A species apart

Lemurs are an extraordinary group of mammals. Not only are they unique to Madagascar, the lemur “group” boasts some amazing oddities. The bizarre nocturnal aye-aye uses its long, bony finger to extract grubs from the bark.

Can't take my aye-ayes off you!

Aye-aye, by Frank Vassen (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wiki

While in most parts of the world, it's the woodpecker that forages for grubs in the bark of a tree, on Madagascar it is a type of lemur - the bizarre-looking nocturnal aye-aye!

Madagascar has been an island for 70 million years. Since breaking away from Africa and then India, animals have been allowed the chance to evolve into a unique array of species quite different from anything found anywhere else in the world. You've probably seen lemurs in the film Madagascar. Like in the movie, they really do rule the island. In most parts of the world, different types of animals exploit different gaps in the food chain. But, isolated from the mainland on their island home, lemurs have evolved to fill almost every niche in the ecosystem.

Curiouser and curiouser

Madagascar's forest environment also helped lemurs win the evolutionary battle. A thousand years ago, the entire island was covered by trees from tip to tip. Unlike on the mainland, there were no wide open spaces like the savanna. On Madagascar, it was forest-dwelling creatures that had the pick of the walk, instead of the great mammals of the African plain.

Before the arrival of human settlers around two and half millennia ago, a further 17 species of lemur could be found on Madagascar. All of these lemur species were bigger than those that inhabit Madagascar today, and one of them was as big as a gorilla! Tantalisingly, the last of these species became extinct only a few centuries ago.

Meet the family

In the video, you can see three of the most common species of lemur. In total, however, there are 101 species and subspecies belonging to five families. The most famous species is perhaps the ring-tailed lemur - the same species as King Julien in the film Madagascar!

The big lemurs with the bright red eyes are called Common Brown Lemurs (eulemur fulvus). They are closely related to ring-tailed lemurs. As you can see in the video, they are extremely sociable creatures and like to move in small family groups, or larger “troops” of up to 12 individuals. Common Brown Lemurs are diurnal, which means that they are mostly active during the day.

Another star of our video is the White-headed Lemur (Eulemur albifrons). Like all lemurs, they spend most of their time high up in the trees. The lemurs in this video are very friendly and inquisitive and are obviously delighted to be presented with a free meal!

Sifakas are another of the families of lemurs we talked about earlier. The little fellow in the video is a Coquerel’s Sifaka (Propithecus coquereli). He is demonstrating typical sifaka behaviour in clinging vertically to the trunk of a tree. As you can see, he is an outstanding leaper and likes to jump from tree to tree using his powerful hind legs. Coquerel’s Sifakas travel in small groups of four or five and are found in the dry deciduous forest of Madagascar’s northwest.