What makes a lemur a lemur?

December 29, 2011 | Kimberly Lawson

In my last lemur post you learned the differences between them and other primates. But what makes a lemur a lemur and what exactly is a tooth comb? Or a grooming claw? Or a reflecting tapetum?

Even though lemurs are endemic to Madagascar and the Comoros Islands they can be quite different amongst themselves. Lemurs come in all sizes from the 1 oz pygmy mouse lemur to the 15 lbs Indri and Diademed Sifaka lemurs.

Pygmy Mouse Lemur

Diademed Sifaka

Indri Sifaka

 

Depending on the species of lemur they can be either diurnal or nocturnal.  Typically nocturnal species are on the smaller side and solitary whereas diurnal species are larger and live in groups.

Lemurs are arboreal- spending most of their time in the trees and large bushes as opposed to terrestrial- spending most of their time on the ground, with exceptions of course. The biggest exception is the ring tailed lemurs- who are mostly terrestrial and live in large groups which helps them stay protected from predators. Power in numbers! Here at the museum we have two exhibits- one showing arboreal red ruffed lemurs who are almost always sitting high on their branches and then the large yard for the more terrestrial ring tailed lemurs.

So what about the tooth comb——> it is a very unique grooming adaptation. The front teeth of their lower jaw forms a ‘comb’ which they use to groom themselves and others in their group.

Toothcomb

A grooming claw on the second digit of their foot is elongated and used for scratching.

Grooming claw

And the light reflecting layer behind the retina of the eye is called a tapetum lucidum which helps lemurs see in the dark.

Leap, hop, and jump- Lemurs have long tails that help them balance while jumping and hopping but did you know that long tails also help them communicate while traveling in groups. Ring tailed lemurs keep their tails held high in the air- like flags, while traveling, with the dominant female leading the troop. However these tails are not prehensile -meaning they can not hang by them like other primates.

Spider monkey hanging by it’s prehensile tail
A troop traveling with their tails high in the air for communication

Lemurs also communicate via scent, facial expressions, and with vocalizations. Check back soon to learn more about lemur communication.

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