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Red-ruffed Lemur (Varecia rubra) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History and Nomenclature

Common names (from Mittermeier et al. 2010)

  • Red-ruffed or red ruffed lemur
  • French common name
    • Vari roux
  • German common name
    • Roter vari
  • Malagasy names
    • Varimena
    • Varignena
    • Varinaina (Makira region)

Scientific name

  • Etymology
    • Genus Varecia from the Malagasy word varika, referring to a lemur (Gove 1993; Richardson 1885)
      • Varika also refers to a mark made on the forehead with charcoal or white earth, used as a charm (Richardson 1885)
    • Specific epithet rubra a Latin word meaning “red” (Brown 1956)
  • Synonyms
    • Prosimia erythromela (ITIS 2015)
    • Varecia variegata rubra

Evolutionary History

Lemur origins

  • Lemur divergence
    • Split of lemurs and lorisiformes (lorises and pottos; small arboreal primates of Africa and Asia) (Hovarth et al. 2008)
      • 66.9-84.4 million years ago (Mya)
  • Malagasy lemurs
    • Ancestral lemurs arrived on Madagascar after it separated from African and Indian land masses (Hovarth et al. 2008)
      • Open ocean isolated Madagascar from Africa and India
      • 50-80 Mya: ancestral lemurs arrived on Madagascar; after separation of the island from other landmasses (Hovarth et al. 2008)

Malagasy lemur diversity and divergence (from Mittermeier et al. 2010 unless otherwise noted)

  • Diversity
    • Malagasy lemur species account for > 15% of extant (living) primate diversity (Hovarth et al. 2008)
      • 5 major (lemuriform) lineages; all descended from a single common ancestor (Hovarth et al. 2008; Yoder and Yang 2004)
        • Daubentoniidae: represented by the aye-aye; 1 genus
        • Indriidae: indris, sifakas, and their relatives; 19 species in 3 genera
        • Lepilemuridae: sportive lemurs; 26 species in 1 genus
        • Cheirogaleidae: dwarf and mouse lemurs; 30 species in 5 genera
        • Lemuridae: true and bamboo lemurs; 25 species in 5 genera
  • Origin estimates for major lineages (from Hovarth et al. 2008)
    • Daubentonia ancestors arose early in lemur evolution
    • Indriidae diverged c. 30.33-42.4 Mya, followed by Lepilemuridae c. 18.62-29.05 Mya
    • Lemuridae and Cheirogaleidae began to diversify around the same time, c. 18.6-29 Mya

Family Lemuridae (from Schwitzer et al. 2013 unless otherwise noted)

  • “Best-known” and one of the most widespread families of lemurs
  • 5 genera (extant); divided into two groupings
    • Bamboo lemurs; some populations have a specialized bamboo diet
    • True lemurs; diet largely fruit
      • Lemur
      • Varecia
      • Eulemur

Genus Varecia

  • Diversity
    • Includes largest members of Lemuridae family (Mittermeier et al. 2010)
  • Relationship to other Lemuridae
    • Sister to group containing all other family members (Hapalemur, Eulemur, Lemur, and Prolemur) (Hovarth et al. 2008; Yoder and Yang 2004)
      • Last common ancestor near the Oligocene/Miocene boundary (Hovarth et al. 2008)
        • c. 26.4-35.9 Mya (Yoder and Yang 2004)
        • c.18.62-29.05 Mya (Hovarth et al. 2008)

Species V. rubra

  • Closest relative (from Hovarth et al. 2008)
    • Black and white ruffed lemur (V. variegata)
    • Most recent common ancestor 1.66-0.42 Mya
  • Hybridization (from Vasey and Tattersall 2002 unless otherwise noted)
    • Red-ruffed lemur and black and white-ruffed lemur hybrids
      • Appearance unlike either parent
        • Cap of head and belly black
        • Body color variable; predominantly rufous to a whitish pelage washed with raspberry tones, especially near the shoulders and rump
      • In managed care, hybrids known as “tri-colored ruffed lemurs”
      • In the wild, hybrids likely uncommon, though possibly occurring
        • All known hybrids date to collections in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Hekkala et al. 2007)
        • Recent surveys unable to establish the location of a hybrid zone (Vasey 2003)

Cultural History

Popular cultural references

  • Documentary appearances
    • In the Wild: Lemurs with John Cleese – 1999 Tigress Production; a humorous and adventurous look into the lives of various lemur species
      • Cleese’s co-star is a red-ruffed lemur named Colin


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Primates

Suborder: Strepsirrhini

Family: Lemuridae


Species: Varecia rubra (Saint-Hilaire, 1812) - Red-ruffed lemur

Varecia rubra

painting of a Red-ruffed Lemur

Plate VII, The Red-Ruffed Lemur. (Varecia rubra).

Image credit: Illustration from Forbes, Henry O. A hand-book to the primates. 1984 v.1. Sharp, Richard Bowdler. London: W.H. Allen & Co., Ltd. (Allen's Naturalist Library), at © Biodiversity Heritage Library on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

Brown (1956)
Eppley et al. (2011)
Gove (1993)
Hekkala et al. (2007)
Hovarth et al. (2008)
ITIS (2015)
Mittermeier et al. (2010)
Mutschler (1999)
Richardson (1885)
Schwitzer et al. (2013)
Vasey (2003)
Vasey and Tattersall (2002)
Yoder and Yang (2004)

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