Lemurs are primates that are endemic to Madagascar island. They are named after the ghosts or spirits called lemurs in Roman mythology because of its reflective eyes, ghostly vocalisations, and nocturnal habitats of certain lemur species.
A red ruffed lemur lazing around
The lemurs are travellers which arrived on Madagascar island approximately 62 to 65 mya via rafting on mats of vegetation. Basically, they were taken to the island by the ocean. Since then, lemurs have evolved to cope with a seasonal environment and they are much more highly adapted compared to other primate groups. In fact, until humans arrived on Madagascar island 2,000 years ago, lemurs were as big as male gorillas! There are currently around 100 lemur species. Many of these species have been discovered and promoted as a full species status since the 1990’s. However, there are some taxonomic classification controversies depending on the species.
Today’s lemurs weigh a mere 30 grams to 9 kilograms – a far cry of what would have been the lemurs from 2,000 years ago! Lemurs have many common basal primate characteristics such as divergent digits on their feet and hands, and nails instead of claws in most lemur species. They are very social creatures which are mostly herbivores which eat leaves and fruits.
Unfortunately, many lemur species are threatened with exinction due to hunting and the loss of its habitat. Many local traditions do generally help to protect the lemurs and the forests. However, illegal logging, poverty, and political instability hinders and underminds conservation efforts.
A ring tailed lemur
In the local Malgasy culture, lemurs (as well as other animals) are thought to have souls. They will get their revenge if they are mocked whilst still alive or are killed in a cruel fashion. As a result, many lemurs are a source of taboos known as ‘fady’. Many regions and villages believe that a certain species of lemur may be the ancestor of its clan. However, some also believe that a lemur’s spirit can get revenge. The animal may appear as a benefactor as well. Lemurs are thought to impart both good and bad qualities onto human babies. However, fady’s can extend beyond the forbidden and can also include events which bring bad luck.
In Western culture, the film, Madagascar, featured lemurs. Prior to this, PBS’ children TV show, Zoboomafoo popularised sifakas by featuring a Coquerel’s Sifaka from the Duke Lemur Center. There was also a short lived show called Lemur Kingdom as well as Lemur Street which aired on Animal Planet.