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Ring-tailed Lemur (Lemur catta) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle


  • Active in trees and on the ground in daylight
    • When compared to more energetic Old or New World monkeys, L. catta are not considered to be an active primate
    • Most often in trees though much time is spent on the ground
      • The most terrestrial of the lemurs (Mittermeier et al. 2010)
      • 15-30% of their time on the ground
      • When on the ground, remain near trees or saplings for escape; avoid bushes as they offer little protection
  • Use of home range
    • Troop follows daily pattern in one area for up to several days, then moves to another area in home range
    • Length between moves varies; season and local weather may impact movements
    • Travel up to 200 m at a time, up to 500-600 m a day

Typical Daily Pattern

  • Troop wakes at dawn
    • Becomes active (move, sun, feed) between 5:30 and 8:30 a.m.
    • Timing varies with the weather
  • Travel, forage and feed through the morning
    • Group often breaks into subgroups during daily activity
    • When traveling, troop may spread over several trees and heights, spanning 20-30 m (66-98 ft)
  • Rest near mid-day
    • Around noon, troop moves to siesta spot (to sleep and allo- or self groom)
    • Siestas may last up to 4 hours in hot weather
  • Mid-afternoon, troop travels to feeding site
    • Between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m.
  • Afternoon feeding is an active period 
  • Return to sleeping site, arriving after sunset
    • No feeding occurs during this movement
    • Arrive c. 6:30-7:30 p.m.
  • Sleep in trees at night
    • Troop usually sleeps in 2 or 3 neighboring trees
    • Choose different trees nearly every night
    • May be active at night, though troop does not move to different treet
      • Leap, feed, groom, and fight at sleeping sites

Social Groups


  • Social animals
    • Form multi-male, multi-female groups
      • Sex ratio approximately 1:1
      • Related females form the cores of the group
        • Remaining members are their infant and juvenile offspring and immigrant males
        • Orphaned juveniles from neighboring troops may be adopted
    • Social group and behavior have been likened to the baboons and macaques
  • Group size
    • 3 to 27 (13-18 average)

Dominance hierarchy

  • Female-dominated groups
    • Troop males have a separate dominance hierarchy among themselves
    • Females stay in the troop of their birth; mature males migrate to other troops (up to 1/3 of the males move between troops each year)
    • Individual's status easily identified by behavior
      • Females will only act aggressively toward individuals of lesser status
      • Dominant males "swagger"
        • Subordinates exhibit lowered heads and tails, lag behind troop
      • Males appear to be more "status conscious"
        • Challenges often occur to reaffirm position
    • Dominant individual(s) select rest and feeding sites
      • Peripheral males follow and must wait to access food, etc.
      • No clear leader during travel
        • Leader changes throughout the move
    • Females often forage alone during the breeding season in order to obtain more nutritious food

Social interactions

  • Affiliative behavior
    • Huddle in groups
      • Possibly for warmth or to promote social contact (mutual grooming and purring often occur)
    • Mutual grooming is common
      • Tongue, dental comb, and specialized claw of the second toe clean the hair
      • Hands not used
      • Occurs throughout the day but most prevalent during quiet periods
  • Aggression
    • Determines position within dominance hierarchy
      • Often occur prior to feeding
      • More aggression expressed toward more distantly related individuals
    • Females are more aggressive towards males and other females during breeding season
    • Male mate competition
      • Aggression towards other males and interaction with females dependent on number of males and stability of the group

Territorial Behavior

Territorial boundaries well defined

  • Home range may be shared with other troops
    • Typically not in the same place at the same time
  • Scent marking defines territorial boundaries
    • Urine and scent glands
  • Territory features
    • Size largely dependent on presence of water and large trees
    • Size range
      • 5.7-34.6 ha (0.02-0.13 mi2)
        • Smaller ranges associated with riparian forests; 6-8 ha (0.02-0.03 mi2)
        • Larger ranges in less productive habitat

