Lemurs are primates native to the island of Madagascar, off the coast of Africa. In addition to being found on Madagascar, lemurs also roam on the neighboring Comoros Islands. These unique animals have survived on the island of Madagascar because they are cut off from the African mainland, where other primates eventually dominated, and as a result, lemurs are extremely vulnerable to human encroachment and habitat destruction, because they have led such sheltered lives historically.
At first glance, a lemur looks sort of like a squirrel, raccoon, or cat, but these animals really are primates, which means that they are closely related to humans. Lemurs are classified as prosimians, differentiating them from anthropoid primates, the group to which humans and monkeys belong. Prosimians evolved before their anthropoid cousins, and they possess a number of the traits associated with primates, but they look markedly different.
Lemurs presumably made their way to Madagascar after the island broke off from Africa, judging from fossil evidence, and then differentiated into an estimated 50 species, many of which are considered threatened today. These animals are primarily arboreal, preferring the safety of trees to the ground, and they are primarily nocturnal, which can make them very difficult to study. The name “lemur” comes from the Latin lemures, which means “ghosts” in Latin, a reference to the nocturnal habits of these creatures.
A typical lemur has a long, tapered muzzle, a long tail, and limber legs. The animals are adroit climbers, and they are also very flexible and acrobatic. They live in large social groups which are usually dominated by the females, in an interesting reversal of the norm seen in most other primate groups, and they communicate with a variety of calls and scent marks.
The ring-tailed lemur, with its huge eyes and distinctively ringed tail, is probably one of the most famous of the lemur species, and it's the animal which springs to mind when people think about lemurs. However, these primates come in a range of sizes and colors, including tan, reddish, brown, gray, and black, and they can be quite small to very large. Many biologists are concerned about the diversity of lemur species, however, since so many are endangered and threatened, and attempts are being made to establish captive breeding colonies of lemurs for potential re-release back into the wild if native populations decline beyond hopes of natural recovery.