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Red-ruffed Lemur (Varecia rubra) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

Diurnal (Mittermeier et al. 2010)

Daily activity patterns (from Vasey 2006 unless otherwise noted)

  • Peak activity
    • Feeding and travel are relatively common throughout the day
    • Some tendency for increases in activity in early morning and late afternoon (Vasey 2005b)
      • Individuals may feed and travel less at mid-day, 10:00-14:00 (Vasey 2005b)
  • Daily travel distance
    • Forage for long periods and across great distances
    • Seasonal variation
      • Males
        • Mean daily travel distance 265-1,946 m (0.2-1.2 mi)
      • Females
        • Mean daily travel distance 359-2,221 m (0.2-1.4 mi)
        • Travel greater distances during the hot rainy season
          • Availability of fruits, flowers and edible leaves peaks
          • Coincides with time of high energy need, when mothers lactate

Annual activity pattern

  • Most often at rest (Vasey 2005b)
    • Rest and sleep >50% of the time (Vasey 2005b)
    • Sit (from Pereira et al. 1988)
      • Hunched sitting
        • Back arched forward with the legs retracted
        • Tail curls around the body, often grasped in the hands
      • Upright sitting
        • Back more or less straight with legs either drawn in or extended
        • Frequently lean back in this position
        • Commonly observed when animals are sunning
      • Sunning (from Pereira et al. 1988)
        • Bask
        • Sit upright with arms extended laterally, the head tilted back
          • Eyes frequently closed
        • Similar to behavior of sifakas (Propithecus coquereli) and the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta)
        • Click here to view video of sunning at the Linton Zoo
    • Lie down (recline) (from Pereira et al. 1988)
      • Lie on the back, belly, and sides
        • Forelimbs often extend to the sides or above the head
        • Straddle thick tree limbs, all four limbs hang loosely on either side of tree limbs
      • Entire body in contact with the substrate
      • Often twist the body or assume a fetal position
      • Commonly stretch and yawn upon rising
        • Extend the limbs and arch the back
  • Forage (from Vasey 2005b)
    • Spend c. 28% of time feeding and searching for food
  • Gender specific variation in activity (from Vasey 2005b)
    • Females feed more and rest less than males in all seasons
      • Most pronounced difference in the hot rainy season
        • In females, feeding accounts for 30% of time and rest 36%
        • In males, feeding accounts for 16% of time and rest 54%

Home Range

Communal home range (from Vasey 2006)

  • Range size and characteristics
    • c. 58 ha (0.22 mi2)

Core group range (from Vasey 2006)

  • Range characteristics
    • Several group territories within the larger communal home range
      • Group territories have little overlap
      • Boundaries are not defended against fellow community members
        • Interlopers from other communities are met with ritualized agonistic displays

Social Groups

Dispersed networks of core groups with a multi-male/multi-female, multi-layered fission-fusion social structure (Vasey 1997; Vasey 2006)

  • Core groups
    • Loose affiliation between individuals who share a common territory
      • Not family based groups of related individuals (Vasey 2007)
      • Members do not move in a cohesive fashion, typically
      • The group male holds a territory which minimally overlaps with other core groups
    • Core group structure (Vasey 2006)
      • Consist of 1-2 adult females, an adult male, and immatures or infants
        • No groups contain more than one adult male
        • Group structure is variable
          • Juveniles may form associations without adult members
  • Community
    • Non-social, association between core groups
      • Members are never all together in the same place at the same time
        • Members of separate core groups, especially males, do not typically encounter with one another
          • Encounters are more common between females, who often leave the core group range and travel widely through the communal home range
            • Form subgroups during the hot rainy season
            • No association during the cold rainy season
          • Daily fission-fusion dynamic between females of separate core groups
            • Subgroup members travel, feed, and rest together; call to and groom one another
    • Community members live within a larger communal home range
      • All members defend the communal territory against non-community members
        • Members of separate communities act agonistically toward one another
    • Community size
      • 18-31 individuals

Territorial Behavior

Intercommunity encounters (from Vasey 2006)

  • Chase interlopers from other communities and perform ritualized agonistic displays
    • Scent mark and perform loud calls
    • Encounters may last for long periods
      • 10-80 minutes

Social Interactions

Social greeting

  • Female greeting displays (Vasey 2006)
    • Scent mark one another
      • Ano-genital marking on one another’s back
    • Jump over one another in a leapfrog fashion
    • Writhe together and emit soft squealing sounds



