Ring-Tailed Lemurs

By Hannah Schardt; photos by Suzi Eszterhas

Think YOUR family has a lot going on? Come meet the busy, close-knit family of Rosie, the baby ring-tailed lemur.

Ranger Rick Ring-Tailed Lemur May 2014 1

In this photo above, Rosie hugs her mom’s back tightly. She’s a real mama’s girl. But she is also always surrounded by aunts and cousins—more than 20 of them!

Like all lemurs, they live in Madagascar, an island country off the coast of Africa (see map below). And though a ringtail may look like a squirrel mixed with a housecat—with a really long, ringed tail tacked on—it is actually a primate. So it is more closely related to monkeys and people.

Up in the treetops or down on the ground, little Rosie’s family is always up to something. In fact, you might say this ring-tailed family is like a three-ring circus!

Ranger Rick Ring-Tailed Lemur May 2014 2

When she was born, Rosie was very tiny: about as long as a stick of butter and half as heavy. So right away, Mom started carrying her everywhere. First, Rosie clung to Mom’s chest. But now that she’s a few weeks old, she rides piggyback and climbs around to Mom’s belly only to nurse. Even when she gets braver and starts exploring, she won’t stray far from her mother’s side.

Rosie isn’t the only baby in her troop, or family group. All the moms in Rosie’s troop are related. And they all gave birth within a few days of each other. So she has plenty of cousins her age. In photo 1, Rosie and Cousin Robbie cling to their moms’ backs while an aunt gives Rosie a loving nip on her bottom. For a ringtail, there’s no escaping family time!

The whole troop looks out for all the babies. Aunts and cousins groom them, hold them, and look out for animals that might want to eat then. In photo 2, Aunt Rita gives Rosie a tender lick—on her eyeball! Ewww, Auntie!

Rosie and Robbie will grow up together for about three years. Then Robbie will leave his mom to join an all-male troop. Rosie, like most other young females, will stay with her troop for life.

The troop eats together, sleeps together, and spends mornings sunbathing together. After a chilly night in the forest, ringtails like to lounge around, aiming their thinly furred bellies at the sun to warm up. Ahhh, sunshine.

Of course, lemur life isn’t all about relaxing peacefully in the sun. Sometimes there are disagreements—often over who gets to mate with whom. In photo 4, two young males face off in a “jump fight.” The winner gets to court a nearby female—and the loser runs away.

Males also compete with each other in “stink fights.” They rub their tails on yucky-smelling stuff that oozes from glands on their arms. Then they wave their smelly tails in the air, trying to drive off their enemies. May the stinkiest lemur win!

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Almost as soon as she was born, Rosie started traveling into the treetops with her mom. Even with a baby on her chest, Mom is fearless. If she spies a tasty meal of leaves or fruit in another tree, she doesn’t clamber down to the ground and then climb back up the other tree. She jumps from one treetop to the other! Good thing Rosie has a tight grip on Mom’s chest fur!

Climbing even super-spiny trees is no problem for ringtails. They have tough, well-padded hands and feet that are good defense against prickles. And their feet are great at grasping—perfect for holding on tightly to high-up branches.

Unlike some other tree-living animals, lemurs don’t curl their long tails around branches to keep themselves steady. But their tails may help them balance.

Ring-tailed lemurs spend more time on the ground than any other kind of lemur. They are pretty good runners, even when a baby is on board! And whenever they are on the ground, their tails wave in the air like flags. It’s the ringtail way of saying to their troopmates, “Hey, guys! I’m over here.”

By the time she’s four months old, little Rosie will spend most of her time off her mom’s back, exploring the forest. But she and Mom will likely stay in the same troop their whole lives.

Eventually, Rosie will help take care of her younger brothers and sisters. And when she grows up and has babies of her own, Mom—who will become Grandma Lemur—may help keep an eye on them, too. Even when it’s too big to hitch a ride on Mom, a ringtail knows its family always has its back.


“Welcome to the Family” originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Ranger Rick magazine.
(Click on each image above for a closer view of the story.)

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