Geographical Range Eastern Madagascar (off the eastern coast of Africa)
Habitat Evergreen rain forests
Scientific Name Varecia variegata
Conservation Status Critically endangered

Named for the Hairs of their Chinny-Chin-Chin

There are two species of ruffed lemurs: red ruffed, and black and white ruffed. They are named for the "ruff" of long hair that runs from the ears along the cheeks to beneath the chin.

Basic Black and White

Lemurs are primates that live only on Madagascar, an island off the eastern coast of Africa.

Ruffed lemurs are the largest of the lemurs -- about the size of a large house cat. The body is nearly two feet long from head to rump, with a tail equally as long.

The black and white ruffed lemur's fur is thick, soft and fairly long. There is a lot of variation in the amount of black and white fur from animal to animal. But in general, the tail, hands, feet, shoulder, face, and top of the head are black; the back, rump, hind legs, and ears are white.

A Taste for Fruit

Fruit, fruit, and more fruit -- that's by far the favorite food of all ruffed lemurs. But they also eat other food, including nectar, leaves, flowers, buds, fungi and soil.

They usually forage for their food in the treetops. When they can't get to it from a standing position, they'll dangle from their arms or legs to get to a hard-to-reach snack.

Can You Hear Me/Smell Me Now?

Ruffed lemurs seem to have no trouble communicating with each other, if the loudness of their voice is any indication. Among their many calls is the spectacular and unmistakable "roar/shriek," which is easy to hear over very long distances.

And as if that weren't enough, they also use smell as a way to communicate. Like all lemurs, ruffed lemurs scent-mark their surroundings. Males slide their chin/neck/chest area onto surfaces to leave behind their smell, whereas females scent-mark with their ano-genital (rump) area. Although lemurs do more scent-marking during the breeding season, this method of communication is used throughout the year.

A Changing Club Membership

Ruffed lemurs are social animals. They live in communities that can range from two to 16 animals; these communities can also break up into sub-groups. Adult females are dominant over males.

The makeup of a ruffed lemur group isn't rigid, and it apparently changes according to availability of food sources. Yet scientists have noticed some enduring associations between certain animals, including long-term bonds between a male and a female.

Bringing Up Babies

Breeding season for ruffed lemurs is controlled by the amount of daylight. It occurs in the summer in Madagascar. Right before giving birth, a female makes a nest 60 to 80 feet from the ground in a tree. After a three-month gestation (pregnancy), she gives birth. Twins are the most common litter size (though litters can be as large as six in captivity).

Baby ruffed lemurs stay in the nest for several weeks. Infants don't cling to their mother: when the mother moves them (she changes nest sites regularly), she carries her babies in her mouth. Females tend to stay close to the center of their group's territory from breeding season through the first several weeks after giving birth. But babies mature rapidly. Once they can move around on their own, their mothers can resume their travels throughout their home range.

Gone with the Trees

Ruffed lemurs spend most of their time in the top half or third of the forest canopy. They show definite preferences for larger trees, from two to four feet in diameter. Unfortunately, this is sometimes their downfall. After loggers remove the mature trees in a particular forest, the ruffed lemurs often disappear.

Both ruffed lemur species are in danger of extinction. The main reason is the loss of their rainforest habitat. Logging for cooking fuel and building materials, as well as slash-and-burn farming, has reduced Madagascar's forests by as much as 85%. Ruffed lemurs are also hunted for food.

The Saint Louis Zoo has been working for more than 10 years to reverse the decline of wild lemurs (see side story). We hope our field conservation effort and captive breeding programs will help save these beautiful animals before it's too late.

Fun Facts

  • The first release of captive-born lemurs into the wild involved black and white ruffed lemurs. They were released into Betampona Natural Reserve in Madagascar.
  • A 40-foot-high tree known as the traveler's palm probably owes its existence to the black and white ruffed lemur, thought to be the plant's main pollinator. As the lemur sticks its long snout and tongue deep inside a tree's flower, it collects pollen on its muzzle and fur, then transports it to the next flower.

Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Family: Lemuridae