  • Diverse vocal repertoire (from Vasey 2003 unless otherwise noted)
    • As many as 13 vocalizations; based on calls of the closely related Varecia variegata (Pereira et al. 1988)
    • Loud calls audible to humans up to 1 km (0.6 mi)
      • Possibly convey information about individual spacing
      • Frequency of use increases hot seasons; less common in cold seasons
    • Predator specific calls
      • Differentiate aerial and ground predators
    • Other calls made during group travel and contact, or in dominance interactions
      • Male specific calls during the mating season
      • Female greeting calls during the hot seasons
    • Click here for audio of some vocalizations; provided through the Macaulay Library, Cornell University
  • “Pulsed squawk” (from Vasey and Tattersall 2002 unless otherwise noted)
    • Loud, alarm call
    • Indicates a terrestrial predator is near; occurs in other high arousal contexts
    • Often evokes a communal mobbing behavior (Vasey 2003)
    • Phonetic sound
      • “uh-uh-uh”, in fast, noisy pulses (Pereira et al. 1988)
  • Abrupt roar (from Vasey 2003 unless otherwise noted)
    • Loud, alarm call
    • Indicates an aerial predator is near, or a sudden disturbance (Pereira et al. 1988)
    • Often taken up by dispersed group members
    • Phonetic sound
      • “har-ar-ar-raow” (Pereira et al. 1988)
  • “Roar-shriek” (from Pereira et al. 1988)
    • High amplitude call
    • Often contagious
    • Phonetic sound
      • “a-raow-a-raow…”
  • Other calls (from Pereira et al. 1988)
    • High to moderate amplitude sounds
      • Wail
      • Bray
      • Quack
      • Growl
        • Resembles the growl of a domestic dog
      • Chatter
      • Whine
    • Low amplitude sounds
      • Grunt
      • Huff
      • Mew
        • Frequently given between mother and infant

Olfaction/Scent Marking (from Pereira et al. 1988; Schilling 1979; Vasey 2003)

  • Scent glands mark substrates
    • Female marking
      • Ano-genital rubbing more common by females
    • Male marking
      • Rub the mandible, neck and chest glands on substrates
        • Often embrace a tree limb with the forelimbs and rub all three regions back and forth over it
      • Ano-genital marking also occurs, less common


Walk and run quadrupedally (from Pereira et al. 1988 unless otherwise noted)

  • Rarely walk bipedally (Vasey 1999)
    • When on two legs, movement is brief
      • Do not run in this manner
    • Legs are slightly flexed as the back remains largely vertical with only a slight forward arch
  • Walk quadrupedally 
    • Walk with contralateral pairs of limbs advancing alternately, most often
    • Tail aloft
    • Style similar on the ground and in the canopy
    • Walk suspended under horizontal branches
  • Run by bounding
    • Extend arms forward and push off with the legs
      • Hands land before the hind feet
    • Style similar on the ground and in the canopy

Arboreal movement (from Pereira et al. 1988)

  • Climb
    • Movement style dependent on presence of support branches
    • Scale vertical surfaces without support branches
      • Upward propulsion by jumping, in a “lumberjack” style
        • Repeatedly release the hands while pushing off with the feet
        • Hands first to make contact on landing
    • Ascend with help from branch supports
      • Stand, bipedal on a lower branch as the hands grasp the above support
      • Hindquarters are pulled (adducted) upwards
  • Descend
    • Movement style dependent on presence of support branches
      • Descend feet first without support, most often
        • Hands release grasp and drop down below the hips before re-grasping the trunk
          • Release of the hind feet follows, dropping the hips lower than the shoulders before re-grasping the trunk
      • Descends head first when supports are closely spaced
        • Hind feet grasp upper support; body, torso, and arms extend downward
          • Hands grasp lower support
          • May release the hind feet and drop down to a branch when the distance between supports exceeds body length
  • Leap from tree to tree
    • Hind limbs propel forward movement
      • Head and shoulders lowered and tail raised
    • Take off with back to landing surface when moving between vertical surfaces
      • Body held upright through the jump
      • Land facing forward
        • Body twists in mid-air before landing feet first

Other terrestrial movements

  • Jump about off all four limbs
    • Torso horizontal with the ground

Interspecies Interactions


  • Fossa
  • Birds of prey


  • White-fronted brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus albifrons) (from Vasey 2000a)
    • Niche partitioning limits competition for fruits
      • Fruit forms a larger portion of the red-ruffed lemur’s diet and is the main food source for white-fronted brown lemurs
      • Species forage within different levels of the canopy and in trees of different size
        • Tree crowns (regions above 15 m or 49 ft) are more exclusively used by red-ruffed lemurs
          • White-fronted brown lemurs spend more time outside the tree crown (below 15m or 49 ft), typically
        • Taller, broader trees are preferred by red-ruffed lemurs

Symbiotic relationships

  • Seed dispersal (from Razafindratsima and Martinez 2012)
    • Red-ruffed lemurs improve plant dispersal
      • Lemurs consume seeds from fruit and deposit them in droppings around the forest
      • Seeds pass through the digestive tract undamaged
      • Defecated seeds are more likely to germinate and have increased growth rates compared to non-ingested seeds
    • c.1-4 plant species represented in each fecal deposit
      • Numerous plants likely benefit from lemurs
        • Seeds representing 38 species belonging to 15 plant families, one study
        • Most are large seeded plants, > 10 mm

Basking in the Sun


Red-ruffed lemurs sunning

Red-ruffed lemurs sunning. Sifakas (Propithecus coquereli) and the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) also engage in sun basking behaviors. ZOOM Erlebniswelt, Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Image credit: Mathias Appel at Flickr. Public domain.  

Social Groups

Red-ruffed lemurs grooming

Lemurs grooming. Subgroup members call to and groom one another. ZOOM Erlebniswelt, Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Image credit: Mathias Appel at Flickr. Public domain.


Page Citations

Mittermeier et al. (2010)
Pereira et al. (1988)
Razafindratsima and Martinez (2012)
Schilling (1979)
Vasey (1999)
Vasey (2000a)
Vasey (2003)
Vasey (2005b)
Vasey (2006)
Vasey (2007)
Vasey and Tattersall (2002)

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