Geographical Range Northwestern Madagascar (off the eastern coast of Africa)
Habitat Forests
Scientific Name Eulemur macaco macaco
Conservation Status Threatened

Black -- and Brown, and Gray, and White…

You might think all black lemurs are colored black, but they're not! They're all born that color, though young females do have some white on their ears. But by the time the little lemurs are six weeks old, only the males have kept their all-black coats. By that time, female babies are already developing their adult color: a light brown body with white underparts, a dark gray face, and long white ear tufts.

Little Runners

Adult black lemurs are roughly the size of a house cat: about one and a half feet long - not including the tail, which can be another two feet! They weigh between four and seven pounds.

Black lemurs have shorter arms than legs, so it's no surprise that arm-swinging is not their main method of moving through trees. Instead, black lemurs move through trees mainly by walking and running on all four limbs, and using their powerful legs to leap between branches.

On the ground, these primates usually walk or run on all fours, but they occasionally burst into a short run on two legs.

Food Fights and Nighttime Nectar

Black lemurs might nibble on the occasional millipede, but for the most part they're vegetarians. They feast on a variety of plants and plant parts -- seeds, leaves, flowers, nectar, tree bark, mushrooms, and, most of all, fruits. A particularly fine piece of fruit can lead to squabbling among the hungry primates.

Black lemurs feed during short bursts of activity spread throughout the day and night. In fact, some of their feeding can only be done at night: this is when nectar is available from the night-blooming flowers of the Parkia tree.

Senses and Scents

Black lemurs rely largely on their senses of smell and hearing to communicate. These primates need sharp hearing because they "talk" with each other through a variety of vocalizations. Among the sounds they use are: a cohesion call, used to keep track of other group members; a recognition grunt, used when one lemur identifies another (and which sounds somewhat like a duck's quacking!); a purr, used by infants to indicate contentment while being groomed; and an alarm call, used to warn of predators (such as birds of prey or the fossa, a type of civet).

Like all lemurs, black lemurs also depend on their sense of smell to communicate with each other. They scent-mark their surroundings, depositing scent from special glands on their ano-genital (rump) area. Males also mark with scent glands located on their hands and the top of their head. The scent conveys important information about the particular animal that left the fragrant "calling card."

Making Little Lemurs

Breeding season for black lemurs is controlled by the amount of daylight. In Madagascar, the season begins in April. (It begins in October for zoo animals in the United States.)

Each female is in estrus (in heat) for only a single day during breeding season. Males fight with each other, sometimes fiercely, for access to females. In the end, though, females choose their own mates. Some breed with just one male, while others take more than one mate.

In the wild, females give birth between September and November and usually to a single baby, though twins are not rare. Young lemurs hitch a ride with their mom, clinging to the fur on her abdomen. After the little ones are a month old, they switch to riding on her back. By the age of six months, the youngsters are quite independent.

Lemur Living

Black lemurs live in groups with four to 15 members, with a fairly equal number of males and females. Groups are flexible, and membership changes from time to time.

These lemurs are cathemeral (active during several periods spread throughout the day and night). This activity pattern is almost unique among primates, being found in just a few species of lemurs. Most primates are either diurnal, active during the day, or nocturnal, active at night.

How do black lemurs spend their active times? Finding food is an important activity. So is grooming -- a great way of cementing social bonds.

Lemurs in Danger

Many species of lemurs are in danger of extinction in the wild. Black lemurs are currently listed as threatened by IUCN, though a committee of experts has recommended the status be elevated to endangered (see Conservation Status).

The main problem facing all lemurs is habitat loss due to agricultural development and logging. To date, Madagascar has lost as much as 85% of its forests, the sole habitat of lemurs. Another problem is illegal hunting: lemurs are even poached on some reserves, where they're supposed to be protected.

For more than a decade, the Saint Louis Zoo has been at the forefront of efforts to save black lemurs and other endangered lemurs in Madagascar. Through our field conservation efforts and captive breeding programs, we hope to help save these unique primates before it's too late.

Fun Fact

To groom, lemurs use their lower incisors, which tilt forward at an angle of about 45°. This special "toothcomb" is great for removing parasites and excess fur from oneself or one's grooming partner.

Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Family: Lemuridae