Lemurs are small primates known as "prosimians," which, roughly translated, means
"pre-primates" or "before monkeys." Native only to the island of
Madagascar and the neighboring Comoro Islands,
lemurs resemble the oldest ancestors of
primates which existed tens of millions of years ago.
Exact classification of some types of lemurs is a subject of debate, but it's
generally accepted that there are five families of
lemurs with about a dozen genera and just over 30 living species.
Some species of lemurs are now extinct, including one ancient lemur said to be
as large as a gorilla — over 400 pounds. Some prosimian species contain a
number of subspecies, all with distinct characteristics, which brings the total
types of living lemurs to around 50.
Today's lemur species range in size from
the tiny pygmy mouse lemur, weighing in at about an ounce, to the 15-pound indri
lemur and the sifaka, which are both about the size of a standard house cat.
Most lemurs are arboreal, living in trees. They spend most of their time
at the top of the rainforest canopy or in the forest midlevel. An exception is the ring-tailed lemur, which
spends most of its time on the ground.
The majority of lemurs are also diurnal, awake during the day and asleep
at night — especially those that live in groups, including the ring-tailed lemurs,
brown lemurs, and sifakas. The smaller mouse lemurs and dwarf lemurs are
nocturnal, preferring to be active in the relative safety of nighttime darkness.
The aye-aye, a fascinating lemur with an elongated, claw-like middle finger which
it uses to dig insects out of tree bark, is also nocturnal, and is often
feared by the Malagasy people of its native Madagascar because of its unusual
Lemur females are dominant. A group of lemurs usually has one dominant female who
leads the group, controls their movement, and has first choice of food and mates.
Common parts of a lemur diet in the wild include fruits, leaves, and other edible plant
materials. Insects may also be on the menu, especially for the smaller lemurs.
Unlike some other primates, lemurs do not have prehensile tails (they cannot hang by
their tails from trees like monkeys) but they do have long, wet noses. Lemurs have a keen sense
of smell and they also have good vision, even at night. Their thumbs and big
toes are opposable, but they mainly use their teeth and an extended "toilet claw"
on the second toe of their hind feet for grooming.