The unmistakeable ring-tailed lemur, which has become Madagascar’s trademark, is an unusual species in its own genus, Lemur. Lemur catta (or maki in Malagasy) – named catta for their cat-like mewing – is the most terrestrial of all lemurs: they spend many hours foraging on the ground, playing among the rocks and in some areas even sleeping in caves. This is a lemur of the dry regions of southwest Madagascar, with scattered populations found across a swathe of the island between Morondava and Andohahela National Park. Although ring-tails were traditionally hunted in some areas, they have clung on in districts with sacred associations, where hunting them is fady. Strictly diurnal, and omnivorous in diet, they appreciate the leaves and fruit of tamarind trees more than anything else, but they’re also partial to grubs and will happily raid crops if the opportunity arises.
Ring-tailed lemurs live in highly territorial, mixed male-female groups of around twenty individuals. Their world is dominated by scent: they mark their group ranges by rubbing branches with their genital regions and males have an arm spur to scratch branches, which they then anoint with scent glands located on their forearms and shoulders. Rival males also rub scent onto their tails and wave them at each other in “stink fights”. As with a number of lemur species, ring-tail society is dominated by females and the males compete annually for mating privileges in violent “jump fights” in which rivals slash each other with their canine teeth. Females are in oestrus for just a few hours on one day of the year, and mating occurs over the course of a couple of weeks at the end of the rainy season.
Ring-tail babies are born four and a half months later, and grow up fast, shifting from belly-clinging to back-riding in a couple of weeks. Roughly half of them perish in their first year, being taken by snakes, fossas and birds of prey – and in a bad year, falling victim to drought. Ring-tails are prone to rapid swings in population, but they are resilient animals and their status is relatively secure.