FROM ZOO TO YOU Celebrate World Lemur Day at the Zoo

By Joe Knobbe

Lemurs represent one of the most endangered, yet misunderstood groups of animals. Scientists believe that small, nocturnal ancestors of today’s lemurs actually found their way to the island of Madagascar on floating islands of vegetation from the African mainland. Without competition from large predators, these small early primates were able to evolve to take advantage of the unique landscapes and resources the world’s fourth largest island provided. 

Lemurs moved into every type of habitat, exploited every type of food, and even followed different activity patterns to avoid competition. While many of the smallest lemurs remained nocturnal, feeding primarily on insects hunted at night, many other lemurs evolved to be larger and diurnal, feeding on a vast variety of fruits and other vegetation. Fossil records indicate that there were even now-extinct lemurs the size of gorillas!

The lemurs of the Lee Richardson Zoo include ring-tailed lemurs, red ruffed lemurs, and black and white ruffed lemurs. While all are diurnal, or day-active species, what they have in common are traits they have retained from those small, nocturnal ancestors. It is these traits that distinguish lemurs from the other more recognizable primates, the monkeys and apes. In fact, many of the small, nocturnal lemurs that exist today are actually the oldest species of primates in the world. The retained traits are those that help in a dark, or night-time environment, where vision is aided by other adaptations or other senses, particularly smell. 

You may notice that the lemurs at the Zoo all have longer snouts and wet noses, similar to domestic dogs, known for their enhanced sense of smell. This characteristic helps lemurs as well. Our lemurs also have various scent glands, used in scent-marking to mark territories or advertise reproductive status. To enhance available light at night, the diurnal lemurs at the Zoo also have extra retinal tissue in their eyes, a layer called the tapetum lucidum. This is the reflection, or eye shine you may see when you spot a raccoon or opossum at night.

While historically there were many more types of lemurs, there are just over 100 species in existence today. Unfortunately, 98% of those lemur species are considered endangered, 31% of those at a critical level. Humans arrived on Madagascar about 2000 years ago and hunting may have resulted in the extinction of many lemur species. However, the rate of extinction and threat to today’s lemurs has accelerated quickly due to loss of habitat as human populations have grown.

The Lee Richardson Zoo, along with other zoos and conservation organizations, recognize and celebrate lemurs each year on World Lemur Day. This year World Lemur Day will be celebrated on Saturday, Oct. 30. Come by Primate Forest – Lemurs! and enjoy the festivities. 

A Keeper Chat and enrichment activities will begin at 1:30 p.m., and a Discovery Cart will there from 2 - 4 p.m.. There will also be a special activity to learn more about these unique primates. The zoo is currently open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit us online at www.leerichardsonzoo.org to see what’s going on with future events, as well as behind-the-scenes action, conservation messages and animal fun facts.

Joe Knobbe is the deputy director at Lee Richardson Zoo,

Knobbe