Territorial defence

  • Females typically defend against intruders when encountered
    • Males may join in defense
  • Inter-troop aggression common
    • Includes intense chasing, cuffing, scent-marking, spat-calling
    • When troops meet, there does not appear to be an organized response
      • Individuals exhibiting aggressive behaviors approach one another


Scent Marking

  • Mark branches and objects
    • Captive Lemur catta appear to mark everything within their enclosures
    • Individuals rub perianal and brachial glands on objects
    • Males violently jerk hands around vertical branches during palmar marking


  • Tail-Waving
    • Male sits, marking his tail with secretions from his brachial and antebrachial glands
    • He then stands, arches tail over back and shakes or waves tail in the direction of another male, spreading his scent
    • Teeth may be bared
  • Stink Fight
    • Highly ritualized exchange between two or more males
      • Occurs most often during mating
      • Helps determine male hierarchy within the troop, also occur between troop males at territory boundaries
    • Involves concurrent tail-marking, tail-waving and palmar marking
    • Lasts from 10 minutes to 1 hour
  • Handstands
    • Performed by both males and females
    • Posterior (hind-end) pressed against a tree trunk
      • Bringing the perianal gland into contact with the tree
      • In zoos, individuals often press against the walls of an enclosure
  • Other visual signals
    • Facial expressions
      • Similar to other primates
    • Hand and body gestures
      • Similar to other primates; main differences are gestures associated with scent-marking


  • Wide variety of vocalizations
    • Up to 15 types of calls
      • Barks, clicks, howls, meows, mews, purrs, shrieks, spat-calls, squeals, twitters, yips
    • Most calls are voiced simultaneously by all troop members
  • Auditory characteristics
    • Barks, howls, and screams audible to humans at 750-1000 m
    • Purr audible to humans at c. 1 m distance
  • Calls
    • Click
      • Chirping sound used in a variety of circumstances either singly or serially
      • E.g. noting the passage of a ground predator, staring at a new object, troop preparing for movement
    • Howl
      • Consists of 2 syllables with change in pitch
      • Uttered either predominantly or exclusively by males
        • Heard throughout the night during the breeding season
      • Used to space group members as well as one group from another
      • Mostly occurs prior to sleep or siesta
    • Meow
      • Contact call
      • Uttered in a variety of circumstances
        • E.g. when 1 or more troop member lost, prior to a group move
      • Intensity variable
    • Mew
      • Very similar to the mew of a cat
    • Purr
      • Nearly identical to purr of a cat
      • Uttered in similar instances
        • During mutual grooming, scent-marking and when petted
    • Different types of alarm calls for different types of predators.


Quadrupedal most often

Walk, gallop, and run

  • Along branches and on the ground
    • On the ground, travel routes are visible as faint paths in the leaf litter
      • 65-70% of travel time is on ground; other lemurs travel through trees
  • Move bipedally for short distances
  • Tail provides balance
    • In trees, tail usually held down
    • On ground, tail usually carried up and curled at the tip


  • Scale most sizes, types, and angles of branches
  • Quickly move up the trunks of trees
  • Prefer saplings or small trees which can be grasped on opposite sides


  • Between branches in the forest canopy
  • Push off with hind legs
  • Land on either hind legs or all four limbs

Rarely swing by the hands

Interspecies Interaction


  • Terrestrial predators (from Mittermeier et al. 2010)
    • Fossa
    • Civet - non-native, introduced animal
    • Madagascar Ground Boa
    • Domestic cats and dogs
  • Canopy predators (from Mittermeier et al. 2010)
    • Madagascar Harrier-hawk
    • Magadascar Buzzard
  • Anti-predatory behavior
    • Actively watch for predators and give alarm calls
    • Troops may mob potential predators


  • Frugivorous bats and birds
    • Lemur typically avoid bats which are active at night
    • Lemur pay little interest in most birds


  • Found in association with sifaka
    • Possibly provides added protection from predators


ring-tailed lemur leaping

Running and leaping from branch to branch are easy activities for the agile and speedy ring-tailed lemur.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Jolly (1966)
Mittermeier et al. (2010)
Sauther et al. (1999)
Sussman (1999)

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