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Ring-tailed Lemur (Lemur catta) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Common names

  • Ring-tailed lemur
  • Common lemur
  • Cat lemur
    • Name derived from the cat-like purring vocalization the animal produces
    • Name may be confused with German name (Katzenmakis) for dwarf lemurs
  • Local Names
    • Maki
    • Hira
  • Etymology
    • Lemur derived from the Latin word lemures meaning "ghosts or spectres" (Gotch 1995)

Scientific name

  • Etymology (from Gotch 1995)
    • Genus Lemur, refer to the common name etymology above
    • Specific epithet catta derived from New Latin referring to a cat
  • Synonyms
    • Maki mococo (ITIS 2015)
  • Within species diversity
    • Recent molecular evidence shows some divergence between high elevation and low elevation populations
    • Not enough evidence to support designation as separate species
      • Monotypic genus


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 arrive on Madagascar; after separation of the island from other landmasses (Hovarth et al. 2008)
      • Open ocean isolates Madagascar from Africa and India
      • 50-80 Mya: ancestral lemurs arrive on Madagascar; after separation of the island from other landmasses (Hovarth et al. 2008)
    • Madagascar's highly diverse lemur fauna is likely due to the island's isolation from mainland Africa, and its topographic and environmental variation
      • Most or all lemur species evolved on the island since the Eocene, from the Adapidae
    • No fossils of Lemuriformes older than 26,000 years have been found
    • 14 to 17 species of Lemuriformes have become extinct since humans arrived on Madagascar approximately 2,000 years ago

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

  • Diversity
    • 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 arise 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 most widespread family of lemur
  • 5 genera (extant); divided into two groupings
    • Bamboo lemurs; specialized bamboo diet
      • Hapalemur
      • Prolemur
    • True lemurs; diet largely fruit
      • Lemur
      • Varecia
      • Eulemur

Cultural History

Popular cultural references

  • Documentary appearances
    • Island of Lemurs: Madagascar - 2014, Warner Brothers; narrated by Morgan Freeman
      • IMAX 3D film that allows audiences to witness ring-tailed lemurs in their natural habitat


Describer (Year): Linnaeus (1758)

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Primates

Suborder: Prosimiae

Infraorder: Lemuriformes

Family: Lemuridae

Genus: Lemur

Species: L. catta (Linnaeus, 1758)

"The Ring-tailed Macauco"

Lemur engraving from A General History of Quadrupeds (1800)

The ring-tailed macauco (Lemur Catta, Lin.) (sic). "The Ring-tailed Macauco is a very beautiful animal, about the size of a cat. Its body and limbs are long and slender; its tail very long, and marked with alternate bars of black and white."

Text and image from A general history of quadrupeds : the figures engraved on wood (1800) by Thomas Bewick and Ralph Beilby (p. 460), at Flickr. No known copyright restrictions.

Page Citations

Gotch (1995)
Groves (2001)
Hovarth et al. (2008)
ITIS (2015)
Mittermeier et al. (2010)
Schwitzer et al. (2013)
Sussman (1999)
Yoder and Yang (2004)
Yoder et al. (2000)

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