Lemurs are a fascinating species and learning about lemurs is learning about human evolution.
The word "lemur" comes from Latin “Lemures". Lemurs were feared ghosts of restless dead people in the Roman mythology and exorcised during the Lemuria festival of ancient Rome.
The name was given in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish founder of modern binomial nomenclature, to the primates in Madagascar due to their creepy eyes, frightening howling and slow pace roaming at night.
Why do lemurs live in Madagascar only?
Lemurs are prosimian primates. Meaning that they are prevalent before the apes, and not a sub-species, though they share common traits, so the oldest primates on Earth.
They were, in fact, not unique to Madagascar and lived in all continents as per fossils discovered. However, they disappeared, hunted by larger, dominant anthropoids, competing for food and territory. If they only survived in Madagascar, it's due to its isolation from the African continent and to the non-existence of bigger predators, except for the fossa, a cougar-like carnivore mammal and its only predator.
Why lemurs are so fascinating?
They are extremely rare and only live in Madagascar. They are intelligent and survived for millions of years, and have the ability to adapt in extreme areas (humid rainforests, dry semi-desert regions, stone forest) and harsh environment (cyclones, rainfalls, droughts), favouring inaccessible ecological niches.
Most are nocturnal, living in trees to escape predators except ring-tailed lemurs. They have a wet nose like dogs and an incredible sense of smell, can track members, food, danger, and weaker rivals. Their locomotion is unique, they gallop (dance sideway) standing up on their back legs to watch for danger as forests are not so dense. They can jump 6 times their body length leaping 30 feet and walk on thorny trees or spiky rocks.
What's their diet?
Their diet is varied due rare fruiting forests trees in the island: they can be herbivorous (bamboos, tree gums), folivorous (leaves), frugivorous (larger species), or even omnivorous (smallest animal species).
Are there many species of lemurs?
Yes, 110. Lemurs belong to the Lemuroidea superfamily that includes 5 families, 15 genera and 110 species. However, there are more as new species are discovered every year. They vary in appearance, from red to black and in size, from 30g Microcebus mouse lemur to the huge 10kg indri lemur. Before the arrival of the first humans from Indonesia, some were much bigger, like koalas or gorillas such a giant lemurs weighing around 200kg.
Why lemurs are facing extinction?
All lemur species are threatened today: 22 are critically endangered, 48 are endangered, and 20 are vulnerable, representing an awful 94% of extinction. Deforestation is the main reason as 90% of Malagasy forests have been destroyed by humans, but also wildlife species smuggling, and bush meat hunting.
What is the solution?
Planting trees but also alleviating poverty and corruption. Saving lemurs is preserving the Malagasy biodiversity of which 80% is endemic. Conservation programs also improve livelihood, preventing from taping into the destruction or overexploitation of environment for survival or greed. Lastly, saving lemurs help understand our own evolution as humans.