the four region delineations for primatology. The other regions are all of South and Central America; all of Southern and Southeast Asia; and mainland Africa. While Madagascar is one of 92 countries with wild primate populations, it alone is responsible for 21 percent of all primate genera and 36 percent of all primate families.
New species of lemur are continually discovered on Madagascar
Though many species are extinct, scientists predict that between 10 and 20 new species of lemur will be discovered on Madagascar throughout the next generation. There are 60 “taxa” of lemur at the moment, including species, sub-species, and populations from 33 different species, five families, and 14 genera.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers lemurs to be the world’s most endangered mammals
Of the 103 known species of lemur, 90% are categorized as either endangered, critically endangered, or threatened. Several species are on the brink of extinction, and others are already considered extinct.
Highly adaptive primates, lemurs developed traits to help them cope with Madagascar’s unique environment
Madagascar has wildly different wet and dry seasons, which forced lemur adaptations that include seasonal fat storage, small group sizes, day-and-night activity (known as cathmerality), and strict breeding seasons. The breeding seasons are responsible for female social dominance — male-male competition is high during seasonal breeding when resources are extremely limited.
Lemurs use their sense of smell for communication
The long snouts of lemurs are key for helping the animals to sift smells, but lemurs’ sense of smell is far more important than just sniffing out food. As they are less visually oriented than higher primates, lemurs use scent glands located on their wrists, inside their elbows, genital regions, and necks to leave scent marks for their groups, as well as urine or pheromones transferred by their wet noses.
They have low metabolic rates that help them conserve energy when resources are scarce
The dry season in Madagascar means scarce resources, and lemurs have developed biological and societal coping mechanisms. To maximize energy, they can lower their metabolic rate to 20 percent lower than the values predicted for mammals of similar body mass. They’ve also adopted sunning behaviors, hunched sitting, group huddling and nest sharing to reduce heat loss.
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