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Leaping Lemurs and Soaring Sifakas

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Leaping Lemurs and Soaring Sifakas

Published: 12/15/2013 by Margy MacMillan

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On the northwest coast of Madagascar, north of Mahajamba Bay, deep in the territory of the Menabe Sakalava people, two distinctly different lemurs share the forests of Anjajavy with a host of other animals. The brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus) and the Coquerel’s sifaka (Propithecus coquereli) spend time in the same trees, travel similar aerial pathways and have overlapping diets, but they seldom interact.

The brown lemur and Coquerel’s sifaka can share the same territory in part because they’ve evolved to eat different parts of plants. These differences are an excellent example of how lemurs diversified after their ancestors arrived on Madagascar 40-60 million years ago. Although there is still some debate about how they got there and where they came from, most scientists agree that that the lemurs arrived by sea, floating over from mainland Africa on rafts of leaves and branches. Models of ocean currents indicate that given the right conditions of storms, wind and water, it would have been possible for small animals to arrive this way.

From the time of that arrival, lemurs evolved to exploit the different environments and food sources available in Madagascar, diversifying into several groups with distinctive anatomy and behaviour. There was little competition and relatively few predators. Scientists have found traces that show many now-extinct species were larger than those we know today, including one that topped out at 160 kg. The largest living lemur, the Indri generally weighs up to 9.5 kg and is 70 cm tall, while the smallest, the Pygmy mouse lemur, grows up to 22 cm long, most of which is tail, and weighs up to 50 g.

Both the brown lemur and the Coquerel’s sifaka are fairly large as lemurs go. The brown lemur is about 50 cm from nose to bottom, with another 50 cm of tail. They weigh up to 2-3 kg and their colour can range from pale brown to deep gold. The Coquerel’s sifaka is a bit longer at around 100 cm, thanks to a longer tail and quite a bit heavier at 3.5-4 kg. Its coat is primarily white with deep brown fur on the chest, and the front of the arms and legs. Its black face is framed with white fur, and might be most familiar to watchers of Zoboomafoo.

This colour variation may be related to where the lemurs find their food. The sifakas spend a lot of time near the tops of trees. When they cling to a trunk, the white coat is an effective camouflage against the grey bark of the trees. The brown lemurs spend more time on the ground, foraging in the leaf litter for fallen fruits and nuts. Here their brown fur made them almost invisible, protecting them from one of Madagascar’s fiercest carnivores, the Fossa.

Different eating patterns are also the key to coexistence for the brown lemur and the Coquerel’s sifakas. The brown lemurs are ‘frugivorous’ – they eat mainly fruit, but can vary their diet with leaves, nuts, flowers, bark and seeds. The sifaka are ‘folivorous’ – preferring leaves although they too will vary their diet to include other plant parts. Both species will eat from a wide variety of plants up to 100 different kinds, but prefer only about 10-12 varieties.  

These different diets are related to differences in teeth and digestive systems. One advantage of the sifakas’ larger size is that it has the longer digestive tract needed to get the most out of leaves, which have relatively low nutritional content. The brown lemurs on the other hand have six more teeth than the sifakas, allowing them to tackle a greater variety of food more easily. Both have what’s called a tooth-comb, a structure common to all lemurs, where bottom teeth at the front of the mouth have adapted primarily for grooming fur and eating particular kinds of food. In sifakas, the toothcomb as four teeth and in brown lemurs it is six.

All lemurs have a well-developed sense of smell, as they depend on it to communicate. They frequently mark branches, territory and even other lemurs with liquids from their scent glands. Some species even have “stink fights,” where they comb scent through their tails and wave them at each other.

The brown lemurs and sifakas don’t just look distinct from one another, they move through their territory in quite different ways. Brown lemurs  tend to stay quite close to each other in small groups and move horizontally on all fours whether on the ground or on branches. When they jump from tree to tree, they most often maintain this position, soaring a bit like Superman, face first and arms spread out.

In contrast, the Coquerel’s sifaka, and all their close relatives live life vertically. When jumping through the trees or between them they tend not to use their hands for walking, although they sometimes use them to swing or change direction mid jump by grabbing onto a branch.  Once on the ground, the sifakas show why they’re often called dancing lemurs. They use their strong hind legs to propel them in jumps across the ground and can travel almost as fast as they do in the trees.

Watching the brown lemurs and Coquerel’s sifakas share the space at Anjajavy is fascinating. They often rest and eat in the same trees, but I never saw them in the same tree at the same time. And while they often followed similar patterns in moving from tree to tree they didn’t overlap on theses skyways and seemed to prefer different take-off and landing spots. They seemed entirely unaware of each other. There are so still many more questions than answers about lemur behaviour – I certainly wouldn’t mind spending more time with them to find out! 


Lemur Links and Sifaka Sources
Gould, Lisa Lofland & Michelle L Sauther, eds. (2006) Lemurs: ecology and adaptation. New York: :Springer,
Lemurs of Madagascar - http://www.wildmadagascar.org/wildlife/lemurs.html
The Living Edens: Madagascar, a world apart http://www.pbs.org/edens/madagascar/index.htm
Duke Lemur Center - http://lemur.duke.edu/

Resources from the International Union for Conservation of Nature

Range map for Coquerel’s sifakas -  http://maps.iucnredlist.org/map.html?id=18355
Range map for Brown lemur - http://maps.iucnredlist.org/map.html?id=8207

Arkive profiles
Coquerel’s sifakas
Brown lemur http://www.arkive.org/brown-lemur/eulemur-fulvus/#src=portletV3api