UMass Amherst
Natural History Collections Home
contactscollectionsnewsresearchlinkskids only!kids only!

For Kids Only!!

by Laurie Godfrey

Small Lemur

Lemurs are adorable creatures that live in the forests of Madagascar, from the northern to the southern tips of the island.  They are primates, distantly related to you and me.  Some (called “mouse lemurs” because they are as small as a mouse) are so little that they could fit in the palm of your hand, even when fully grown. 


The largest of the living lemurs are called indris and sifakas.  They stand several feet tall, and they move on their hind legs, or climb with all fours, or hang by their handsand feet below a branch.  They live in small groups of adults with their infants and kids.  The television puppet, “Zoboomafoo,” was modeled after a Coquerel’s sifaka, a type of sifaka that lives in the forests of northwestern Madagascar. 

Sifakas and indris look like little people, with round faces and short muzzles.  But they have moist, hairless noses that fold in the middle, just like a dog’s or a cat’s. Sifakas and indris don’t walk; they hop!  They propel their bodies forward in a series of acrobatic bounds or leaps, whether on the ground or in the trees.

Large Lemur

Sifakas seem to dance as they bounce around from here to there on the forest floor.  They seem fiesty, and full of energy, but they are really very LAZY, and spend much of the day resting. Sifakas may settle for the day in the mid-afternoon, and they sleep through the night and well into the morning.  Mouse lemurs, on the other hand, sleep during the day and feed at night.  These little lemurs are nocturnal and tend to feed alone. 

Mother mouse lemurs have a lot of work to do when they give birth, because they always have litters of two to four very hungry babies.  The babies stay together hiding in their tree holes or nests at night while mother finds insects, fruits, or leaves to eat, and then she comes home to her tree hole to nurse her babies. Sifakas have only one baby at a time, and that baby must travel with mother as soon as it is born, because sifakas don’t live in tree holes and they don’t build nests. 

Lemurs have special tools for grooming themselves and their friends.  Their front teeth in their lower jaw are elongated, and they point forward, forming a little comb called a “tooth comb.” They actually have two tongues.  A little tongue is made of a tissue called cartilage.  It is located beneath the regular tongue and is used to clean hairs from between the teeth of the tooth comb!  Lemurs also have a grooming claw on the second digit of their foot.  The claw points up, and is used in scratching.  All of the other fingers and toes have nails, except in one very strange nocturnal lemur called an “aye-aye,” that has claws on all fingers and toes except the thumb and the big toe.  Aye-ayes use their skinny third fingers like barbecue sticks.  They gnaw holes in wood and stick their fingers in the holes to stab grubs and wood-boring beetle larvae that hide (protected, they think!) in tunnels in the wood. Aye-ayes love to eat insect larvae, and all sorts of other foods.

The lemur most commonly seen in zoos is the ringtailed lemur, a gray, cat-sized lemur with a pointy muzzle, dark circles around its eyes, and a racoon-like tail with black and white rings.  Unlike sifakas, ringtails run around on all fours, with their beautiful tails held high above their heads.  Male ringtails have little glands near their wrists that make stinky scent.  They use this scent in “stink fights” – little battles over females!  Nobody gets hurt in a stink fight.  The males simply rub the nasty odor on their long tails and wave their tails around in the air to make their opponents go away.  Humans can’t smell the stinky odor, because we have poor senses of smell.  But the lemurs think we can!  I once visited an adult male ringtail in a zoo.  He spent most of the day rubbing his tail and waving it at the people who came to see him, threatening every one of them.   But the people didn’t understand the threat; they thought he was being cute.  So he tried and tried to make the people go away.  He had almost no fur left on the tip of his tail because he had rubbed it so much.     

My passion is to study the fossil bones of the giant extinct lemurs.  Not very long ago on the island of Madagascar there were lemurs as large as chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas.  My job, as a professional paleontologist, is to reconstruct them.  I find their bones in caves or in sedimentary beds (stream or lake deposits).  I put them together and use lots of skeletal clues to reconstruct their diets, how they moved, even how long they took to grow up.   This work is very exciting, but it is very sad to know that, not long ago, there were many more species of lemurs and these have become extinct after humans colonized the island about 2000 years ago. 

There are historical records of some of these animals – including a big “tretretretre,” a lemur with rounded ears, long fingers, no tail, and a flat sifaka-like face.  According to this story, the tretretretre lived alone in the forest, and frightened people.  People hunted lemurs and other big native animals (like pygmy hippos that also once lived on Madagascar).  They also cleared some land to plant their crops.  The animals and plants of Madagascar changed, as people deliberately brought with them domesticated animals like cows and goats, and rats and mice also traveled to the island on their boats.  They burned fields in order to get new grass to grow, because cows love to eat new grass.  Today the people of Madagascar are trying hard to figure out how to save the rest of their precious wildlife from the fate of the giant lemurs.   


© 2006 University of Massachusetts Amherst. About this site.