Best places to see lemurs
160 million years ago, the supercontinent of Gondwana began to shatter, forming the continents we know today. As the ocean poured in to the newly formed chasms, separating mainland Africa from what became the island of Madagascar, it is believed that early lemurs managed to cross the Mozambique Channel; the earliest fossils date back some 60 million years. Lemurs were a kind of prototype primate, a “prosimian” – predating monkeys and apes, which began to evolve later on the African mainland. The lemurs that remained on the mainland were driven virtually to extinction by these new, more intelligent and adaptable species. In Madagascar, however, there was no such competition and the lemurs thrived, evolving into over a hundred different species.
Today, lemurs can be found virtually everywhere in Madagascar. Different lemurs have different niches – populating the island’s rain, cloud and spiny forests. They include the some of the island’s best loved and most charismatic species, and with their unusual dances and social structures they are easily anthropomorphised.
Sadly, with the arrival of humans on Madagascar around 2,000 years ago, several lemurs became extinct as a result of habitat loss and hunting. These included the largest species of lemur – some the size of gorillas. But 99 species remain on the island, protected by national parks, reserves and cultural fady taboos. Read on to find out more about where to see lemurs in Madagascar.
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Most lemurs have a "tooth comb" in their lower jaw - a row of teeth that juts forward like a comb to help them groom themselves. they also have two tongues with a small, stiffer tongue under the main tongue, which is also used for grooming and to clean the tooth comb.
The distinctive, black and white indri is one of the first lemurs that Brits may have become familiar with, after Sir David Attenborough used recordings of their calls to attract them in his 1961 Zoo Quest series. The sound broadcast across the Madagascar jungle may have surprised viewers; the calls of this vocal lemur sound strangely like high-pitched whalesong. The indri is the largest living lemur, standing over a metre tall on its muscular legs, which enable it to leap up to 10m between branches.
Indris live in the forests along the eastern coast of Madagascar, and one of the best places to see them is Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, also known as Perinet.
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Blue eyes are rarer than you might think. Along with human beings, blue-eyed black lemurs are the only primates known to have truly blue eyes. This species was only discovered in 1985 and is now critically endangered.
Sifaka refers to several species of lemur with similar characteristics – most notably their charming way of moving by standing upright and skipping sideways with their arms in the air. This has earned them the nickname “dancing sifaka.” Sifakas tend to live in groups of around a dozen; when not foraging for fruits and flowers they can be seen lounging on tree branches. Come in July to see new babies.
Sifakas are found across most regions of Madagascar. Verraux’s sifaka inhabit the spiny forests of the south and southwest, including Berenty Reserve, where they are semi habituated – making for some very close encounters. Other species can be seen in Isalo, Andasibe-Mantadia and Ankarafantsika National Parks, as well as in the Tsingy de Bemaraha.
If lemurs are the de facto symbol of Madagascar, the ring-tailed lemur is the most symbolic of all. These sociable, sun loving creatures are certainly one of the most easily recognisable, thanks to their striped tails which they hold aloft as they walk along the ground to help keep their troop together. They can also be seen sitting cross legged in the sunshine, like little furry yogis. Some wild groups are habituated, which can make for very close encounters indeed.
The best places to see ring-tailed lemurs are Berenty Reserve, where they are habituated, and Isalo National Park.
The distinctive, striped tails of ring-tailed lemurs aren't just a pretty feature; they are used for "stink fights". They rub their tails on their scent glands then wave them at their opponent, aiming to repel them with smell, rather than physical aggression.
As their name suggests, these are the tiniest lemurs. There are around 24 species of mouse lemur; the body of Madame Berthe's mouse lemur measures just 9cm, making it not just the smallest lemur, but the smallest primate in the world. Most mouse lemur species look very similar, but can be distinguished by their calls, which vary greatly – this is believed to be because they are nocturnal, so outward appearance is less important.
Mouse lemurs live all along the southern and western coastal regions of Madagascar, including Isalo, Ranomafana, Andasibe-Mantadia, Ankarafantsika and Amber Mountain National Parks, as well as the Tsingy de Bemaraha. Madam Berthe’s mouse lemur can only be found in the appropriately miniscule Kirindy Forest in western Madagascar.
You could be forgiven for not realising that this frankly weird looking creature was a lemur; it shares none of the cuddly-looking characteristics of its cute cousins. But the world’s largest nocturnal primate is, indeed, a lemur – with its enormous yellow eyes, long, twig-like middle finger which is used to forage for bugs, and rodent-like teeth. Unfortunately, their resemblance to monsters has not gone unnoticed by the local population, who have incorporated them into their system of cultural taboos, known as fady. These taboos say that the aye-aye is an evil spirit that can kill people by using their long fingers to point at them – or even to pierce their hearts. Sadly, this has resulted in many aye-ayes being killed on sight, and they are classified as endangered.
You can take night walks to look for aye-ayes on Nosy Mangabe – also known as Aye-Aye Island – as well as in Ranomafana and Ankarafantsika National Parks.
The eerie-looking, nocturnal aye-aye has a long, spindly middle finger which it can rotate 360°. The finger is used to tap on bark to listen for insects beneath, then to reach into holes in the tree to extract the bugs to eat.
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